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.
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!!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Oscar with John and Francisco who joined the studio a few years later.
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.
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.
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!
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 .
Francoise and Rob, a male model along to show Oscar’s menswear, with Oscar and me behind them.
“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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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