Oscar de la Renta: An Inspiring Success Story

by Ally Batista

It’s unfortunate, but designers don’t really get the recognition that they deserve. Sure, the fashion industry is accepting and appreciative of designer’s efforts, but typically, someone who’s not "into" that sort of thing would scoff at the idea that a designer is a hard worker.

Alexander Wang recently sat down with CFDA Founders Award recipient Oscar de la Renta for a interview to talk about his career. De la Renta spoke candidly about his career and how he got to where he is, which is a truly inspiring story.

Here are some quotes from said interview that caught my attention most:

He basically quit Balenciaga, where he was “picking up pins,” without telling Cristobal:

After a few years, I asked Balenciaga if I could come to Paris [he'd been working for Balenciaga in Madrid]. 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.

Then he got a job at Dior within 24 hours, just by knocking on the door:

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.

Later that same day, he got a job at Lanvin that paid more:

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.

That’s not the only thing he lied about:

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.

Then, he moved to New York, where he got job offers from Elizabeth Arden and Christian Dior New York. Diana Vreeland helped him choose:

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.”

He wishes the CFDA didn’t give awards to foreigners:

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?

Marlene Dietrich once got paid $20,000 for an honorary CFDA award that she did not show up to receive:

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?


He doesn’t care for Dior or Schiaparelli:

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.

Oscar de la Renta never took shit from anyone, and did exactly what he wanted to do. He took chances, was bold, and has an incredibly successful career as a result. His work ethic is one to be admired and should inspire us all.

Photo Credit: Getty Images