NEW YORK — Designer Carolina Herrera, wearing a well-tailored, cream-colored dress and a bouquet of lavender brooches, strides into her office on Seventh Avenue with the elongated posture of a dancer. She has fresh-from-the-salon hair that belies the day’s spitting rain. She wears a discreet hint of lipstick. She looks pristine, unhurried and genteel. There are a lot of designers who choose bland attire — T-shirts and jeans, basic black jersey — as a kind of camouflage. They don’t want to distract from the glory of their collection. Herrera serves as a template, a role model, for the woman who buys her clothes — or at least whom that woman aspires to be.
Herrera maintains a sharp eye for the details that can spoil a look: the stray hair, a skirt that wrinkles across the hips, the bodice that strains against its buttons. Her style is not fussy or old-fashioned, but it is formal. It is considered. Herrera, after all, believes that every woman should own a dress, a pencil skirt and an evening gown.
Herrera’s style stands out in our aggressively informal times. To attend a runway show for her signature collection is to be swept into a room filled with social swells, wealthy shoppers and ladies with foreign accents and terribly convoluted names suggesting nobility somewhere in the upper branches of their family tree.
This is the world out of which Herrera herself emerged, more than 30 years ago, at the age of 40, to launch her own ready-to-wear collection. She was born into wealth in Venezuela and married into Spanish nobility. Over the years, she has built a Seventh Avenue-based company that includes her signature line, epitomized by the elegant evening dresses that appear regularly at red carpet occasions, as well as fragrances, bridal gowns and a secondary collection, CH Carolina Herrera. She will open a boutique for her CH Carolina Herrera label, with its range of men’s and women’s sportswear, cocktail attire and accessories, at CityCenterDC on June 9, joining a host of other designer brands from Canali and Paul Stuart to Hermès.
Herrera, 76, has succeeded in the fashion industry by refraining from chasing cool. She does not aspire to be hip or edgy. She always wants to surprise her customer with something fresh — because what does a woman say to herself upon walking into a store if not, “What’s new?” — but she is not out to shock them.
“If you are a designer who is born hip and cool, then fine, you can do it. But I don’t understand a designer who sees hip and cool [young designers] and they want to be like the newcomers. You confuse the client,” she says. Herrera aspires to be something more subtle: contemporary, something her four daughters help her with by wearing her classic dresses in such disparate ways. Contemporary is also a mantra she shared with her friend, the late designer Oscar de la Renta. “He always [did] the same silhouette for his designs, but with a modern twist,” she says.
Jaws need not drop for Herrera to declare a collection a success. In fact, she is disappointed — troubled, baffled — by fashion’s current version of one-upsmanship: the idea that modern is synonymous with show-your-tush.
Some designers think “it’s so modern to be naked or almost naked. They think it’s going to attract younger people if they do those dresses. No!” Herrera says emphatically. “The almost naked! Oh God! They’re trying to get people to pay attention to them. In life, there should be a little mystery.” Herrera turns to the recent Costume Institute gala to make her point. Exhibits A through C: Beyoncé and her bedazzled mosquito netting; Jennifer Lopez in a red beaded gown that was all front and back and no sides; Kim Kardashian with a train of white feathers trailing from a derriere served up for admiration.
“They’re supposed to be fashion icons and they’re not wearing anything,” Herrera says in a tone that is both exasperated and dismayed. “It’s an obsession now.”
Herrera is not a prude. She is more than willing to give her customers a plunging neckline, but doing so requires care and a precise placement of the breasts underneath the fabric. “If it’s open so much, they look like fried eggs,” Herrera says. “Fashion is about proportion.”
The Carolina Herrera brand debuted in 1981. A socialite, Herrera was urged into fashion by the legendary editor Diana Vreeland. In 1995, the company was purchased by the Barcelona-based luxury conglomerate, Puig, which also owns Nina Ricci and Paco Rabanne, as well as a controlling interest in Jean Paul Gaultier. Of these fashion houses, Herrera’s is probably the least attentive to shifts in trends. To stay true to one’s aesthetic sometimes means shunning fads, which can leave a designer outside the fashion conversation. “For me, fashion is about originality, sophistication and beauty,” Herrera says. “I’m not in the fashion business; I’m in the beauty business.”
“You can’t always please the press,” Herrera says. “That’s for your ego.”
Her stubborn restraint has been embraced by first ladies such as Laura Bush and Michelle Obama, who notably chose a Herrera gown — with an embroidered black lace bodice and liberty blue skirt — when the White House hosted a 2014 state dinner for French president François Hollande.
But Herrera’s most loyal client is, perhaps, the actress Renee Zellweger. The two met almost 15 years ago at a Costume Institute gala celebrating the public wardrobe of Jacqueline Kennedy. The actress and the designer chatted and Zellweger asked if she might visit Herrera in her studio. “It was lovely, uncomplicated and easy. Personal,” Herrera says. The bond, one not bartered through a stylist, has endured. A rarity. “There’s no fidelity,” Herrera says of relationships between designers and celebrities. “There’s millions of designers and they’re offering spectacular things. [Celebrities] go from one to the other.”
Still, dressing bold-faced names resonates. “They go all over the world and if they look fabulous, it’s great for the house,” Herrera says. And if they look a wreck? The house takes the fall. But rest assured, they will not be half-naked. Not on Herrera’s watch.