IS OSCAR BOWING OUT OF FASHION?

With a brief wave to his cheering fans, Oscar de la Renta, the elder statesman of American fashion, closed his show Monday morning and promptly departed Bryant Park without pausing to greet waiting well-wishers or take questions from reporters. In previous years, the usually ebullient designer has spent hours talking to friends and reporters. His low profile yesterday fueled growing rumors that the legendary but ailing designer has decided to step down from his company. De la Renta’s press office could not be reached for comment last night, but many fashion insiders whispered that Monday’s show was likely his last.

[UPDATE: This morning, a spokesman for de la Renta said, “Any rumor or speculation that he’s going to retire is categorically, 100 percent false. He’s been at the office every day preparing for the collection, and he’s at the office today. In terms of any medical condition he may or may not have, it’s personal and we would never discuss it.”]

De la Renta’s departure would be a massive blow to New York’s insular fashion community, where the 74-year-old designer has reigned as the exemplar of a certain type of elegance since he launched his eponymous line in 1965. Over the past four decades, the Dominican-born couturier has clothed stars from Penelope Cruz to Sarah Jessica Parker, and designed the inaugural balls for both Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush. His shows traditionally attract the biggest stars and socialites of Fashion Week, and yesterday’s was no exception:

Barbara WaltersDonald TrumpVanity Fair‘s Graydon CarterVogue‘s Anna WintourFrench Vogue‘s Carine Roitfeld, photographer Mario Testino, and U.S. Open champion Roger Federer packed the front row to view his latest wares. So it was all the more striking that the usually frenetic de la Renta did not stage manage the production himself. Instead, he remained hidden from view in a private lounge backstage, appearing only moments before his show began. In his place, Vogue editor at large André Leon Talley stepped in to rally spirits backstage, showering attention on a roster of top runway models, including Jacquetta WheelerGemma Ward, and Lily Cole, before returning to his front-row seat.

What was behind de la Renta’s near-invisibility? Over the years, the designer has frequently talked of stepping down from his $100 million company to retire to his native island, where he and his second wife, Annette, maintain a sprawling compound. This year, rumors of his retirement have been particularly persistent. But while many industry insiders predicted that de la Renta would step down after yesterday’s show, no such announcement was forthcoming. Instead, publicists who ushered anxious photographers out of the backstage area blamed the designer’s low profile on “a medical issue,” lending credence to talk in fashion circles that the designer is in poor health. Succession plans for his company have long been vague, but rumor has it that Lars Nilsson, formerly the chief designer at Nina Ricci, will come on as creative director if the designer steps down.

Though his latest collection featured de la Renta’s usual mix of froth and femininity, the mood in the crowd was notably sober. When his show ended, a throng of friends and well-wishers lined up to greet the designer backstage. They waited there until Eliza Reed Bolen, de la Renta’s stepdaughter, arrived to turn them away. “He’s already left the building,” she said.