A vibrant installation greeted visitors to the Carolina Herrera showroom, where last week Wes Gordon showed his resort collection for the brand. The clothes and potted flowering plants were bright and pretty, in keeping with the vision Gordon saw for the house when he first signed on as a consultant working under “Mrs. Herrera,” and with which he forged ahead upon taking full creative control after her retirement.
That Gordon has swiftly infused the collections with a younger, lighter aura is readily apparent, and we set a date to talk about his vision in greater detail. But when I arrive two days later for that chat, there are other topics to discuss first, like farming. Gordon and his husband Paul Arnhold, two citified guys hailing from Atlanta and Manhattan, respectively, own a place in Roxbury, Conn., “the gayest farm in the world.” (That’s Gordon’s distinction, as I am consummately unqualified to judge farming on any criteria.) He makes that statement after namechecking the farm’s two bunnies, Kate and Pippa. The dog, Birdie, thinks they’re her puppies. (Understandable confusion; all three are black and white.)
Gordon and Arnhold spend as many weekends at Thistledown Farm as possible, but not all weekends, and not always together. With resort appointments in the rearview mirror, Gordon has spring 2020 on his mind and on his work schedule. Saturday would be spent right here, in the office.
Not a bad place to be, visually speaking. Gordon’s office is a lovely, mostly tidy space, though the coffee table in front of the bright red sofa is strewn with inspiration printouts, soon to be tacked onto the corkboard image wall. Right now, that board is vibrant orange; by Monday, when a photographer arrives to take Gordon’s picture, it will be pink. He repaints it in a new, happy color each season. Another wall features some meaningful framed artwork — a large illustration of himself done by Howard Tangye, who was head of women’s wear through Gordon’s stay at Central Saint Martins; his CFDA membership letter; a framed WWD page one feature; a photo of Carolina Herrera. Gordon likes the Tangye drawing because it’s beautifully done, he appears thin and it was a gift from Arnhold, who tracked it down after Gordon got the Herrera job. Still, it embarrasses him a bit. “It’s a little like…narcissistic, but I [hung] it. It’s very sentimental, and it’s nice.”
Narcissism isn’t a vibe one gets from Gordon. To someone who doesn’t know him well but has spent good chunks of time with him on several occasions, he presents as a charming, grounded, good guy, with zero inclination toward pretension and displays of ego, at least so far. As we talk, it comes up that, as of spring 2020, Carolina Herrera will no longer work with fur. Unlike so many brands and designers, Gordon, who’s a vegetarian, low-keys that decision, acknowledging that “it’s not a massive part of the business.” Nor does he overstate his role in the decision. “I don’t own this brand, I work here, I’m an employee,” he says. “I want to be the best possible employee I can be, and if part of my job is to make a fur coat or to do three minks a season, I’m going to work my hardest to make them the most beautiful mink coats ever. That said, whenever we’d have an internal discussion, if someone asked my opinion on it, I would very clearly say that I would prefer not to do it.” During the most recent discussion, “everyone here was on the same page. So it’s was a very natural decision for us to make. I’m happy about it.”
Gordon is happy with other working realities within Puig-owned Carolina Herrera as well. During any collection walk-through with him, conversation invariably turns to the talents of the house atelier. “It’s really magical to get to work with people like that,” he says today. “They make me look so much better than I am. I could draw a stick figure with a triangle as a dress and it will come back upstairs as the most beautiful thing you have ever seen.”
He credits Herrera with the savvy to have built that highly skilled atelier and for creating the collaborative atmosphere within which staffers feel pride in and take ownership of their work. It’s an aura he wants to continue, boasting that “not one person has been added or left from the atelier since Mrs. Herrera retired.”
While Gordon considers the atelier remarkable, he gives himself a lesser ranking — an unusual assertion from a designer, and one volunteered out of the blue, with a comparison to back it up. “I’m not just saying this for effect. I am not a great designer at all,” he offers. “Christian Lacroix sent me an Instagram message today.” Lacroix, whom Gordon hasn’t met, complimented him on his resort collection. “I screenshot it; I sent it to like 45 people. It was the most amazing thing that has ever happened to me. He’s a great designer, an artist.”
Which is not to say Gordon undervalues himself. He knows his strengths and his value as a smart, talented designer confident in exactly what he wants to bring to the Carolina Herrera brand. “I have a razor-clear idea of what I think Herrera should be, probably partly from my childhood fantasy of what American fashion is,” he says. “I think there should be a brand that just makes pretty. Sometimes, it’s just bright pink and a big flower or a big bow or pants that are so wide they look like a giant skirt or a ruffle that’s really ruffle-y, and makes you want to twirl. But no wheels are being reinvented. I love the house, I love what it has been, I love what it is and I love what it can be.”
