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First Look: Oscar de la Renta Retrospective at the de Young

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Whether you live and breathe fashion—or don't know the difference between a corset and Cossacks—we suggest you check out the long-anticipated Oscar de la Renta retrospective, which opens tomorrow, March 12th and runs through May 3oth at the de Young (50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive in Golden Gate Park).

Photo: Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco (FAMSF)

Guest curated by Andre Leon Talley, former Vogue editor-at-large, the exhibit is everything the fashion-obsessed would fathom and laymen would love: Sweeping red-carpet looks worn by your favorite celebrities. Glamorous dresses and coats from the 1960s and beyond. Sumptuous fabrics and embellishments so irresistible that it's tempting to throw the museum guards in a tizzy and touch.

The show is a colorful tribute to the Dominican-born designer's life and work, tracing his five-decade career from the late 1950s and early 1960s when he trained at some of the most prominent European fashion houses, through his formative years working for Balmain (and other chic labels) to the creation of his own line and his ultra-feminine, iconic couture.

De la Renta was known for his romantic artistry and workmanship, and during his career he dressed some of the world's most stylish women, from First Ladies and socialites to movie stars and musicians. The retrospective captures more than 130 pieces of that fashion legacy within thoughtfully edited sections that reflect the designer's various creative stages and inspirations.

On display is some of his earliest work for Balenciaga in Madrid and Lanvin in Paris, then for the New York fashion house Jane Derby, which eventually evolved into de la Renta's eponymous label. The outfits are also grouped according to the designer's eclectic interests, which included gardening and European history—€”especially his infatuation with 18th century France and Spain's Golden Age. Whether it's a Russian-inspired, fur-trimmed brocaded gown, a botanical-print day dress sprinkled with delicate flowers, or a fiery flamenco skirt with tiered ruffles that harkens back to de la Renta's Latin roots, every ensemble is in line with one of his passions.

"When you're in the exhibition, you feel Oscar all around you," said Diane B. Wilsey, a devoted client and friend of de la Renta's, during a special media preview of the exhibition. "Oscar always wanted to make all women—no matter their shape, size or color—€”feel beautiful. That was the secret to his success."

Leon Talley, who had been asked by the de la Renta family to curate the show, collaborated for more than a year with fashion historians Molly Sorkin and Jennifer Park. "It's been a labor of love," Talley said of the experience, which included traveling to Spain to trace the designer's roots and culling pieces from various museums around the world, including the MoMA in New York and the Kent State University Museum in Ohio, as well as from the private collections of the designer's most loyal patrons, including actress Sarah Jessica Parker.

Some of the most drool-worthy pieces come from those celebrity wardrobes. Like a white silk faille gown with red rose appliqués worn on the red carpet by Rhianna, or the pale-blue silk tulle number that once clung to Amy Adams' curves. Other treasures include an emerald green taffeta ball dress rocked by Nicki Minaj, a pleated silver lamé gown worn by Jessica Chastain but worthy of Cleopatra, and an elegant pink gown with a sweeping train that showed Taylor Swift's fans her more sophisticated side.

But some of the exhibit's most intriguing looks come straight from the closet of de la Renta's second wife, Annette, for whom he made a one-of-a-kind piece every year. One of her go-to outfits, said Talley, was a rose-adorned black lace dress that she wore over and over again. "When Oscar made a dress he always said to himself, ‘Would my wife love it? Would Annette wear this?' He had total respect for his clients, and although his clothes are opulent, with wonderful textures and details, above everything else he wanted to make clothes that made women happy."

At the moment, Talley's favorite ensemble on display is a black bolero paired with a raffia-lace skirt from the designer's spring 1995 collection. But really, he is in love with everything in the show. And why shouldn't he be? Talley himself had been a close friend and admirer of Oscar's from the mid-1970s, when Talley began his career as a fashion editor, until the designer's death in 2014.

"He was a kind and generous man with impeccable manners and a charming, glamorous personality," said Talley, who choked up as he recalled his budding friendship with Oscar. "When I was in his presence he made me stand taller. I looked up to him as a great source of inspiration."

When you've been sufficiently inspired by the dresses in the exhibit, stop by the gift shop to pick up an Oscar trinket, such as a gorgeous exhibition catalog or a House of de la Renta coloring book.

The Oscar de la Renta retrospective runs May 12th through May 30th at the de Young.