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Sometimes you feel a moment in your throat. When Peter Copping, the new creative director at Oscar de la Renta, sent out the final look of his spring 2016 show, everyone present seemed to catch their breath at once. That mint-toned taffeta gown, pleated about the bodice and breaking free at the hip into a regal full skirt – it moved people. Anna Wintour. Taylor Swift. Karlie Kloss. This, they and the other front rowers silently agreed, was what Oscar de la Renta was meant to be, now.
The gown’s grace and couture-quality craftsmanship summoned the house’s glamorous past. But its off touches – the crinkled paper-bag collar, the graphic black ribbons tied in seemingly ad hoc ways – provided a map to the future. Oscar de la Renta was the most romantic of designers. And Peter Copping was offering a new kind of romance.
In New York fashion circles, “Oscar” doesn’t refer to an Academy Award. “Oscar” is the shorthand for Oscar de la Renta, the courtly designer who, over the course of his 50-year career, dressed innumerable stars for the Academy’s red carpet, not to mention providing looks for every American First Lady since Betty Ford and earning the devotion of socialites and world-class clotheshorses such as Babe Paley and CZ Guest. One of his last creative acts before his death, in October 2014, was to make Amal Clooney’s wedding gown. Another was his appointment of Peter Copping to be his successor.
At first glance, the two men couldn’t seem more different. De la Renta, native of the Dominican Republic, exuded “Latin lover” charm and was a notorious social butterfly, joining his clients for nights out at Studio 54 and inviting them to his lavish Connecticut estate. Copping, born in Oxford, now – along with his partner, the French-born florist Rambert Rigaud – a resident of New York, is possessed of some native English reserve. His self-effacing nature is reflected in the fact that he has spent most of his career, thus far, in the back rooms of Paris houses such as Louis Vuitton.
On meeting Copping, it is easy to understand why Oscar would have felt comfortable bequeathing his business to him: he reads as a steady hand, gracious but not ingratiating. There’s also something studious about him, revealed in the ways he talks about the de la Renta oeuvre, pointing out aspects of the house that are often glossed over, such as its historic strength in sharp sportswear. You have to look at Copping’s work to discover the strain of eccentricity that lurks within him, and which he’s found devious ways of applying to any design task he has at hand. When he first stepped into the limelight in 2009, taking the reins at Nina Ricci, he attained nigh-on instant fluency in its coquettish, classically French idiom – but spoke it in his own gently unconventional accent.
Oscar – “American fashion royalty”, as Donatella Versace has said – perceived a kinship with Copping the soft-spoken fashion journeyman. He saw beyond the reserve, and beyond the undertow of quirk. “It was romance,” Copping says. “Oscar and I shared a belief in fashion romance”.
What is fashion romance? And what does it mean in New York, where the focus is less on spinning dreams than on building brands? Copping takes on these questions from his light-filled office, once Oscar’s own, in a skyscraper overlooking Bryant Park. De la Renta’s books still line the shelves. Outside the office, Copping’s team toil away on speculative designs for the forthcoming autumn 2016 show – everywhere you look, there are scraps of bead-embroidered tulle, strings of beads. It’s the world’s most beautiful trash.
“When you talk about romance in fashion, you’re talking about a few things,” Copping says. “You’re talking about fantasy, first of all. And you’re talking about craft – those details of construction and embellishment that make a garment feel special. And the challenge in creating a sense of romance that feels modern,” he goes on to note, “is that the customer has changed. We still have our loyal client, and we want to serve her. These are women who understand the make of clothes, they know how things are supposed to feel, how they’re supposed to fit.
“But that knowledge is in shorter supply now,” Copping continues. “Our younger customers aren’t flying to Paris with their mothers to get fitted for couture. Some of them are coming to Oscar after building their own successful businesses. They’re not ‘ladies who lunch’, and they don’t want to be. They want to look beautiful and glamorous, and they want details that thrill them, but overall, the fantasy has changed.”
Copping’s remarks point to another important quality he shares with Oscar – perhaps the important quality. When de la Renta died, virtually every tribute made note of his deep respect for women, a respect he demonstrated by endeavouring to enhance their beauty. He was not a designer to offer an eccentric proportion for novelty’s sake, and he shaped his collections around his clients’ needs, whether gowns to wear to galas or luxurious day wear. De la Renta considered his customers’ lives – their actual lives and their aspirations – and Copping shares that attentiveness. Which means he’s seen a new attitude taking hold.
“What’s different now from when Oscar started designing, is that women don’t want to look so ‘done’ any more,” Copping notes. “Women like Amanda Seyfried or Diane Kruger, who wear our clothes brilliantly, they’ve got the confidence to mix up looks, and an ability to wear even very dressy clothes in a casual way. That’s what I think when I consider how I’d like to move Oscar de la Renta forward. I’m imagining how I can introduce elements of off-ness, little gestures that communicate a sense of ease.”
How do you make polished clothes seem unpolished? That show-stopping taffeta gown from spring offers a clue. Look again at the uneven crinkle of its collar, at the nonchalant way those black ribbons have been tied here and there, at the pleating placed to echo the effect of a long skirt seized up in both hands. So much technique in the service of a feeling of spontaneity. That was the tone of Copping’s spring 2016 collection, and its brilliant update of the house. The graphic touches, the ladylike cuts, the Latinate exoticism – all these Copping mined from the Oscar archive. His unique contribution was the collection’s very contemporary joie de vivre.
Copping has been working with one of his knitwear designers on a pattern he intends to use sparingly in the autumn 2016 collection, an oh-so-classic toile de Jouy inspired by the 2008 installation of Jeff Koons sculptures in the halls of Versailles. “It’s just a wink,” he says. “A little something unexpected. Romantic, but playful.” “Women these days,” he adds, “they want to play.”