Carolina Herrera, Then and Now

Carolina Herrera’s fabled life is one that is best captured in pictures. Over the years the camera has caught her immaculate in tennis whites at her beach house in Venezuela; clasping the hand of a youthful Mick Jagger on the island of Mustique; lolling on the beach in Majorca, damp hair slicked back, her lips in a sultry pout.

There are the glamour shots: Bruce Weber’s 2001 portrait in which Mrs. Herrera kicks up her heels, and her ruffled skirt, at a party in Santo Domingo; Robert Mapplethorpe’s 1979 portrait of the designer in a veiled pillbox hat and gumball-size pearl earrings, looking every inch the movie siren; and the famous Warhol screen print, her eyes rimmed in turquoise, her expression serene.

Mementos of a life on the fly, those images fill coffee table books, countless magazines and the silver frames that crowd her office, suggesting to a visitor that when the designer does finally appear in the flesh, she’ll be carefully sealed under glass.

No such thing. Mrs. Herrera, as she is deferentially known in the trade, stepped briskly into her Seventh Avenue office the other day, dressed in a crisply tailored patterned shirt and buoyant knee-length skirt. She was animated, her staccato delivery as pointed and direct as it was more than three decades ago when she introduced the fashion line that would jumpstart her career.

We met on the eve of her departure for Atlanta, where a retrospective celebrating her 35 years in fashion was to be held at the SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion and Film, part of a joint exhibition with the SCAD Museum of Art in Savannah, Ga. On view in the show, called “Refined Irreverence,” is the designer’s vibrant legacy.

But Mrs. Herrera said she was not resting on her laurels. “I’m very competitive,” she said, her tone adamantine. “If you don’t compete, you’re not challenged enough. And if you think you are doing everything perfectly, then it’s time to retire.”

Retirement is not on her agenda. There are gowns to whip up, parties to go to. And of course there is the legend to uphold.

Carolina Herrera first claimed attention with her extravagant evening dresses and wedding gowns, one of them famously worn by Caroline Kennedy. But well before 1981, when she hung her shingle on East 57th Street and created the pouf-shouldered confections that would earn her the sobriquet Our Lady of the Sleeves, she was a fixture on the international scene.

With her husband, Reinaldo Herrera, a Venezuelan aristocrat and newsman, she had secured a coveted spot at the intersection of fashion and society in a way that is almost unheard of now, an anomaly among a generation of designers more likely these days to be found as judges on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” than mingling with clients in the rarefied precincts of Park Avenue.

At 77, with an Instagram following of over a million, Mrs. Herrera is still turning heads, pristine in her signature white shirts, her hair deftly wound into a Champagne-colored chignon. And she is still making news.

Earlier this month, the house of Herrera announced the opening of a 4,000-square-foot luxury boutique on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, Calif., the latest in an international network of shops that house both her ready-to-wear and bridal collections.

In the spring of last year, Puig, her parent company, appointed François Kress as the house’s chief executive. The announcement was swiftly followed by the replacement of several members of her design team with Laura Kim and Fernando Garcia, veterans of Oscar de la Renta and partners in the up-and-coming label Monse.

It was a turbulent period, during which she dismissed Hervé Pierre, her creative director of 14 years. Eliding over the pressures that may have prompted that decision, she said simply: “It was time for me to change. He felt it, too.”

She added, “Sometimes in life, even if you’re sad about it, you have to move on.”

It’s a precept she learned as a girl on her family’s estate in Venezuela. There, she may have languished in what Hamish Bowles, a columnist for Vogue, has described as “a lost era of white-gloved propriety, where exquisitely turned-out ladies indulged in concours d’élégance for charity, attended dog shows and garden parties, and exerted themselves with tennis and riding.”

That wasn’t the future she chose. In the late ’60s, soon after their marriage (the second for Mrs. Herrera, who wed for the first time at 18), the couple embarked on what some may view as an extended honeymoon, flitting blithely from the V.I.P. room of Studio 54 to Kensington Palace to visit their friend Princess Margaret; on to Paris, where they mingled with the Rothschilds; and to the South of France, as guests of the Fiat magnate Gianni Agnelli.

