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TWE DESIGN: A Grand Salute to Fashion Icon Oscar de la Renta

Oscar de la Renta de Young exhibit/Photo: Wendy Verlailne

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.

Yellow wool dress by Oscar de la Renta with plastic and crystal covered coat/Photo: Wendy Verlaine

Yellow wool dress enhanced with plastic and crystal covered coat.

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.

Dresses by Oscar de la Renta/Photo: Wendy Verlaine

Beaded silks, sculptured taffeta and silk velvet are de la Renta’s trademark.

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.

Oscar de la Renta dress at de Young Museum/Photo: Wendy Verlaine

Jagged black mirrors are a stark backdrop to these finely crafted gowns.

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.

Oscar de la Renta polero jacket worn over costume/Photo; Wendy Verlaine

Brocade and dangling elements embellish a fitted evening jacket.

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.

Oscar de la Renta dresses from retrospective at de Young/Photo: Wendy Verlaine

Dresses in the garden room are a mix of Marie Antoinette and fresh blooms.

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.

Oscar de la Renta designs at de Young retrospective/Photo;: Wendy Verlaine

Punk hair styles are a nod to mixing trends with glamour.

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

The Idiosyncratic Fashionistas–Need We Say More?

Idiosyncratic Fashionistas/NY

The Fashionistas in a New York City garden, 2012

UPDATE 8/27/13The IF’s latest: Count Your Blessings–Prayer Beads!

By Patricia Caso/March 23, 2013
Photos from The Idiosyncratic Fashionistas blog

While on assignment at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology’s Shoe Obsession, I crossed paths with reporters and bloggers but none captured my attention more than two women of a certain age who were dressed to the nines! According to their business card, they are The Idiosyncratic Fashionistas.

“We have a look, an approach and a philosophy that’s just a little bit different and sets us apart…we say let’s go for it!
Let’s celebrate! We love looking like this!”
Idiosyncratic Fashionistas

WOW! I had to get to know more about them. Valerie and Jean separate their day jobs and their fashionista adventures, so they don’t use their last names or talk about their professions.

Before going off to an antiques show, they graciously carved out some time to chat. With a twinkle in their eyes, hearts of gold and unabashed zest for style, they shared a whole lot of fashionista wisdom on a chilly March morning in New York… [Read more…]

TOP 10: Valentino: Designer to the Stars Takes a Stroll Down the Catwalk

Valentino posing on the catwalk of his exhibition

Valentino–Designer to the Stars Takes a Stroll Down the Catwalk: Suzy Menkes–nytimes.com–12/6/12–Photo: Warrick Page/International Herald Tribune

TOP 10: Katharine Hepburn: Rebel Chic

Katharine Hepburn Rebel Chic

Katharine Hepburn: Rebel Chic: Barbara Lovenheim–NYCitywoman.com on huffingtonpost.com–10/12/12–Photo: Alamy

Top 10: Kate Young, The Stylist Behind Hollywood’s Red Carpet Fashion

Kate Young, Hollywood designer to the stars

Kate Young, The Stylist Behind Hollywood’s Red Carpet Fashion: video.today.msnbc.com–5/15/12

Jean Paul Gaultier’s Inspiring Museum Exhibit Elevates Fashion to Art

Gaultier Poster from deYoung

UPDATE 2/1/14: The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier exhibition is currently at the Brooklyn Museum until February 23.

Story and Photos by Wendy Verlaine/April 5, 2012

“Designers are the catalysts of their time.  Their role is to translate the changes, the evolution of society.”  Jean Paul Gaultier

It is said our first impressions are usually right.   The moment I walked into the Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk show I felt an excitement, a charged energy that precedes something highly entertaining and novelThere is much to discover about Gaultier at the de Young Museum in San Francisco as the exhibit lives up to first impressions and the demands of an important retrospective.  This video tour by Mel Van Dusen from KMVT will give you a sense of the surprises inside.

Upon entering the first of many rooms displaying more than 130 of Gaultier’s ready-to-wear and haute couture ensembles,  the “enfant terrible” of the couture world greeted me with, “Hello, you!  I know you.  Welcome to the show.”  The “terrible” moniker was given to him during the 80’s sexual revolution when Madonna wore  his iconic cone bra.

The “Hello” was startling.  It immediately made me laugh, and I felt like I had arrived.   Spotlighted “models” with their individually projected animated faces on their mannequin heads surrounded the room.  Images and voices emanated from hanging video projectors and amps suspended from above.

The result was talking, blinking, smiling, whispering models.  The looped recording of Gaultier captured his enthusiasm and energy.  Visitors wandered from room to room catching snips of mannequin mutterings or fully engaged conversations extolling philosophy, humor, self-examination or the incomprehensible.  I felt like I had crashed an Andy Warhol cocktail party of dressed-to-the-extreme haute couture mix of eccentrics.

This amusement park of fantasy fashion, philosophy, and awe-inspiring craftsmanship conveys Gaultier’s genius.  Born in 1952 in Arcueil, a suburb of Paris, to parents he describes as “modest but open-minded,” he was encouraged by his grandmother to be creative.  “As a child I was always drawn to those women who did not look like everyone else,” he said.

Gaultier sketch photo by Wendy Verlaine

Gaultier Sketch

He loved that his grandmother allowed him to watch as much 1960’s television as he wanted, and in France, haute couture was covered as news.  TV, along with magazines and film, developed in him a critical and analytical fashion sense.  At the age of eighteen, he was hired by Pierre Cardin based on his sketches.

