Oscar de la Renta, Social Emperor of New York (from the New York Observer)

by William Norwich

Sitting at his cream-colored desk inside a halo of luminous office white, Oscar de la Renta held forth at his Seventh Avenue fashion headquarters on a morning in mid-May. As it is the height of the so-called spring season, this is where Mr. de la Renta gathers his strength between the charity fund-raisers and dizzyingly exclusive dinner parties that become almost fate when one is, as the late Slim Keith dubbed the designer, "the social emperor of New York."

The phone jingled often. Mr. de la Renta took a call from a friend who wanted to be invited to a birthday dinner his wife, Annette de la Renta, and Mercedes Bass, were planning for John Richardson, the art historian. In a voice lush with a Latin accent, Mr. de la Renta redirected the caller to Mr. Richardson.

Hanging up, he hit on Topic A. "Iím anxiously awaiting results of whatís going to happen with the Gucci-Pinault deal," the designer said, referring to the hostile takeover attempt of Gucci under way by LVMH MoŽt Hennessy Louis Vuitton. "As you know, FranÁois Pinault recently bought Sanofi, which makes my perfumes. For the past few years Iíve been very unhappy with whatís been happening at Sanofi. Iíve met Mr. Pinault. He excited me about what we could do for my fragrances in the next couple of years."

Topic B: Bill Blass has strongly hinted at his intentions of giving up his Seventh Avenue peerage in the near future; what about Mr. de la Renta? "John Fairchild used to call Bill and myself ĎFashionís Old Boys,í" he said. "So people are asking me if Iím nervous because Bill says he is retiring. Iím not nervous, and Iím not retiring." Mr. Blass, he added, "is older than me."

Of course, Mr. de la Renta could have retired years ago if he had so wished. According to Womenís Wear Daily, Oscar de la Renta, one of the 100 most recognized brand names in the world, did a wholesale collection business of $40 million in 1997, and his licensing business earned more than $500 million the same year. In addition, Mr. de la Renta designs the couture collections for Balmain in Paris. According to industry sources, he is paid handsomely.

Another call. It was Hugh Mullins, the vice chair of Neiman Marcus, nicknamed Butch since heís the only front-row fashion show ticketholder who could pass for a quarterback. Mr. Mullins was calling to see how Mr. de la Renta had enjoyed his visits to certain Neiman Marcus stores in California the week of May 10. Mr. de la Renta said a few hundred thousand dollarsí worth of his dresses were sold in the two hours he was at the store in San Francisco-but wouldnít it be nice if, next time, his sleepwear line was better represented at Neiman Marcus?

Prior to the trip to California, Mr. de la Renta was guest of honor on May 6 at a benefit for New Yorkers for Children, organized by socialite Susan Burden, which raised nearly $1 million. Julio Iglesias, Mr. de la Rentaís neighbor in the Dominican Republic, interrupted his world tour to perform at the event at the Chelsea Piers on the Hudson River, a location many of Mr. de la Rentaís friends know only as a place to launch themselves upon a significant private yacht. The scene was like a gilded Gap ad; almost everyone was up dancing and swinging. Mr. Iglesias called Mr. de la Renta his "brother."

Guests included Jayne Wrightsman, Mica and Ahmet Ertegun (who co-chaired the party), Barbara Walters, Bill Blass, Duane Hampton, Casey Ribicoff, and Prince Pavlos and Princess Marie-Chantal of Greece. Like many of the new group of younger society women, the princess feels no generational imperative to disassociate herself from the smart styles of her elders. They favor the designerís evening wear for events here and abroad.

"You know what it means in New York when they want to honor you?" Mr. de la Renta asked and laughed. "You have to dishonor yourself and call your friends and ask them to give money on your behalf. But Julio is the most generous guy. Besides not asking for payment, he paid the expenses for his musicians and dancers."

Next on the designerís social calendar is an auction at Christieís on June 9, organized by Saks Fifth Avenue chief executive Philip Miller to raise money for the New York Opera Guild.

He folded his hands on his desk. "I love work, and I love life. To me, people are tremendously important. They say extremely intelligent people love to be by themselves. Then I must be fantastically stupid," he smiled. "I thrive on having friends."

In consideration of his friendsí privacy, Mr. de la Renta said he is not planning to write his autobiography any time soon. Nor did he think Mrs. de la Renta was in any great rush to approve such a project. Maybe heíll pen a garden book. "You can say a lot about yourself when you write about the garden," Mr. de la Renta suggested, "or, perhaps, a book of childhood memories."

Mr. de la Renta grew up in Santo Domingo, the youngest child after six daughters. He loved his mother very much, but she died when he was 18. Soon after, he went to Madrid to study art and became interested in fashion design. Some of his earliest sketches were seen by the wife of John Lodge, the American ambassador to Spain at the time. Mrs. Lodge commissioned Mr. de la Renta to design a dress for her daughterís debut. The debutante and her dress appeared on the cover of Life magazine. From Madrid, Mr. de la Renta went to Paris and worked for Balenciaga and Lanvin. In 1963, he came to New York as the in-house designer at Elizabeth Arden, and in 1965, he began his own business.

"Growing up, I was so anxious to get away and to do things fast," Mr. de la Renta recalled. "Why is it that life never goes at the pace you want? Either it is too slow or, when you next think about it, it is going too fast?" Mr. de la Renta again laughed. "You know, life and fashion are a lot alike. What only counts is the time right now."

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