The Henry Clay Frick House is arguably one of New York’s most beautiful locales, an enclave of serenity and grace running the full block between 70th and 71st Streets on Fifth Avenue, across the street from Central Park.
On Feb. 15, Carolina Herrera will show in the Frick’s arched Garden Court for the second time, the follow-up to her magnificent spring collection. A major point of attraction to the splendid space: street access.
Herrera was drawn to the museum’s imposing beauty that goes against the grain of the ultracool, frenzied, downtown venue approach to shows that dominates the New York calendar. But if the Garden Court weren’t easy to enter and exit, she would have passed. “I don’t like elevators, all right?” Herrera says. “Everybody asked why did I stay at Lincoln Center [so long]? Because it’s convenient, people arrive and go directly to the show. Because it’s not fair with all of you going to the shows to be [delayed] at an elevator to go and sit for an hour and then run to another elevator.”
When she had to depart Lincoln Center, Herrera mulled possibilities that would resonate as interesting yet keep the focus on the clothes. The Frick, long one of her favorite New York haunts, came to mind. “It’s not a huge spectacle. It’s a beautiful place and you don’t have to do a lot of [set] decorations or anything because everything is there. So that’s the way, that’s why we ended up there.”
The lady is a pragmatist, a distinction worn with genuine patrician glamour. And she is a survivor. Along with Ralph Lauren, Herrera alone remains as a founding presence of the generation of designers that put American designer fashion on the map. Yet unlike Lauren, she is a royalty-collecting employee at the huge company — some would say surprisingly huge — that bears her name. Barcelona-based Puig launched Herrera’s first fragrance in 1988 and bought the company outright in 1995. In 2012, the last time for which the firm has released figures, Puig put 2011 consolidated global retail sales for Herrera’s fragrance and fashion at $1.3 billion.
In this age of the designer carousel, the Herrera-Puig relationship presents as a rare ideal. “Puig is a family business. That gives you confidence,” Herrera says. “We understand each other very well. They’re very respectful of what I do, I’m in the creative side of this company. I’m not the business side. You ask me what is my business, I don’t have the slightest idea.”
On that point, Herrera indulges in a false modesty. Running the business side falls to chief executive officer François Kress, who joined the firm last March after a tenure as global president of Stuart Weitzman LLC, and prior stints at The Row, Prada and LVMH. But Herrera understands one of its most essential commandments: Know thyself.
The designer’s aesthetic has hardly remained static, evolving through the years from early flamboyance to a more measured take on decorative chic. Yet she has resisted the temptation to veer too dramatically from her elegant, adult perspective in pursuit of the elusive, some would say imaginary, young client that so many houses seek, often alienating their core constituencies in the process. As she approaches her brand’s 35th anniversary, a mark about which she’s not particularly emotional (she doesn’t like anniversaries and birthdays), a consistency of vision marks her work. “I don’t change the style of the company every six months,” Herrera says. “I think it’s the saddest thing when you see a fashion company that has been around for years and they try to be very young and change and do things they never did [before], trying to attract younger people. You have to do the right things for the [company]. It’s sad when you see” a company known for a more discreet take on fashion, suddenly go “very tight and cool and black leather like Saint Laurent.
“Fashion must be for today,” she continues. “That doesn’t mean I’m going to go to an extreme, with black leather leggings, or all naked. You cannot be naked. You cannot be run by the red carpet. You cannot be run by Instagram. You have to be run by your idea of what you want to show…design with your eyes open. Make it contemporary but don’t confuse people.”
Herrera’s spring collection, one of her loveliest ever, speaks to that position. A study in sophisticated delicacy, she worked airy pink fabrics with varying degrees of transparency, her goal a lineup that was “a little nude but not obvious,” that would play to the romanticism of the space, “like a fantasy. It had to move, it had to be light, it had to be like butterflies. I was very happy with it.”
Recently, she has been very taken with techno foam fabrics, integrating them seamlessly into her elegant vision. Versions with various 3-D floral motifs will play prominently in her fall collection. One features graphic, raised embroideries of jasmine, Herrera’s favorite flower, its scent a note in her first fragrance. “I’m always investigating the new techniques to use in a feminine way, and making women look beautiful for now, for today. That is my job.”
Fabrics aren’t the only way in which Herrera is embracing technology. Her upcoming show will be live-streamed with a 360-degree feed on the brand’s Web site, and the company is growing its social media presence, primarily on Instagram.
As for overall growth, patience has long driven the strategy, one proven savvy over time, the company’s overall sales ballooning almost under the radar. The fragrance alone has more than 25,000 points of sale around the world, and the CH brand is broadly distributed across North America, Iberia and the Middle East, including 129 freestanding stores. By comparison, the signature Carolina Herrera is small and focused on wholesale as opposed to a dense network of brand stores. It has only three, in New York, Dallas and Los Angeles. Under Kress’ stewardship, the push is on to grow that business significantly, with the primary focus on Europe and North America.
“You have to analyze everything and have perseverance,” Herrera says. “Do you want to open stores in places where they don’t know you and you don’t know if things will sell, or are just going to open them because of your ego? The fashion world is a lot of egos. I don’t mind waiting. I want to do things right, when we are ready. This is the right time to have Carolina Herrera all over Europe.”
At the same time, growth involves more intimate gestures as well, and the company is open to one-off or short-term collaborations. This week, a capsule exclusive to Jeffrey New York hit the selling floor; it features seven styles in graphic black-and-white dots that riff on the packaging of the brand’s first fragrance. A second such collaboration, with Mytheresa.com, is set for May. “They’re very focused; they know exactly what they need,” Herrera says. “It’s a joy to work with people like that.”
