Oscar de la Renta and Alexander Wang—New York fashion’s establishment and new guard—met for the first time this week, at de la Renta’s studio, over Thai takeout. Style.com was there to take notes.
Tonight, Oscar de la Renta will pick up the Founder’s Award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America. It won’t be his first time on the CFDA stage; he’s been in business in New York for half a century, and he invented the Awards, after all. But it’s a big moment nonetheless.
To mark the occasion, Style.com asked him to share his story with a designer on the rise. De la Renta wanted only one man: Alexander Wang, who himself will be competing in two categories that night. Though their paths have been different, they share something unique: Balenciaga. De la Renta got his start in fashion at the storied couturier’s Madrid atelier, and Wang became the label’s creative director late last year. Here, they talk draping, Diana Vreeland, and the New York-Paris commute.
Oscar de la Renta: Where are you from originally, Alex?
Alexander Wang: San Francisco.
ODLR: Do you have any family still in California?
AW: My mom and my dad moved back to Shanghai over twenty years ago.
ODLR: That’s a long time.
AW: I remember the first time I went back to visit her, there were no streetlights, there were no freeways, but every year I’d go back there would be a new shopping mall, a new office building. It was changing leaps and bounds.
ODLR: I haven’t been to China in a long, long time. The very first time I went was with Dr. [Henry] Kissinger. Ahmet and Mica Ertegun were with us, and my wife Annette was there with her then husband. In Beijing we stayed in what they called the Official House. There were no hotels. It was the house where Henry Kissinger had had his official meetings. It was quite an extraordinary experience.
AW: Have you been to China since?
ODLR: I did a Balmain show there probably in 2000, I think. The show was in Beijing, and by then there were some hotels. So how many collections have you done for Balenciaga?
AW: One, officially. I’m about to show my pre-collection in a week. Can you tell us what it was like to work with Cristobal Balenciaga?
ODLR: I was picking up pins from the floor. I never worked with Cristobal Balenciaga in Paris. I worked at Balenciaga in Madrid.
AW: At Eisa?
ODLR: Do you know why the house was called Eisa? Because the first Balenciaga house that opened in Spain went bankrupt, and because of bankruptcy laws he could not ever use the name of Balenciaga again in Spain. It was his mother’s name.
AW: Did you travel to Paris for the shows?
ODLR: No, I stayed at Eisa. After a few years, I asked Balenciaga if I could come to Paris. And he said, “Well, I think you should stay one more year in Madrid.” And probably he was right. But by then I was too anxious to move on. Without telling him, I bought myself a train ticket and went to Paris. I could sketch very well at the time. I don’t sketch so well now. And I arrived in Paris, and I always believed you have to go and knock at the biggest door. Don’t start at the bottom, start at the top. So, I went to Dior. This was the time when YSL had just left Dior. There was that whole big scene that Yves had a nervous breakdown because of the military service, and they were in the process of hiring Marc Bohan. I saw a lady who was running the studio, Madame Marguerite, and she offered me a job. I had been in Paris twenty-four hours, and I already had a job at Dior.
But I met a friend of mine in the street, and he said, “There is a very good friend looking for an assistant.” I told him, “I’ve just been offered a job at Dior that I’ve accepted, but I would love to see him anyway.” Half an hour later, I was in front of Mr. [Antonio del] Castillo, who was then designing the collection for Lanvin. I showed my sketches to him, and he liked them. What is funny about this story is that one of his assistants was leaving because he was friends with Marc Bohan, and he was going to be working with him at Dior. But I didn’t know any of this. So Castillo says, “I like your sketches. I’d like you to work for me.” And I said, “Well, in fact, I’ve already accepted another job.” So he said, “How much are they paying you?” So I made a huge big lie, and I gave them a higher amount.
AW: Did he ask you about your experience? About draping?
ODLR: I had never draped anything. I had seen Balenciaga do it, but had I myself done it? Never. But I said, “Of course, I know how to drape.” As I left Lanvin, I went to the telephone booth and I looked in the yellow pages and I found the biggest ad for a fashion school. It was not the school of the Chambre Syndicale. I went to this lady, I showed her my sketches and said, “I just accepted this job to work at Lanvin, so would you teach me in a month what you teach in a year?” And she said, “I’ll try.” But I never was put to the test.
AW: So after Lanvin you came to New York?
ODLR: Paris was very different then. You could not be a friend of another person working at another house.
AW: Very competitive.
ODLR: Very French. Quite a few assistants like me were at that time discovering New York. They were coming back to Paris, saying how much money they were making. I was making in Paris $300 a month. By then, I had lived ten years away from the Dominican Republic, but I knew I couldn’t go back there to ply my newly acquired trade. I also strongly felt that the future of fashion was ready-to-wear. At that time, most houses in Paris did not take ready-to-wear very seriously. So I came here.
AW: Had you been to New York before?
AW: That’s pretty brave.