Fresh from his SS19 runway debut, creative director Wes Gordon shares why the pillar of US fashion, the House of Herrera, must stay its course.
There is no question that today’s millennials have, in a matter of years, driven some of fashion’s most esteemed heritage houses to the brink. In an effort to capture the limited attention of Generation Y (pun intended), a whole new catalogue of words is now part of fashion’s lingua franca. On fleek, bae, receipts, shook, woke, bye Felicia, glassed, and the latest – snatched. Other brands have gone further still. In “gender fluid” 2019, men and women are being encouraged to swap their clothing. Actor Billy Porter wore both genders’ uniforms when he donned a tuxedo gown to the 2019 Oscars. And while this journalist has yet to meet a man on the street in head-to-toe sequin dress – outside of Brazil’s carnival – that doesn’t stop labels from shouting it’s hip. As brands scramble to hold the rope in a consumer attention tug-of-war, anxiously upping the ante on the wow factor and with approaches teetering on “cray,” one woman stands up and raises her arm like the Statue of Liberty; only, instead of a torch, clutched in her manicured hand is a pocket book. Inside is actual spending power she hopes can buy her clothes that won’t make her look ridiculous; like she’s caught a one-way ticket to the circus of fashion. If only someone can dress her as the woman she confidently and innately knows she is.
When Canadian philanthropist Suzanne Rogers – whose family owns a telecommunications company along with part of the NBA champion Raptors basketball team – had a night at the ballet pop up on her events calendar, she chose a flamingo pink, bare-shoulder sheath gown with puff sleeves. #CarolinaHerrera she captioned the photo. “That gown is everything,” wrote one follower. “You are a vision,” wrote another. Hours later, the dress appeared again – this time, on Aerin Lauder’s account. The granddaughter of Estée wore it to mark her partnership with Christie’s Jewels Maharajas & Mughal Magnificence auction. Around her neck was a very large, antique diamond necklace. “What dress is that? Carolina Herrera?” wrote a follower. On Lauder’s confirmation, hundreds of compliments ensued. “Real power comes from dressing like yourself and wearing what will make you feel the most beautiful – that is power,” remarks Carolina Herrera creative director Wes Gordon. “And, there is nothing more powerful than color.” Into his third year and with his first official collection now in stores, Gordon is coming into his own by doing things the House of Herrera founder’s way. In an age when creative directors are turning fashion houses on their heads, his strategy is against the tide, but Gordon is resolute. “My number one priority is to respect the amazing brand codes that Ms Herrera created while introducing her legacy to a new generation,” he states. “My job is about creating beauty and emotion. Joy, happiness, and laughter are the ingredients of our clothes.” Rogers is more than willing to offer her praises. “What impresses me most is his ability to walk the fine line between elegance and drama, blending exquisite sophistication with subtle bold touches. I’ve long been an avid admirer of Carolina Herrera, counting the brand among my go-tos, particularly when choosing gowns for gala events.
With the advent of Wes Gordon as creative director, my enthusiasm has only increased.” If the Carolina Herrera woman is the life of the party, laughing with her head thrown back, full of confidence, then Gordon is her dashing partner in crime. Looking the part, the designer from Georgia, US, is tall, with broad shoulders, a classically handsome face, and sand-colored hair. Far from living the life of leisure his physique might imply, the workaholic 32-year-old behind four annual collections strives day and night to ensure that the alegria de vivir (joy of life) that Herrera worked tirelessly to instill in her namesake label – founded in 1981 when she was a 40-year-old mother of four – never fades. Gordon grew up in mid-east America in full admiration of his mother. “She is a beautiful and elegant woman. Watching her get ready for an event was early fashion training for me,” he recalls. From a young age, he was fixated on what he (and she) would wear, not leaving the house without his red suspenders and navy suede shoes. He also worshipped the cinema. “I loved the idea of this escapism, this world created from a dream and the power of visual image, the power of clothes and set design. In my early teens I started understanding that it was possible to turn this passion into a livelihood,” he says. “I knew that I wanted and needed to work in fashion.” He moved to London and attended Central Saint Martins, where he majored in womenswear and graduated with honors. London encouraged his creativity and Gordon credits it for “taking him out of his comfort zone.” He soon returned to the US and interned at Oscar de la Renta and Tom Ford before launching his eponymous brand in New York. Harrods and Saks Fifth Avenue were some of his earliest buyers, and, in 2014, he was nominated for a CFDA Swarovski award for womenswear.
It wasn’t long before Herrera came knocking. In 2017, she was ready to step down from her role as Carolina Herrera creative director and transition into its global brand ambassador. She was looking for someone to fill her shoes. Born María Carolina Josefina Pacanins y Niño in Caracas, Venezuela, as Carolina Herrera, she had built a billion dollar-brand beloved by the likes of Michelle Obama, Glenn Close, Nicole Kidman, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, and HM Queen Rania of Jordan. At the occasion of the Carolina Herrera: 35 Years of Fashion book launch in Madrid, Herrera commented that she considered Latin American and Arab women to “share many values,” saying, “I believe that it is the love and respect for our families and people around us that make us very much the same.”
Of his first face-to-face with Ms Herrera, Gordon says, “Our meeting was meant to be five minutes long, but we ended up staying together for an hour, talking about everything but fashion,” he recalls. “As spectacular and grand as she is, she is warm and welcoming. It felt like I was spending time with a good friend.” When he moved into his new office, Gordon remembered his roots. His CFDA certificate hangs framed on the wall, along with his portrait by Howard Tangye, head of womenswear design atCentral Saint Martins. SS19 marked his official runway debut as creative director. It was hailed by US Vogue as “playful, graceful, and somewhat more provocative.” The collection featured streaks of vibrant color – particularly rays of canary yellow and poppy red. He remarks that the bold use of color is one of the first things that struck him about the house and he intends to build on it, noting that it encourages women to take a fun approach to dressing. Peonies and lilies of the valley are Gordon’s favorite blooms and flowers of all kinds appeared in large, graphic form splayed on A-line skirts and suede knee-high boots. Polka dots on blouses and billowing skirts added to the frivolous nature and 70s glamour of the collection, while a plunging V-neck dress swished down the runway with a side of cha-cha-cha.
On his mood board, a picture of Carolina Herrera was pinned, front and center. Lest we forget, she spent the last years of the Seventies dancing at Studio 54. “A Herrera dress is a promise of beauty, joy, and fun,” he remarks. “It’s an invitation to an unforgettable moment. A guarantee that you will be the best dressed in any room.” In other words, Gordon understands exactly what a woman wants.
Originally published in the July/August 2019 issue of Vogue Arabia