I’ve had the privilege of hearing designers philosophize about fashion for over a quarter of a century now. But it’s when they philosophize about life that I’m really moved, remembering what it is that drives them. Deep in conversation with Oscar de la Renta at The Bay last week, I again savoured the realization that far beyond their love of women, it’s passion for life and compassion for the human condition that’s at the heart of every great creator. Perhaps it was De la Renta’s health scare earlier this year that’s made him so reflective about the bigger picture: The 79-year-old legend was diagnosed with cancer, but is now cancer-free. So what could be more life affirming than reaching out to the legions of women who adore him, and giving them a new piece of his dream? “Live in Love” is the name of de la Renta’s new fragrance, a beautiful green scent based on some of the flowers he grows in own gardens.
Born in the Dominican Republic, De la Renta took off for Spain at the tender age of 18 to study painting, but soon began apprenticing with Cristobal Balenciaga. He then moved to Paris, where he worked as a couture assistant at the house of Lanvin, before moving to New York in the early ‘60s to work for Elizabeth Arden. In 1965, he started his own label. The rest is American fashion history, with De la Renta consistently thrilling women with his profound sense of elegance and luxurious approach to modern, feminine dressing. I’ve interviewed De la Renta countless times over the years. But there was something about our conversation this ‘go round that especially touched me. Maybe it was because it had nothing to do with the style of his dresses, but rather, the style of his life.
Jeanne: We’re living in an age in which the older we get, the more productive we can become if we choose to. And you’re an example of that.
Oscar: Well we have to. I keep repeating this and I sound like an old record. But the other day I was talking to my doctor about a friend of ours who retired, and the way his life has changed so much. And my doctor something to me that I keep repeating every single day. He said, “When you rest, you rust.”
Jeanne: That’s going to be my new mantra!
Oscar: And it’s true.
Jeanne: And how many times have we heard that when people finally do “retire”, they just drop dead, because they loose their raison d’être.
Oscar: Absolutely. Like the friend we were talking about, who was very active. And then all of a sudden, he just got so old so fast.
Jeanne: I guess we just have to pray to the powers-that-be everyday to have the strength and energy to keep on going. It’s not always easy.
Oscar: But you do have the energy. Sometimes our body doesn’t let us do as much as we want to do. I understand that there are time limitations. But I think when you’re working with your brain…. You know, I think I’m doing today far much better work than I did twenty, thirty, forty years ago—for the very simple reason that I know more, I have seen more, I have learned more, I have observed more. There is a whole well of knowledge that I have today that I did not have when I originally started. And especially today, there is so much access to quick learning. That didn’t exist back then. You want to know about whatever, so you take your iPad or your computer and you type in the word and you have instant knowledge. People used to say, “When I have time, I’ll find out.” Now you can find out right away. And there’s another phrase that I remember, too. Brooke Astor, the New York socialite, who was really an extraordinary lady even in her ‘90s, always said that her mother told her, “Brooke, don’t die guessing!” You know, so often, we guess. But we don’t need to guess anymore. Because we have the tools to find out.
Jeanne: But there are still some things in life that I think should remain a mystery.
Oscar: Well, we want to project mystery because there is magic about mystery. Yes, I think that mystery is a fantastic word. If I tell you there is a mystery about something, you want to know what the mystery is.
Jeanne: It’s very seductive.
Oscar: It’s a very seductive word.
Jeanne: And speaking of seduction, this wonderful new fragrance that you’ve concocted, “Live in Love”. The name alone is such a beautiful sentiment, and really speaks of your whole passion for living. Why did you feel that this was the spirit that you wanted to evoke?