Their outings were chronicled in the society pages, Mrs. Herrera a showy fixture on the best-dressed lists. Before the gilded pair made their move to New York, she would be seen each winter sweeping toward the entrance of the Costume Institute gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a magnet for guests and passers-by.

On one such occasion, André Leon Talley, a former editor at Women’s Wear Daily and Vogue, spied her making her entrance. She was wearing, as he effusively recalled, “a deep black velvet dress with an extraordinary Infanta skirt.”

“When she came up the stairs,” he added, “the Red Sea parted.”

Fond of entertaining in their tuberose-scented Upper East Side townhouse, the Herreras gave intimate dinners that, from a current vantage, are the stuff of myth.

As recounted by Michael Gross in The New York Times, one memorable New Year’s Eve the Herreras “had just called guests together to eat 12 grapes each, one per each month of 1987.” That gesture would have seemed decadent were it not offered in a spirit of cheery bonhomie. It was an old Spanish custom, Mrs. Herrera declared at the time.

The designer’s intimate showings on East 57th Street were attended by the elite: C. Z. Guest, Doris Duke and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, a devout client. Her first show at the Metropolitan Club was, in the phrase of John Duka, then a Times fashion columnist, greeted by thunderous applause, “as thunderous, almost, as the ruffles Mrs. Herrera showed.”

But in some quarters, those early collections met with stinging skepticism. Mrs. Herrera had emerged, as Joan Juliet Buck, the writer and former French Vogue editor, later recalled, “as one of a group of society ladies extending their love of clothes into an attempt at self-definition.”

Her efforts were underappreciated. During one of her maiden runway presentations, Carrie Donovan, then fashion editor of The Times Magazine, was heard to say, “It’s all a little matronly, don’t you think?”


More painful was the assessment of the WWD chief John Fairchild, in whose eyes she was a dilettante. “I felt vulnerable,” Mrs. Herrera recalled the other day. “I thought: ‘Why don’t they accept me? I’m working the same way as everybody else.’”

Her sensibilities shaken, she was given to placing nighttime phone calls to reporters she thought may have Mr. Fairchild’s ear, seeking reassurance, and murmuring hopefully, “I know you understand me.”

Those uncertain days cast a long shadow. “Designers tell you they don’t read the reviews — it is not true,” Mrs. Herrera said. “Sometimes those reviews can open your eyes, but sometimes you say, ‘How unfair.’ They did hurt me.”

Still, on the eve of her show, which runs through Sept. 25, she was taking the long view. The retrospective — curated by Rafael Gomes, the director of fashion exhibitions at SCAD, with the assistance of Patricia Lansing, one of Mrs. Herrera’s four daughters — is a testament to where Mrs. Herrera has been. It also hints broadly at where she may be going.

Displayed on a series of alabaster mannequins are the red carpet dazzlers that attest to her relevance: the cabbage rose-patterned gown worn by Lucy Liu at the 2013 Golden Globes; the red and black bustled faille Taylor Swift wore to the same event the following year; and the blush-tone slip of a dress, its hemline pooling on the floor, that Lady Gaga wore at the 2016 Producers Guild of America Awards.

Many of those pieces seem surprisingly contemporary. For Mr. Bowles of Vogue, the designer “remains a kind of benchmark of a certain elegance — one thinks of Oscar de la Renta, and perhaps someone like Galanos or Trigère in an earlier moment — who managed to combine her very high standards with a kind of subtle innovation.”

“Hers is obviously not a hidebound elegance,” Mr. Bowles said. “The cultural changes that run through her life are reflected in her work.”

There is one look the designer recalled with particular pride, a velvet tuxedo jacket shown with shorts that in 1987 was decades ahead of its time.

When she strolled through the exhibition late last week, Mrs. Herrera said she was moved. “It was a dream that became a reality,” she said. “I was left speechless.”

What will visitors and fashion students glean from the exhibition? The designer considered for a beat. “They will see that the clothes are timeless,” she said finally.

“And they will learn to persevere.”

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