updated 30 Jun 2014, 04:09
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Urban, The Straits Times
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Taking Oscar De La Renta forward
by Stacey Chia

When Alexander Bolen (left) was offered the job of chief executive officer at American fashion house Oscar de la Renta 10 years ago, it was an offer he almost turned down.

"Working with my wife, her family, especially in a business which I knew very little about, seemed like asking for trouble," says the former investment banker, who is married to the designer's stepdaughter, Eliza, 45.

Ten years on, it seems that the 46-year-old has no regrets about taking up the job at the brand, which is known for its glamorous evening gowns.

"Somebody who has been so successful for such a long time must know quite a bit and I decided that I wanted to learn from Oscar de la Renta," says Mr Bolen.

His wife has been with the company for 15 years and worked her way up to become its executive vice-president.

Her socialite mother, Annette de la Renta, married the designer when Eliza was 20. The Dominican-American designer has five step-children from two marriages and an adopted son.

"When I started at the company, I worked right at the bottom in various departments. As his stepdaughter, I didn't have to buy any clothes, but I still had to work hard," says Mrs Bolen, who initially had her sights on becoming an environmental lawyer.

The Bolens were in town two weeks ago to attend the Oscar de la Renta showcase at the Audi Fashion Festival. De la Renta did not attend the event due to personal reasons.

Best man for the job

Mr Bolen's appointment to chief executive officer 10 years ago came as a surprise to the fashion set, as he was a virtual unknown, having spent 14 years in finance.

However, he managed to crush his critics by expanding the brand's empire in the United States and internationally.

He was instrumental in opening the label's first boutique in 2004 on Madison Avenue in New York City. De la Renta started his eponymous label in 1965 and previously worked only on a wholesale basis with luxury stores, such as Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus, across the United States.

When asked why it took so long to open a boutique, Mr Bolen says that prior to him, no one had tossed up the idea.

There are now eight boutiques in the United States and five internationally in Saudi Arabia, Greece, Dubai, Britain and the Dominican Republic, where de la Renta was born. Three more boutiques are due to open this year in Jeddah, Dubai and Bicester Village, an outlet mall outside of London.

Moving forward, the ambitious executive says there is more expansion to be done, especially in Asia, although he did not elaborate on his plans.

For now, the continent represents only 5 per cent of sales revenue, which Mr Bolen hopes to increase to 25 per cent within the next three to five years. There are 15 multi-label boutiques across Asia - in China, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand. These boutiques carry mostly the brand's wedding and evening gowns.

In Singapore, Oscar de la Renta is stocked at multi-label luxury boutiques Club 21, enVie de Pois, The Atelier Bridal and Trinity Gallery. It is also available at

Prices range from US$200 (S$250) for a pair of earrings to US$13,119 for a silk gown.

On why the brand decided to take part in the Audi Fashion Festival, which ended on May 18, Mr Bolen says: "People around the world know Oscar the person, but they are not certain as to what our brand is exactly about.

"He is best known for all the things that he does with eveningwear, but that represents only 30 per cent of our business," he adds.

The brand also has an extensive collection of daywear, childrenswear and homeware, as well as a beauty line. Mr Bolen says there are plans to introduce menswear.

About 60 looks from the fall 2014 collection were showcased at the Audi Fashion Festival. These included his red carpet-worthy dresses, daywear and also a wedding gown.

"We need to do a better job communicating all the options that we offer," says Mr Bolen.

He declined to reveal sales figures of the privately owned business, but media reports estimate it at about US$600 million a year.

Although de la Renta has put the business aspect of the label into his son-in-law's hands, the design part of the business is still firmly in his.

"I try to give design input all the time, but I'm always thrown out," jokes Mr Bolen.

According to him, de la Renta has 10 design assistants.

De la Renta to retire? 

In recent weeks, there has been talk that de la Renta, 81, will be retiring.

Quelling the rumours, Mr Bolen says: "He works regular hours and he loves what he does. I think he has no plans to change that any time soon."

De la Renta's biggest pet peeve? Pessimism, says the couple.

"Oscar is not a big fan of negativity. I've learnt from working with Oscar that the creative process very much feeds on enthusiasm," says Mr Bolen.

The Bolens, who met while studying at Brown University, have three sons aged nine to 13.

While she did not let on much of her personal relationship with the designer, it is evident that Mrs Bolen shares a close relationship with him.

"He's such a loving, caring and warm person. There's the Oscar, who is world-famous; and there is the home Oscar, who loves gardening and cooking in the kitchen. I'm very lucky," she says.

This article was first published on May 30, 2014.
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