Consider the ladies: Gloria Guinness, Dolores del Rio, Dulce Martinez deHoz, Carmen Miranda. "All great women of style and all Hispanic," said designer Carolina Herrera. "Spanish women since the 15th century have been remarkable for their style and elegance."
But it was Herrera's own styles, and her designs worn by Jacqueline Onassis, Nancy Reagan and author Arianna Huffington, among others, that were saluted last night at the third annual Hispanic Designers Fashion Gala and benefit at the J.W. Marriott Hotel. The proceeds from the event will benefit the nonprofit Hispanic Designers Inc., which provides scholarships and support to young Hispanics interested in fashion design.
Herrera was presented the Moda Award, a sculpture by Puerto Rican artist Jose Buscaglia that in previous years has gone to Oscar de la Renta and Adolfo. ("It's beautiful, but it weighs 35 pounds. How will I get it home?" teased the designer.)
Hispanic women of the past influence fashion today, said Herrera. "Many laugh when you cite the influence of Carmen Miranda. But just think of all the designers over the years she has inspired with her turbans and ruffles. Even Christian Lacroix," she added, referring to the Paris fashion star whose collections are pegged to ethnic themes.
Last night's benefit included a silent auction, a salute to the late artist Antonio Lopez, whose last sketch was a backdrop for the fashion show, and the designs of Spain's Angel Estrada, Cuba's Isabel Toledo and Fernando Pena, Brazil's Luiz Archer, Puerto Rico's Carlota Alfaro and Mexico's Enrique Martinez and Manuel Mendez, plus the better-known names of Adolfo (from Cuba), de la Renta (from the Dominican Republic), Fernando Sanchez (from Spain) and, of course, Herrera (from Venezuela). The jewelry of Paloma Picasso was presented on slides following a videotaped greeting to the crowd from the designer.
"Let's not forget that the greatest of all designers, Cristobal Balenciaga, was from Spain," continued Herrera. "He has influenced so many of us."
The gala evening was one of several events that are part of Spanish Heritage Week, including a lecture series at the Organization of American States and a film series at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. The Corcoran exhibition, "Hispanic Art in the United States, 30 Contemporary Sculptors and Painters," which took four years to assemble and organize, opens Oct. 10 and after three months will travel to other cities.
Many of the designers last night were quite young. Esteban Ramos, just a year out of the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles and saluted last night as "a rising star," delighted the crowd with his short, short stretch-denim mini-dresses. "If Karl Lagerfeld had designed those dresses they would be the hit of the season," said Herrera.
Other favorites from the fashion show included the body-conscious green panne velvet gown by Luiz Archer, the pony jacket and pony-print chiffon skirts by Isabel Toledo, Adolfo's short suits and the hand-beaded gowns of Carlota Alfaro. The crowd loved the male model in a black silk brocade smoking jacket and silk trousers, and stretched to see the see-through-top dresses of Oscar de la Renta. "I don't think those will fly in Colorado," said Holland Coors, ambassador to the National Year of the Americas and a native of the state.
If they didn't know each other before, many of the designers met recently in a similar salute to Hispanic designers in Los Angeles. There, too, Herrera, who over the last six years has built a $10 million business based in New York, was the star. So far she has no fear of running out of ideas. "The more you do, the more ideas you get," she said before the show. "It's like a library in your head."
Yesterday afternoon Herrera added to her "library" with a visit to the Berthe Morisot exhibit at the National Gallery of Art. "Everything I see influences me," she said. "Keeping my eyes open and watching everything around me is the best teacher for fashion. It keeps you very realistic." She wouldn't say whether the pretty feminine dresses in the Morisot paintings would show up in her next collection. "I can tell you that I would rather own a Morisot than a Renoir any day," she said.
While most of the designers showed above-the-knee dresses, all but a handful of the women guests opted for longer or full-length styles. "The message is short," said Adolfo, who said he might expect to see his client Nancy Reagan shorten her hems. Herrera skirted the issue last night by wearing a short brown lace dress with a detachable long brown taffeta overskirt slit to show the short hem underneath.