Remembering Oscar- That Magical Time in the 70’s

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The man I knew and adored was Oscar at work: playful, fun, and full of life’s magic.

This past week the press has written so much about Oscar de la Renta:  the designer, the brand, the celebrity, the philanthropist, the friend of First Ladies and movie stars, the charming and debonaire figure around town.  Having known him for 40 years I have been witness to all of that. But there is a small group of us who had the amazing good fortune to work with him in the early years when he was becoming the man we have read about during this past sad week. I was not in his studio at the beginning — Albert Capraro  and John Nickelson were there before me. I arrived there in 1974, a  star-struck kid from Missouri.

My story with Oscar began when I was a senior in the art school of Washington University in St. Louis. I saw a photo of the glorious Lauren Hutton in an Oscar de la Renta pink ruffled dress.  He became my design hero, and I dreamed of working for him.

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With the wonders of the Internet I was able to find the photo that began my hero worship of Oscar and started me on my life’s journey.

The late 60’s and early 70’s were  chaotic times and Washington University was a hotbed of  liberal radicalism.  The campus  roiled with the presence of SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), the Black Panthers, demonstrations against ROTC, the burning of draft cards, and Grateful Dead concerts. The dormitories reeked of pot, LSD was the drug of choice, and  — last but not least, for a fashion student —  everyone had replaced the clothes they packed for college with jeans, work shirts, and Birkenstock sandals. The times they were a-changin’ . . . and in that setting the small group  of fashion students (24 in total) were like aliens from another planet.  There was not much visual  inspiration for an aspiring fashion designer who insisted  upon wearing my mini skirts, maxi coats, and bangle bracelets galore.  We found hope in magazines like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar where the extraordinary editor Diana Vreeland showed photos of exotic hippies, modern-day gypsies, and the fabulous clothes of Oscar, Giorgio  St. Angelo, Bill Blass, Donald Brooks,Geoffrey Beene, Stephen Burrows, Scott Barry, and Halston, plus the sportswear designers Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, and Ann Klein — just to name the Americans. Awaiting me in New York was a  fashion scene very different from the dreary sea of denim and bad footwear!!

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One of my senior design projects at Washington U. Who do you think I was inspired by?  At 106 pounds I had no chest at all, certainly not the beautiful curves of Lauren Hutton, so I turned the design around and called this “the flat chested girl’s dress.”

I will not regale you  with the crazy story of how, after a year in New York, I got an interview with Oscar. I’ll begin with my first day of work for the house. I was so eager  not to be late  that I showed up at 8:30 in the morning.  I waited in the hall for a half an hour before someone showed up let me into the studio. I walked in, nervous as a cat, and when I saw the sketches of the Fall collection in progress, I panicked.  Everything looked so beautiful, and I knew I could not sketch like that.  All I could think was that I would be fired by the end of my first day!   John Nickelson and, finally, Oscar arrived. I think poor John did not appreciate my presence  and Oscar did not seem to know what to do with me. So I sat there not saying a word during fittings until Oscar asked me at lunchtime if I ate anything. I went out to buy a sandwich, half expecting that I would find myself locked out on my return. But I was not, and I slowly began to find my way around the world of Oscar de la Renta, where I worked for the next 10 years.

For me, the best part of the fashion business was “the family” that designers created with their assistants, muses, fitting models, seamstresses, and tailors who bring the designs to fruition. To be part of Oscar’s fashion family was to take a journey into fun, hard work, and to see the world through Oscar’s eyes. During collection time we ate lunch together every day in the studio, and Oscar joined us when he was not out having lunch with Mr. Fairchild or one of the magazine editors. Because Oscar and I were  foodies, I often went over to 9th Avenue to pick up Parmesan and mozzarella cheese and bags of bread, tomatoes and basil, or something equally tasty.  During these lunches Oscar regaled us with tales of his life in Spain and France. How exotic these  adventures sounded to a girl who had not yet been outside of the United States!

We laughed at Oscar as he flirted with the  ladies in the sample room or jested with his favorite target, Boaz Mazor (how he adored to tease him!) who worked in the showroom.

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Oscar loved to tease Bessie the seamstress who would sing love songs to him. Sometimes they sang a duet, other times he would cover his ears and ask for someone to “put a cover over the canary!”   I swear she was in love with him and thought he was in love with her! She seemed ancient to me then, and probably was, but she still flirted shamelessly.

