Who, indeed?No one can quarrel with the results of de la Renta's avid lifelong affinity for the beau monde. He is, after all, the person who once remarked, "What I expect from an interior and from dressing a woman is . . . luxe, calme et volupté." It's what de la Renta expects, and seems to obtain, from most of his undertakings. But the means of attaining Baudelaire's luxuriant dreamland are rarely, in any sense, serene. Oscar de la Renta is often called charming, which is true but perhaps as meaningless as calling the weather charming. Inevitable, as his architect suggests, may be a better word. "Mr. de la Renta knows what he wants," Buch says tactfully.
"Dominicans sing all the time," says de la Renta one evening over dinner at Punta Cana's restaurant La Cana, as waiters hustle about carrying plates of giant prawns, and musicians Eladio Almonte and Rafael Vargas sidle up to the tables, tuning their guitars. Then de la Renta launches into a heartfelt rendition of Juan Luis Guerra's "Bachata Rosa," and soon has a tableful of guests singing along. The designer breaks into song often and with brio. He knows all the words to the national anthem of Cuba, to the Gardel tangos that were his mother's favorites (she called the young Oscar "Gardelito"), to the woozy ballads of Julio Iglesias, and, of course, to many Dominican merengues.
De la Renta left the island as a teen, one member of that enterprising wave that until recently kept Dominicans at the top of New York's immigration list. He returned in middle age, a rich and famous man, literally to establish a beachhead. "It grounds me," he says of his home country. At 66, de la Renta still relishes plain Dominican comida criolla (he breakfasts daily on the fried-plantain dish mangú) and the island's neon flora ("I'm a tropical person"), and is intricately enmeshed in the Dominican semifeudal society.
Even so, he leaves corales only rarely, and then mainly for the 25-minute drive to El Cortecito, a little village by the sea, where he eats at a restaurant called Capitán Cook, "very simple, but one of the best seafood restaurants anywhere." When he occasionally takes guests to the capital, on jaunts by private aircraft, they dine at El Vesuvio or at La Briciola, two anomalous Italian restaurants that serve "wonderful" food. He sends his friends to hole-in-the-wall jewelers in the Zona Colo- nial to survey the offerings of Dominican red, blue, and even black amber, universally regarded as the world's finest and just as universally faked. And he points them toward the Swiss Mine, alongside Parque Colón, where the amber prices are good and the authenticity is guaranteed. "There is also a blue stone, larimar," adds de la Renta, "that looks like turquoise and is very expensive, but beautiful. Everyone loves to buy that."
But mostly he doesn't leave home.
When he does it's for a special trip with friends like Brooke Astor to Jarabacoa in the Dominican cordillera, where there is "one hotel that I don't know the condition of anymore, and beautiful mountain walks and a superb waterfall close to the national park." In a mountain town near here, de la Renta has long maintained a "very pretty house'' set on four riverside miles, with incredible orchids. In the late afternoons, he "could sit in the river and it was like a Jacuzzi." The Dominican mountains, he says, offer something that's rare in the Caribbean: a sense of the seasons. A glass of water left out at night can be frosted with ice crystals by morning. "The mountains are fantastic," he says, "but my wife, unfortunately, hates it there. So we really haven't slept in that house for two and a half years."
"I never have a master plan of what I'm going to do," de la Renta is saying. Coming from the man who oversees the Balmain haute couture, whose own name is an international label, who was the first American designer ever invited to show his collection in the Carrousel du Louvre, and whose perfume, Oscar, remains among the top 10 revenue-producing scents worldwide, this assertion invites skepticism.
Even without an explicit agenda, de la Renta is bound to leave his imprint on Punta Cana--or, at the very least, apply his canny skill for transforming the atmospherics of a place. If an example of this gift is required, you need look no further than the building lot adjoining de la Renta's property at Corales. Designated as the site of a future house for Henry Kissinger and his wife, the parcel is currently a desolate patch of sea grapes and scrub. Yet, pass through an arched coral-rock gate and you enter lotus land: lush lawns, allées of clipped oleander, a private chapel, and seaside Balinese-style pavilions for the siestas he apparently never takes. "I like the idea of doing things. I need projects," says Oscar de la Renta, of Corales and the Punta Cana Beach Resort. "I never liked the idea of lying in the sun. I hate to slow down."
Punta Cana Beach Resort Punta Cana; 809/221-2262, fax 809/687-8745; doubles from $180, including tax, breakfast, and dinner.
Capitán Cook Playa del Cortecito, El Cortecito; 809/552-0645; dinner for two $50.
El Vesuvio 521 Avda. George Washington, Santo Domingo; 809/221-3333; dinner for two $65.
La Briciola 152A Calle Arzobispo MériÒo, Santo Domingo; 809/688-5055; dinner for two $80.
The Swiss Mine 101 Calle El Conde, Santo Domingo; 809/221-1897.