As the Spring 2012 runway shows unfold in New York, younger designers continue to dominate the schedule as the fashion industry experiences its own version of a baby boom. While those designers claim a variety of inspirations, from the California landscape to notions as ethereal as “air” and “action,” one éminence grise has had an outsize influence on the current aesthetics:Oscar de la Renta.
His singular sensibility has informed an entire generation of designers. Its ubiquity in their work is drowning out other voices, blunting fashion’s capacity to empower and equating dressing up with being grown-up.
The elegant and charming 79-year-old has held sway among socially prominent women for decades. Born in the Dominican Republic, the New York–based designer speaks eloquently, using a vocabulary of feminine ruffles, polished silhouettes, joyful colors and embellishments. While he certainly can cut a fine day suit—the likes of which have been particularly favored by Hillary Clinton—he is most highly regarded for his ability to create clothes for the cocktail hour and beyond.
De la Renta has realized inaugural ball gowns for both Laura Bush and Clinton. Jenna Bush was married in one of his creations. And one of his party dresses served as a plot point in the pop-culture juggernaut Sex and the City If de la Renta has a singular skill, it is his ability to make women—both young and old—look their prettiest. And it is this skill—not necessarily his technical expertise or his personal familiarity with how a certain generation and class of women live—that seems to have captured the imagination of his followers.
Younger designers such as Jason Wu, Prabal Gurung, Peter Som, and Zac Posen seem most interested in dressing a kind of rarefied woman, a fashion butterfly who lives an idealized life rather than one filled with hurdles and hard work. She may be accomplished, but her clothes do not speak of power and authority, ease and confidence. Instead, they suggest a woman who wouldn’t quite know what to do if she happened to be caught without an umbrella and a driver in a rainstorm.
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