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Oscar’s other longtime favorite for teasing was Boaz.  Here Boaz and I are clowning around at Halloween

Of course there were down moments when we were having trouble with a collection or if there was a less than stellar review. But rarely a day went by without a few laughs. For several years we were a small group in the studio: John, Oscar’s his right-hand man; Jack Alexander, who handled PR and worked with the licensees; Diana Pratt, Oscar’s secretary (who had earlier been Diana Vreeland’s personal assistant); whoever the house model was at the time; Oscar; and me. Oscar was like the head of the family —  and as head he would get frustrated with or downright angry at each of us at one point or another. Once, going through a very difficult time, he got so mad at me he said, “Carolyne, if I had a guitar string I would happily tie it around your neck and strangle you to death!”  I was  probably thoughtlessly grousing about a boyfriend or something equally stupid, while Oscar’s wife Francoise was very ill at the time. Needless to say I never forgot that well-deserved rebuke.

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The gang, with Oscar in the middle: from left, John Nickelson, who stayed with Oscar nearly fifty years until his retirement; Diana Pratt; the adorable house model Robin Osler; me; and Jack Alexander.

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Above: lunch with the ladies of the sample room.

We were so close to these skilled women they were like elderly aunts to us.  As the collection neared completion we would have a lunch or dinner altogether. Oscar is on the right, seated between Toni and Bessie, of course! John  is in the foreground with me next to him, looking like I was trying to get a bit of something out of my teeth. I swear Jack would always love to take a photo of me looking like a goon!

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 Oscar with John and  Francisco who joined the studio  a few years later.

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I cannot remember why I was getting this treatment!  It may have been a good-bye photo when I left for my first marriage, or it may have been my  birthday.  The new face is that of Brian Bubb, who later joined the studio.

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Oscar doing the final fitting of my wedding dress.

When I announced that I was getting married  and moving to Germany, both Oscar  and Francoise said I was crazy.  But he still designed my gown and veil and, in his typical way, told me how I should wear my hair and what flowers I should carry. He also told me that every young woman who worked for him ended up divorced. Well, he was right: eleven months later I was back in the studio. But a bit more about that  later…

Another  part of my “life” education was both exciting and intimidating. When the de la Rentas needed an extra female at their glittering dinners I got to don a dress from the collection and be that girl. While I will not drop names, there was always a dazzling array of guests who gave me insights into a world that I had only read about. I wonder if I ever opened my mouth… I suppose I must have or I would not have been invited back.  Francoise and Oscar entertained in a beautiful  European way, with a dining experience that was so rich and sophisticated.

Those  evenings were an education for all of the senses.  The moment the elevator door deposited guests on the de la Renta’s  floor, they entered another world.  The air was scented with a beautiful fragrance, like Plantes de Marine from Guerlain, there were large cachepots of orchids in the foyer, and classical music played in the background. You must remember that this is long before anyone else used room scents or flowers in this way.  Similarly, their decor brought together elements that were not often seen in America, and it was it was a visual feast.  I loved the early decor of the apartment, which was rattan, bamboo, exotic inlaid mother-of-pearl furniture from Syria or India, light and colorful Dhurrie rugs, and palms in large planters.  In the mid-seventies  they had Vincent Fourcade redo the apartment in the Napoleon III style, and it was like nothing I had ever seen. Rich and red with leopard and tiger accents, exotic carpets, wonderful mixes of fabrics old and new, and 19th century antiques. It was like stepping back into another time, yet  their home was still modern —  one never felt it was a “period” decor. Perhaps that was because of the guests and conversation, but mostly I feel it was the ability that Oscar and Francoise had to  love what was beautiful in the past and yet imbue their rooms with energy, modernity, and hospitality.

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Above: a glimpse of the red living room and the dining room 

The  memories of my years with Oscar could go on forever but I cannot leave you without telling you of the marvelous travels with him. Sadly, because of my house fire I  lost many photos and, of course, no iPhones existed to capture all those glorious moments. Traveling with him was to be totally immersed  in other cultures. He was like Auntie Mame, but better. We ate the food, saw the sights in an extraordinary way, and partook of the culture through music, art, and architecture. With his rising fame he was was fêted where ever we went: Mexico, India, Israel, Jordan, Japan, Italy, France, Germany, Spain, Morocco, and Hong Kong.  How exciting and what fun it all was!

When he launched Oscar de la Renta in Japan we went to Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto, and that trip was extraordinary.  Of  course we worked  hard, as we were presenting the collection for the first time. The Japanese offered us every type of experience to showcase the richness and beauty of their culture, including singing and dancing with geishas, and watching sumo wrestlers, which Oscar adored!

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Moss gardens in Kyoto.  Notice our feet: we had just had lunch in an extraordinarily beautiful old restaurant, eating off ancient lacquer dishes.

Visiting the royal moss gardens was unforgettable. I decided I did not truly understand the color green until I saw them .

