Lunch with the FT

August 16, 2013 3:12 pm

Carolina Herrera

Over pasta in New York, the 73-year-old designer talks success, defending Victoria Beckham and having it all
Illustration of Carolina Herrera for Lunch with the FT. Illustration by Seb Jarnot©Seb Jarnot

In August, New York tends to become a ghost town, its upper reaches deserted for the private beaches of the Hamptons or the rolling green acres of Connecticut. It’s rare to find someone whose name is over the door actually behind that door – except, of course, in the fashion world, where New York Fashion Week, which begins on September 6, dictates a different schedule.

“Oh, I am here every August,” laughs the designer Carolina Herrera, who has built a billion-dollar business dressing those (such as Caroline Kennedy, the new US ambassador to Japan and a Martha’s Vineyard summerer) who go away. “It’s the price of this job. But I actually like it. You can go anywhere you want and there are no lines.”

Certainly there are no lines when we meet at Sant Ambroeus, an Italian café down in the verdant, genteel reaches of the West Village, the part of Manhattan dotted with regal-looking red brick brownstones and flowering pear trees. It is so empty, in fact, that I can’t help but wonder why we are there; why the designer most associated with dressing uptown society, whose offices are midtown in the heart of New York’s garment district, should have opted to come downtown for a meal. What does it mean? Is it about adding some edge (established designers always seem to be trying to add some edge)? Is she scouting locations for a new store? Is it a Garbo, vant-to-be-alone thing (Andy Warhol silkscreened Herrera, in Evita doppelgänger mode, in 1979, and she has been widely recognised ever since)?

“My daughter Patricia lives around the corner,” Herrera says, when I ask. “We come here all the time. I hope you like it. I think it has a nice family feeling.”

Mrs Herrera, as she is widely known, both as a function of respect for her age – 73 – and because she has the kind of old-fashioned manners that seem to demand it, has built an empire on this attitude: on wanting to share with others the glossy exterior of her own way of life, which is wealthy, cultured, international, discreet and largely embodied by herself.

She arrives impeccably turned out in a green blouse dotted with abstract beige and black dahlias (from the autumn/winter collection), a matching scarf, black skirt and large pearl buttons on her ears. Her short blonde hair is perfectly brushed back. In fact, she is always impeccably turned out, which is why she has made the International Best Dressed List multiple times, was elected to its hall of fame in 1980 and, in 2011, named by Vanity Fair as one of the best-dressed women of all time. She is her own best model; the woman who elevated the crisp white shirt-plus-taffeta ballgown skirt to icon status and inspired several generations to embrace tailored shift dresses and suits that flirt around the edges of appropriate. Even for a fashion editor, this degree of constantly groomed glamour can be a little intimidating in a dining partner; nor is it hard to understand how other women would see her and think: “I want some of that.” She has simply monetised the answer.

. . .

Not that she would put it that way, exactly. What Herrera likes to say to those, like me, who ask, is: “I just make clothes. I am interested in beauty, and making women beautiful.” It might seem a pretty anodyne statement, especially given the fact that in “just making clothes”, the Caracas-born Herrera has also become a symbol of a host of modern issues, be it female power (a woman who started her own company at age 41, she ”leaned in” long before the term was a gleam in Sheryl Sandberg’s eye), the growing importance of Latin America as a fashion market, or the rise of the celebrity/society designer. But in its careful neutrality the answer is also characteristic. Put another way: while she has been asked many times to be a judge on Project Runway, she has always turned them down.

“Those reality shows,” she says – shaking her head ever so slightly at the waiter as he starts to pour her some of my sparkling water, and murmuring, “Still” – “Mob wives and so on, all about you: who wants to live like that? Think about all that attention that was on Kim Kardashian and her weight. I am sure it was on purpose, so she can sell herself to WeightWatchers at some point.” She rolls her eyes, and asks: “What’s the most boring subject?” I open my mouth to respond, and she interjects, “I tell you: yourself!”

