Carolina Herrera does more than just design clothes. Political figures confide in her, aspiring artists look to her for advice, and women all across the globe don her dresses as badges of honor. “I design for the woman of today,” the 75-year-old fashion icon tells Haute Living. “I want her to feel beautiful and confident in my clothes.”
And it seems the sentiment is mutual. From First Ladies to Hollywood starlets, Herrera’s couture creations have become staples in high society, worn by the likes of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Duchess Diana de Melo, Renée Zellweger, Amy Adams, and beyond. “It is always great to see my designs on the red carpet,” she admits, a wry smile crossing her bold red lips. “But it must be done in the right way.”
For Herrera, that means disregarding current trends and dressing for one’s body type. “You have to dress to flatter your body. You don’t have to dress a certain way because fashion is saying that you have to wear mini skirts. Some people don’t have the legs—or the age,” she asserts. Whereas many designers in today’s politically correct, anti-bullying culture are quick to preach acceptance and argue that fashion has no rules, Herrera does not subscribe to this new-age school of thought. For her, there are rules—and fashion can indeed be offensive. “If you look at the people walking around the streets of New York at this moment, it is horrendous!” she exclaims. “I have never seen people so badly dressed in my life! It’s amazing the way they look! I don’t know why… I don’t know what’s going on… but it’s really, really bad.”
The main offender: crop tops. “When you are very young and you have a wonderful figure you can pull it off, but whenever I see this style, it’s usually on the wrong person. I was sitting in traffic this morning looking at the people on the street, and I thought to myself, ‘What is going on here?!’ Everybody is wearing the wrong clothes. Proportion is very important. Wear clothes that are flattering to your figure and appropriate for your personality.” Few women follow this advice more than political power player Michelle Obama, a staple on every best-dressed list—and one of Herrera’s loyal customers. “She loves classic modern clothes,” she explains. “Ms. Obama dresses in a way that is very appropriate for today and she knows how to dress for her figure.”
It is this discerning eye that has made Herrera so successful throughout her three-plus decade career. Hailing from Venezuela, the designer launched her New York–based eponymous ready-to-wear collection in 1981 at the suggestion of her friend, Diana Vreeland, the former editor-in-chief of Vogue. “Diana was the one that pushed me to do this,” she reveals. “I came to her with the idea of designing fabrics, and she was very honest, and said it was such a boring idea.” At that point, Herrera decided to trust her mentor, take the leap, and hire a seamstress in Caracas, Venezuela to create a small collection of dresses, which she sold off a rack inside a friend’s New York apartment. Her designs were so widely received that shortly thereafter, she received financial banking from Venezuelan publisher Armando de Armas to create her line.
The following year, Herrera showed her first full collection at New York’s exclusive Metropolitan Club to industry executives and more than 400 members of the press. And she hasn’t stopped making waves since. Between countless runway shows and numerous accolades—including the Council of Fashion Designers of America Womenswear Designer of the Year Award in 2004 and the Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008—Herrera has continued to push boundaries and create designs that are not only beautiful, but also wearable. “In the fashion business everybody talks a lot about dreams. Fashion is a fantasy. It’s madness. It’s a mystery. It has to be fun,” she says wistfully. “But it has to be a reality too because it’s very important for women to be able to wear what is shown in the collection.”
But perhaps the real testament of Herrera’s success is longevity in a famously fickle field. Her brand, which includes Carolina Herrera New York, as well as the more moderately priced lifestyle line, CH Carolina Herrera, has become synonymous with luxury and extends to everything from wedding dresses and shoes to fragrances and eyewear. Though she’s hard-pressed to pick a favorite item, the designer admits that she has a soft spot for her White Shirt collection, a signature in her own wardrobe for both its practicality—and sex appeal. “A white shirt is always very snappy. It’s very seductive,” she explains. “You can dress it up or dress it down. You can wear it in the evening with a ball skirt or you can wear it in the daytime.”