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 Francoise and Rob, a male model along to show Oscar’s menswear, with Oscar and me behind them.

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“OMG, I think I would rather not know what I am eating!”

I love Billy Blair’s face!  I recall that she had just discovered what she was eating . . . Oscar and Francoise  were  more intrepid in the adventurous eating department!  Billy and I were roommates on this trip. Oscar brought about six of us from the States to join with the Japanese models. I did double duty as both assistant and model.

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All the Americans got flowers at the end of the big show in Toyko.  From the left:  Carla, one of Oscar’s favorite models, Francoise, Oscar, and me. 

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Oscar, Francisco, John, and me dining on Lake Como on one of our many wonderful trips to shop for fabrics for the collections. For years we ate our way through Milan and Como, with pasta and wine for every lunch and dinner.  No sandwiches for a working lunch for us!

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 The two pictures above: in Santo Domingo at his beautiful home listening to and singing with a group he loved. Don’t ask me why I had a palm frond around my head– just having fun as Oscar sang, I guess.

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Above, in India: Oscar and Jerry Shaw hamming it up with camel that fell in love with Oscar (of course!).  We also dined with the Maharaja of Jaipur in his palace. High-brow and low, grand or fun and simple, we did it all. 

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 In Paris at Chez Andre just after John, Oscar, and I finished lunch. We ate there practically every day while he was working on the Balmain collection.   

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The French crew at Balmain in the 1990s, with Oscar, Boaz, John, Francisco Costa, and me.

The above is taken much later than the 1970s  I have been talking about, but that is for a reason. Throughout the very difficult periods of my life, after two divorces and other traumas, Oscar was always there to help me get back on my feet. He took me back to work every time my life started falling apart. After one of the first traumas he said to me “Carolyne, men can come and go, friends can come and go, but no one can take away your talent or your professionalism.” A couple of times I was in a very bad emotional state; Oscar would always hold out a hand, or give me a kick in the backside, and get me back to work because he knew it would save me — and it did. So I owe Oscar a lot more than an extraordinary mentorship, our wonderful fun, and an education in life.  I know I am here today writing this because of Oscar and Annette (his beloved second wife), who literally pulled me back from the abyss.

There are so many things to write about this extraordinary man, I could go on endlessly. I want to close this by saying …..

We are each a product of many people, circumstances, and events. Yes, I arrived in NYC with a love of dogs and horses, flowers and fashion, singing and dancing. But it took being with Oscar to mold and develop those interests.  As time went on I was offered job opportunities by some other top designers and  I am sure I would have learned new things from them.  But I know in my soul that without Oscar in my life I probably would never have learned how to laugh at my self and not be so serious, dance the merengue, ride a camel through the desert, go to a bull fight, stay up all hours listening to flamenco in some old  tavern, meet a Maharaja,  have cocktails with just Oscar and  Diana Vreeland in her famous red room, play Caja de Toques while drinking tequila shots, dance like a gypsy in a plaza  surround by mariachis, and sing at the top of my lungs not caring what anyone else thought. Yes, he taught a lot about glamour, design, and style  but more than anything he taught me about the beauty of a fully and vividly lived life.  He was magical and I shall miss him forever.
Carolyne Jane Roehm

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51 thoughts on “Remembering Oscar- That Magical Time in the 70’s

  1. Dear Carolyne,
    What a moving tribute to your dear friend. Thank you for sharing this insight into an inspirational person and for making us realise just how truly special good friends are…

  2. These photos are so wonderful to view! I remember with fondness his many kindnesses throughout the years!

  3. What a compelling, heartfelt tribute.
    So much has been written about Mr. de la Renta since his passing, but your memories are uniquely eloquent and deeply touching.

    I’ve long admired your willingness to share your world with your readers — the grace and courage it takes to put yourself out there and expose your vulnerabilities.
    And as I read through this post, I started to feel sprinkled with a little bit of the magical dust of Mr. de la Renta’s inspiration that you wrote about.

    Lovely man. Lovely muse.

  4. Oscar was unlimited in so many ways. You have walked us through some great years in his life. Enjoyed reading and copying to tuck in my Oscar book. There was a dress in the Balmain years I saved from one of the magazines that was so beautiful…embroidered violet bunches on silk faille, a wedding dress sheer organza blouse with violets, a lace petticoat barely peeks at the hem..my all time favorite. Owner of dress was Shalom Harlow who had an Audrey Hepburn look. Timeless and clipped many years ago..
    Could think wedding cake with finely made violets in bunches would be too pretty to eat..
    thanks for all and hope your injury is healing and you are enjoying flowers and all you do,
    Lynn Ziglar

  5. Carolyne – Thanks for sharing the memories, and hopefully, you would have time in the future to do a book on it. – “Oscar: Our Magic Moments with Design”

  6. Carolyne.
    You were SO very lucky to have such an exceptional person in your life.What wonderful photos and memories..
    Hope you are much better now.

