Backstage at her Spring 2014 show in New York City, Carolina Herrera politely interrupts our interview twice. The first interruption is to alter the hem on a Kinetic-inspired sheath dress modeled by Hilary Rhoda. The second is to roll the left sleeve of the crisp, white button-down hugging Karlie Kloss’ famous frame. The empress of elegance in her castle, I marvel – contextualizing that, for over 30 years, Carolina Herrera has been bringing her impeccable brand of uptown polish to the runways. The Venezuelan aristocrat launched her first collection in New York in 1981. Today, her empire encompasses a seasonal runway collection and bridal collection, as well as a diffusion line, CH Carolina Herrera, fragrances, menswear, and accessories, with the fashion label’s worth estimated to be in the billions. What’s more, Herrera’s designs have been coveted by everyone from Jackie Onassis to comedian Tina Fey, demonstrating the 73-year-old visionary’s unique ability to continually evolve her timeless ensembles without ever compromising the brand’s core values of classic, ladylike sophistication.
Here, Herrera speaks exclusively to Savoir Flair about style, business, and making it in the cut-throat world of fashion.
Trying to imagine a day in your shoes is intimidating. Your impressive career trajectory has spanned decades. What was it like when you were first starting out?
Fashion was very different when I started out, because fashion is constantly changing. In the 80s, everything was bigger – big sleeves, more volume. Everything has changed since then, even the business aspect of fashion. I have a lot of curiosity and I like new things, and I think fashion is the same way.
Was there a singular, definitive moment when you knew you wanted to be a fashion designer above all else?
My first fashion memory was of me wearing a costume of Snow White and hating it because I wanted to be the evil queen. As a young girl, I was also fascinated by tennis and by my horses. Fashion came later in my life.
It’s curious that fashion tends to be a male-dominated field. What challenges have you faced in the past as a female designer?
In the fashion industry, as in any other industry, being a leading businessperson is all about a balanced life. It is about having discipline and organizing yourself to do both. Whether you are male or female, fashion is a challenging business. Today more than ever, you see women that are successful in both work and family life. You can achieve anything with discipline. We women manage to do many things at the same time, while men do one thing at a time. My husband will say to me, ‘Why are you doing all these things at the same time? You’re going to do something wrong here.’ But no, women are able to do that. We have children, we have to work sometimes, we run a house, we have a husband, and everything works out. It’s a matter of organizing yourself.
What was it like bringing up daughters in this rarefied fashion world?
My daughters were older when I started my business and they have supported me from the beginning. I have always told them to do what they love, and if they want to work in the fashion world, then I am happy. I think it is fabulous that two of my daughters are involved with the business. We don’t agree on everything and I think that’s what makes the relationship so great. You get a different point of view on the collections. You come to a compromise, and in the end it all works out.
What is the driving force behind your designs?
The Carolina Herrera woman is the drive behind my designs. She is the woman of today. She is active, glamorous, chic, and independent. Most importantly, she is not afraid to be elegant and feminine.
Business and creation demand attention from both sides of the brain. Was it ever difficult to manage these two aspects of your empire?
Fashion is a very difficult business because fashion is a business. I have a team and a fantastic president. I always tell the young designers that you have to separate the creative side from the business side. You have to have somebody very capable to run the business side.
Where do you look when you are searching for a new direction for an upcoming collection? What inspires you?
Inspiration comes from anything and everything – a book you’ve read, a piece of art, a beautiful landscape, or music. You must always keep your eyes open; great things have a way of finding you if you do.
If you wish you had received one piece of advice when you were starting out, what would it be?
My family and friends were very supportive when I started out. Something my mother always told me was that you can do anything with discipline and imagination.