Oscar: Obviously the most important part of the fragrance is the juice itself. But then you want to put that into a beautiful bottle, and then you want to have a great name for it, because a name has a message as to what you want that fragrance to be. At the very end, I think the true success of the fragrance is when you’re no longer buying it because you like the bottle or you like the packaging, but because it is you. It’s part of your personality. It projects who you are as an individual. Nevertheless, there is something mysterious and magical about the name. And sometimes, it comes from a place that you least expect you’re going to find it. I have this wonderful Italian man that works with me, and he worked for ten years at Dior and ten years at Chanel. And he’s been working with me now for about four years. He’s a great guy, very talented…. He runs all the sample rooms. And we were working in the middle of the summer and he had his sleeve rolled up. And we were working on this fragrance, and playing with different names. It’s difficult because every single name you can think of has already been registered. And this guy had this tattoo on his arm and the tattoo said ‘Live in Love’. And I said, “Oh, my goodness! What a wonderful name! But I’m sure it must have been registered a thousand times, because it’s such an obvious name for a fragrance.” So I thought, forget it. It’s been registered. Well, as it turned out, it hadn’t been registered, and we were able to use it after all! You know happiness has nothing to do with wealth. It has to do with your spirit. And you have to discover that spirit to discover happiness. And it’s often the very obvious, something that had always been in front of your eyes, that you hadn’t discovered. I said, “My goodness! What an extraordinary name! Why didn’t anyone every think of calling a fragrance “Live in Love” before? After all, it’s the way we all so strongly aspire to live life, to live in love—loving what surrounds you, loving your life, loving what you’ve made of your life, loving the moment, loving the time…
Jeanne: We keep hearing about people looking for love, because so many people feel that if we find the right person to love, our life will be complete. Or if we find the right person that’s going to love us, our life will be complete. But you’re suggesting that it’s so much more. Love can be around us in many different ways.
Oscar: I am always in love, but first of all, love starts with yourself. You cannot love someone if you cannot love yourself. Because love is about how you live your life. You cannot be madly in love with someone if you are unhappy with yourself. Then it is not a happy love. It’s all about having this extraordinary great communion with this fantastic universe.
Jeanne: Was that the way you grew up your whole life, or was there a point where you really had that realization?
Oscar: Now. You know, I always say that what is exciting about life is that everyday, there is a learning process. For example, I think that I do much better work now than ever before. Forty years ago, I didn’t have the understanding of who that woman that I was dressing was. Now for me, it’s about the passion of understanding my consumer. What’s happened to women’s lives in the last forty years is miraculous! I mean, think of yourself and all you have achieved in your life and think of women fifty years ago. They may have had the same dreams and aspirations, but almost never got to fulfill them. Today, it’s all there for you. Also, in terms of my work—you can’t imagine what torture it is to make a collection. The passion is there, but there’s so much doubt that’s part of the creative process, it’s like a nightmare. You have to prove yourself every time…
Jeanne: But the fact that you want to subject yourself to that is what I find so miraculous and wonderful.
Oscar: But that is the curiosity of life. That’s the curiosity about living, and the curiosity about learning. I always say that the day that I say I know it all, that day I should stop.
Jeanne: I asked my Twitter followers what they’d like me to ask you, and everybody seemed so excited—you’re such a legend in their eyes. But some of the questions that I found most interesting were the ones that asked how you manage to keep yourself so relevant to a younger generation.
Oscar: I suppose it has to do a lot with my passion for what I do. And it has to do a lot with my sense of curiosity. What’s exciting about life is learning: It’s that curious moment of trying to look for something and then thinking that you have found it. It’s about what tomorrow’s going to bring. That’s what’s wonderful. It’s the mystery of not knowing but being there to grasp that mystery and make it a reality and make it part of your life.
Jeanne: You’re a philosopher too! Who knew? Thank you so much for coming to Toronto and for creating this new scent.
Oscar: You know, the other day I was having a horrible time with someone, and I came to the conclusion that actually the biggest luxury in life has nothing to do with money and wealth. The biggest luxury in life is to be able to say what you want to say, when you want to say it. And I want to say how happy I am to know you, because it’s been…well, we don’t want to say how many years! (laughs) But I knew that I was coming to Toronto and that I was going to see you. And that made me happy. And at the end, that is what life is all about.