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Oscar de la Renta created designs to make women feel lovely

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The Oscar de la Renta retrospective at the de Young includes the silk tulle gown Amy Adams wore on the red carpet at the Academy Awards in 2013. (Courtesy Steve Granitz/Getty Images)

Quite a bit about “Oscar de la Renta,” the first major retrospective of the acclaimed designer’s fashions now on view at the de Young Museum, is fun and familiar.

In the final room are often-photographed red-carpet outfits seen on A-listers including Jessica Chastain, Rihanna, Taylor Swift, Amy Adams, Nicki Minaj, Penélope Cruz and Sarah Jessica Parker at news-making events.

“Oscar de la Renta: The Retrospective” also has dresses worn by Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton, and de Young benefactress Dede Wilsey, including the dramatic silk taffeta gown she wore to the opening of the renovated de Young in 2005.

Developed in collaboration with the late designer’s family and firm, and curated by former Vogue editor-at-large André Leon Talley, the exhibit includes more than 130 garments created over five decades.

Interestingly, the early and later pieces aren’t necessarily distinguishable (except perhaps the 1960s-70s designs), particularly because the garments are arranged by theme. One large room has bejeweled, ruffled, fur-trimmed, brocaded and caftan-like pieces, some quite costume-y, showcasing de la Renta’s fascination with Spanish, Eastern and Russian influences.

On the wall of one room is a video with sweeping images of the lovely garden at de la Renta’s Connecticut home; it’s accompanied by colorful, light, floral ensembles.

Another room shows off de la Renta’s 2011 spring collection next to a Vogue photograph by Steven Meisel of Asian models with punk haircuts wearing the gowns; the 2010 image re-creates a classic 1948 Vogue photo by Cecil Beaton of models wearing Charles James’ designs.

The show traces the rise of the Dominican-born American’s career, from work in Spain as a sketcher for Balenciaga; to Paris at the house of Lanvin-Castillo, and, in 1964, to New York to be head designer for Elizabeth Arden. In 1992, he became the first American designer to head a French couture house when he joined Pierre Balmain; he remained in the position until 2002. (He died in 2014 at 83.)

Evident throughout the show is de la Renta’s respect for, and appreciation of, women.

Unlike those of a few off-the-wall designers featured in previous de Young shows (Vivienne Westwood in 2007, Jean Paul Gaultier in 2012), de la Renta’s garments and silhouettes are consistently flattering to the body.

The notion was supported at a preview for the exhibition, at which members of the largely female press corps surveyed the clothes, often identifying which designs they’d like to wear themselves.

And in a press release for the show, Wilsey, president of the Board of Trustees of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, called de la Renta “an inspired designer who was a longtime personal friend and was considered by so many to be the consummate gentleman.”

Oscar de la Renta: The Retrospective
Where: de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, Golden Gate Park, S.F.
When: 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, and to 8:45 p.m. Fridays starting April 15; closes May 30
Tickets: $30 general
Contact: (415) 750-3600, www.deyoungmuseum.org

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