Model Remembers Oscar De La Renta As An 'Extraordinary Gentleman' : Code Switch Legendary fashion designer Oscar de la Renta died at the age of 82 on Monday. Audie Cornish talks to one of the women who modeled his clothing, Bethann Hardison.

Model Remembers Oscar De La Renta As An 'Extraordinary Gentleman'

Model Remembers Oscar De La Renta As An 'Extraordinary Gentleman'

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The supermodel Naomi Campbell wearing Oscar de la Renta in 1999. Kathy Willens/AP hide caption

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Kathy Willens/AP

The supermodel Naomi Campbell wearing Oscar de la Renta in 1999.

Kathy Willens/AP

Bethann Hardison was one of the "spiritual mothers of the supermodels who ruled the '90s," and she credited some of her rise to prominence to Oscar de la Renta, the influential Dominican-born fashion designer who died this week at the age of 82.

"I was more of a new wave looking kind of girl: much more ethnic, natural, short haircut — so it was quite different then others who looked more like young women," Hardison told NPR's Audie Cornish on Tuesday's All Things Considered. "They were shaped nicely and I was shaped more like a boy."

Bethann Hardison said that Oscar de la Renta wasn't scared about putting models of color on the runway in his clothes. Evan Agostini/AP hide caption

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Evan Agostini/AP

Bethann Hardison said that Oscar de la Renta wasn't scared about putting models of color on the runway in his clothes.

Evan Agostini/AP

But Hardison's unorthodox look didn't faze de la Renta — it was what he was looking for. Instead, he tweaked his signature style to fit her. "There was a chiffon pant and top and it flowed, and it was an aqua color, and it was a two-piece," she remembered. "Because I was that boy-like girl... I always wore the easiest, the more pantlike. But that was still flowy but he still had to put something on me that would still flow because that was Oscar. But never did I get the big ballgown, or the feminine dress."

Hardison has spent her post-modeling career as a model agent and more recently, as an advocate for more diversity on runways. (The blinding whiteness of fashion shows has become a perennial Fashion Week criticism.) But, she says, de la Renta was forward thinking in this regard.

"He had no fear of using girls who were very ethnic or very dark," she said. "A lot of designers don't do that. Oscar could go the gamut — he could go for someone who was peachy blonde to someone who was a redhead to someone who was extremely dark. If he thought the girl was a new girl in town or he thought the girl would look great in his clothes, he booked her."

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

All day the tributes have been rolling in for fashion designer Oscar de la Renta. He died yesterday at age 82. His career at the top of fashion spanned decades. He dressed First Ladies Nancy Reagan, Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton and superstars like Oprah, Beyonce and Sarah Jessica Parker. De la Renta was born in the Dominican Republic and began his career doing sketches at iconic European fashion houses. By the early 1970s, he was leading a surging vanguard of American-based designers. And it was during that time that a model named Bethann Hardison came on the scene. As she told us today, her success was in part thanks to de la Renta.

BETHANN HARDISON: Oscar was one of those people who was more on the high-end level that decided to use me as a model. And I was more the new-wave kind of looking girl. I had much more ethnic, natural, short haircut. So it was quite different than the girls who were much more of a, like, I think young women. They were shaped nicely. I was shaped more like a boy. (Laughter). But Oscar was cool because Oscar understood that, you know, I was probably the new wave. And he was open to that.

CORNISH: In 1993, Oscar de la Renta spoke to NPR about his sort of fashion ideal. And here's a clip of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

OSCAR DE LA RENTA: Today, a woman plays such an active role in our society. And today, the women who influences fashion is not that very rich woman who sits at home and polishes her nails. It's the one who works, who is a doer, who does things by dressing. She's very strongly projecting an image of herself as an individual. And I think that today the working woman is the woman who really influences fashion in a very strong matter.

CORNISH: Bethann Hardison, hearing his voice there, what does that remind you of him and his attitudes toward fashion?

HARDISON: Well, that's very interesting to hear that because I had said earlier to someone that Oscar was someone who - even though he made these extraordinary, beautiful dresses - I always thought that Oscar looked to dress the woman who had style because a woman who has style doesn't necessarily need designers - designer wear. A woman who has style can put on any frock or dress or pant or whatever and still bring something to it. And I think that Oscar appreciated the woman who had style. That's very interesting to hear him speak just then.

CORNISH: Can you recall a dress of Oscar de la Renta's that you wore? What was it like?

HARDISON: There was a chiffon. There was a chiffon pant and top. And it flowed. And it was - and it was a - I remember, it was aqua - let's say an aqua color. I remember that. And it was a two-piece. But because I was that boy-like girl (laughter) in body, I always wore the most easiest - like more pant-like - but he had to put something on me that would still flow because that was Oscar. But never did I get the big ball gown or the very feminine dress. No, I never got that.

CORNISH: I want to talk more about the ball gown image. Can you describe some elements of his design that came to be signature - that people could look at one of those gowns and know that's an Oscar de la Renta?

HARDISON: I would have to say the dresses that always fit the waist and had great deal of volume on the skirt. No matter what the top was, no matter what the pattern was, you know, you always thought of it as a girly dress. So the material definitely would be something that was very soft. And oftentimes, he could use prints, and he could put applique of patterns of flowers or anything that was sort of like a design on it. And he always used things that had such great volume in skirts. That's - when I see a dress like that, I always think Oscar de la Renta.

CORNISH: You have been an advocate of bringing more diversity to the runways. Was Oscar de la Renta somebody who has a legacy in that respect?

HARDISON: Oh, yeah. I'd definitely say so because he had no fear of using girls who were extremely ethnic or very dark. A lot of designers don't do that. Oscar could go the gambit. He could go someone who went a peachy-blonde to someone who's a great redhead, to a girl who was extremely dark. If he thought the girl was a new girl in town or the girl he thought would look great in his clothes, he booked her. He didn't let other people determine what he would do.

CORNISH: He was somebody who had trained in European fashion houses like Balenciaga. And he seemed to have a foot in both worlds. How did he bring that kind of sensibility to American design?

HARDISON: And when you say a foot in both worlds, do you mean as far as couture and then, like, sort of like a sense of street?

CORNISH: Yeah.

HARDISON: Yeah, that's interesting. I think it's because Oscar is a human being - was so amenable to human kindness and being close to just people. And I think when you have that as a nature, you never think you're above anyone. He always seemed to have had this attitude that he was just simply a man. But he was extraordinarily a talented fashion designer. Oscar was an extraordinary gentleman.

CORNISH: Well, Bethann Hardison, thank you so much for speaking with us.

HARDISON: Thank you very much, as well.

CORNISH: Bethann Hardison, fashion activist and former model, speaking about Oscar de la Renta. The fashion designer died yesterday at the age of 82.

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