Oscar de la Renta, born Óscar Arístides Renta Fiallo in 1932, migrated to Madrid, Spain, from his home in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, at age 19. While studying art at the Academy of San Fernando, de la Renta sketched clothing for fashion houses and newspapers. The wife of the U.S. ambassador to Spain was impressed with his drawings, and in 1956, asked him to design a dress for her daughter’s debutante ball. The daughter, wearing his dress, was featured on the cover of “LIFE” magazine.
Quickly, he was hired by prestigious Madrid designer Cristobal Balenciaga to draw dress concepts for clients. While de la Renta considered Balenciaga his mentor, he had his sights on bigger things: the Paris fashion world. He left Madrid for Paris in 1961, where he was offered a gig working for Christian Dior on the spot.
But Antonio del Castillo, the head designer at Lanvin, offered de la Renta better pay to become his assistant. In 1963, de la Renta decided he was interested in designing ready-to-wear than haute couture, so “Vogue” editor Diana Vreeland advised him to go to Elizabeth Arden in New York—who then put out a couture line. In 1965, he left Arden to work at Jane Derby’s Seventh Avenue studio. When Derby died later that year, he took over the company and relaunched the high-end ready-to-wear brand under his own name.
That same decade, de la Renta catapulted into international fame by becoming one of the designers who dressed First Lady Jackie Kennedy, who was known for her exquisite, refined taste for haute couture fashion. In 1967 and 1968, he received Coty Awards, an honor bestowed by a jury of fashion editors, for his influence on style, and by 1973, they listed him in the Coty Hall of Fame.
During his career, de la Renta became associated with styling glamorous celebrities for the red carpet and dressing socialites and first ladies. He shaped our idea of what a president’s wife should look like, nudging them to wear contemporary off-the-rack looks when they weren’t striding in stately gowns. He formed close relationships with Nancy Reagan and Hillary Clinton, whom he first put in her iconic pantsuit. He designed Laura Bush’s inauguration gown, as well as a wedding dress for her daughter, Jenna. While Michelle Obama has been influenced by his restrained, pretty First Lady style, it wasn’t until 2014 that she first appeared in one of his elegant designs.
De la Renta first showed his clothing at the Paris Fashion Week in the 1990s: He presented three ready-to-wear collections in 1991 and 1992, before he showed a haute couture line for Paris fashion house Pierre Balmain. De la Renta continued to work until he passed away in 2014 at age 82.