  7. Dear CR,

    What an absolutely beautiful and touching tribute! Thanks for sharing this personal aspect of your fabulous life!

    Dean

  8. What a blessing to have grown up and experience life with such an amazing mentor and friend! And we are blessed to be inspired by you as you were by him. You are a beautiful woman, Carolyne, inside and out! Thank you, Mr. De La Renta!

  9. PLEASE turn these extraordinary memories into a book! So many would be so grateful…

  10. Dear Caroline ,

    A beautiful tribute for your mentor. There isn’t a doubt that Mr. de la Renta saw in you from the very beginning the same special person that you are , and that you project that to others. I remember the Oscar de la Renta name in the 60s ,and in one of my best pictures I’m wearing his dress.Later on I adored your designs , with your label . The real peace of art .
    Thank you Caroline for being so generous wit all of your talents .

  11. What a tribute to your dear friend + adored hearing of your early years with Oscar + the photos are super + you can tell how much he was loved. xxpeggybraswelldesign.com

  12. Dear Carolyne, what a wonderful tribute to a brilliant mam. He must have been an exceptional person every tribute has been so full of love. I always dreamed of having a dress made for me by Oscar.

  13. Dear Ms. Roehm,
    What a lovely tribute to a gentleman, and what most certainly was a life, well lived.

    • Oh yes it did how could I always look so silly—-well maybe that is possible— my dogs take much better pictures than I do! a big hug back!!!! carolyne

  14. Carolyne
    This was a wonderful tribute. He truly touched your life in a special way and that is very apparent in your closing comments. By meeting him and knowing him as you did he brought out a side to your personality you may never have exposed to the world. He challenged you in your work and allowed you to experience a side a life few will every have. In a way he “played in forward” meaning taking one person (you) and giving that experience or knowledge to another. You have done that with you own work.
    You were truly blessed. And, my sympathies to you on the loss of a very special friend
    Warmest Regards, Adrian Cyprian Markocki

  15. Dear Carolyne,

    A most beautiful online tribute. I agree with Stephen, a memory book would be gorgeous, I, personally would love to read more of this extraordinary man.

    In closing, take care. Wishing you continued strength and recovery everyday ♡

    Warmest regards,
    Millette

  16. He always wore a smile – probably his best fashion accessory. A man that mixed fun and style. We need more like him. I pray that you are still recovering. I look forward to more of your lovely posts.

  17. My dearest Carolyn:
    So beautifully written…..

    Thank you very much for sharing your very precious memories of Oscar. It is a testament to how incredible this man is. He touched many, many hearts. And in reading what you wrote, we feel his grand capacity to love.

    Anna (Bayle)

    • Dear Anna—Just got off the phone with jack Alexander and he just showed me an on line video where I saw your beautiful face. It was a wonderful time for all of us! so happy to hear from you fondly carolyne

  18. A lovely and touching tribute to an amazing man….thank you for the beautiful behind-the-scene glimpses of this incredible talent. You will continue to be blessed by all that his friendship meant to you till your last breath, and, perhaps, beyond. I pray you are comforted by these wonderful memories during this difficult time.

  19. Jane,
    You have had an amazing life since our days in Mrs. Goslee’s Home Economics class at PCHS. Thank you for sharing your memories!
    Fran Embrey Gremaud

  20. What a beautiful tribute! I kept clippings of Oscar and Francoise from the 70’s. Especially their apartments and homes. I was so sad when she passed away. To me, she was the most stylish woman (and couple) that I was exposed to. I can see why living among them helped shape you into to who you are today! Thank you for this poignant memoir.

  21. Thank you for the thoughtful post. I thought of you immediately when I heard of Mr. de la Renta’s passing and hoping that you would share memories with us…

  22. I was so fortunate that a mutual friend passed your lovely and loving tribute to Oscar on to me. Your memories and wonderful photos were not just revealing of this greatly talented and multifaceted man and designer but of the talented, hard-working, and insightful young woman he trained and mentored in so many more ways than just fashion. He was a one man muse,mentor and dear friend to you for so many years and you have become everything he would have wanted for you and much, much more. I’m sad for the loss of your dear friend, and I share the wishes of several other respondents that you consider writing a book about your life with Oscar.

