NEW YORK, United States — What a strange and unforgettable moment it was last night when my partner and I, returning home from dinner, turned off Park Avenue onto Madison at 68th Street. Passing the Oscar de la Renta boutique, he checked his phone and at that exact moment told me that Oscar had died.
As a child of the 1970s who dreamed of one day moving to New York to pursue a career in fashion, for me there was a trinity of American designers that represented a bastion of luxury that no longer exists: Bill Blass, Carolina Herrera and Oscar de la Renta. They dressed the last swans of New York, the ladies who lunched, the people who appeared on the world’s best dressed lists.
It would be more than 25 years until I finally met Oscar de la Renta. Nervously awaiting our first introduction, I wore my best suit, but the day was particularly hot and I took off my jacket. When I was brought to meet him, I realised I had forgotten to put it back on. I was escorted to his office and introduced. Oscar lowered his newspaper, looked me up and down — twice, a second time at my shoes — and went back to his paper, saying nothing. This was not the meeting I had envisioned. There was a reason the girls used to call him “Oscar pay my Renta!” and I resigned myself to thinking the same. I would experience great generosity from him later on, but at the time, despite my boyhood fantasy, Oscar was not here to be my friend.
Elegant chaos is about the best way I can describe the experience of fittings at Oscar de la Renta. Four fittings could take place at once. The girls would walk in, be dressed and accessorised within minutes and then paraded with lightning speed in front of Oscar all at once. In his heavy Latin accent there would be either a “non” and you would be sent back to try another, or “okay” and you went on to the next. During this process there would also be music meetings, merchandising discussions, production fittings and castings, as well as visits from Anna Wintour and sneak previews for Grace Coddington. André Leon Talley would drop in to add his two cents while Loulou de la Falaise would be adding more jewellery to a look, and, unbeknownst to all of us, Hillary Clinton would be fitting on another floor for a public event.
Oscar never missed a beat during all of this. I remember how beautiful his hands were; I could be mesmerised watching him make a quick tug to perfect a skirt or run those hands up the bodice of an evening gown while inspecting every button and jewel that went on each outfit. When he was happy during fittings he would sing (usually Julio Iglesias) to the girls — especially to Karlie Kloss. During one of these many chaotic moments, we were casting and a model I felt very strongly about was not showing enough confidence to catch Oscar’s gaze. I was kept in a separate room away from the action, so I asked his showroom model, who has one of the best walks in the business, to help her out. When she still could not grab his attention, I burst into the room and walked for her. Oscar lifted his head and asked, “Who are you?” Alex Bolen replied, “Oscar, this is James. He’s casting our show.” “Well James,” Oscar said, “You need to move into this room, you walk very well.” A few mornings later at our last show fitting, Oscar was in the room and asked, “Where is that boy?” “What boy,” Alex asked? “The boy who walks,” said Oscar (‘the boy who walks’ would become my moniker there) “James?” Alex replied, “He’s right behind you.” Oscar gasped, then turned to me and said, “I may not remember your name but I like you and you are very elegant.” If there was ever a moment at which I felt like I had finally arrived, this was it. The most elegant man in the world telling me I was elegant. I could have left the business that day. I’d had my breakthrough! Oscar liked me! My boyhood fantasy had come true.
For some time, it was neither common knowledge nor a complete secret that Oscar was ill. Though he was, he showed no clear signs. Show seasons came and went, each time with Oscar vibrant, still impeccable, sharing the daily gossip with everyone, and singing to his favourite models. He was of the school that believes one should never bring one’s problems to work, and said he would never retire. He could only be happy doing what he loved best every day.
My own part in this happy existence came to an end. My brother’s own battle with cancer started during this time and, unlike Oscar, I did not have the grace to stop this event from unravelling and spilling into every facet of my own life, so I made the decision to cut back on clients to help my family care for him. Though I had not announced I would be leaving, Oscar knew. One morning he asked me into his office. As I entered, he stood there for a brief moment. His eyes welled up with tears and he said, “I understand.” He hugged me and that was the end. So many things ended that day, including the dream of a plain boy from New Jersey who only wanted a glimpse of a life that was out of reach. More than anything, I will never forget that moment or his kindness for the rest of my life.
Oscar, you taught me that elegance is not only in how one lives, behaves and presents themselves to the world — all of which you did magnificently — but also in the simplest gesture possible, and that was worth the brief but magical journey you gave me.
James Scully is a casting director based in New York.
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