Flying overnight to Madrid this week for the Spanish leg of a global celebration of designer Carolina Herrera's 35 years in business, I had a chance to catch up on the recent Architectural Digest coverage of Michael S. Smith, the interior decorator of the Obamas' White House, and his longtime partner, James Costos, the United States Ambassador to Spain, a power couple of style and substance if ever there was one. Smith and Costos, upon moving into the ambassador's residence in Madrid three-and-a-half years ago, redecorated the immense house with a phenomenal collection of American artworks along with their own trove of furniture and antiques (their gifts to the U.S. government), almost all of which will remain behind when Ambassador Costos vacates the position, presumably at some point next year.
Needless to say, I did not hesitate to accept an invitation upon arrival on Sunday for a private tour of the place, which would be the setting for a gala cocktail the following night in honor of Mrs. Herrera. It was an interesting moment to see Smith's decor in person, a few days after the presidential election handed the keys to the White House to a future occupant whose taste tends to be a little more gilded. It's hard to guess who Donald Trump might appoint to the ambassadorship next, but I do hope the next residents don't start tearing down the drapes.
It is said throughout Madrid that Costos and Smith, who do an enormous amount of entertaining in this house, have made a great contribution to the city's social scene, filling the place with a mix of royalty, politicians, artists, gallery owners, and the occasional American celebrity (SJP was here). It was certainly not a stuffy greeting that our little group, along with Mrs. Herrera, encountered. After showing our passports at the gate, we were directed up the paved driveway to the imposing house, then shown to a reception room filled with with a grand piano (covered with pictures of the Obamas and friends), a fun and currently fashionable Philip Taaffe painting of snakes, vases filled with cut orchids and tulips, a great fireplace beneath what looked to be a Federalist style mirror, and a silver tray bearing glasses of Ruinart.
As a butler stoked a fire, Smith, dressed in tweeds and a polo-collared sweater, arrived to fiddle with the lights, which he complained were never quite right. It's an astonishing home, with provocative works by Ed Ruscha in the entrance and Glenn Ligon as the backdrop in a ceremonial room, naturalistic animal illustrations by Walton Ford, and a gorgeous red carved screen that once belonged to Coco Chanel. What struck me most, besides the obvious expense of importing all of these works to fill so much space, was how elegant it all seemed for a residence that inevitably comes with a very short-term lease. But after spending a few days here with Mrs. Herrera and team, I see that the appeal of Madrid is its unfailing sense of elegance, and the expectation that even passing guests should make an effort to live up to its standards. It's the same thing with Mrs. Herrera -- you never want to disappoint her with your poor American manners. Thus, as the 400 guests began arriving for the big party the following night, it was not so surprising to see that most of the men wore dark navy suits -- no gray, no pinstripes -- and the women, even the socially renowned, stood patiently in line without expectation of cutting ahead of the rest of the pack.
"I think Carolina Herrera is the byproduct of many things," Smith said at the opening of the party, "the loveliness and beauty of her home country of Venezuela, the vitality of New York, and the elegance that is Spain and Madrid." He added that on a recent flight from New York to Madrid, on which he happened to be seated near Mrs. Herrera, he arrived looking as most people do after an overnight trip, with sleep on his face, "and a bit of jamon in my hair," he said. "But she was impeccable."
For years, we fashion writers have counted on Mrs. Herrera to deliver those pearls of wisdom and examples of good taste that seem to so effortlessly roll off her tongue, as they did again, thanking Costos and Smith at the party, and again at a reception on Tuesday morning for a new book from Rizzoli, called Carolina Herrera: 35 Years of Fashion.
Wearing a customary white shirt with a full checked skirt with a modern, unfinished hem, she gave the audience such treats as, "There is nothing that makes a woman look older than trying to look younger," or "The past is for inspiration only; you have to have open eyes and see what is happening in the world," or "Fashion is to please the eyes; if you want to see a costume, go to the circus."
When I finally had a moment with Mrs. Herrera to myself, I wondered if talking so much about her career this year had made her tired of so much reflection. But in fact, she said, "I love it, because it has brought me so many memories, and you know that memories are always young." Here are some excerpts from our conversation:
What was that first show, which we see in great detail in your new book, like for an untested designer?
"I had such a fantastic time at the beginning with the first show but I had forgotten so many things, even who was in the show, so I loved looking back through the photographs. And I remembered after the show that C.Z. Guest gave me a dinner at the Doubles Club, which was just next door so we all walked there in one big group. This was before the reviews came out and I was so happy, because I thought the show was divine. And then the next day, some of the reviews were good and some were bad but I thought they were crazy because it was fabulous. It's the enthusiasm you have in the beginning of something that you don't know when or where you're going to arrive."
Spain actually plays important role in your career with your partnership with the Puig family, in addition to your own. How do you feel when you are here?
"In Spain, I always say having a family business gives you confidence. You know you're getting involved with someone who is serious and respectful. And you see the people in the streets, the way they dress is so elegant and they have so much tradition. I feel at home because I've been coming here since I was a child and I have family here. Two of my children are married to Spaniards, and I have three grandchildren here. "
You looked so pleased last night at the turnout, which was pretty phenomenal. Who were all those people?
"We had 400 people here last night, and I said to James and Michael, My God! We started at 170. I said, 'Close the doors and don't let anyone else in!' But it was very fun and nice of them to do something like that. I was very happy because it's a great honor to be there. I am an American citizen. I am Venezuelan born, but I am an American designer. I started my business in New York, which opened its doors to me and I am here today because of that, so I am very proud to be here to say that I'm an American designer."