Legacy can be tangible and intangible. In the case of Oscar de la Renta, it is both, and it is flourishing in a place where young designers begin their careers.
During his 2001 visit to Savannah College of Art and Design’s fashion show to accept the André Leon Talley Lifetime Achievement Award, the designer shared this wisdom for breaking into the industry based on his own start with Cristóbal Balenciaga.
Everyone should seek the opportunity to go somewhere they can work and observe how it happens. - Oscar de la Renta
This is the story of how two industry hopefuls are living that advice and what they learned from hands on experience in Mr. de la Renta’s studio.
A prom dress and a purpose
Nikki Kaia Lee first encountered the tangible aspect of Mr. de la Renta’s legacy as a 14-year-old girl: a beautiful dress the designer chose just for her. This rare gift, which she later wore to prom, was a momento from a special day spent with him in New York. SCAD graduates, whom Nikki met through her mother, a SCAD architecture professor, conspired to bring her to New York as a distraction from cancer treatments. The dream trip grew, and soon insiders like WWD’s Bridget Foley were opening doors to opportunities such as lunch with Mr. de la Renta in his studio.
I was just this girl from Georgia, but to him it didn’t matter where you come from. He treated everyone with such dignity and respect. - Nikki Kaia Lee
Nikki, now 20 and a junior at SCAD double majoring in fashion design and fibers, learned her first lessons from this dress, fitted for her right there in Mr. de la Renta’s atelier. Its lines, the slight variation in color, the way it made her feel. Her cancer long in remission, Nikki has spent the last four summers as a design intern for Oscar de la Renta in New York. Working in all areas of the studio – including stints with design assistants, in the atelier, and with the embellishment designer – has informed Nikki’s design approach and moved her to pursue a career in textiles.
What I took from Oscar’s work was how he formed space around the garment. A lot of his garments, especially eveningwear, were like sculptures. -Nikki Kaia Lee
Needless to say, she eagerly awaits the opening of the exhibition, Oscar de la Renta: His Legendary World of Style at SCAD Museum of Art.
I think people have a preconceived notion about fashion. They think it’s frivolous. But I think that when people see his work in person they will truly understand why it can be an art form. - Nikki Kaia Lee
Thanks to the diligence of her fellow fashion student Sloane Mayberry, who is assisting SCAD Trustee André Leon Talley with the exhibition and corresponding catalogue, the public will have this opportunity.
Young hands help surface Oscar de la Renta classics
This summer, Nikki ran into Sloane in the elevators at Oscar de la Renta. Unbeknownst to her, Sloane was a merchandising and buying intern there. Organizing garments, assigning style numbers, and collecting sketches for the ODLR Spring 2015 fashion show put Sloane’s studies in perspective and conditioned her for the rigorous process of bringing the ODLR exhibit to SCAD MOA.
Learning of her internship at the designer's study and with his archive, Mr. Talley tapped Sloane to work on the exhibition. If her long days in New York didn't drive it home, then her apprenticeship on the exhibition did: fashion may be a glamorous, but it is also arduous. As Mr. Talley told her, “Put your gloves on and get to work.” And she did by taking possession of rarely seen couture gowns belonging to Mr. de la Renta’s wife, assisting with the exhibition’s layout and fitting mannequins to Mr. Talley’s specifications.
This project is like a class in itself. I am learning more than I ever thought I possibly could at such a young age, and in such a short amount of time. - Sloane Mayberry
Pouring over lookbooks and canvassing eBay and Google for custom gowns quickly paid off. Sloane’s trained eye prevented a photo of the wrong white jacket, worn by Laura Bush for the 2005 presidential inauguration, from making it into the exhibition. “It’s the pockets,” she observed. They were square.”
Messrs. de la Renta and Talley have taken Sloane a long way away from being that high school student who didn’t know anyone who attended art school. Now her education, reinforced by proximity to fashion legends, has raised her expectations for her career.
I think my exposure to such influential figures in fashion has changed my career path exponentially. This is the best education for what I want to do. - Sloane Mayberry
Along with the exhibition, these students, two paths indelibly changed, would certainly make Mr. de la Renta proud.