This is a slightly inauspicious way to start an interview about that self. But Herrera was raised, as she puts it, “to get married and have children, to be cultivated and discreet”. Or, as she later says, “I know you are supposed to think of yourself as a brand these days but I think of myself as a person.” After we have ordered – pasta for her, salmon tartare and artichoke salad for me – I decide to bring up politics, and Nicolas Maduro, the Venezuelan president elected in April by a narrow margin, a subject that seems safely impersonal. Did she vote? I ask.

“Of course I did,” Herrera says. “I always vote but I vote here. I voted for [Henrique] Capriles. Venezuela needs a change. If things were going well, I would say, fine, but the economy is a problem ... The opposition candidate [Capriles] was a young guy, with new ideas, why not?” She goes back to Caracas often, and was last there in November for a grandson’s wedding. But, she says, “I try not to talk about politics, because of my daughter and granddaughter who live there. It’s a beautiful country but it can be dangerous, and I don’t want to risk anything.” Which pretty much shuts that conversational avenue down.

The daughter in Caracas is her eldest, Mercedes. She has two – Patricia and Carolina Jr – with her current husband Reinaldo Herrera, special projects editor on Vanity Fair. The other two – Mercedes and Ana Louisa – are from her first marriage to landowner Guillermo Behrens-Tello (they married when she was 18 and divorced when she was 24). Carolina Jr works in Herrera’s company in the fragrance area, while Patricia concentrates on ready-to-wear. “It’s quite useful to have your children in the company,” says Herrera. “They tell you immediately if they don’t like something.” Indeed, her daughters are credited with loosening up her collections and making them more relevant to their twentysomething peers.

Herrera’s family, part of the Latin-American aristocracy, travelled widely when she was a child and teenager, to both Europe and the US (her father was an air force officer and one-time governor of Caracas), and she and Reinaldo moved in similar international circles. One day she was speaking to her friend Diana Vreeland, then the editor of US Vogue, and mentioned she was thinking about creating textiles. Vreeland said “that was a very boring idea, and I should do dresses instead,” Herrera remembers. At the time, the sum total of her professional experience was six months in the Emilio Pucci boutique in Caracas after her divorce. But the idea stuck and, soon after, Herrera met Armando de Armas, owner of the largest magazine publishing house in Latin America, at a cocktail party and he offered to become her partner.

She launched her eponymous company in New York in 1981, and it has remained headquartered there ever since. Herrera says she considers herself a Venezuelan woman but an American designer. “New York is the capital of the world,” she says. “If you are successful here, you are successful everywhere.”

Well, yes, I say, as our food arrives, that’s what Frank Sinatra sang. But in fashion terms, actually, New York doesn’t get that much respect. Did she not sometimes think she would be taken more seriously as a designer if she was in Europe? “I don’t know why they say that,” Herrera replies. “It’s ridiculous. I mean, all European designers want to sell here. So why should I have to go there? It drives me mad.” She had her first show at the Metropolitan Club in New York.

“I think I thought I would do one collection, and that would be that,” she says, poking at her pasta. “But then everyone bought it, and we just went on from there.” They launched a lower-priced line, CH, in 1986; then in 1987 Puig, the family-owned Spanish fragrance and fashion group, launched her perfume. In 1995 Puig bought out de Armas to become her partner in the house. “We have similar values,” she says. There are now 95 fully owned Carolina Herrera stores around the world, and 400 points of sale for clothing. She dressed Jacqueline Onassis as well as Laura Bush, and made the wedding dress for Breaking Dawn – Part 1, the fourth Twilight film.

Given the pre-eminence of Brazil and Mexico as up-and-coming luxury markets, and Herrera’s profile in the Spanish-speaking world, she would seem poised for even more exponential growth. Last year she opened in 10 new countries including Bulgaria, Indonesia, Panama, Paraguay and Uzbekistan. In May, she guest-starred at Singapore Fashion Week in honour of her first store in that country.

Though she was part of the first wave of society designers in fashion – women whose training and qualifications consisted largely of their ability to wear clothes with distinction, and their understanding of a market (others include Jacqueline de Ribes and Mary McFadden) – she is the only one whose business is still standing, and she has no plans to retire.