The fierce fashionista recently made headlines for designing the custom champagne and gold strapless multi-layer tulle gown musician Jessica Simpson wore during her July nuptials to Eric Johnson. “Jessica was so much fun. She was full of excitement and love when she came in,” Herrera gushes. “I am always very honored every time a bride selects a Carolina Herrera wedding dress. It is so rewarding to contribute to one of the most important moments in a woman’s life—to make her feel beautiful, confident, and special.” A feat she solidly accomplished through intricate sequined embroidery inspired by a brocade from the late 19th century.
Though she’s cultivated numerous famous friendships over the years, Herrera still treasures the relationship she formed with style icon Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. “Jackie was a great inspiration to work with,” she recalls fondly. “I worked with her throughout the last 10 years of her life. Everything she did, she did it with her own incredible style. She was the epitome of elegance.”
Despite Herrera’s privileged upbringing (she accompanied her socialite grandmother to see the Cristobal Balenciaga haute couture show in Paris at the age of 13 and began dressing in Dior and Lanvin shortly thereafter), the designer argues that true style is not indicative of designer labels. “Elegance isn’t solely defined by what you wear,” she divulges. “It’s how you carry yourself, how you speak, what you read, and what you choose. Sometimes you see someone effortlessly chic, and that to me, is elegance.”
To help all women embody this modern-day sophistication, Herrera urges clients to invest in classic pieces that complement their figures—and lifestyles. “Elevating your look is not about wearing the most expensive dress or skirt,” she admits. “It is about knowing what works for you.” Still, like any highly regarded fashion authority, she contends that there are certain staples all ladies should keep in their closets. “A flattering little black dress is something every woman must have. You can always take it from day to night by adding some jewelry or a handbag,” she declares. “Accessories always change an outfit, so a wonderful pair of heels is also a must. I have a fabulous pair of heels from CH Carolina Herrera, which I had to have in every color.”
In an era of celebrity designers and mass-manufactured knockoffs, it is clear that Herrera respects her craft to the utmost degree. She does not design for fun; she designs because it’s her calling. “I have a passion for fashion and that is why I keep doing what I am doing,” she muses. “I am at the office every day. I’m involved in everything.” Herrera’s empire has also become somewhat of a family affair. Her daughter, Carolina Herrera Baez, joined the company in 1997 as creative director of Herrera’s House of Fragrances. Her other daughter, Patricia Herrera Lansing, works as part of her design team. “I love working with them because they see things in a different light,” she confesses.
And while her husband, Reinaldo Herrera Guevara, may not be part of her actual staff, Herrera considers him her number one source of inspiration—and the driving force behind her success. “My husband has always encouraged me to do what I love, which is fashion,” she states. “We have respect for each other, and obviously, love. But respect is very important.” And, of course, the fact that he likes to shower her with sparkly baubles from time to time doesn’t hurt either. “It’s very nice to have a husband that likes jewelry,” she says with a laugh. “He always has jewelry in his family so he gives them to me. I don’t go out and buy jewelry.”
Interestingly, Herrera’s most prized luxury does not cost any money at all. “My favorite luxury is my privacy,” she reveals. “Luxury is getting something you want, but don’t need.” Aside from her family—and two dogs, one of which served as the inspiration behind a print in Herrera’s pre-fall 2012 collection—the only other extravagances she needs in her life are books and music. “Any music!” she declares. “Music is a constant companion, just like my books. I think that it is lovely to have music. Sometimes I listen to classical, sometimes I listen to modern, but music is always there.”
There is another constant in Herrera’s life, of course. Fashion. It’s more than just clothes in one of her 128 global boutiques; it’s about unearthing new sources of inspiration, re-interpreting old ideas, and creating something completely new and unique. “I still feel nervous before each show—very much so,” she concedes. “I love seeing my designs come down the runway, but I am never satisfied. I always say, it could have been better. But I think that’s a very good sign because it’s a challenge—to do it better and better all the time.”