On Monday night, Oscar de la Renta will pick up the Founder's Award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America. It won't be his first time on the CFDA stage; he's been in business in New York for half a century, and he invented the Awards, after all. But it's a big moment nonetheless.
To mark the occasion, Style.com asked him to share his story with a designer on the rise. De la Renta wanted only one man: Alexander Wang, who himself will be competing in two categories that night. Though their paths have been different, they share something unique: Balenciaga. De la Renta got his start in fashion at the storied couturier's Madrid atelier, and Wang became the label's creative director late last year. Here, they talk draping, Diana Vreeland, and the New York-Paris commute.
Oscar de la Renta: Where are you from originally, Alex?
Alexander Wang: San Francisco.
ODLR: Do you have any family still in California?
AW: My mom and my dad moved back to Shanghai over twenty years ago.
ODLR: That's a long time.
AW: I remember the first time I went back to visit her, there were no streetlights, there were no freeways, but every year I'd go back there would be a new shopping mall, a new office building. It was changing leaps and bounds.
ODLR: I haven't been to China in a long, long time. The very first time I went was with Dr. [Henry] Kissinger. Ahmet and Mica Ertegun were with us, and my wife Annette was there with her then husband. In Beijing we stayed in what they called the Official House. There were no hotels. It was the house where Henry Kissinger had had his official meetings. It was quite an extraordinary experience.
AW: Have you been to China since?
ODLR: I did a Balmain show there probably in 2000, I think. The show was in Beijing, and by then there were some hotels. So how many collections have you done for Balenciaga?
AW: One, officially. I'm about to show my pre-collection in a week. Can you tell us what it was like to work with Cristobal Balenciaga?
ODLR: I was picking up pins from the floor. I never worked with Cristobal Balenciaga in Paris. I worked at Balenciaga in Madrid.
AW: At Eisa?
ODLR: Do you know why the house was called Eisa? Because the first Balenciaga house that opened in Spain went bankrupt, and because of bankruptcy laws he could not ever use the name of Balenciaga again in Spain. It was his mother's name.
AW: Did you travel to Paris for the shows?
ODLR: No, I stayed at Eisa. After a few years, I asked Balenciaga if I could come to Paris. And he said, "Well, I think you should stay one more year in Madrid." And probably he was right. But by then I was too anxious to move on. Without telling him, I bought myself a train ticket and went to Paris. I could sketch very well at the time. I don't sketch so well now. And I arrived in Paris, and I always believed you have to go and knock at the biggest door. Don't start at the bottom, start at the top. So, I went to Dior. This was the time when YSL had just left Dior. There was that whole big scene that Yves had a nervous breakdown because of the military service, and they were in the process of hiring Marc Bohan. I saw a lady who was running the studio, Madame Marguerite, and she offered me a job. I had been in Paris twenty-four hours, and I already had a job at Dior.
But I met a friend of mine in the street, and he said, "There is a very good friend looking for an assistant." I told him, "I've just been offered a job at Dior that I've accepted, but I would love to see him anyway." Half an hour later, I was in front of Mr. [Antonio del] Castillo, who was then designing the collection for Lanvin. I showed my sketches to him, and he liked them. What is funny about this story is that one of his assistants was leaving because he was friends with Marc Bohan, and he was going to be working with him at Dior. But I didn't know any of this. So Castillo says, "I like your sketches. I'd like you to work for me." And I said, "Well, in fact, I've already accepted another job." So he said, "How much are they paying you?" So I made a huge big lie, and I gave them a higher amount.
AW: Did he ask you about your experience? About draping?
ODLR: I had never draped anything. I had seen Balenciaga do it, but had I myself done it? Never. But I said, "Of course, I know how to drape." As I left Lanvin, I went to the telephone booth and I looked in the yellow pages and I found the biggest ad for a fashion school. It was not the school of the Chambre Syndicale. I went to this lady, I showed her my sketches and said, "I just accepted this job to work at Lanvin, so would you teach me in a month what you teach in a year?" And she said, "I'll try." But I never was put to the test.
AW: So after Lanvin you came to New York?
ODLR: Paris was very different then. You could not be a friend of another person working at another house.
AW: Very competitive.
ODLR: Very French. Quite a few assistants like me were at that time discovering New York. They were coming back to Paris, saying how much money they were making. I was making in Paris $300 a month. By then, I had lived ten years away from the Dominican Republic, but I knew I couldn't go back there to ply my newly acquired trade. I also strongly felt that the future of fashion was ready-to-wear. At that time, most houses in Paris did not take ready-to-wear very seriously. So I came here.
AW: Had you been to New York before?
AW: That's pretty brave.
ODLR: I'm very brave. Jacqueline de Ribes gave me a letter for Diana Vreeland. Edmonde Charles-Roux, who was the editor in chief of French Vogue at the time, gave me a letter for Alexander Liberman [the then editorial director of Condé Nast]. So I got a lot of recommendations from different people. And I got an offer for a job literally the first night I was in New York. One of the people I contacted was a man who did PR. He called me at my hotel, and he said, "Do you have a black tie?" "Yes, I do," I said. He was throwing a charity event and needed some extra men and he sat me next to Elizabeth Arden. And she asked me a lot of questions. I told her I worked for Mr. Castillo at Lanvin. She said, "Castillo, he used to work for me. Perhaps I would like to look at your sketches." My other offer was from Christian Dior New York, where Mary McFadden was doing public relations.