Herrera took a gradual path to becoming a major fashion industry force. She grew up in a world of privilege in Caracas, one in which fashion was not viewed as particularly significant. Discipline defined the family ethos in which she and her two sisters were raised. Though she soaked up knowledge subliminally while looking at her mother’s pretty clothes, Herrera’s conscious self was far more concerned with studying the pursuits of a well-bred young lady, both intellectual, such as art and history, and active — riding and tennis. For years, she quips, her tennis instructor was the most important person in her life. She also took cues from her governess, a refined Hungarian woman who taught her French and English. As a teenager, Herrera began to explore style as an interest and fodder for experimentation; she has often said that when she discovered American screen sirens, she wanted to be a vamp.
All of that combined with good old-fashioned luck — she’s gorgeous — coalesced into Herrera’s signature glamour, worn with white-shirted control and impeccable carriage. And very naturally. Herrera seems, in every discernible way, devoid of artifice. As she and her second husband, Reinaldo Herrera, traveled, often to New York, they became regulars at haunts including Studio 54, and she, on the international society pages.
“That was so much fun, New York in the Seventies,” she says. “You were mixed with a lot of creative people, talent, in the art world, in society, literature, in the movie business. Actors, actresses, musicians, they were all mixed. You used to go to dinners and find everybody together. It was fun. I loved it.”
At some point during her enviable itinerant ways, Herrera decided she had something to offer women like herself in terms of fashion, chic women with tony lifestyles. She wanted to open a fashion house. Her friend Halston, who by then had experienced a series of woes, advised her otherwise. “What did you drink, are you mad? You can’t!” he admonished.
Undeterred, Herrera forged on. Just past 40 and the mother of four daughters, she would forge an enviable life as a working woman, achieving what appears from the outside a near perfect work-life balance. In aggregate, her daughters Mercedes, Ana Luisa, Carolina and Patricia have made her a grandmother 12 times over (each has three children), and surely the most glamorous great-grandmother on Earth — a status about which Herrera makes no effort to hide. “Why should I?” she muses. “I don’t avoid it. I think every age has benefits and limitations. No? You should try to develop each one at the proper time.”
About the time Herrera was mulling opening a business (counseled in the affirmative by none other than Diana Vreeland, a family friend), she attended a party. Someone pointed out Armando de Armas, the publishing magnate whose Miami-based portfolio included the Spanish language Harper’s Bazaar. A recent cover of the magazine had featured a paparazzi photo of Herrera. She went over to thank him, and before the conversation was over, he had offered to invest in her still nonexistent business. Herrera staged her first show at the Metropolitan Club for fall 1981, with a band playing Cole Porter. Steve Rubell was turned away at the door for want of a necktie; he returned and was welcomed after a quick Bergdorf Goodman run. All of the big stores — Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf’s, Saks Fifth Avenue — came and wrote orders.
Despite the seeming worldliness of her operation, as a businessperson, Herrera was green. She recalls of her first trunk show that she didn’t grasp the lingo: “I didn’t know it was called a trunk show because you transported the clothes in a trunk.” She also had to turn down an offer of windows from the legendary Park Avenue retailer Martha. Before the Metropolitan show, Herrera had worked up a small collection “with my French couturier in Venezuela.” Vreeland suggested she take it to Martha, who offered windows. Herrera was about to jump when a friend pointed out that she couldn’t; she had not a piece to sell beyond the sample line. Still, she notes, “Martha, queen of fashion at the moment, wanted to put some dresses in the window. That was good.”
So, too, was her partnership with De Armas, through which the business got established for real. They remained together until he decided he wanted out of fashion. Together they sold the company outright to Puig.
Simpler times, despite the learning curve. Now, like just about everyone else in fashion, Herrera thinks the industry machine has spun wantonly out of control. Too many shows, too many seasons. “The client, the woman that buys,” Herrera muses, “do you think they want to buy so much? Do you think they need all that? Do you think they have time to think, ‘I need something special that I don’t have?’ Or is it just more, ‘OK, whatever?'”
She’s open to the rapidly trending concept of consumer-timed shows — “it’s a good idea if we can again create some mystery” — but sees potential creative pratfalls in having to make production commitments in advance of the major-season shows. “It’s very complicated,” she says, while acknowledging it’s the way of today’s fashion world. “We have to accept it and work it out in a way that works for everyone, for us, designers, people who are the clients and for women who want to look beautiful.”
Despite the industry upheaval, Herrera still loves her work, particularly working with her two youngest daughters. “It’s fabulous,” she offers. “First of all, they don’t lie. A lot of people are afraid to tell the truth.” Carolina works in fragrance from her base in Madrid; Patricia, in the design studio. “She’s like a thermometer,” Herrera maintains.
As the company grows, fragrance remains in the forefront of the strategy. It brought Herrera together with Puig in the first place, and remains highly successful. “Every designer should have a scent,” Herrera says. “If it’s successful, it’s amazing. It helps with everything. You are everywhere in a little bottle that people buy.”
Another area close to her heart: bridal. The category has plenty of challenges — MOBs at the top of the list. Having been on both sides of that coin — mother to four brides and designer to countless others — Herrera offers advice sprung from that innate pragmatism. She urges bridal customers to do their initial scouting on their own, unburdened of the opinions of moms and other well-intentioned potential irritants. Yet in the end, pragmatism takes a backseat to all of the emotion concentrated in the symbolism of a wedding gown, even to this most worldly professional. “I love bridal, always,” Herrera says. “You know why I love it? Because it’s full of hope and love.”