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Carolina Herrera: Luxe Be A Lady

In the fickle world of ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ fashion, few things can exude perpetual elegance. Yet Carolina Herrera, who has ruled the fashion world for several decades, is going stronger than ever, reflecting timeless movie star glamour in her designs. I recently caught up with Herrera at a showing of her fall collection at Saks Fifth Avenue and in this exclusive interview she reveals what makes a lady a lady, what it was like to dress Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and her impression of a younger muse, Academy Award-winning Texan, Renée Zellweger.

“There is nothing like the moment when a glamorous woman walks into a room and everybody wonders who she is,” says Carolina Herrera. Let’s face it, Herrera is one glamorous lady. The South American-born beauty has eaten, slept and breathed high fashion her entire life. To top it off, Herrera may just be one of the most likeable designers in the fashion industry today. “Carolina is charming, interesting, aristocratic, but democratic,” says her close friend, celebrity photographer Patrick McMullan. “She’s an amazing style icon.” Perfectly coiffed in a black, silk ruffled blouse, a white pencil skirt and tastefully high heels, all of her own design, this 68-year-old native of Caracas, Venezuela embodies the perfect woman with her continental accent and timeless style. Over tea and chocolate bon-bons we discuss how her vision of being a lady has enhanced the world.

Exposure to the finer things in life at an early age charted the course for her stylish life. At the tender age of 13, she attended her first Paris couture show, Cristobal Balenciaga, with her grandmother. She grew up with a privileged background as the daughter of prominent and sociable parents. “While I was growing up, I didn’t dream about being a designer, but I always loved clothes,” she shares. After two marriages and four children, her professional life included public relations work for Pucci during its heyday—an auspicious beginning for a woman raised to be a socialite, not a businesswoman.

But a successful business woman she became, and she has helmed her fashion house since 1980. “I grew up in a family where everybody was well-dressed, and I married into a family where everybody was well dressed,” reflects Herrera. “I think that was very good training for my eye.” While some critics believed Carolina Herrera, Ltd. was just a flash in the pan, her friend and former Vogue editor Diana Vreeland believed in her and gave her the confidence to launch her first collection. She freely acknowledges she’s not a typical designer. “I have an eye for proportion, which is always the key to looking great,” says Herrera. “Don’t ask me to cut or to sew. I can’t do that. But I know exactly how a shoulder should lie.”

Her 27 years in the fashion industry shows staying power. Herrera, a New Yorker when she is not residing in her 17th century home in La Vega, Venezuela, is often lauded by the media as one of the country's most elegant women and is supremely well-respected inside the fashion industry. In three decades, she has launched fragrances for both women and men, cosmetics, accessories, and 22 eponymous stores that she created with two of her daughters. Her designs can be found at some of the world’s premier retailers including Harrods' in London, Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman and Stanley Korshak.

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The talent of the designs in her collection keeps her fans loyal every season and speaks volumes to the type of customer she knows so well. Fashion is oxygen to Herrera and her and her irrepressibly chic clientele. She’s worked hard on her latest fall collection and it’s received rave reviews. “The whole thing is all an experiment with the details and the fabrics,” she says. It’s really all about texture, dimension and color—an optical illusion that we created with the fabrics. This season the colors that most inspire me are blue, ash and coffee.” The collection really embraces the newly refined A-line, shift silhouette. It’s very That Girl. “I love it because it is something new again. Fashion can be a repetition, don’t forget,” she shares. “The shift dress is a special length. It has to be more mini than anything else. When you do something new that hasn’t been done in a while it takes a little while for women to get accustomed. When it is new people say, ‘I don’t understand that,’ but in a few seasons they want it because they then understand it.”

Herrera’s designs have always been ahead of trend, yet timeless. A recurring theme this season is the clever teardrop cut-out along the décolleté. “I think that treatment is very becoming and sexy for a woman. It’s a cut out, but it’s not the usual one when the cleavage is all out. It is very seductive. That is why I did it. It is not vulgar. Sometimes sexiness is connected with vulgarity,” says Herrera. Her designs are never vulgar, because that’s not the Herrera woman who wears her fashions. Herrera admits that her ideal muse is a very independent woman who is quite active and is a role model. She travels, is sophisticated and doesn’t mind being called elegant and glamorous. “Nowadays, some women don’t like being called that because they think it is old-fashioned, but I think it’s a very feminine instinct,” says Herrera.

