Oscar de la Renta has charmed legions of ladies into his fabulous clothes by charming their socks off. The man has it.
Tall, tanned and gracious, the designer sipped a cup of morning chocolate in the cushy surroundings of one of Georgetown's fine hostelries. He was to be honored at flag-raising ceremonies at Washington's Dominican Embassy before doing the honors at a spritz-and-sign guest appearance in Hecht's fragrance department. It was April 30 and the 17th stop in an 18-city national tour to promote his new fragrance, Volupte. He was elegantly rushed but sparkling and attentive.
That attention to detail and refinement has won him a loyal following of expensive dressers, top honors among his colleagues, friends in high places and a fashion empire that turns some $600 million annually.
He understands clothes, and he understands women -- a magic mix of talents.
"My clothes, as you well know, are expensive, and so I sell to a very select segment of affluent women. But remember, today's woman is different. She no longer has to go to the husband and ask permission to buy a dress. She buys clothes in her own right. When I started my business in 1965, probably 90 percent of my customers were women of leisure -- women who didn't work, who had rich husbands. Their only occupation every day was to get dressed and go to lunch with their friends. Today that kind of woman is virtually non-existent; she's a dying species.
"Today every woman works. She might not work for money, but she's a doer. If you want to be part of this world we live in you have to have an active part in it.
"The clothes this woman needs are very different. They have to be versatile and beautiful. She also wants clothes that have multiple purposes through many seasons."
The de la Renta collection for fall showed beautifully orchestrated suits and dresses with all elements in key. He shows the artistry; he talks reality.
"Women today build a wardrobe by adding and discarding. People are talking about longer skirts. In traveling the country, I go to cities where women have never worn short skirts. There have always been choices.
"What is important in the way we dress is a search for identity and a projection of who we are. Today a woman creates her own look. In the old times women went to a designer and ordered a suit and the hat and the gloves. Today she may choose a jacket from me and skirt from somebody else. It's an approach to fashion that is more interesting, perhaps much healthier. It gives a designer's clothes another life."
Although the Oscar de la Renta name is an American label, the designer is known for his international style. He believes that beautiful clothes have a universal language. "I no longer recognize the nationality of a woman from the way she's dressed. Professional women around the world dress the same way because their needs are the same.
"Fashion news, like other news, travels instantly. Whatever happens in Tokyo is known right away. If you read and are interested, you know the fashion story. There is no such thing as the American or European woman, although the French would love to believe that they dress better than everybody else. But that is the way the French like to think, that they are better at everything."
A wry observation from the first America-based designer to show his collection in Paris. He was a success. "They could not have been more welcoming. Paris is the undisputed international fashion capital of the world. In New York we have the Americans, in Milan the Italians. In Paris you have Italians, French, Germans, English, Japanese and now Americans because of me."
He didn't make waves in Paris, but did send elegant ripples through the European marketplace. Other designers, who marched aggressive street looks and rebellion on their runways, captured more attention.
"I understand the trends that have influenced other designers, and you see them in magazines. Where do these clothes go? I don't go to any places where I see women in chains and boots and black S&M leather.
"That is the danger of a show in Paris. The biggest problem for me is that I have to be realistic. I can make clothes that will make the press go wild, but I have to remember that I am in this business to sell clothes, not to impress the press.
"In that sense, I am not a trendy designer. I dress a woman who has a very strong sense of herself, who only wants suggestions on what to wear."
That may hold true for the ladies who buy Oscar, but other women who fumble their way around style want advice. They want the guidelines that will lead them to fashion.
"First of all, never, ever become a victim of fashion. Always wear what you feel the most at ease and comfortable with. Buy only what suits you. If you don't want to wear short skirts because you have knobby knees, don't wear short skirts.
"I always say, 'To be well-dressed, you have to be well-naked.' I like people who are well-groomed. I like a woman who cares for herself, coifs herself, who makes up.