AW: How did you choose?
ODLR: I went to see Mrs. Vreeland in that red room of hers, you know, and she said, "Young man, tell me what you want to do." And I said, "Mrs. Vreeland, I think the future of fashion is ready-to-wear." And she said, "Well, in that case I think you should go to Elizabeth Arden," where I was going to be making another custom-made collection. I thought she misunderstood me. "But at Arden, I'll be doing the same thing I was doing in Paris," I said. And she said, "Yes, but if you take the Dior job, it will be much more difficult to make a name for yourself, because you'll be working behind a very big name. At Elizabeth Arden, you'll be able to make a name for yourself." Charles James started at Elizabeth Arden, too.
AW: What was it about ready-to-wear that excited you?
ODLR: The big names in New York at that time were the manufacturers. There were so very few designers whose names were on the label. I never had a high amount of respect for someone like Norman Norell, for example, because I used to see Norman Norell come into Balenciaga [and buy patterns]; that is what American houses did then. John Fairchild, he is the person who said, "I want to meet the guy who made this dress." That is the beginning of the emergence of designers at the head of the business. Until then, the labels were the manufacturers, not the name of the little guy like you and me working in the background.
[guys like Alex]."
AW: How does it feel to be accepting the CFDA's Founder's Award?
ODLR: You know, I started the CFDA Awards. There were the Coty Awards, which I won in '67 and '68, for designer of the year, which I hope you will win this year. With the CFDA, my only big mistake is that we gave an award to a foreign designer. I think it was a big mistake, and I'm still fighting it. Neither the Italians nor the French have ever given a prize to an American designer in their industry, so why the heck do we have to do it for them?
AW: Have you been to every CFDA Awards ceremony?
ODLR: I haven't been for three or four years.
AW: This year you have to go.
ODLR: Yes [laughs]. At one point, someone said, we should give an award to a woman of style. The first year we gave the award to Katharine Hepburn, and she was wonderful. And then we were deliberating who should be the next person. And we said we should give it to Marlene Dietrich. By then Marlene Dietrich was a total recluse, she was living in an apartment right across the Plaza Athénée in Paris, and she started drinking Champagne at 10 o'clock in the morning. Alex Liberman and his wife Tatiana were very close friends with Marlene, so I called Alex and asked him to organize it. Alex called me back and told me, "You can call Marlene. She will talk to you." I was so excited. I called her at the hour I was told to call, and she answered the phone and said, "Miss Dietrich is with her bankers in Switzerland until tomorrow; call back tomorrow." I called again, and she said, "How much money are they giving me?" And I said, "Miss Dietrich, this is an honorary award," and she said, "I'm sick and tired of honors." So Bill Blass and I, which was a lot of money for me at the time, sent her $10,000 each to pay for her telephone bills, because she talked on the phone a lot.
AW: Did she turn up at the ceremony?
ODLR: No. We knew she would not come, but Maximilian Schell had done a wonderful documentary on Dietrich, and he said he'd be happy to accept the award on her behalf, but when I called her to tell her, she said, "I certainly don't want him." The date was getting closer, so we talked to Katharine Hepburn, and she said, "I had a great time before; I would be very happy to come and accept the award on behalf of Marlene Dietrich." So I called Miss Dietrich and said, "I have wonderful news for you. Katharine Hepburn has agreed to accept on your behalf." And Dietrich said, "I certainly do not want her. She's going to talk only about herself." So I said, "Miss Dietrich, who do you want?" And she said, "I want Mikhail Baryshnikov." Baryshnikov was at that time a big star, but I knew Misha, so I called him and told him, and he said, "I don't know her." So we paid out of very little funds for Misha to go to Paris to meet Miss Dietrich. He stayed at the Plaza Athénée for three days, right across the street, and he never saw her. After three days, she told him, "I'm not going to see you, but let me tell you, just go there, say thank you, and get the hell out of there." So that's what he did.
Style.com: Any advice, Oscar?
ODLR: I don't think he needs any advice from me. He knows exactly what he's doing. But I have to tell you, I can't believe I've been in this business for fifty years. I still have the same passion. In fact, perhaps I'm wrong, I think I'm a much better designer than I was fifty years ago, because I've learned more. I have a much better sense of who my consumer is. Every single day is a learning process. The day I say, "I know it all," is the day I should stop doing it. Think of who my woman was then, and who she is now. When I first came to New York, a woman in a pair of pants would not be allowed into some restaurants here. Fashion keeps moving. You just have to keep aware of what's going on. And try to understand it, and try to compete with you guys [he points to Alex], you know?
AW: Thank you so much, it's such an honor to hear your story, to be here.
ODLR: When [Style.com] asked me, you were the only one I wanted. How often are you going to Paris these days?
AW: About once a month, for about a week. I fly the red-eye on Sunday night and work Monday through Friday.
ODLR: I did Balmain from 1992 to about 2002. In those days we had the Concorde, which was great. In three and a half hours, you were in Paris.
AW: Have you prepared a speech for Monday yet?
ODLR: No, I hate speeches. But I have to tell you, I think there is a great opportunity at Balenciaga. The two designers who really strongly marked the twentieth century in fashion were Balenciaga and Chanel. I don't particularly care for Dior, Schiap. I think that Balenciaga and Chanel had a very clear vision of what they were about, and what is most important is that the formula still today is a valid formula. Not that you have to do Balenciaga, you have a great legacy there.