By  on May 6, 2008

MANHASSET, N.Y. — In the midst of a photo shoot at the CH Carolina Herrera store here, the designer looked at ease leaning against a table. But the same couldn't be said for a young woman who stood gobsmacked in the doorway. Without waiting for the next bulb to flash, Herrera waved the shopper in.

Reflexive as that gesture was, it seemed emblematic of the CH Carolina Herrera business — all are welcome in these stores, but it's not something she has made much noise about.

Despite this low-key approach, Herrera has quietly been bolstering the CH Carolina Herrera business. There are currently 39 freestanding stores and concept shops, and that figure is expected to jump to 100 by the end of 2009. This year alone, boutiques will bow in Kuwait, Jeddah, Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, and next year units will open in Caracas, Venezuela; Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. There are nine CH Carolina Herrera stores in the U.S. and a New York flagship is on the horizon, though a location has not been found.

Launched in 2001, the CH Carolina Herrera collection is geared for a modern, effortless chic lifestyle — much like the one lived by the designer's daughter Carolina, who is also the label's muse. Framed photographs of Herrera and her namesake daughter from various stages of their lives are tucked away here and there in the store, often not in full view. Some of Herrera's favorite books — including ones by Irving Penn, Peter Lindbergh and Julian Schnabel — are also interspersed throughout. There are other homey items as well, such as a sterling silver dog dish, scented candles, teddy bears and a leather carrier for a water bottle — all designed by Herrera.

The at-home feel aims to make shoppers linger. "The feeling is you want to stay here and have a cup of tea or a drink of water," Herrera said. "No one has the feeling that someone is trying to sell you something."

And that is not by chance. The store's salespeople are trained not to hover or trail shoppers around. The last thing Herrera wants is for an employee to insist a customer try something on. The staff is more than willing to help when asked, but Herrera said, "Here, you can shop on your own without many people looking at what you're doing."That individual mindedness is something she practices in her own life. "You have to be yourself, take your own stand and have a strong style," she said.

In addition to a full-blown women's collection with everything from windbreakers to eveningwear, CH Carolina Herrera includes men's wear, accessories, footwear, scarves, shawls and assorted sundries like blankets, a limited edition baby stroller and a picnic basket with a thermos and checkered blanket. While the crisp white shirts and delicate dresses with a ruffled hem capture the designer's unmistakable style, so do the "CH" printed bags, men's suits with discreet linings and kidskin driving gloves. The CH Carolina Herrera women's collection retails from $95 for a cotton T-shirt to $2,075 for a silk gown, in comparison with the Carolina Herrera New York signature collection, which runs from $990 for a cotton canvas pant to $65,000 for a sable poncho.

CH Carolina Herrera handbags are a major component of the store's assortment. An array of totes, clutches, handbags and satchels in a variety of leathers and canvases are neatly showcased in the first area shoppers see when they walk in the door. Several are imprinted with "CH" or carry "CH" hardware. There is also a wide range of colors including bags in fuchsia suede and loden leather. This is the largest offering of her handbags, since her freestanding stores only offer bags from Judith Leiber and Nancy Gonzalez. "I love the bags," she said, trying one on here and there.

Dressed in a CH Carolina Herrera and signature collection combo of a white and gray floral skirt, black patent leather belt, a black button down shirt and taupe patent leather shoes, Herrera said, "I have to be who I am. I have to be very strong and follow my own instincts and stay with what I started. When you stop leading and start reacting, you go the wrong way. It's very important to know what your identity is with fashion."

After 27 years in business, Herrera, this year's recipient of the CFDA Lifetime Achievement Award, knows where she stands. Her self-assured ease — something that is evident throughout the CH Carolina Herrera collection — is a necessity in fashion, she said. "If you see the most beautifully dressed woman sitting in something that doesn't look comfortable, that isn't fashion. Fashion is about being natural. Natural is a very important side to fashion."With CH Carolina Herrera, she is revealing a bit more of her personal style beyond the clothes and the portraits in the store. The designer said when friends visit her at home, they often remark about how the jasmine-scented candles smell like the CH Carolina Herrera store. She said with a laugh that she tells them, "No, the boutique smells like my home."

In the stores, even the modern tables, chairs, oversize red hanging lamps and all of the other Spanish-made furniture can be ordered if a customer inquires. "Everything here is for sale, which is a nice concept, no? If you are in other places and you see something and ask 'Where can I find it?' no one tells," she said.

CH Carolina Herrera handbags, jackets "with perfect shoulders," signature white shirts, a printed caftan with metallic accents, "lovely-colored" polo shirts and the men's collection with its many details are among the designer's favorite items. "I love that caftan. I have one I will wear this summer. Every time I come here I find something to buy, which is a little bit of a problem for me," she said.

While the label is widely known in Europe and overseas, especially in Spain where there are 19 outposts, American customers are less familiar with it. The company has yet to do any advertising in the U.S. but expects to at some point. The same can be said for the label's fragrance, which is only available overseas. And the lack of a Manhattan flagship also has kept the label below the radar.

Overall, though, the CH Carolina Herrera business is sailing along just by word-of-mouth recommendations. "People are so tired of all those trends. Maybe there are too many trendy clothes and trendy stores," the designer said. "Maybe it's OK to be a little more elusive and mysterious. Fashion is mysterious."

During her biannual trips to the CH Carolina Herrera factory in Spain, the designer delights in seeing all the women on the streets wearing ballet flats covered with the CH Carolina Herrera logo. The fact that the production staff produces all the CH Carolina Herrera apparel and the team has been the same from the label's launch seven years ago are other pluses. "It's important to have your own factory. You can control the whole thing. Everything has to be in harmony," she said.The Spanish factory does not produce anything for Herrera's signature collection. Herrera may borrow a detail that was used in her signature collection one season and use it in the diffusion line the next, but the similarities begin and end there. Each label is run as a separate company and has separate offices. While some might be tempted to consolidate the two administratively or productionwise to reduce the workload or expenses, Herrera believes everything has its place.

"Everything in fashion is about details — like it is in life. You have to have details. Otherwise, who knows what kind of life you have," she said.

The Caracas-born designer stems from a long line of Venezuelan landowners and statesmen and learned the importance of self-discipline early on in life. Herrera's mother, "a very romantic and poetic figure, but very disciplined," wanted to instill in her daughters the importance of being cultured and well-read, and to not be consumed by their appearances.

"I love the idea that I was brought up with so much discipline. It made me organized, and it made me understand how important it is to be on time and to have my own life. I have a huge family on the side — 10 grandchildren. And I have four daughters, and houses and everything else....," she said. "The discipline was always there. Fashion is always on deadlines. But first of all, I have to say I enjoy my work. The important thing is I love what I do and I am able to also have another life. It's important to have your own life and your own time. That's good for your work, too."

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