Oscar at the Mint: Exhibition captures the glamour and range of de la Renta's designs

Visitors to “The Glamour and Romance of Oscar de la Renta” get a 360-degree view of this cocktail dress – it’s on a rotating mannequin – made from silk gazar (a woven sheer fabric with a matte finish and crisp texture), ostrich feathers, sequins, rhinestones and silk satin.
Visitors to “The Glamour and Romance of Oscar de la Renta” get a 360-degree view of this cocktail dress – it’s on a rotating mannequin – made from silk gazar (a woven sheer fabric with a matte finish and crisp texture), ostrich feathers, sequins, rhinestones and silk satin.

We take in fashion exhibitions differently than any other kind of museum showcase – pausing to imagine how a frock might feel on the body, scrutinizing the construction, and contemplating which (if any) we’d choose for ourselves, given the means.

“The Glamour and Romance of Oscar de la Renta,” which opens to the public April 29 at the Mint Museum on Randolph Road (and runs through July 29) provokes all of these curiosities and more, as it tells the story of one of the most iconic clothiers of modern day.

De la Renta dressed First Ladies, famous actresses and political leaders, and this 47-ensemble retrospective pays homage to his work dating back to pieces from the 1960s through his death in 2014. (There are even pieces created posthumously by his design house, which continues to produce garments today in the style of the fashion icon.)

Beyoncé wore the frothy red organza and taffeta ruffle dress shown here, designed by Oscar de la Renta, in Vogue magazine's March 2013 edition. Khadejeh Nikouyeh

The exhibition was curated by the renowned André Leon Talley, former editor-at-large of American Vogue, who previously brought Oscar de la Renta retrospectives to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and San Francisco’s de Young museum, with the help of New York-based fashion historians Molly Sorkin and Jennifer Park.

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The collection is spread out over four rooms that take visitors through distinct periods of de la Renta’s life.

The first gallery, painted a vibrant gold and decorated with two giant paintings by John Singer Sargent and Konstantine Makovsky, showcases de la Renta’s Spanish influences; he began his career in Spain. It contains several show-stoppers: a red ruffled gown Beyonce wore on the cover of Vogue magazine in March 2013, and a two-piece ensemble Talley proclaimed one of his favorites – a geranium-red voluminous tiered skirt paired with a sapphire blue blouse worn by Mica Ertegun, wife of Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun, for their 40th wedding anniversary.

This pale pink evening dress of silk tulle, which de la Renta designed for luxury French fashion house Pierre Balmain in 1997, sits in a room lined with luscious rose-hued ensembles.

A serene green room, designed to evoke the gardens in de la Renta’s Connecticut estate (a silent video takes you through that vast, lush property), has two gowns that are part of the Mint’s permanent collection. Flowers and romantic, muted color palettes were de la Renta hallmarks, and the dresses here evoke that, from three-dimensional flower embellishments to intricate embroidered foliage designs.

A third room, painted in a deep-blue-glitter hue, is lined with dresses in variations of pink, rose and salmon. It’s this room that houses what will likely be the most talked-about look in the show: a gown Taylor Swift wore to the Met Gala in 2014, a blush-pink, beaded, organza confection with a plunging back and generous bow.

Mint Museum-Randolph VIP members preview the new Oscar de la Renta exhibit on April 24, 2018. Photos by Khadejeh Nikouyeh

On Tuesday, Talley called the Charlotte show his favorite of the de la Renta retrospectives he’s done, because of its smaller, more focused range (Houston’s had nearly 70 ensembles; San Francisco’s more than 130). And while he acknowledged that the two previous cities had more celebrity-worn pieces, he said Charlotte’s showcase “represents the finest work of Oscar. It focuses on his design and inspirations and his extreme love for women, because behind every piece the foundation of Oscar’s work is always simplicity of design and absolute, unapologetic luxury of fabric texture and color.

“It is like a jewel box in the Petite Trianon in Versailles,” he said of the Mint exhibition. “It’s just very distilled and it’s very personal and it’s very contained, within all the dynamics of Oscar’s inspirations, his moods, his textures, his muses, the things he read, the music he loved, the life he lived. ... I think we did it here better than anyplace.”

De la Renta forged a special relationship with Charlotte before he died in 2014 at the age of 82.

He visited Charlotte for a Mint Museum event in 2011 and struck up a relationship with Charlotte resident Marianna Sheridan, who made a pitch to de la Renta and his company to create an archive of his work. Although not trained as a curator or fashion historian, Sheridan became close to the de la Renta family and top executives. She died in June 2017 at age 50 following a long illness, but the work she began continues. She’s a major reason Charlotte was chosen to host this retrospective, Oscar de la Renta executives say.

“The event is very much a tribute to Marianna’s great work and the archive, which will continue to be a great part of our company,” said Alex Bolen, CEO of Oscar de la Renta, Ltd. (His wife, Eliza, is Oscar de la Renta’s daughter and the company’s executive vice president.) “It became a very important part of our brand, of our history, a tool for our designers, and also has served as the heart and soul of a number of retrospectives. So it only seemed right that we also come to Charlotte, where it very literally all started.”

At the far end of the exhibition is the final room, which includes a tribute to Sheridan, including a Peter Copping for Oscar de la Renta gown she wore to the Mint Gala in 2016.

Sheridan’s husband, Trey Sheridan, stood in the galleries Tuesday night and reflected.

“I almost feel like she’s here,” he said of his late wife. “Marianna loved life, she loved to have a good time. I think (she and de la Renta) connected on several levels.”