By Wendy Verlaine/March 23, 2016
Oscar de la Renta! Just saying the name elevates my vision of the art of dressing well. He is fashion royalty, and I was not going to miss a “runway show” of fashion history that celebrates creativity, craftsmanship, individuality and the working life of a celebrated artist.
Is a fashion designer an artist? This question is a constant debate among curators, art dealers, collectors and artists, some of whom scoff at a “fashion show in a museum.”
San Francisco’s de Young Museum’s Oscar de la Renta retrospective supports a convincing “YES”! De la Renta is a genius at observing, absorbing and interpreting, and these tools define an artist. This show celebrates his craftsmanship, invention and love of beauty.
Murals, lighting, running wall videos, mirrors and clever themes brought ohs and ahs from visitors. The exhibition design is by Kevin Daly Architects in collaboration with the House of de la Renta and the designer’s family.
Room after room increased my appetite for the exotic. It is not unlike a walk through a beautiful dream as one drifts from one theme to another of spectacular surprise. The visual stories follow his early career–Spanish, Eastern, Russian and his garden interpretations. It ends with ball gowns and red carpet celebrity wear.
Oscar de la Renta culled from diverse cultures, art and a wide knowledge of world history. This resulted in designs heavily embellished with Chinese embroideries, ikat patterns, Russian fur, Spanish brocades and jewels.
El Greco, Diego Velazquez, court costumes and royal armor influences show up early in his career in the 1960s at the couture house of Balenciaga in Madrid.
Travel to Russia and the film Dr. Zhivago erupted into de la Renta’s heavily beaded brocades and exotic fur trims. A bullfight in Andalusia would give birth to contrasting reds, chartreuse, heavily beaded brocades, inventive accessories and bolero jackets worn over the unexpected.
This extravagance earned him the Coty Award in 1967, which, in turn, led to his influential folkloric designs which trickled down to flower children, revolutionaries and the Beatles.
De la Renta was a lifelong gardener, and his gardens at his homes in the Dominican Republic and Kent, Connecticut are known worldwide. A looping video of his garden in Connecticut is a glorious backdrop in the garden room to his floral-printed silk taffetas and appliquéd flowers.
The colors, textures and scents from his garden bloomed into a collection of 18th Century Marie Antoinette-like elegance. His fabrics are flowing, brilliantly colored canvasses. He defined romanticism.
He uprooted traditional ideas of beauty in his 2011 collection. His playful nod to the irreverent juxtaposed formal evening dress with punk hairstyles.
Abreast of changing trends, he was not afraid to embrace movements by paring shocking, exaggerated trends with an unexpected twist of elegance. A looping video of his runway-themed shows illustrates his attention to street fashion and how he transforms current statements into his de la Renta signature style.
I entered this show with one raised, slightly skeptical eyebrow. Was I reviewing an exhibit that highlighted the division between me and the world of celebrities, presidential wives and the upper one percent? I exited the show with wide-eye pleasure. I can’t believe what I just saw!
The Oscar de la Renta retrospective will run from March 12th — May 30th at the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco.
Photos: Wendy Verlaine