What it can be, and where Gordon has taken it very obviously during his short time at the helm, is in a younger direction. The clothes still feel in tune with the long-established character of the house, polished yet flamboyant. They’re not casual per se; the Herrera woman loves to get dressed. But Gordon has brought a palpable change of attitude that feels more casual than that previously associated with Herrera, in looks from decorated denim to a short tangerine dress with abundant sleeves to a major evening gown.
“That’s been my big push at Herrera,” he says. “I never want anyone — if they have in the past — I don’t want them to ever again think of this brand as uptight or stuffy or pretentious or grand. It’s laughter and it’s happiness, it’s joy, it’s color, and it’s not rocket science. This is not this tedious intellectual exercise that we’re doing. We’re a house that should just make pretty, beautiful, joyful clothes.”
That message doesn’t begin and end with the clothes. Rather, it must radiate from across the company, everyone from the design staff to the florist who does the showroom flowers to the social media team. “It’s like, don’t overthink this; just do something that makes you smile,” he says. “That’s kind of been our company-wide, new culture…it’s a much less serious approach to life.”
But not one that the disrespects the past. Nor does it merely celebrate youth on the runway and then temper the clothes for real-customer resonance. “It’s so passé, this idea that we’ll do a short, fun little dress for young girls, but there aren’t many of them [who can afford it], so it’s really editorial. And then we’ll do the below-the-knee version with a cap sleeve, and that’s the production version for the older client,” Gordon says. “No one falls for that. Everyone wants fabulous. The goal is, can you come up with a piece that a woman is going to want whether she’s 30 or 60? And it’s possible. We do these enormous, gigantic pants with polka dots. I have friends who wear them and love them, and I’ve seen older women wearing them and loving them. Something that is emotional and beautiful is able to speak to a lot of generations.”
Yet speaking to “a lot of generations” doesn’t mean appealing to all of the women all of the time, which is code for creating boring, generic clothes. “That’s been the kiss of death for a lot of things, whether they are retailers or publications or whatever. It’s when you lose what makes you special by trying to be all things to all people,” Gordon says. “The things that are fabulous, whether it’s Cabana Magazine or Gucci Wooster or whatever it is, they’re fabulous because there is such a clear point of view. And love it or hate it, it’s a focused point of view.”
Of course, he’s all for righting fashion’s exclusionary past and ongoing mistakes, whether that means ensuring a racially diverse show casting or a product offering up to size 24. But aesthetically, no fashion brand can successfully please everyone. “If we want to be flowers, we should unabashedly, shamelessly, with full conviction do flowers on flowers on flowers,” he says. “We’re going to do that knowing that a woman who hates flowers probably isn’t going to buy anything from Herrera that season. And that’s OK because the ones who do like it are going to buy twice as much. Instead of looking at a collection from the point of view of, ‘OK, what’s our minimalist woman going buy, and what’s the woman who doesn’t like color going buy and what’s the casual thing she’s wearing on the weekend?’ Just because a woman has a need for a black cashmere-blend, cable-knit crewneck does not mean every collection needs to have one.”
That revelation came to Gordon rather quickly upon his arrival at Herrera, and seemed obvious from the start. Other awakenings have come by surprise. To get to know his customer, Gordon often hits the road. When he started doing so for Herrera, he didn’t expect to find what he calls “the incredible love and goodwill” customers have for the brand. Women frequently recount moments involving the house founder, either meeting her and shaking her hand at a store event, or that she allowed the color of a wedding gown sash to be changed. “The goodwill Americans have for a spectacular iconic American house is really incredible, and you don’t hear about often,” Gordon says. “There is a real love and a real wish for these houses — Oscar, Herrera, these grand brands — to really be successful and great.”
That’s the emotional side. There has been a clinical learning curve as well.
Gordon maintains that his job a creative director can’t mean focusing only on the runway and pre-season collections. He runs through a litany of tasks he sees as part of his job description: reviewing social media for specific language and “what adjectives we’re using;’ ensuring that terra-cotta pots in the showroom have been rubbed with lime or dirt “so they don’t look like new ones from Home Depot;” working with the visuals team to source pillows on Etsy.
And oh, yes, making sure the clothes that ship to stores are up to the standards of the brand’s discerning customers. “If you’re a designer who is just focused on what you saw yesterday in the press appointment, it doesn’t matter. What matters is what’s going to the store, what’s going to Net-a-porter, what’s going to Saks. That it fits and looks beautiful.”
To that end, Gordon sits in on every production fitting, the better to realize his singular goal, both simple and profound: to bring joy to the Herrera woman. “You’re not spending X amount of money out of practical necessity,” he says of her luxury shopping forays. “And it’s not to stay warm or it’s not so you’re not naked. It’s fabulousness. It’s delicious. It’s wonderful. It’s emotional.”