By Harriet Shapiro
Updated September 09, 1985 12:00 PM

The infant’s mother, a prostitute, had dropped him on top of a garbage can near the hospital where she had given birth. Whimpering, covered with insect bites, he was found by two little girls who carried him back to the hospital in La Romana, a seaside town in Santo Domingo. He was 48 hours old, his face was covered with ants, and he weighed a scant two pounds.

Miraculously the child not only lived but now, in a fairy tale reversal of fortune, he is about to become the legal son of Oscar de la Renta, the jet-setting designer who oversees a $250-million fashion empire. De la Renta, 53, a widower since his wife, Françoise, died of bone cancer two years ago, is in the process of adopting the 15-month-old infant. The baby already has been baptized Moses Oscar—for the Biblical child found in the bulrushes and for his famous father-to-be. “He is mine, and he is never going to be anybody else’s but mine,” says a beaming de la Renta in his New York office. (Moses’ mother, apparently abandoning her other eight children, has vanished.)

Even though no offspring were produced during de la Renta’s 16-year marriage to the former Françoise de Langlade, a onetime editor of French Vogue, the designer has always had a soft spot for children. “It isn’t that I never wanted children, but when I married I was 35; my wife was older,” he says. “It just didn’t happen.” (A brilliant hostess 10 years Oscar’s senior, the socially ambitious Françoise created a glittering court for her husband, whose lavish evening clothes have won him the moniker of “king of ruffles.”) In his native Santo Domingo, de la Renta grew up with six sisters in a middle-class household. And now, when he returns home, he makes a daily pilgrimage to the Casa de Niños, a combination orphanage and day care center that houses a swirling brood of 350 youngsters from 2 months to 15 years old. It is run by Xiomara Menendez, the wife of a local sugar mill tycoon, but over the years, de la Renta, with help from his well-fixed friends, has been its major supporter and guardian angel.

It was here that baby Moses was brought to live after spending his first three months in a local clinic’s incubator. “He was our most loved, the tiniest and the weakest,” says de la Renta. “I became very attached to him.” At first de la Renta had no plans to adopt. But late last year, when the orphanage pediatrician recommended that Moses—still sickly and prone to serious infections—be put up for adoption, de la Renta began to think of taking the baby home. All his friends advised him not to. “I know it is difficult and a big responsibility,” says de la Renta, “but I just couldn’t cope with the idea that he would be gone.”

Last March de la Renta brought Moses to Casa de Madera (House of Wood), his luxurious villa by the sea. The first morning Moses, who spent the night in a crib in de la Renta’s room, woke up crying at 5:30. De la Renta shot out of bed, removed Moses’ diaper, deposited him in his own bed and went to fetch a clean diaper. “He made ca ca in my bed,” Oscar grins. “I finally got everything straightened out, but I was totally exhausted.”

Today Moses is thriving. Socialite Pat (Mrs. William F.) Buckley, a recent guest at Casa de Madera, agrees. “Moses is an enchantment,” she raves, “and Oscar has never looked happier. When I asked him if I could be the baby’s godmother, he looked enigmatic, but I think I will win out.” De la Renta’s new charge has now moved to quarters built especially for him and his nanny, Cristina, the first cousin of de la Renta’s cook. According to de la Renta, Moses is showing signs of a temper. “At the orphanage everybody was so protective of him, he got a little spoiled.” He also got a little overweight, so his daddy has put his boy on a modest diet to trim off the extra ounces. Moses, who is now beginning to walk and talk (he says papa and tata for nanny), is under the care of the best pediatrician in Santo Domingo. “He is a little slower than some children his age,” says de la Renta, “but totally normal.”

Then there’s the matter of Moses’ wardrobe, of no small concern to the elegant de la Renta. The baby has been showered with presents from the designer’s devoted lady clients, but when a well-meaning friend purchased some frilly baby outfits, de la Renta deemed them unsuitable. “They were sort of orchestra leader clothes,” sniffs de la Renta, who bought his son a classic sailor suit instead. “When he is older I want him to wear flannel pants and navy blazers and have the best shoes and socks.”

In the meantime Moses, oblivious of these sartorial concerns, is learning to walk barefoot on the beach outside the casa. When he hears the voice of his papa, who calls in daily wherever he is in the world—New York, Salzburg, Tokyo—he crows with delight. De la Renta confesses that he feels guilty that he is a long-distance father. To rectify that, he plans to bring Moses to the States when he is 2 or 3 to live in his Connecticut home. “I want to spoil him,” de la Renta says, “but not too much. I want him to be a nice boy. I want him to grow up to be an honorable and compassionate man.”