Whenever anyone wears Oscar, they say it’s like they know him. There seems to be the connection with the man; his presence is apparent in every stitch.” Fernando Garcia, the 31-year-old co-creative director of Oscar de la Renta is explaining the legacy that he and his design partner, Laura Kim, inherited following the passing of Mr de la Renta in October 2014. “And that’s the fun-ness of the clothes,” Fernando continues of his mentor’s DNA, “People feel proud when they wear Oscar.”
Adored for an aesthetic that Laura describes as “feminine, beautiful colours, embroideries – it’s polished,” the inimitable Oscar de la Renta magic comes from an extra wink that Oscar, who founded the business in 1965, would bestow on his creations. “There’s a bit of fun in the clothes,” Laura smiles.
That playfulness is something that Laura and Fernando are devoted to continuing, in both their designs for Oscar and the atmosphere of the atelier. “He was a really fun person. I try to keep work fun,” Laura says with a sense of mischievousness that pervades the banter she exchanges with Fernando.
The pair’s history with the house they now helm is indeed storied. Laura joined Oscar de la Renta as a graduate in 2004, rising to become design director. In 2009, Oscar brought Fernando, an architecture graduate and fellow Dominican, on board as an intern; Fernando had progressed to senior designer at the time of Mr de la Renta’s passing at the age of 82. “In hindsight, I was 21 and didn’t have a fashion degree. He made time to hear what I thought about the dress that he just designed. Looking back, I can’t believe he did that. It says so much about him,” Fernando recalls. Laura adds, “One of the things I learned from him was that he really listened to everyone. He’ll disagree with you all the time but he’ll still listen to you. He really cared about being the best.”
Following on from his 2006 diagnosis with cancer, the British designer Peter Copping was appointed Mr de la Renta’s successor, taking over on the day of Oscar’s funeral. Around this time Laura and Fernando decided to part ways with the house, striking out on their own to launch contemporary brand Monse, whose luxury riffs on deconstructed shirting quickly became a street style phenomenon. In parallel, Laura was hired by rival house Carolina Herrera. However, when Peter Copping resigned from Oscar de la Renta after just 21 months, the pair were lured back to their original home, as co-creative directors. A lawsuit from the Herrera camp followed, claiming that Laura had breached a non-compete contract, but was eventually settled, allowing the duo to debut their autumn/winter 2017 collection for Oscar de la Renta as co-creative directors, while continuing to helm Monse, dividing their days between the two labels. They make this dual responsibility work, they say, thanks to, “Two incredible teams that we torture every day. The trust of the CEOs is paramount and they knew each other before Monse started,” Fernando explains. So, no corporate jealousy? “Oh, they get jealous but they are nice about it,” he laughs, adding, “We are very lucky in that we have two brands where we can massage our creativity in two different ways. We have a little bit more experimentation happening at Monse. At Oscar, it’s about polishing that DNA that he built.”
Their CEO at Oscar de la Renta is Alex Bolen, Mr de la Renta’s son-in-law. “We feel a great deal of responsibility, given that we worked with him,” Fernando says of continuing the legacy they witnessed being built by Mr de la Renta, “We have a tremendous amount of respect for the family and want to make sure his name continues on in a youthful and strong way.”
That youthfulness is almost predetermined by Laura and Fernando’s millennial credentials. “We have subconsciously designed clothes that look good on Instagram and that’s just because we’re millennials, we grew up with that frame of mind,” Fernando explains. “Sometimes we’re looking at things with our eyes but then we’ll take a picture and look at it through a picture,” Laura adds.
The pair’s sixth sense for what translates to pixels was apparent at Monse from the get go, when its deconstructed aesthetic infiltrated
the street style echelons overnight. “Our clothes at Monse have a lot of impact. The stripes, the way we cut things, they’re all visually strong.
It photographs really well. That’s how we’ve grown up in the digital world. It’s instinctive,” Fernando says.
Their challenge is to now inject the legacy house of Oscar de la Renta with that sense of youthfulness without alienating a core consumer who expects a more traditional offering. “The lady who lunches is no longer the customer,” Fernando says, recognising the transition of Oscar de la Renta’s customer base, with whom the designer shared a personal relationship. “She was originally his customer and he would lunch with them,” Fernando explains. Today, the pair believe that the customer is a working woman with a diary full of events to attend who wants to look both polished and modern. “Fashion has changed so much in the last 15 years. Lots has happened in the fashion industry and the economic landscape of the world,” he adds.
It’s here that the two designers’ individual approaches find common ground for today’s multifaceted consumer. Laura’s starting point is wearability. “Because I’m a woman, I want to make sure it has Oscar’s DNA but I can wear it,” she explains. “I want people to feel like they’re buying something new instead of an old Oscar dress. It has to be relevant to today. That’s my goal.” While Fernando is the more obvious heir to Oscar’s sense of glamour and femininity, “I enjoy the fantasy element of fashion,” he agrees, adding, “I’ve figured out what Laura and I contribute to the collection. She’s a realist, she wants to wear what she designs. I’m more of an optimist, it has to be fun and feminine.”
