He was a giant in the fashion world, but to Charlotteans who knew him, it was Oscar de la Renta’s gentle charm and grace that captured their hearts as much as his clothes. De la Renta died Monday at age 82.
“In the fashion world there are a lot of smoke and mirrors, and he was really one of the few where there was no smoke and there were no mirrors,” said Laura Vinroot Poole, whose boutique, Capitol, has carried de la Renta for years and has hosted the designer in the store.
“It was the small things, and the real things,” Vinroot Poole said. “He always looked you in the eye, and he always remembered my name. He just made you feel like he noticed you and he remembered you.”
Longtime TV and radio personality Barbara McKay spent time with de la Renta over the years, most memorably one day in the mid-1980s when de la Renta was to appear at a morning taping for her TV talk show and wound up spending the entire day with her.
“When the taping was over, he said, ‘I’ll just stay and watch the show,’ and we did a live interview. I had to be on the radio from 1 to 3 p.m., and he said, ‘I’ll just stay and do radio,’ ” McKay says. “We grabbed lunch to go (between shows) and we spent the day together.
“He loved our city, he loved the South, and he loved the Southern people,” McKay said. “He did clothes for the biggest stars in the world, yet when he was in Charlotte, we talked about everything else – we talked about life, children and dogs and Southern culture.”
Not long after, McKay was on bustling Fifth Avenue in New York City when she spotted a man waving at her from across the street. “It was Oscar,” McKay says. “I was completely out of context, there in New York, but he remembered me.”
McKay says she spent time with de la Renta on several other occasions, even traveling to Atlanta to see him at a Neiman Marcus luncheon given in his honor.
De la Renta made several trips to Charlotte. In the 1980s, Belk hosted him as part of its annual Serenade to Autumn fashion event, which honored high-end designers.
His most recent trip was in 2011, when he appeared at the Mint Museum Auxiliary’s Art of Style gala. After that event, Marianna Sheridan, who co-chaired the gala and the Mint exhibit of Charlotte women’s de la Renta creations, was named de la Renta’s official archivist, a job she still holds.
Curtis Fortner, former general manager for Boyles Furniture in Hickory and Pineville, says he can “still remember what his handshake felt like” when he met de la Renta during High Point Furniture Market in 2002. De la Renta was there to promote his eponymous furniture line.
It was during a cocktail party that Fortner introduced himself to de la Renta, and despite the fact that there was a crowd gathered to meet him, the two sat on a sofa and talked for 30 minutes, Fortner recalls.
“He was so in love with the South and our dialogue,” says Fortner, a Troutman native. “He wanted to know ‘Who is your family? Where are you from?’ He asked a lot of questions,” Fortner says.
“He asked me, ‘What exactly does ‘Bless your heart’ mean?’ ” I said, ‘You should use it carefully, because in the South it means there is no hope for that person.’ ” Fortner laughs. “He slapped me on the arm and howled.
“I left that night thinking, ‘Good Lord, I am so fortunate to have spent time with this man.’ ”