Carolina Herrera is sitting directly to my left, button down white shirt on, collar up, and a dried purple carnation is pinned over her heart. She is particularly alert as she listens to Marc Puig, Chairman and CEO of Puig, introduce her to a small group of international press nestled inside a two-story library that once belonged to the prominent banker Alfonso Fierro in downtown Madrid. To the left of Mrs. Herrera is one of her four daughters, Carolina Herrera de Báez, who is notably the creative director of the House’s fragrance group. Meanwhile, Mrs. Herrera’s second husband (of almost 50 years), Reinaldo Herrera—a Contributing Editor to Vanity Fair—sits to my right. Next to him is Mariano Puig, the man who mediated the purchase of the House of Herrera from Venezuelan magnate José de Armas in 1991. We have come together to witness Mrs. Herrera present her book Carolina Herrera 35 Years of Fashion to the markets that have helped her brand thrive—American, Spanish, Arab, and Russian, among others. The Middle East, in particular, is a key region of expansion for the House of Herrera. Its founder and her daughter, Herrera de Báez’s most recent trip over was in May, 2015 to launch the Herrera Confidential collection consisting of six fragrances and four oils. Commenting on similarities between Latin American and Arab women, Herrera tells Vogue Arabia, “We share many values, but I believe that it is the love and respect for our families and people around us that make us very much the same.”
The night prior, we joined Herrera’s glamorous friends, including Carmen Martínez Bordiú, granddaughter of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco; her mother, Duquesa de Franco; and models Karlie Kloss and Eugenia Silva at a private party at the house of the American ambassador to Spain, James Costos, to honor Herrera’s career. It was a festive evening marked by a super moon.
At 77-years-young, Herrera, has enjoyed her share of industry parties. If her career as a fashion designer began 35 years ago, her hobnobbing with the upper echelon of the fashion elite has been a life long affair. Born María Carolina Josefina Pacanins y Niño in Caracas, Venezuela, the young Herrera was introduced to high fashion through her socialite grandmother. She later went on to work as a publicist for Emilio Pucci; rubbed shoulders with Mick and Bianca Jagger at Studio 54; hit the Vanity Fair International Best Dressed list in 1972; and entered its Hall of Fame in 1980. Reaching mid-life, rather than sink into an existential crisis, Carolina Herrera chose to “do something different” and remarkably transitioned from high fashion client into full-blown fashion designer. Herrera recalls, “Bill Blass was very supportive;” but Halston, another great friend, thought Herrera “was mad” and had no idea what she was getting into.
The truth is, Herrera didn’t. “It was so hard. I thought I could just go in, create the collection, and then do something else,” she recalls. Herrera remembers that everyone came to the Metropolitan Club in New York to see the 31-look show modeled by the likes of Iman, Alva Chinn, and Paola Dominguín (the daughter of Spain’s most celebrated bullfighter, Luis Miguel Dominguín). Bianca Jagger sat next to Andy Warhol, while Nan Kempner, Jacqueline de Ribes, and Doris Duke were also in attendance along with buyers from Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman; and of course, American Vogue’s Diana Vreeland (Herrera’s mentor), sat front and center. The glamour of the clothes—sharply tailored suits and evening gowns—mirrored the sophisticated elegance of the silver screen. The show was a success, and Herrera went back to Venezuela to raise funds for her burgeoning label. Today, the House of Herrera is a billion dollar brand. “Instinct and feeling are very important when it comes to design and fashion, but most of all [it takes] discipline. If you have discipline, you can achieve anything,” shares Herrera.
As Herrera recalls her numerous successes—not only did she dress Jackie Onassis for the last ten years of her life—she designed Onassis’ daughter, Caroline Kennedy’s wedding dress and red carpet highlights (though Herrera refuses to name names, “If one needs to use a celebrity to sell her brand there’s a problem. The clothes should sell themselves.”) her hands are delicately placed on her lap, and she sits with the 3/4 poise emanating a royal air similar to those in the paintings viewed during our private tour of the Prado museum the day prior. As she speaks, Herrera smoothes her gray skirt that demurely reveals an exceptional pair of legs in burgundy hosiery and delicate ankles that lead to chic velvet heels. To say that Mrs. Herrera is self-aware is an understatement, and yet there is nothing pretentious about her; and the same can be said about her timeless clothes, which resonate in our region (the House of Herrera boasts numerous points of sale in the Arab world) for their effortless elegance. For Herrera, elegance is a way of life, “It’s not only what you wear. Elegance is the way you talk, the way you walk. Elegance is showing respect for others and being discreet. Elegance is…an attitude,” she shares.
If amidst a swamp of disrupted, rumpled, ill-fitting, and oversized garments, Vogue Arabia’s Editor-in-Chief has cried out for a return to elegance, Mrs. Herrera is something of a Jeanne D’Arc, on charge from New York to Riyadh. Of course, Herrera’s battle costume is not a mesh tunic but rather a crisp, white shirt, “It’s a garment of protection,” she says simply. Certainly, Herrera’s crusade of élégantes will continue to champion timeless, sophisticated beauty through fashion for years to come.