Carolina Herrera

Carolina versus Oscar.

In a battle pitting two grand names in American fashion — Carolina Herrera and Oscar de la Renta — Herrera has sued de la Renta in the Supreme Court of the State of New York over a young designer who has helped each brand inject a more youthful air into their collections: Laura Kim, who founded the Monse brand with Fernando Garcia.

Herrera on Wednesday filed a lawsuit seeking to block Kim from joining de la Renta as co-creative director with Garcia. The duo was named creative directors in September, and Herrera wants the court to stop Kim from joining until April. Kim’s and Garcia’s first collection for de la Renta would be for fall 2017, which would be shown during New York Fashion Week in February.

Carolina Herrera Ltd. released the following statement Wednesday, “Carolina Herrera is pleased the court today granted a temporary restraining order that upholds the non-compete agreement we signed with our former senior designer. As the court ruled, the non-compete agreement was fair and plainly worded. At all times, Carolina Herrera was faithful to the letter and spirit of our agreement, and we will continue to ethically and forcefully protect our business interests. Our focus remains on continuing to introduce new collections that embody the spirit of timeless elegance and refinement for which Carolina Herrera is known.”

A spokesperson for de la Renta declined comment.

But Herrera’s suit makes juicy reading — and does not hide plans to “transition out” the 77-year-old designer and replace her with a younger creative director. The suit comes at the end of a year when Herrera has been celebrating the 35th anniversary of her fashion house.

According to the suit, Herrera chief executive officer Francois Kress in July offered Kim, who the suit says was then a vice president of the house, a salary of $1 million to become senior vice president of design of the Carolina Herrera brand. Kim allegedly turned the job down, though, and left to join de la Renta.

Kim and Garcia had been hired as consultants at Herrera in October 2015, joining that company after Kim left de la Renta, where she had been employed for 12 years working directly with the late de la Renta himself. Her final job there was design director.

Sources said while de la Renta executives were not concerned about Kim’s joining Herrera, even as a consultant, there was some worry that she had worked so closely with the late designer himself for so long and had deep knowledge of the house’s aesthetic. While Herrera and the late de la Renta were personal friends, there has long been a business rivalry between the two fashion houses. Herrera’s is much larger, approaching $1 billion based on the successful fragrances developed by her parent company Puig, although de la Renta has a more recognized apparel and accessories business.

An affidavit filed with the suit by Kim’s lawyer Neil Capobianco says that at the end of 2015 and in early 2016, she started having talks with the House of Herrera about becoming creative director. Based on the promise that Herrera herself would be “transitioning” out if that role, the affidavit says, Kim “agreed to give it a try.”

Her start date was to be Feb. 29, 2016.

Capobianco declined comment Wednesday, but the affidavit filed on behalf of Kim says that once she began working at Herrera, she realized that “nobody had informed Ms. Herrera that she was being transitioned out and that Ms. Herrera intended to run CH as if she were the creative director. According to my offer letter, I was supposed to be reporting to CH’s president and chief executive officer Francois Kress. However, I soon learned that Ms. Herrera frequently took charge, without objection from Mr. Kress. Indeed, in a ‘Fashionista’ article published February 26, 2016, Ms. Herrera is quoted as saying, ‘The creative director is myself. They [Laura and Fernando] are coming to join me.”

Sources said Herrera expressed that same sentiment to many people, often describing Kim and Garcia as “consultants” while she was the main designer of her brand.

Kim’s affidavit said that she tried to “work around the tensions inherent in a surreptitious transition plan,” but realized the conditions were “untenable and unworkable” and resigned on July 8. She offered to work out her three-month notice period, but Kress turned the offer down and said Kim and Garcia did not have to come into the office any longer. A letter from Kress reproduced in the affidavit states that, and Kress signs off with “have a nice weekend.”

“At this time, Mr. Kress informed me and Mr. Garcia that Carolina Herrera (the person) did not like our designs for the upcoming show [for spring 2016] and that she felt she could finish the collection in a way that was appropriate for her brand. In fact, Carolina Herrera said to me at that time: ‘Nobody knows you and nobody knows that you are here. I am more famous than you and have more powerful friends.’”

The affidavit says that Herrera did substantially change the designs. It also states that Kim told the Herrera company that she was leaving because it would not make Garcia co-creative director “and because CH would not agree to support Monse’s development as a brand,” adding that Kim “did not feel that this was a positive environment for creative input.”

News of Kim and Garcia joining de la Renta broke in early September and five days later Kress sent Kim a letter invoking the six-month non-compete agreement.

The Herrera suit claims that the brand has lost business since Kim’s departure and that the fall collection shown during New York Fashion Week in February has been a dud at retail.

The suit contends Kim was a “unique employee” who is “very adept at creating designs that are what commercial clients are interested in stocking in their stores,” adding that the resort 2016 collection Kim helped design was “the most commercially successful ever in its 35-year history.”

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