    • Dear Maureen—Thank for that lovely note he was so special!!! see youn in Jan . 2015 xox carolyne

  23. Your memories will last forever and your writings on Oscar are beautiful. You have been so blessed to have him in your life and I know you miss him dearly. A truly beautiful writing about a very special designer. He is on the rainbow bridge. God bless.

  24. Carolyne,
    Your beautiful piece on Oscar stated everything I just knew he was.
    An extraordinary gentleman with a such a creative gift. One does
    not have that without also having great warmth, great laughter
    and much positive energy around them. Thank you for taking the
    time to share this with all of us. When I heard the news a little
    more music died for me.
    Arms around you, Caroline

  25. Thank you for the beautiful post. You certainly had an exciting life. It is always interesting to see how someone’s life can be influenced by one man.You wll certainly miss him.
    I do pray you are feeling better, after such a very serious injury. I do appreciate all the posts you allow us to read.

  26. Your story brought tears to my eyes. How wonderful to have such a mentor and friend, and clearly he felt the same way about you. Few people stay around to help one rise from the abyss, that speaks volumes about his character. Thank you for sharing! Margaret

  27. You were the first person I thought of when I heard the news of Mr. de la Renta’s passing. And now reading this wonderful tribute to him, I want to let you know that I still treasure my ’12 hours with Carolyne Roehm’ when you and Simon came to Washington, D.C. and you spoke to my Capital Speakers Club. After that special day I saw you in a whole new light and came to find the things I’d originally admired you for to be replaced by something totally different. Of course I will always have every single book you ever publish on my coffee table, but after that day I came to love your zest for life, to admire you for the fact that you are always, always learning something new, and that when you want to do something you let nothing hold you back. I learned a lot from you that day. Now, after reading this article I know exactly where you ‘come from’.

  28. Being spaniard Oscar is also something ours. Not only for the idiom but for his spanish background. He had a fullfil life with friends all over the world, did whatever he wanted. Nati Abascal, a former model, says that he died singing songs from his country.

  29. Carolyne,
    You wrote about him so beautifully that you knew instinctively what a wonderful friend he had been.to you. His extravagant passion & talent for design was remarkable & some of my very favorite pieces of clothing are still his. You were lucky indeed to have been part of his lush life & cultivated charm. After ait it is our precious memories we leave behind & remember.

  30. What an amazing and interesting tribute! I didn’t want it to end. How lucky you were to experience all of these wonderful times with Mr. de la Renta. He was a model of civility in a world that has almost lost this quality.
    Please take the advice of several that have commented about writing a book about your experience. I know the fire at Weatherstone took so many of your pictorial memories but not your written ones. I am sure there is an audience for the remembrance of the fashion business of the eighties. I fondly remember reading about you in Architectural Digest just after your move into the Denning and Fourcade decorated apartment. For a high school boy growing up in the Midwest, I was bowled over by the style. I had forgotten about Mr. de la Renta’s apartment by Denning and Fourcade. Thank you for reminding me.
    -David

  31. I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. De La Renta at the Acapulco Princess Hotel years ago. He was SO handsome, so elegant, and with impeccable manners. How lucky you were to have him as a friend. He embodied what a true gentleman is. And….his clothes are incredibly beautiful and never go out of style. RIP to an incredible person.

  32. So beautifully stated. If we are fortunate we come across some rare and priceless friend during our life’s journey and they teach us so much. My husband’s uncle was that person for me. My favorite memory of this dear sweet man was after a drive through the golden aspen trees having dinner at a fabulous restaurant in Telluride CO in our flannel lounging PJs! I miss HIM to this day.

  33. What a truly lovely tribute. I am so very sorry for your loss. It is beautiful that you had such a wonderful friend and such lovely memories of him; thank you for sharing them!

  34. Pingback: Carolyne Roehm Remembers Oscar de la Renta | Frances Schultz

  35. Dear Carolyne , You are a true survivor ! It is wonderful you were so blessed to have angels like Oscar in your life !

    • yes one needs angels—sometimes they are very hard to find —but eventually the universe takes over and they are just there! I do not really understand how this works but so happy it does once in a while cr

    • Hi I shall try—the gal that did those things for me moved to California and my tech skills are limited—cr

  36. Dear Ms. Roehm,

    Thank you for sharing with us such touching and emotional memories and extraordinary images. You have brought back to life an explosively creative era, of which Oscar de la Renta was and is one of the touchstones.

    I share with others here the hope that you will one day write a book on your OWN life; an autobiography or memoir which will certainly contain an entire “Oscar” section. In your own life and work, you are the torchbearer for the philosophy and values he still represents, and for the life richly and well lived.

    Stephanie Bowens

    • Dear Stephanie,
      Thank you for the kind words and the note of confidence.
      warmly
      carolyne r.

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