Carolina Herrera Talks Timeless Style and Building Her Fashion Empire
One thing an interviewer is obligated to ask a designer who is celebrating a significant company milestone, as Carolina Herrera did last year with 35th-anniversary tributes in Atlanta, Madrid, and New York City and a retrospective book from Rizzoli, is whether he or she is about to retire. Might as well get this over with. Mrs. Herrera, have you ever thought about stopping?
“No, I haven’t, because I love what I am doing, and it’s going so well,” she says on a January morning, shortly after returning from a vacation in Punta Cana with all her daughters, their husbands, her great-grandchildren, and some friends—30 people all told. “Why do I have to stop?”
It is a few days after Mrs. Herrera’s 78th birthday, and although I have known her for 20 years, I would never presume to call her anything except Mrs. Herrera, for that is the kind of respect she expects and deserves. This is, for my money, the chicest woman in New York fashion, a person for whom unfailing elegance is as much a design philosophy as it is her lifeblood and legacy.
No one in his right mind would ever question her determination, and yet this has been happening since the beginning of her career, when her friend Halston told her she was mad for giving up a socialite’s well-heeled life of leisure for the rag trade (even her husband, Reinaldo, said he thought her runway dreams were just a passing fancy). And yet it happened once again only a few months ago, in an especially bizarre episode when a lawsuit between the Carolina Herrera and Oscar de la Renta companies revealed an internal plan to replace Mrs. Herrera, apparently without her knowledge. And yet look who’s still here, as chic as the day she put on her first white blouse.
“I don’t care. I really don’t. I can’t,” Mrs. Herrera says of her doubters, few as they may be. “You know what the fashion business is like. They’re always underestimating you. I look back to 35 years ago, and this was so tiny. Now we are a $1.5 billion company. So did I do well or badly? Moneywise, I mean.”
In fact, rarely has an American fashion designer done as well as Mrs. Herrera, who has outlasted and outperformed even the giants—Halston, who lost luxury credibility when he sold a line at J.C. Penney in the 1980s; Bill Blass, who helped her book the models for her very first show at the Metropolitan Club in 1981; and Oscar de la Renta, with whom she enjoyed a long professional rivalry.
Whenever we spoke during the numerous stops on her victory tour over the past year, she seemed entirely secure with her position in the world, remembering early doubts and fears almost with a sense of nostalgia. Just before a museum exhibition of her work opened last May at the Savannah College of Art and Design (at its campuses in Savannah and Atlanta), Mrs. Herrera told me that the secret to her longevity was this: “The thing I have tried to do is not to confuse the clients,” she says. “They know what they get when they come to buy Herrera.
“I like simplicity, and I like uncomplicated looks,” she continues. “Because in the end, when you go out in the evening, do you see a lot of costumes?”
While on an earlier visit to Atlanta, I watched curator Rafael Gomes unpack gowns from several decades and realized that every one of them—dresses worn by Sandra Bullock, Lady Gaga, Lupita Nyong’o, and Renée Zellweger (including her 2004 Oscars dress)—looked so timeless, they could have been designed today. Consistency and class have been Herrera’s calling cards since the very beginning, to the frustration of some fashion critics, perhaps, but also to the delight of her clients. And that is because Mrs. Herrera has always known what looks right for a lady like her, a celebrated Venezuelan jet-set beauty from a prestigious family who captured the attention of Andy Warhol and Robert Mapplethorpe, Princess Margaret and Bianca Jagger. She appeared atop the International Best Dressed List long before she decided to start a fashion business, at the suggestion of her friend Diana Vreeland, when she was in her 40s. Recounting those early days while working with her youngest daughter, Patricia Herrera Lansing, on the Rizzoli book, called Carolina Herrera: 35 Years of Fashion, she became more aware of how daring her decision really was.
“I had forgotten so many things, even who was in the first show, so I loved looking back through the photographs,” she says. (Among the models were Alva Chinn, Paola Dominguín, and Iman.) “I remembered that after the show C.Z. Guest gave me a dinner at 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.”
In November I accompanied Mrs. Herrera to Madrid, where a large party was being planned in the fantastic art-filled home of the then–United States ambassador to Spain and Andorra, James Costos, and his partner, Michael S. Smith, the interior decorator of the Obamas’ White House. This was the week after the American election, so, naturally, there were many jokes about what the Trumps would do to Smith’s designs, but the thing that struck me most was how humbled Mrs. Herrera, who became a naturalized American citizen in 2009, was to be celebrated at a U.S. embassy. Two of her daughters are married to Spaniards, and one of them, Carolina Herrera de Báez, resides in Madrid as creative director of the company’s fragrance business through its partners at Puig.
“I am Venezuelan-born, but I am very proud to be an American designer,” Mrs. Herrera said. “I started my business in New York, which opened its doors to me, and I am here today because of that.”
As a debate ensued among designers who oppose President Donald Trump and refused to dress Melania Trump as the new First Lady, Mrs. Herrera was one of the few in the fashion industry who came to her defense. For the inaugural ball, she designed a dazzlingly beaded champagne-colored gown for his daughter Ivanka, while Mrs. Trump was dressed by Hervé Pierre Braillard, once a protégé of Mrs. Herrera’s.
“It’s out of respect,” Mrs. Herrera says. “You respect the country where you live.”
Besides, she is competitive, and she wants to continue to be a vital part of the story. For as much as we talk about her embrace of tradition and her place in history, Mrs. Herrera remains forward-looking, and in her recent work she has developed modern fabrics and prints inspired by technology. “You have to have your eyes open, and you have to go into digital,” she says (with 1.5 million followers on Instagram). “I have always been very curious, and the moment I finish with curiosity, I should stop and go someplace else. Perseverance, my dear friend, is what you have to have.”
When we saw each other again in January for this photo shoot, Mrs. Herrera’s company had just settled its lawsuit, which alleged that Laura Kim, a designer who worked there briefly, had violated a noncompete agreement by joining Oscar de la Renta as its new co-creative director with Fernando Garcia. According to the suit, Kim resigned from Herrera because she had been promised creative control of the house by its chief executive, François Kress, only to discover that Mrs. Herrera had not been informed of this plan. Kim left in July after realizing Mrs. Herrera wasn’t going anywhere.
Mrs. Herrera declined to comment on the case, citing the terms of the settlement, before raising a question of her own.
“Let me ask you something,” she said. “If you have a fashion house, and everybody’s talking about who designs for that house—the fashion team or whoever—but the designer is still alive, does the woman who goes to buy the clothes do so because of a certain designer in the house, or does she do so because of Carolina Herrera, the name on the door?”
Because of the name on the door.
The next day she called to tell me that there had been a change in management. Kress was gone. In his stead, she had promoted chief marketing officer Emilie Rubinfeld, a longtime executive and loyal protector of her image, to president. I was reminded that Mrs. Herrera had told me several times in our conversations that it was important to promote from within and work with a team while also setting a certain standard of tone.
I have often wondered if Mrs. Herrera plans to someday hand over her company to her daughters, but she says she would never presume to tell her children what to do. In exchange, it is clear that no one should ever try to tell Mrs. Herrera what to do, and that includes when to say goodbye.
“The last word,” she says, “is mine.”