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How Oscar de la Renta helped define Hillary Clinton

The Clintons paid their respects to the late fashion designer who helped create the Hillary Clinton we know today during a particularly dark time for her.
From left, banker Sandy Weill, Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, and Oscar de la Renta attend the 2014 Carnegie Hall Medal Of Excellence Gala Honoring Oscar De La Renta at The Plaza Hotel on April 24, 2014 in New York, N.Y.
From left, banker Sandy Weill, Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, and Oscar de la Renta attend the 2014 Carnegie Hall Medal Of Excellence Gala Honoring Oscar De La Renta at The Plaza Hotel on April 24, 2014 in New York, N.Y.

For Hillary Clinton, one evening in late February 1997 started with a Grammy Award in New York City and ended with a state dinner for the president of Chile she was hosting back in Washington. It was a big night, but she was prepared thanks to her friend Oscar de la Renta, the legendary fashion designer who died Monday at 82.

"I was very surprised. I didn't know they gave Grammys to tone-deaf people like me!” Clinton joked backstage at the awards ceremony, where she won for the audio recording of her first memoir. The first lady then dashed back to the White House in the gold lace bodice and green taffeta skirt de la Renta designed for her to party with dignitaries and heads of state.

Just another day in the long friendship between Clinton and de la Renta.

Clinton and de la Renta first met at a Kennedy Center Honors reception during President Bill Clinton's first year in the White House, and the first lady and the designer grew close. “I was wearing one of his dresses that I had bought off the rack, and when he and [wife] Annette went through the receiving line and saw it, he told me how flattered he was and offering his help,” Clinton wrote in her second memoir, “Living History.”

Through inaugural balls, swearing-ins, state dinners, galas, award ceremonies and countless other events, del la Renta helped turn Clinton from someone who “paid little attention to my clothes” into a fashion-conscious first lady. 

Early on, Clinton resisted her friends’ attempts to spruce up her look. “What they understood, and I didn’t, was that a first lady’s appearance matters. I was no longer representing only myself. I was asking the American people to let me represent them in a role that has conveyed everything from glamour to motherly comfort,” Clinton wrote.

Later, during a particularly dark moment in the Clinton White House in late 1998 amid the scandal of President Clinton's affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, de la Renta convinced Vogue editor Anna Wintour to put the first lady on the cover of her magazine.

“I did a lot to define to the viewer who Hillary actually is. [The cover shot] was taken when she was still in the White House. I do remember at the time her advisers weren't sure if it was the right thing to do, but in the end, she said, 'Oscar, you have a great instinct about me. Let's do it,” de la Renta told an interviewer last year.

That cover, featuring Clinton in a black de la Renta gown and under the headline “The Extraordinary Hillary Clinton,” helped mark a sort of resurgence for Clinton after a year dominated by sex scandal and impeachment. Time magazine wrote of the cover that Clinton was "looking her most glamorous in years" as she "projects renewed confidence and poise." "Is she headed for public office after Bill leaves the White House?" the magazine wondered, presciently.

“We have a very close relationship,” the designer continued in the interview with Haute Living. “She is somebody I have a tremendous amount of admiration for. She is the perfect example of what a modern woman can accomplish.”

Eventually, the Clintons became close friends with the de la Rentas and would regularly vacation with at their home in his native Dominican Republic.

De la Renta designed the dress Hillary Clinton wore to her daughter Chelsea’s wedding. He also did the wedding dress of top aide Huma Abedin for her marriage to then-Rep. Anthony Weiner, which got its own spread in Vogue.

And the appreciation of the designer was bipartisan. He did Jenna Bush’s wedding dress and was a favorite of her mother, Clinton's successor, Laura Bush.

In her own memoir, Bush wrote about an awkward moment during a Kennedy Center Honors reception when three friends of hers showed up in the same red de la Renta outfit as she was wearing.

“We tried to turn it into a lighthearted moment and the four of us gathered for a group photo, but I could tell no one was amused,” she wrote in her book, "Spoken from the Heart." “After the last camera click, I race upstairs to change into a navy blue dress from the back of my closet to wear to the awards ceremony.”

All four members of the Clinton family (including Chelsea’s husband), paid tribute to de la Renta Tuesday in a joint statement.

"Oscar's remarkable eye was matched only by his generous heart," they wrote. “We will always be grateful to Oscar for the love he showed us, and for sharing his talent on some of the most important occasions of our lives. And we will never forget the joy, adventure, and beauty we shared with Oscar, his beloved wife, Annette, and their family during our many happy times together, especially those spent in his beloved Dominican Republic.”

Last year, the Clinton Library in Arkansas hosted an exhibit on the famed designer. When it closed, it moved on to the George W. Bush library in Dallas.