If designer fashion had a pantheon of gods, Oscar de la Renta would be among them. “Oscar de la Renta: His Legendary World of Style” just opened at the de Young in San Francisco. Presented in conjunction with his fashion house and family, the comprehensive exhibit spans five decades of de la Renta’s life work, through his death from cancer om 2014. Curated by the late designer’s friend and Vogue’s former editor-at-large Andre Leon Talley, more than 100 ensembles trace the designer’s life work, starting with his upbringing in his native Dominican Republic and culminating with his own namesake ready-to-wear line, often spotted at glamorous openings and on the bodies of the rich and the famous. The retrospective draws from the brand’s archives, as well as selections from de la Renta’s personal collection, private owners, and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s own offerings.
Born in the Dominican Republic in 1932, de la Renta got his start as an apprentice in Spain, worked for top design houses in Paris and New York and rose to fame in the 1960s, when he settled in New York and created his signature ready-to-wear line. In the ’90s, de la Renta began designing the haute couture collection for the House of Balmain, becoming the first Dominican native to design for a major French couture house. He became known for using an ingenious mix of fabrics, classic silhouettes, precision fit and influences from many cultures — including Russia, Spain and the East — to create sleek, modern day wear and glamorous, sometimes opulent, evening gowns.
The show follows in the footsteps of a smaller de la Renta show curated by Talley at Savannah College of Art and Design’s Museum of Art. Titled “Oscar de la Renta: His Legendary World of Style,” the posthumous exhibit features 50 iconic pieces handpicked from the collections of the designer’s biggest fans, including Sarah Jessica Parker, Hillary Clinton and Oprah. Talley is also currently at work on a book about the designer’s life in collaboration with Rizzoli, set to hit shelves in the fall of 2016.
“I am honored and excited to be the curator of the definitive Oscar de la Renta retrospective exhibition at the de Young Museum,” said Talley in an official statement. “This privilege is exceedingly important for me after years of close friendship with Oscar, as well as a strong working relationship during my life at Vogue. My goal is to highlight the extraordinary depth of Oscar’s creative aesthetic from his earliest designs for Jane Derby throughout the five decades of his remarkable career.”
Viewers will see some of those gowns at the exhibit, including frocks worn by former first ladies Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton and the late Nancy Reagan and celebrities Sarah Jessica Parker, Taylor Swift, Jessica Chastain, Penélope Cruz, Rihanna and Amy Adams. Pieces from his 1974 spring collection (presented by de la Renta at the Battle of Versailles) also will be on display.
“He was a giant of fashion,” says Richard Benefield, acting director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the exhibition’s organizer.
The de la Renta retrospective is a continuation of the de Young Museum’s commitment to fashion, including 2012’s The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk and Vivienne Westwood: 36 Years in Fashion in 2007. Past fashion exhibits at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco have drawn huge crowds. (Remember Balenciaga and Spain, Cartier and America, and The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier?) Visitors flock to museums to see fancy clothes and each exhibit has proved to be a big money maker for the museum.
One of de la Renta’s clients is San Francisco philanthropist, socialite and Fine Arts Museums board president Diane B. “Dede” Wilsey, who is loaning a copper silk gown from 2005 for the show. In a statement, she notes that de la Renta forged close relationships with important clients who championed his work. “He was an inspired designer,” she says, “who was a longtime personal friend and was considered by so many to be the consummate gentleman.”
‘Oscar de la Renta: a Retrospective’ at the de Young (FAMSF)
When: through May 30 (closed Mondays and select holidays)Where: de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco
Tickets: $23-$38, includes general admission to museum