WASHINGTON - For America's first ladies, Oscar de la Renta was more than just a skilled artist who helped give them a dose of confidence whenever they slipped into his dresses, beaded gowns and pantsuits. He was also a friend to some of them.
From the teal pantsuit Hillary Rodham Clinton wore when she was sworn in as a U.S. senator to a red gown for Nancy Reagan to a grey suit still hanging in Laura Bush's closet, de la Renta endeared himself to some of the most scrutinized women in the world, A-list celebrities and first ladies alike, by developing a keen sense of what they wanted and needed out of their clothes. De la Renta died late Monday at age 82.
Laura Bush and former President George W. Bush mourned the "loss of our dear friend."
Clinton said her entire family, including former President Bill Clinton and daughter Chelsea Clinton and her husband, Marc Mezvinsky, would miss the designer's "warmth and friendship." The family's statement recalled many happy times shared with de la Renta and his widow, Annette, "especially those spent in his beloved Dominican Republic."
Nancy Reagan said de la Renta was a "fashion legend" as well as her friend of nearly 50 years.
"They knew he understood them, made them feel comfortable," said Anita McBride, who was Laura Bush's chief of staff in the White House. "Mrs. Bush always said he knew what women needed to look and feel beautiful."
Michelle Obama, for her part, preferred the work of up-and-coming designers and chose the then-unknown Jason Wu to design both of her inaugural ball gowns. It took years for her to wear more established designers, such as Carolina Herrera and de la Renta. He had criticized her several years earlier for not wearing an American label to a 2011 state dinner for the president of China.
Less than two weeks before the famed designer's death, Mrs. Obama donned a de la Renta design for the first time in her nearly six years as first lady. She wore the sleeveless black dress, with royal blue and gold appliques from neckline to hemline, at a reception that followed a fashion education workshop she held for design students at the White House.
"Oscar de la Renta was a pioneer and a visionary who helped generations of women embrace their most beautiful, confident selves," she said Tuesday.
Besides first ladies, de la Renta clothed their daughters, too.
Jenna Bush chose him to design her 2008 wedding gown. He also did the turquoise mother-of-the bride dress worn by Laura Bush. Chelsea Clinton also wore de la Renta's fashions. Many of his designs were recently on display as part of an Oscar de la Renta exhibit first showcased at the Clinton presidential library in Arkansas, before it went to the Bush library in Dallas.
Sheila Tate, who served as Nancy Reagan's White House press secretary, said the former first lady thought de la Renta "brought beauty and elegance to everything he touched." She cared about him personally and would go out of her way to see him whenever she was in New York City, Tate said.
"He was discreet and respectful and trustworthy and, when you couple that with his innate talent and the ability to design for a specific person and personalities, it's a winning combination," Tate said.
Laura Bush says "you can wear Oscar's clothes over and over, and I have." A grey cashmere skirt suit with matching coat that she wore on her husband's first trip to Japan as president became her ensemble of choice years later when she attended Barack Obama's inauguration in January 2009.
"It's still in my closet and I plan to wear it again," she says in a video introduction to the de la Renta exhibit.
Laura Bush de la Renta video: http://www.bushcenter.org/special/oscar-de-la-renta-five-decades-style
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