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Legendary Designer Oscar de la Renta Donates Collection to Smithsonian Museum - 2003-10-14

One of the world's top fashion designers, Oscar de la Renta appeared September 23, at the Smithsonian's Museum of American History to donate samples of some of his best known outfits to the museum's Costume Collection. The 30,000 piece collection traces the changing appearance of Americans over time. It includes garments worn as early as the 17th century and is one of the Smithsonian's most popular exhibitions. Robin Rupli reports on the newest additions at the Museum of American History, and the man who created them.

Legendary designer Oscar de la Renta sat on the Museum stage, framed by several of his beautiful creations, as an interviewer observed the fashion statements being made in the audience.

"First off, I have been about town to various functions," said the reporter. "This is the best dressed audience I have ever seen in Washington. There must be a reason for this. Someone sitting in the audience said to me that when she was introduced to you, you said to her, 'Thank you for wearing my suit.'"

Oscar de la Renta acknowledges that he does often recognize his work worn by women on the street. But after more than 40 years and thousands of outfits, he says he often forgets some of the individual pieces that he's designed.

"Obviously, if I see a dress, in the case of the lady wearing the suit, I recognize it. But otherwise, from a description, I'll never remember anything. Which is good, because what is important about fashion is today and the immediate future," he said. "And once I finish a collection, which I did last week, what I'm thinking about is the next one."

Oscar de la Renta was born 71 years ago in the Dominican Republic and left as a teenager to study art in Madrid. He supported himself by working as a sketch artist for leading Spanish fashion houses. It was the young man's good fortune that this led to an apprenticeship with Cristobal Balenciaga, then one of the world's most influential designers.

"For me, Balenciaga was god," he recalled. "And he was certainly one of the most important designers of the 20th century. What working in the House did for me was - I never had the opportunity of going to a fashion school - and working at Balenciaga, I had the chance of going into he sample rooms, seeing how clothes were made, seeing Balenciaga fitting those clothes and learning the whole process. Because after all, a sketch is just an idea. It becomes your own, once you take that dress and you fit it."

Oscar de la Renta said you can see Balenciaga's influence on him in his use of elaborate fabrics and embroideries. And he added he was also inspired by his friend, the late Coco Chanel and her ability to create designs that are timeless.

"Why I like Chanel so much, is, I always say, fashion doesn't change every day," he explained. "What changes constantly are the gimmicks of fashion. But when you think of certain formulas, when you think, that Coco Chanel back in 1920 wore a sweater and a pair of pants and that that formula is as valid today as it was then."

The classic Oscar de la Renta designs that are now part of the Smithsonian Costume collection include pieces from the 1970s, as well as his latest work for the House of Balkan in Paris. They include a black and white mid-length "gypsy-style" dress with black suede bodice that was so popular in the 70s; a cherry-red silk dress with shoulder straps and full skirt gathered together with a great big sash and bow; and a sleeveless gold top with gilded feathers and coordinating skirt that was recently featured in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Goddesses exhibit. Mr. De la Renta says Princess Lee Radziwell wore that outfit at the Met's opening of the fashion exhibition honoring her sister, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

"The upper part is done by a house in Paris that only works with feathers and flowers and they do unbelievable work," he said. "The only thing about the dress is that you cannot touch it because the gold comes off in your hands."

Today Oscar de la Renta is as well known for his moderately priced ready-to-wear clothing as he is for his haute couture line, which includes dresses that may sell for tens of thousands of dollars. But the designer says it need not take a lot of money to be stylish. If a woman "avoids gimmicks and dresses to define her personality and project her individuality, he says, whatever she wears is never out of fashion."