All the trappings of the big fashion show were there: models, music, and lots and lots of people. But to one of the world's most famous designers, all that fuss was invisible. When it was time for the models to hit the runway to present his next collection at New York Fashion Week, the only thing Oscar de la Renta saw was the clothes.
Watching the legendary 79-year-old backstage Tuesday night as he prepped the models moments before sending them down the runway, it was clear that de la Renta is virtually immune to the circus and hype that accompanies New York Fashion Week, the twice-annual previews of designer clothing. Never mind the hundreds of tastemakers in the audience from around the world, from buyers and journalists to celebrities and loyal customers, a group that on this night included Vogue editor Anna Wintour, a close friend. Never mind the scores of assistants backstage trying to carry out his vision. For de la Renta, despite decades in the business, each show commands his total attention as a personal unveiling of a labor of love.
For the 15 minutes it took to parade his fall collection on the catwalk, with a reporter from The Associated Press observing by his side, de la Renta sat on a plain stool just out of sight from the crowd, carefully examining each look and speaking to no one. It's a process he's gone through literally hundreds of times _ with two, three or sometimes four fashion shows a year _ since launching his label in 1965. But it never gets old.
"Oh my goodness, show day is not like any other day," de la Renta said an hour before the lights went up. "Regardless of how good or bad a collection might be, it's a letdown after the show is over. It's done. Something you've worked on for months is just over. It's like a wedding day, but at least then you get the wedding night."
He added: "This is a part of you."
He checked the music, tapping his toe to "Maniac" from "Flashdance," and greeted familiar faces popping in pre-show, from his wife Annette to Bergdorf Goodman CEO Jim Gold to stylist Rachel Zoe, who showed de la Renta photos of her baby on her phone. Throughout it all, he was a vision of calm, with no last-minute changes, no barking of orders. The backstage swarm included dressers, makeup artists and publicists, and he seemed to know them all by name as he nodded approvingly at their work. But he also said the buck stops with him.
"I check every look sitting here. They'll tell me to let her (a model) go, but I see everything, every hair out of place or thread that is hanging," he said. "I have to be sure it's coming out the way I envisioned it."
At Tuesday's show, he gently held the arm of each model until he was ready for her to start moving _ in spite of producers telling her to hurry up. He fluffed the tiers of a gown on its way out. And he sent the last model, Arizona Muse, to join the others in the group lineup that ends every preview even though she was a few beats behind the others. The handlers had told her she wasn't going to make it in time for the carefully paced finale parade of all the outfits, and some yelled at her to stop. But de la Renta signaled go, and despite being out of step, she ended up with a few extra moments in the spotlight to show off a frothy silver gown.
The audience couldn't tell whether the delay was a glitch or for effect, but when the applause started as she stepped onto the catwalk, de la Renta smiled. He followed, going out for his bow _ actually a quick wave _ mouthing "Thank you, thank you."
At most shows, security guards usually swoop in at this point, cutting off audience access to designers and their backstage havens. De la Renta, though, lingered near the door, sans entourage, for a quick word with the American Vogue team and flamboyant editor of Japanese Vogue, Anna Della Russo. He watched editors, stylists and retailers make their way to the elevators, giving the occasional handshake or peck on the cheek.
Another show was over, and it's hard to tell if it's his years of experience or personality that allowed him to take it all in stride. Not that other designers are crazed egomaniacs. The process of putting on a fashion show, especially from the inside, is far more professional than Twitter photos and reality shows might suggest.
But even with someone as sunny as Michael Kors, a success story with his recent IPO and celebrity as a "Project Runway" judge, or a creature of California cool like Johnstone Hartig of Libertine, a label that retools vintage designer pieces, frantic backstage moments are not uncommon. Kors' crew on Wednesday morning managed a long line of interviews and well-wishers. There was no way he could peek out at the crowd before his show without causing a frenzy. And Hartig spent the moments before his first model stepped out switching shoes and giving last-minute instructions, adjusting a catwalker's hat and mussing up another's hair; he seemed to have nervous energy to burn.
De la Renta, in contrast, did nothing more than a little pacing before settling into his stool for the show. He seemed to have no second thoughts. He was just excited to get it over with while simultaneously savoring it. He still loves to see it all come together when the models line up, put their smiles on and step out into the spotlights.
"Tomorrow I start the new collection. Really, it started yesterday when I had to decide the colors of next season," de la Renta said. "And then this is a memory. I won't remember this collection. You can ask me in a few days about the blue dress and I'll ask you, `What blue dress?'"