Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Oscar de la Renta talks retirement, social media, & why he believes he has found success

Oscar de la Renta spoke candidly about his career and humble beginnings at the French Institute Alliance Francaise Q&A with Pamela Golbin Monday night at Florence Gould Hall, addressing everything from his "mosquito memory" to the day that he plans to retire. Read some of our favorite excerpts, below.

On his beginnings:
I was never really interested in fashion all of the years I lived in Dominican Republic, until I was 8 and a half. I come from a big family, I have six sisters, I was the only boy, the youngest. My father was in the insurance business, and he thought that being the only boy in the family, that eventually I should work in the family business... If I ever would have told my father that I was going to become a fashion designer, he probably would have been dead on the spot. He never truly believed [I could succeed as a designer]. With the help of my mother, who always told me, 'anything you pursue I will support you,' I convinced my father that the insurance business wouldn't be so good for me. Women as you know, have always been a very important part of my life.

On being in the biz 45 years:
The truth is, it doesn't seem like 45 years. Cause I love what I do. People ask me, 'when are you going to retire?' And my answer is, every single day for me there is a learning process. The day that I say, 'I know it all,' that day I should quit.

On women coming up to him thanking him for his designs:
I have the memory of a mosquito. It's so embarrassing. A lady will come to me and start describing a dress of mine she was wearing the night before. I don't have the slightest clue [which she is talking about] because I have made hundreds and hundreds of dresses. If I see the dress, I recognize it. I think it's most important to look forward and keep your eyes open. Especially at my age. 

On never having sewn a dress:
I had very good sketches. I could draw very well. Don't get fooled by good sketches. If you take a wonderful drawing that you envision a certain way and you give it to ten people to create a dress, every one of them will interpret it in a different manner. And it will be a very different dress. This is what I learned at Balenciaga... to manipulate the clothes, to give the clothes the proportion that I wanted to give to them. Being at the house of Balenciaga I have never learned how to sew a dress. I have no idea. But in my mind, I think I could do it.

On dealing with finicky clients:
I remember one time, one of the many many times where I got fired from my job... I was called to one of the fitting rooms, where there was a lady who wanted to make changes to a dress she was ordering. It was my lunch hour. I was ready to go, and I was called downstairs. And every alteration that this lady made to the dress - she wanted to have a different sleeve - after being there for way over an hour, doing every single change, I said 'I think you should go somewhere else.' She said [in French], 'This young man is very impolite.' Of course I was called to the office and my boss told me 'you have to learn that the customer is always right.' And the customer is always right.

On why he believes he has found success:
People say to me, 'My goodness you've been doing this for so many years. It must be so easy.' Every day is more and more difficult. First of all, the competition everyday is stronger, there are a lot of talented people working. When I'm working on a collection, I call it 'panic time.' Fear, panic is what makes me do what I do... I always think that things that have happened to me in life have been at the right time, and I've just been unbelievable extremely lucky. I've had this feeling of luck always on my side. 

On dressing a woman today:
There has never been a time as exciting as now to dress a woman. When I started my career, we were creating clothes for a very small segment of the population. Today, there is no question that the most important consumer is a professional woman. There has never been, in the history of time, a woman as in control of her destiny as a woman today. That certainly makes our work far more difficult and certainly more challenging, but at the same time, far more exciting. What's important to the woman is no longer what label she is wearing, but that what's she's wearing is how she represents herself. She's dressing for herself. 

On dressing notables like Jacqueline Kennedy and Wallis, Duchess of Windsor:
Those are not the important customers. The important customer is the woman who wants to buy your clothes, who falls in love with what you do. It's creating things that the woman identifies with and falls in love with.

On social media and Twitter's OscarPRGirl:
There are so many ways of reaching the consumer today which are so important. And through the internet we are able to reach a vast group we could not reach before. 

On his first time at the White House:
I always have this complex, because coming from the part of the world that I come from, I am very conscious of how I dress. I am sometimes envious when I see men wear a colorful, flowery shirt, and I always feel that if I wear the same shirt, the [White House] staff would say 'the Latin band comes in through that door.' 

His advice to aspiring designers:
Believe strongly in what you're doing, understand who your consumer is, do your very best, and work hard. Don't follow any fads. A woman's body hasn't changed. Waist is at the same place, hips are in the same place. Look at the formula that Coco Chanel invented for herself - it is as valid as it was then, because she was dressing for herself, what suited her lifestyle. Most of the time, dressing yourself well is about telling yourself 'No, I shouldn't do it.' When in doubt, don't. I think that you have to be elegant naked to be elegant dressed. Feeling good about yourself is the most important thing.

Will de la Renta marry my mom? [via Twitter's Kristina Lindsay]
I'm married already. But I have to look at her mom first. 

On why he moved to New York during the height of Paris fashion in 1962:
Something was happening in fashion... Fashion was becoming a global business. We strongly felt - as young designers - that you could create ready-to-wear clothes as exciting, as creative, as wonderful as what you were doing in couture for a very small part of the population. I had a lot of friends working in New York doing extremely well, and it was much closer to home [in Dominican Republic]. I decided it was my time to try New York. And I never left.

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