This innate conflict makes for a fiery working atmosphere, something that Oscar himself encouraged and welcomed. “I prefer to have a work environment that is full of people that challenge you. That’s something we also learned from him,” Fernando says. Do the pair ever agree? “No,” they chant in unison. Their views clash “every day” Laura adds. “We push every idea we have so that both ideals are met,” Fernando explains. A case in point is the dress Laura is wearing: embroidered at the front in line with Fernando’s vision, the back is pragmatically plain to suit Laura’s reasoning; it keeps the cost down, enables the wearer to sit more comfortably and because, “you actually look fat when you embroider all the way around,” Laura laughs. Oscar welcomed this interplay of ideas, even when the pair argued with him, which they did on a daily basis. “He wouldn’t have hired us had we been exactly like him,” Fernando says, “we don’t just sit back.”
White cape gown, Dhs17,212, Oscar de la Renta’s Ramadan collection
“One of the best things I remember was Fernando telling Oscar, ‘Oscar, that doesn’t look ‘Oscar’,’” Laura recalls, “And he’s like, ‘What is ‘Oscar’?’” What indeed. “You can’t put it into words,” Fernando shrugs. As for the look in question, “We ‘Oscar’-ised it,” Fernando smiles. “There was so much argument all day long,” Laura recalls.
Their boss, CEO Alex Bolen, clearly relishes this combat and the thought-through, or fought-through, outcomes it delivers. “Oscar was actually very open minded. He would say, ‘That is the worst idea I have ever heard but I’m dying for you to convince me that I’m wrong.’ I think a great part of Oscar’s success was his openness to other people’s ideas,” Alex says. “Oscar very intentionally organised our office as a family,” he adds, “We fight like cats and dogs, but about the right things, about the important things. The vibe in our office is hugely important to our longer-term mission; we are all dedicated to making our brand the best.”
So what will make Oscar de la Renta, under its new, youthful guard, the best? “We need to be very relevant,” Alex asserts. “Oscar was very relevant to a certain group of customers; we want to be relevant to even more customers. Oscar himself said it’s a fool’s errand to try to be all things to all people, but we should always try to be more things to more people.” This expansion of the Oscar de la Renta remit is clearly being driven by the innate modernity of its creative leads, and it was part of the negotiation for them to rejoin the brand after Peter Copping’s departure. “Super-annoyingly, their condition for coming back is that I would let them make it young,” Alex admits, “I didn’t know exactly what that meant, and they didn’t tell me what that meant, but I think that they’re on a path to that. We live in an industry that is obsessed with youth. I don’t think we’re obsessed with youth, but we are obsessed with relevance. We’re obsessed with currency and feeling like we’re really living in the moment. Again, Oscar was really the one who taught us all that.”
As a brand known for its lavish eveningwear, Laura and Fernando have to steer a course for Oscar de la Renta that satisfies the constantly-evolving definition of what event-wear entails. “‘Eveningwear’ is still valid, it’s just what it means that is changing,” Fernando explains. “We’re educating customers on the versatility of eveningwear. A cocktail dress is what you would traditionally wear at night for events in New York City, now a beautiful blouse can fit the bill. That’s what fashion is, it should never stay the same forever.” The pursuit of modernity is more complex than simply switching a dress for separates, however. “A sense of comfort is key to look modern. If you don’t look comfortable, you don’t look modern,” Fernando states, a view that dovetails into conversations regarding fashion’s role in empowering, rather than objectifying, women. “When you’re comfortable, you’re confident and I feel like that empowers you,” Fernando says. “I don’t know. I think clothes are the fun part of being a woman,” Laura counters, “In fashion, I’m surrounded by so many women, so I never really thought about the whole feminism thing.”
That said, Alex, who is married to Oscar de la Renta’s stepdaughter Eliza Bolen, who also works for the firm, observes, “Laura might say that she doesn’t think about empowerment, she and my wife and all the other women in the office think a lot about confidence. It is something that Oscar always did and taught us, so it comes very naturally to us. If you’re confident, you don’t think about what you’re wearing, you’re thinking about what you’re doing and how you’re living your life. If you’re not confident about what you’re wearing, then the rest of it goes off the rails.”
He has also observed the positive influence of having senior women involved in the decision making process. “Why have we not had
a woman designing the collection forever?” he asks, “It makes such sense. It’s such a great point of view to have Laura thinking about solving problems that are not just aesthetic. It’s as simple as Laura saying ‘no’.”
“She literally says, ‘I don’t want to wear that,’” Fernando chimes in, “It really irritates us sometimes because I have to agree that if I’m designing something that a woman doesn’t want to wear, then I don’t want to make it either.”
As the yin and the yang at the creative heart of the house of Oscar de la Renta, Laura and Fernando complement each other’s drive to make clothes that imbue women with confidence, fulfill their fashion fantasies and always leave a lasting sense of fun. Oscar certainly would