How Oscar de la Renta Went From the Dominican Republic to Ruling the Red Carpet

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THR senior style writer Merle Ginsburg offers an appreciation of the late designer's epic journey

Oscar de la Renta didn't reinvent the wheel — he was The Wheel. During his lifetime (July 22, 1932, to Oct. 20, 2014), the famed gentleman with the impeccable manners from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, was simply America's greatest designer of quintessential regal evening gowns and cocktail clothes. And no wonder — in his early life, he studied under the great Spanish couturier Cristobal Balenciaga and the Spanish costume and fashion designer Antonio del Castillo, who not only won an Oscar for the costumes in Nicholas and Alexandra in 1971, but also designed for Chanel and Lanvin. There could be no better mentors for a young man with fashion aspirations.

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The de la Rentas were an aristocratic family with well-placed friends in business and the arts — and it rubbed off. The already cultured Oscar went off to Spain at 18 to study painting but quickly turned his eye toward fashion, soon apprenticing with Balenciaga, whom he considered his mentor throughout his life. De la Renta also worked for Lanvin in Paris under Castillo, honing his dressmaking skills well and early.

Before there was Anna Wintour, there was even more powerful Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, who in 1963 advised Oscar to get out of the luxe couture world and start a future in ready-to-wear. He went to work for several ready-to-wear houses and launched his own label in 1965. Unlike most American designers, he had European workmanship and couture expertise instead of a background in sportswear. He also had a vision of women as social butterflies — swanlike creatures who went to opening nights at the opera and the ballet, who could make entrances like dramatic actresses — in very dramatic gowns. One of the few American designers to ever create true couture, de la Renta was the hand behind Balmain haute couture from 1993 to 2002. Later on, in 2006, Oscar de la Renta bridal wear was launched to great success. Amal Clooney could have married George in any couture gown by a Parisian or Italian designer – but the fact that she chose de la Renta, like Kate Bosworth, Jenna Bush and Katherine Heigl before her, spoke volumes about de la Renta's maximal feminine glamour.

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No, sportswear was never his thing; de la Renta could rarely be spotted in anything but a bespoke three-piece suit, impeccably tailored, with the perfect tie and crisp shirt. His calling was to create ultra-chic clothes for real ladies such as Nancy Reagan, who wore his clothes religiously, and Betsy Bloomingdale — no less a style icon than Jacqueline Kennedy — who discovered him in the '60s at his start and helped to make him an early fashion star. And he's dressed many more first ladies since: Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush and right up to Michelle Obama, who wore her first de la Renta at a White House fashion event Oct. 8. No other American designer could make such a claim, to have gone from Jackie Kennedy all the way through Amy Adams, Rihanna and Nikki Minaj. The gowns were often ornate — beaded or flocked with flowers — and he frequently invoked the strapless or tight bodice with a huge ball-gown skirt. These were statement-making looks that both Oprah Winfrey and Sarah Jessica Parker chose for a majority of their big nights out — including the 2010 Met Ball, where Winfrey accompanied the designer and wore his long-sleeved indigo gown with a voluminous skirt. At the Met Ball in 2014, SJP's long-trained black-and-white gown even had his signature at the hem. It was in large part Parker who had made the master modern again. When the Sex in the City sprite could wear anything in the world, she chose most often big-skirted de la Rentas.

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Among the designer's not-so-secret weapons was his second wife, Annette Engelhard, who became one of New York's most elegant and popular hostesses — and naturally, a great model for her husband's clothes and the brand. His aesthetic, always elegant, nevertheless crossed borders from slinky-sleek on Jessica Biel at a pre-Golden Globes party in 2012 to frothy plum perfection on Tina Fey for the ceremony's red carpet. "It has been one of the great privileges of my career to wear Oscar de la Renta's gowns," actress Zooey Deschanel told THR. "On a rack of the most beautiful dresses, it was always the Oscar dress that upstaged all of the others."

Barbara Walters was a fixture in the front row of de la Renta's New York fashion shows. "He was not just a creative and original artist," she told THR. "He was also a great business man. He was one of the wisest, kindest and funniest friends you can have." For Hollywood philanthropist-doyenne Barbara Davis, the loss also was deeply personal. "Everything I wear is from him," she told THR. "He was the sweetest man. He had a flair about him that was more wonderful than any designer I've ever known. My daughters wore Oscar, my grandchildren have children's Oscar, even my mother-in-law wore Oscar. It's like losing a member of the family."

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De la Renta's death — at his home in Connecticut on Oct. 20, surrounded by his loved ones and "more than a few dogs," according to a family statement — is a sad occasion for American fashion and truly for Hollywood, as wearing Oscar to a big awards show was almost as much of a thrill and reward as taking home the statue that shared his name.