“I don’t confuse the woman who buys Herrera by suddenly changing everything in the store,” she observes. “I stand for glamour, and consistency.” Still, she understands the suspicion attached to entering the market without having paid your dues. When she launched her brand, she says, she told her friend the late designer Halston her plans, and he said, “Have you lost your mind?” She feels for the non-trained names who have made news recently, such as Tory Burch, Victoria Beckham and the Olsen twins; she knows what hurdles they are facing.

. . .

“The problem is today everyone is a designer,” she says. “You are a successful singer or a successful tennis player – you can be a designer! And there isn’t anyone who doesn’t know about fashion, or have an opinion. Even my driver knows about fashion. But to really succeed, you need an eye. That’s the most important thing – more important than anything you can learn at school. You need an eye for proportion, and texture, and colour. Which is why I get very cross when people say things about Victoria like she must have someone else doing her designs, and so on. You cannot create a point of view, which she has, without really being involved in all the decisions.” She speaks from experience; though she may not draw every dress and cut toiles, she is deeply involved in her own brand, from defining the season through editing its expression. Yet she would never pretend to do it all.

Indeed, her advice for the women who have come after her is: “Try not to do everything yourself. Get someone to run the business.” I ask her if she has read Sheryl Sandberg’s book. She has not but she says she is interested. When I ask her if she thinks women can have everything, she says yes – “but not at the same time”.

Still, I say, she managed her family and her business pretty much at the same time. Well, Herrera notes, her children were in school full-time when she started and, at that point, the fashion world itself was much slower and more manageable. “Could I have done both now?” she asks. “I don’t know, maybe not.” She says her husband was hugely supportive but not in a New Man kind of way. When I ask if he helped out around the house, she starts to laugh.

“Oh no,” she says, but then adds that she wouldn’t want that anyway: “I think it’s fun for women to take care of the house. Women like playing house.” Mr Herrera’s biggest contribution, other than emotional boosterism, was “taking the girls away for spring break just the three of them, so I could work!” she says (in New York, spring break often coincides with the autumn/winter fashion weeks).

When I ask what the key to doing it all is, she says, “Good staff.” She isn’t any more interested in being a feminist spokesperson than she was in being a political activist for her home country. Which is not to say she does not take her role-model responsibilities seriously. When a diner from a nearby table shuffles over and asks, “Excuse me, but are you the designer?”, Herrera smiles and says yes, shaking her hand.

“Does that happen often?” I ask, when the fan leaves and the waiter comes to clear our dishes. Herrera allows that it does. “I’m delighted,” she says. “Why not? It means we are doing something right.” We both eschew dessert in favour of coffee, which comes with a little plate of cookies as a treat.

She may like fans but she hates the backstage scene at shows, where designers are accosted by reporters asking about the point of the collection, and editors telling them they are “geniuses” as they kiss the air. “‘What is your inspiration?’ is the worst question in the world,” says Herrera. “And all those people saying nice things ... Reinaldo always says to me: ‘What are they going to say – I hate it?’ They have to say something. But that doesn’t mean you have to believe it.”

It’s time for the bill but the waiter smiles and says, “It’s been taken care of.” He is clearly proud of this – the restaurant is being generous with its star fashion guest. But they don’t know the rules of this feature, which is that the FT always pays, I explain. The waiter looks flustered, and the manager, called Todd, comes over. He shakes Herrera’s hand and she introduces me, and then he says the restaurant’s corporate communications department said it was on the house. That’s kind, I say, but I need to pay.

“She needs to pay! She’s from a newspaper,” says Herrera scoldingly. Todd finally gives up, and walks away. She laughs. “What a problem: they don’t want you to pay! Usually the check comes, and suddenly everyone is in the bathroom.” She’s joking, mostly. But we both know, no matter how discreet you are, everyone pays to one extent or another, in the end.

Vanessa Friedman is the FT’s fashion editor

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Sant Ambroeus

259 West 4th Street, NY

Sparkling water $7.50

Still water $7.50

Carciofi $19.00

Tartare di salmone e mele $19.00

Fusillone all’Arrabbiata $19.00

Double macchiato $4.50

Cappuccino $5.00

Total (incl service) $104.73

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