Dressing The Most Fabulous First Ladies: Carolina Herrera
August 13, 2009
So to stray away from our typical NY born designer, let’s talk about Venezuelan born Carolina Herrera. Born as Maria Carolina Josefine Pacanins y Nino on January 8, 1939 in Caracas, Venezuela. Her fashion life began at the tender age of 13 when she attended the Cristobal Balenciaga fashion show with her grandmother, her first of many.
Born into the traditional world of Latin American Aristocracy, she was one of four daughters in her family. Her father was the governor of Caracas and served as the country’s foreign affairs minister. Her mother and grandmother gave Carolina her fashion DNA, they traveled regularly to Europe to get their clothing made by prestigious design houses like Balenciaga and Lanvin.
Herrera grew up very privileged with a governess ( like Maria in sound of music 🙂 ) and lavish surroundings. She lived in a disciplined household that she remembers as being very organized. As she grew up she became interested in sewing clothing for dolls, but as she grew older she shifted her interests and became a skilled equestrienne ( horseback rider) and read a lot because her mother believed a woman had to be cultivated. She would become world traveled and socialize with the world’s royalty, but to her that wasn’t enough.
After being married at the tender age of 18 to Guillermo Behrens Tello, a wealthy Venezuelan family she had two daughters. Soon after the marriage because, it ended in divorce, the first in her family. She moved back with her parents and worked in her first fashion gig as a publicist for Emillio Pucci.
In 1968 she fell in love with Reinaldo Herrera( a Vanity Fair editor) and the got married, he too was from a wealthy Venezuelan family. They traveled in the social circles of the world’s elite and lived a romantic, high priced lifestyle. With Reinaldo she had two daughters.
It wasn’t until her 30’s when she began to pop up on the fashion radar. She was on the International Best Dressed lists. Feeling the fashion fever, her, her husband, and her children moved to New York in 1980 from their lavish estate in Carcas.
Almost 40, she decided to dip her toes into a fashion related business venture and began to think about fabric design. With friends in high places she was quickly talked out of designing fabric and talked into making a line. Acquaintance and fashion icon Diana Vreeland was supportive of her decision. However her mother in law and her husband were not so much. Her husband was most notably skeptical. He said “I was supportive because I thought this would last fifteen minutes,” Reinaldo Herrera told Town & Country‘s Tapert. “If she had said it would be fifteen years, I would have asked her, ‘Are you out of your mind?'”
Regardless, Carolina wanted to move forward. In fall of 1980 Herrera brought 20 dresses that she had made in Caracas by dressmakers. For her trunk show, she borrowed a friend’s Park Avenue apartment and invited everyone she knew. In attendance were buyers ready to by her whole line but it would be hard since she didn’t have a company at the time. Luckily she knew a publishing powerhouse, Armando de Armas who backed her business, Carolina Herrera Ltd. She opened a store on Seventh Avenue and her first full collection was shown in NY’s Metropolitan Club in 1981.
Once again her leveraged connections brought her success, her socialite friends got wind of her collection and became her best customers. Jacqueline Kenned Onassis became one of her first renowned clients. Caronline’s success was also because she was one of the first people to use padded shoulders because of the affect that big shoulders have on making a women’s waist look smaller. She used her knowledge of the effects of shapes on a women’s body to further her success.
Herrera’s company got really big after she made the wedding dress for Caroline Kennedy, Jackie O’s daughter, in 1986. This expanded her line from only ready to wear, to bridal and to a lower priced line called CH. In 1988 she launched a fragrance line inspired by the jasmine bush scents from her home in Venezuela, in 1991 she debuted her Men’s fragrance, and in 1994 she released her third scent.
She was then smart enough to get licensing deals for accessories, costume jewelry, and eyewear. In 1990 her wholesale business reached $20 million.
To celebrate, in 2000 she opened her first store, located at Madison Avenue and 75th Street in Manhattan and soon after she opened stores in Europe. Her first store outside of New York was in Madrid’s Salamanca district.
After dressing Jackie O for the last twelve years of her life she was inspired by her impeccable taste and her knowledge of what looked good on her. She also had the honor of dressing Nancy Reagan, Mrs. Bush, and every ones fav MICHELLE OBAMA.
Though she has built an empire on her own, she still maintains a regular lifestyle. She claims that she never works past 5 pm and makes sure that the line is drawn between work and home. She doesn’t want work to be her entire life, but merely a part of her life.
Another important part of her life is her charity work. She is a Goodwill Ambassador and a Facilitator for the Intergovernmental Institution for the Use of Micro-algae Spirulina Against Malnutrition. I am not going to explain that to you because it is a little intense, but all you need to know is she does want to save lives and give back to children and she loves it.
Carolina Herrera has been and remained on international best dressed lists since her 30’s and here clothing has been critically acclaimed almost from day one. Her style is timeless and packed with class and elegance that one can not find in any other line. Her clothing is a direct reflection of Carolina as a woman and I have every reason to believe that she would wear EVERYTHING she makes. That is not something one can say for every designer.
What I like about Carolina Herrera is that she continuously works through any adversity. Her husband, mother-in-law and countless critics were not fans of her work( including Cathy Horyn who she banned from her shows for negative feedback), but she kept on going because she knew she was on to something. I also love how she leveraged her connections in order to succeed. There is nothing wrong with getting your friends, who already like you as a person, to support your dreams. True friends will do that for you.
However she does keep her affiliations to a minimum. She never likes to mention her clients names because she believes that “If you have to sell a dress because an important client is wearing it, then that means that the dress was not good,” and I could not agree more.
As a studio 54 regular and a close friend of Andy Warhol, Carolina has seen it all and everything she has seen she translates into her clothing. Compared to the likes of other fashion greats like Oscar de la Renta, she simply started her path to success with passion, hard work, and dedication.
I am definitely starting to believe that those traits, that cant’ be taught, can take you much further than a degree can take you. Think about it !
The International Center in New York’s Award of Excellence
2004 Women’s Designer of the Year
2008 lifetime achiever award by the Cosmetic Executive Women UK.
“Today, people want to be free to wear what they like, in any combination they like, to be confined by no rules, and to set their own standards – yet they all end up looking exactly the same.” – C.Herrera