Carolina Herrera stepped out after her show at the Museum of Modern Art to wave to her audience as she has for the past 37 years. She was, as usual, impeccably coifed and composed. As usual, her husband, Reinaldo, was in the audience, along with their daughters, Patricia and Carolina Jr.
But her daughters from her first marriage, Mercedes and Ana Luisa, were also there. So was Bianca Jagger, who was at her first show in 1981. So was her old friend Calvin Klein. So was 25 of the men and women from her sample room, clad in their white coats. And so was Wes Gordon, a 31-year-old who has been her creative consultant for the past 11 months. Because with that wave, Herrera, as she is known to pretty much everyone, was also waving goodbye to the runway.
As of Tuesday, she is taking a new job in her company as global brand ambassador, and Gordon is becoming creative director.
“Just don’t say I am retiring,” the 79-year-old Herrera said with a dismissive wave. She was sitting on a chocolate-and-cream striped silk settee in her chocolate-and-cream striped domain on the 17th floor of a building in the garment district with a view of the Empire State Building. “I am not retiring! I am moving forward.”
She chose her new title. She is going to proselytise at store events worldwide. She is going to leverage her living legend status — what Emilie Rubinfeld, the president of the brand, calls “the Carolina effect” — to the benefit of her company. She is going to spend more time at home with her husband, 12 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
But she is not, she said, “going to wake up every day worried about where to put the sleeve, or whether the skirt should be long or short” — which is another way of saying she is not going to be designing. Polished discretion has always been part of her signature.
No matter what you call it, the transition is another generational change for New York fashion.
And to Herrera’s loyal band of customers, such as Renee Zellweger, who wore Herrera to the Oscars in 2004, 2008 and 2013, and Caroline Kennedy, who wore it to her wedding, that can be an unsettling thing. Especially because fashion, while it loves change, has historically been bad at it when it comes to handing over power.
It’s a complicated, fraught decision, with its intimations of mortality and loss of control — especially for those whose names are above the door. Some have ignored it (see: Azzedine Alaia, who died unexpectedly last November without a succession plan for his business), while others in Herrera’s peer group have tried to solve it, with varying degrees of success.
Before he died, Oscar de la Renta appointed a successor, Peter Copping, who was supposed to work by his side and learn his ways, but de la Renta passed away before that could happen, and Copping clashed with the remaining family and left after a year. Diane von Furstenberg has named numerous design heirs, planning to concentrate on her work as a women’s advocate, but thus far all have lasted two years or less. (Jonathan Saunders, her most recent chief creative officer, left in December, and she named Nathan Jenden chief design officer in January.)
Herrera had an uncomfortable moment in the spotlight in late 2016 — a rare display of dirty laundry from a house known for always appearing perfectly pressed — when she got embroiled in a court case with the Oscar de la Renta company and it was revealed that her former chief executive, Francois Kress, had plotted to have her replaced by designer Laura Kim. Who, in an only-in-fashion twist, had reportedly come to work for Herrera on the promise of ascension after leaving de la Renta when Copping was hired, but who then left Herrera to return to de la Renta when she discovered that Herrera had not been consulted on the plan and was none too pleased with it. (In the end the case was settled, and Kress left.)
Whether it was that experience that set Herrera thinking about the future she won’t say — when asked, she made a moue of distaste and talked about the importance of not looking back — but it has been on her mind for about two years. In part because the demands on designers have become evermore extreme.
“There’s a collection every six weeks,” she said. “They would say, ‘Can you go to the store opening in Dubai?’ ‘No, I have a show.’” Besides, Herrera continued, “fashion has changed a lot. What they like now is ugliness. Women dress in a very strange way. Like clowns. There is a lot of pressure to change all the time. But it’s better to wear what suits you. Add something new and you have a great look. Consistency is important.”
It’s an axiom that has carried her to $1.4 billion (Dh5.1 billion) in annual sales, the company reports, and a spot in the best-dressed hall of fame, so you can understand why she would want her creative director to be someone who bought into it. Someone who wouldn’t want to remake everything in his image. Someone who would understand his place in the Herrera universe and appreciate, for example, the other aphorisms she scribbles on ecru-coloured “Carolina Herrera” notepads in her looping script, and then hides away in her desk drawers to read as necessary: “The easiest way to look old is to dress young.” “Elegance is to be remembered.” “Getting old is all the things you have not managed to do.”
Although Herrera is keeping her office, with its Warhol portrait, Vogue-quality photos and rearing bronze horse, she will no longer come in every day. “You have to prepare your mind for the reality that you are not going to be doing what you are accustomed to do,” she said. In any case, she will be busy with brand diplomacy.
Still, the multiple portraits of her and her family by Robert Mapplethorpe will remain on the wall. Her daughters Patricia (a consultant for special projects) and Carolina Jr (creative director for fragrance) will remain with the company. Gordon will stay in his design office across the hall, with its mood boards and fabric swatches. For the moment, everyone is convinced they have found a happy medium for the future.
Which is why Herrera’s final collection will not be a retrospective, and why she insists she is not going to cry (Rubinfeld, on the other hand, expects it to be an emotional evening). As for next season, when Gordon takes his runway bow?
“I’ll be in the front row,” Herrera chortled. “I am so excited.”