An old fashioned instinct seems to be when women in the past wanted to appear older and more sophisticated. Now, women want to look younger. Herrera confirms this new phenomenon, and believes, “Women should know when they are getting older and change their way of dressing. What they used to wear when they were 15 cannot be worn when they are 30 because it is not going to look the same. They have to change with years.” She goes on to say, “At 15 I wanted to be Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich. That was my inspiration in life because I wanted to be like the actresses in all of those old films I used to watch, with the long cigarette and the hats. I wanted to be real hot.” Movie stars have always influenced young girls, even today yet Herrera feels, “They were very glamorous in those old films, and that was my idea too. But I was also a little bit of a rebel. When I saw that everyone was wearing mini-skirts I wanted to wear mine long, and when they were long, I wanted to wear mine short—just to have a reaction.” When asked if she garnered the reaction she desired, Herrera laughs and recounts, “Of course I did. If you wore something that nobody else was wearing in those days you’d get a reaction. Now everybody has to wear the same thing. You have to have the individuality. Put things together but don’t look like everybody else.”

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Carolina Herrera also notes that, “Latin women have a very strong sense of fashion. Sometimes it is a little bit of excess, but they are very well put together. We are losing that. I see the people that are walking in the streets and the majority look like they are coming out of a factory because everybody looks the same way, with the jeans and the sneakers.” While Herrera’s stamp on brilliance is helping to make the world a more beautiful place, she also states, “Everything in fashion has evolved, and everything has to change. If it lasts, it becomes boring. You need to do something new every time, even if it’s a repetition of ideas. It’s the way you put it together—the proportions, the colors, the way the materials are mixed, the embroideries, or the way the dress is cut. That is what makes it new and exciting all the time.”

Exciting for Herrera these days is CH, her lifestyle line. “We call it a lifestyle line because it has everything—for men, things for children, shoes, and accessories, too. I think that’s why we call it a lifestyle, but it is a continuation of Carolina Herrera New York. The line is my baby. I am very happy it has grown to be so healthy. I just opened a shoe store in Madrid,” Herrera enthuses. She realizes the importance of shoes in a woman’s wardrobe and affirms, “I think it is very necessary to have a lot of shoes. I love them. I had designed some shoes but now it is a whole collection. Accessories like shoes can magically change the look of what a woman is wearing.” While the purse remains a hot accessory, too, Herrera is not convinced that women seem to need an It bag these days. “The It bag. I hate that. The fashion victims have them all the time. For me fashion has to have a lot of individuality. If you wear the same thing that everyone else is wearing, then it is not individual. It’s like the bag that came out in that huge size and a small lady wears the bag because it’s fashionable. Come on,” she insists.

Herrera has, to put it lightly, a legion of fans, both off-screen and on. Texan Renée Zellweger is a friend and a fan of hers and Herrera feels that, “Renée has something very strong about her. She knows exactly what she likes to wear and she wears it well. She tries the clothes on and she knows what she is wearing and it is not at the last moment. She has a clear sense of fashion.” When speaking of other stars, Herrera feels they may not care as much about fashion, “They don’t have time. Their stylists choose it. The stars don’t care because they are too busy. Every time they go out they have everybody on top of them waiting to criticize them.”

Herrera designs sportswear, yet it’s her event dressing that gets noticed by the press on the red carpet where, once a dress is photographed, it is seen everywhere immediately and then it’s never worn again. “Photographs are very important. Clothes have to fit well, but sometimes you see these movie stars with a dress on that is three sizes too small. It is better to have it made for you because you have to remember that photograph will stay forever. Why can’t they wear it twice if they love it? It’s like a sin if they wear it again,” she states.

Not only stars, but also some of the most intrinsically stylish women in the world have been dressed by Herrera. She gives an account of one such woman by sharing, “Esteé Lauder was adorable and I loved her. In fact, she was a genius. She was the best because she used to sell her image in such a way that it was actually her products that she was selling. If you were at a dinner party she would say, ‘What lipstick are you wearing? That shade is not good for you. Try this one.’ That was amazing. She was always perfect for the public because she had to be that way.”

And then there was also the high priestess of twentieth century style, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, whom Herrera designed for many years before her death, and recounts, “She was unbelievable. She was not only the fashion icon that they we wanted her to be, but also she had a great sense of history. She was very cultivated and very human. Too many people only see her as a fashion icon, but there was so much more. She was a great friend and quite loyal. She was the whole package.”

One thing that Carolina Herrera believes is that fashion should be, above all, pleasurable and acknowledges, “Fashion is magic. It is a mystery. It is fun. It is frivolous. But it is a necessity for your life that you have to get dressed everyday. If people say, ‘I hate fashion and I don’t have any interest in it,’ I think, well, how did you put together what you are wearing? Life should be a fantasy.” When asked about her own fashion fantasy, Herrera keeps that a mystery and says slyly, “My fantasy is my fantasy. It’s like a dream that I cannot share.”

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