It is with his company that he learned the skills of haute couture dressmaking.  He soon left to join the avant-garde independent designers: Thierry Mugler, Vivienne Westwood, Kenzo, etc.

“Designers are the catalysts of their time.  Their role is to translate the changes, the evolution of society.”  Quotes like this by Gautier, displayed on museum plaques, sum up the tone of this show.  For those who believe art plays an important role in self-expression and social change, he speaks clearly and directly to us.

His message has several layers.  First, and most often misunderstood, he sees women as powerful, equal to or “…stronger than men. They are more interesting because they had to work harder to be heard.”

Gaultier's corsets

Corsets by Gaultier

Gaultier’s iconic cone bra corsets, most notably worn by Madonna on her 1990 Blond Ambition World Tour, are not meant to shock, but to exaggerate strength and power.  Influenced by his grandmother’s pink satin corset, which hung in her armoire, and her strong sense of style, he uses it repeatedly in his creations as an object of beauty and strength.

The women’s movement was part of the changing political scene which Gaultier used in much of his work.  “I love it when strong women put fire on their bra,” he said, referring to the early days of the movement.  He sees the corset as beautiful and not something to hide.  Today’s mantra is, “I’m not waiting for a prince. I have arrived. I love to be beautiful.”

“My aim is not to be provocative. I just try to reflect what I see and feel around me.”

Gaultier sees beauty everywhere, and this is a second message. Influenced by the multi-ethnic immigrant suburbs of Paris, the raw side of the streets of London and the punk era, David Bowie, Fellini, etc., he defies the conventions of couture. Plastic bags, metal, wrapped tubing, aluminum cans, electronics—everything has potential.

Fashion is, as Gaultier says,“… too much about good taste. It is the tyranny of the streets (good taste), especially in Paris.” He breaks the codes of decent and indecent. “Your image is a game; play with it.”

Gaultier's Mongolian Shearling Coat

Mongolian Shearling Coat by Gaultier

He absorbs all that engages his senses—Mongolia, India, Africa, the streets, media.  He says he is often overwhelmed with possibilities.  He denies being an artist, but his extraordinarily detailed hand work and skill found in the metallic lace (which took 353 hours to make for a single piece), feathers, finely sewn seed beads and sequins, prove he is.

Some garments took over 1000 hours of skilled labor.   His iconic trench coat morphs into a skirt or shorts, and a half dress is also a half skirt.  Only a highly skilled artist can successfully execute such complicated designs.

Gaultier’s work also reflects the evolution of the role of men.  This is an important third message.  “Men are fragile, too.”  What appears to be a very private conversation between two males (mannequins) draws one closer to eavesdrop.  “Don’t worry about people looking at you.  Be yourself.”

A projected mirror image (his conscience?) responds to his questions and worries. “Why shouldn’t men wear nice fabrics?  You have a right to wear haute couture.  Do you think I am beautiful?  I think people are listening to us.  I can’t make small talk.”

Gaultier's Sailor Suit

Sailor Suit by Gaultier

 Gautier never identified with the typical male persona.  As a child he felt different, emotionally fragile. During a recent interview with Suzy Menkes, fashion editor of the International Herald Tribune, he said, “I never liked sports or John Wayne.  I don’t even drive.”

“Play with fashion.  Wear it unthreateningly!Gaultier

Still, the bad boy image of Marlin Brando and James Dean intrigued him and illustrates how film led him to use leather, metal chains, studs mixed with lace, fur, etc., for men and women.  He loves rebellion, and his designs play a large part in film and theater.

If you are lucky enough to see this show, linger at the final room’s wall of running videos.  They are funny and playful.  I even caught the security guards laughing and back-slapping one another.  They show a happy, innocent, boyish Gaultier who loves his work and loves his life.

Striped Hat-Jacket by Gaultier

Striped Hat-Jacket by Gaultier

 I think his overriding message is one of courage. We see him enjoying his freedom to work hard, his way.  He is so sure of his talent that he blithely breaks the rules with the vigor and genius unshackled creativity affords.

I left the show feeling how good it is to give oneself permission to break the rules of convention.

As Gaultier says, “Be yourself.  Do not feel you have to hide who you are.  And, play with fashion.  Wear it unthreateningly.  Wear it for yourself.  Show who you are, and you will be accepted.”

This thought is nothing short of exhilarating.  You can see this exhibit in San Francisco through August 10, 2012.



About the Author:

Wendy Verlaine, writer

Wendy Verlaine is a San Francisco Bay Area freelance writer, jewelry designer and owner of Verlaine Collections.  Formally a San Francisco art dealer, she continues to stay closely connected to the art world.



Gaultier's Chiffon Folds Dress

Chiffon Folds Dress


Gaultier's Lace Handwork from the de Young exhibit

Lace Hand Work

Madonna's Riding Outfit by Gaultier

Madonna’s Riding Outfit

Mermaid Series by Gaultier at de Young Museum

Mermaid Series

Top 10: Daily Shoe/Runners-Up

Daily Shoe--Alexander McQueen

Daily Shoe/Runners-Up: Jane Herman–nytimes.com–3/9/12–Photo: Alexander McQueen/Valerio Mezzanotiti

Top 10: Kiya Tomlin Finds Fashion Success in Pittsburgh

Kiya Tomlin, Pittsburgh Clothing Designer

Kiya Tomlin Finds Fashion Success in Pittsburgh: Joane Harrop–pittsburghlive.com–3/4/12