How Oscar de la Renta Made Me a Supermodel

The designer, who died October 20, was so much more than a fashion genius—he was a mentor and friend to many in the industry. Karlie Kloss reflects on her friendship with de la Renta.

In 1965, Oscar de la Renta launched a label that today still signifies the sophistication, femininity, and grace with which it was founded. Since then, de la Renta has become notable for bustling couture gowns, tweed separates, and cardigan sets seen on the likes of his clients (and friends) Barbara Walters, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Hillary Clinton. The 85-year-old designer's life and work are the subject of a new book, The Style, Inspiration, and Life of Oscar de la Renta (Assouline, March 2014), which celebrates his 40-plus-year career in the fashion industry and pays tribute to the designer's unique—and widely loved—personality and aesthetic. Below, Karlie Kloss, one of the world's top supermodels and a close friend of de la Renta, reflects on first meeting the designer at 15 and his legacy, both past, present, and future, in the fashion industry.

The first time I met Oscar de la Renta, I was 15 years old. I’d just started high school and was in New York City for my first full Fashion Week.

I remember going to my first Oscar de la Renta fitting and sitting in his Garment District atelier, just studying everything hanging on the walls. The room was filled with beautiful creations from Oscar’s world—embroidered fabrics in rich hues, sparkling gems, and extraordinary sketches. It was chaotic but beautiful, like everything around me.

This tall, tan, and elegant man walked into the room and introduced himself. Oscar had sophistication and ease, but most of all, he made me feel comfortable and at home. For a moment, I forgot about being young, new, and having never worn a designer gown before. From that first meeting, I saw Oscar’s genius, but also felt his humility and humor. He radiated a true dedication, grace, and love.

Since that meeting, I have walked in many shows for Oscar and am so proud and thankful to be a tiny part of his amazing story. Through his years as a designer, he has dressed an esteemed group of women from Audrey Hepburn to Jackie O. and Oprah. When I wear his gowns, I try to embody the spirit of these women and bring Oscar’s brilliant vision to life.

On the runway and off, models are often indexed against big moments—covers, campaigns, and runway shows. In the midst of this, however, most of us are just growing up; experiencing moments in this industry that will never be captured on film, but will inspire and shape us as we grow. For me, meeting Oscar de la Renta was one of those uncaptured but formative moments in my modeling career. Every time I’m with Oscar, he imbues me with the same confidence and ease as on that first day. His mentorship, kindness, and friendship continue to guide and inform my approach to life.

The Oscar woman is confident, understated, and elegant—a true lady. I feel honored just to know him.