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Oscar de la Renta Courts Younger Customers

The venerable fashion house enlists updated looks, social-media inluencers and a virtual store to engage millennials

By Ray A Smith Sept.5, 2018 936 a.m. ET

When the latest Oscar de la Renta creations hit the runway Tuesday morning at New York Fashion Week, the brand known for exquisite cocktail dresses and evening gowns will be showing a bit more leg.

“It’s definitely a sexier collection,” said Fernando Garcia, creative director. “A little bit of a sexier touch. Some shorter lengths.” Laura Kim, his creative director, added: “Much lighter than what we have had in the past.”

“A sense of ease,” Mr. Garcia said.

The challenge for Oscar de la Renta and other American labels of a certain age is attracting young shoppers without alienating longtime customers. A more relaxed aesthetic is sweeping through the 53-year-old house, one of the last big fashion brands founded in the ’60s, ’70s and early ’80s that shows at New York Fashion Week.

Other American legacy labels, such as Ralph Lauren, Diane von Furstenberg and Carolina Herrera, haven’t been able to connect with millennials and generate buzz like their European counterparts. In Italy and France, Gucci, Balenciaga and Saint Laurent have tapped into streetwear and youth culture and deployed creative social-media strategies.

Calvin Klein, founded in 1968, has proved an exception by reinventing itself with designer Raf Simons and a robust social-media campaign. Still, no big American fashion labels were in a recent ranking of the top 10 luxury brands from Kantar Millward Brown, part of the advertising firm WPP.

To shake the perception of being a high-end house frozen in time, Oscar de la Renta is updating its clothes, opening a virtual store and launching a marketing campaign with stars of social media.

“At the end of the day we want to be more relevant to more people,” said Chief Executive Alex Bolen, the son-in-law of the designer, who died in 2014 at 82. The house isn’t abandoning its sumptuous dresses and gowns. “I don’t see [the company’s evening business] going away anytime soon but who knows?” said Mr. Bolen. “I don’t think that there’s any sacred cow in that regard.”

Oscar de la Renta founded his label in 1965, outfitting well-to-do women with elegant and glamorous lothes. Mr. Bolen, 50, and his two reative directors said the company isn’t willing to chase younger fans at the expense of older ones.

Ms. Kim, 36, and Mr. Gar ia, 31, are adding more modern elements to the lineup. They spent years working with Mr. de la Renta before departing in 2015 to start their own label. In 2016, they returned as co-creative directors. “We started by offering just items that the house didn’t have before like suiting, denim or evening tops, and softer goods like chiffon dresses,” Mr. Gar ia said. “And we’ve been doing it little by little so we don’t alienate the very loyal customer that the brand has.”

“Women are changing the way they dress now,” Ms. Kim said. “ I think we’re just updating [the Oscar de la Renta customer’s] wardrobe.”

“Ten years ago, it was a cocktail dress down the runway. Now it’s an embellished top with pants,” Mr. Garcia said.

Lower prices aren’t part of the strategy, Mr. Bolen said. Oscar de la Renta cocktail dresses generally run from $3,000 to $7,000, and evening gowns between $5,000 and $15,000. Denim starts at $790. Suits range between $3,000 and $5,000; blouses cost from $1,000 to $3,000.

For the virtual store, which opens this month, Oscar de la Renta is the first fashion brand working with NextRev commerce, a ompany that creates immersive retail experiences. Visitors to the site will be able to navigate through the house’s flagship on New York’s Madison Avenue, feeling as if they are actually browsing in the store. “It’s a new technology, we are a guinea pig,” Mr. Bolen said. “At the same time, we’re fo used on the very traditional retail models. We’re building out a store in Paris right now. I think it’s a balance.”

The virtual store is aimed at “a digitally savvy consumer,” Mr. Bolen said. Such efforts “are important to experiment with,” he said. “Ultimately whether this experiment will be a success,time will tell.”

New York Fashion Week officially begins on Thursday, and with it, Oscar de la Renta is kicking off a marketing campaign featuring young influencers such as Camila Coelho, with 7.4 million Instagram followers, Aimee Song, with 4.9 million and Arielle Noaccharnas, with 1.1 million.

Other high-end fashion brands have used influencers for years. “It feels like this is the time that’s right for us,” Mr. Bolen said. Handbags in the campaign start at $1,790, a level that may entice new customers.

Mr. Garcia and Ms. Kim are active on social media and persuaded Mr. Bolen to be. A year ago, performer Nicki Minaj attended the Oscar de la Renta show and posted about it on Instagram. Her posts helped place the brand among the top five for social impact during New York Fashion Week, according to fashion-analytics firm Launchmetrics, and triggered more than 7 million interactions.

But liking social-media posts doesn’t necessarily lead to spending four figures on a dress. Robert Passikoff, founder and president of Brand Keys, which issues an annual index of clothing brands that consumers say they buy often, said younger shoppers don’t cite Oscar de la Renta. “There’s the reality of how much does this stuff cost,” Mr. Passikoff said. “But having said that, you do get a number of high-end brands that always show up on the list. Chanel always shows up on the list. Burberry shows up on the list.”

“We work with the finest fabrics in the world and we work with the most talented artisans or embroiderers and so all of that comes at a ertain price,” Mr. Bolen said. “We want those who aspire to become affluent to know about us and know what we’re doing and love what we’re doing so that someday they’ll be ome our customers.”

dan flan