Wes Gordon Answers the High Society Vibe Shift

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Photo credit: Florence Pugh wearing Carolina Herrera by Wes Gordon at the BAFTAs earlier this year. Courtesy of Carolina Herrera.
Photo credit: Florence Pugh wearing Carolina Herrera by Wes Gordon at the BAFTAs earlier this year. Courtesy of Carolina Herrera.

If Gloria Vanderbilt had Instagram, would she have worn brighter colors? Bolder prints? Maybe a tulle puff or taffeta concoction or two?

The heralded style of high society is changing. Look at any recent gala–the The Frick Collection’s Young Fellows Ball, for instance—and you’ll see it: higher hemlines, a blast of color, divisive silhouettes and a penchant for prints. That old-school ideal of long gowns, neutral hues, preppy pantsuits, or demure tweed skirt suits? It’s dead. The purists of high society dressing are fading away. And there’s one person who has very much been at the center of it all these past few years: Wes Gordon.

In 2018, Gordon took over the Carolina Herrera brand after working directly under the designer herself. “His work is really above trends,” says Sarah Hoover. The it-girl and former Gagosian gallery director served as the chairman of the Frick Young Fellows Ball earlier this spring and frequently wears Gordon’s work. “It’s not getting sucked into the ‘90s minimalism moment, it’s not getting sucked into kitsch, it’s really the right mix of classic and beautiful and…well, skin. Wes understands a corset, he understands boning, he understands décolletage. He makes clothes for people who want to feel the attributes they are empowered by are accentuated beautifully.”

Carolina Herrera’s roots are intrinsically linked to high society. Herrera herself comes from the same background as many of her clients. Her grandmother introduced her to the world of high fashion, taking her to Balenciaga fashion shows and shopping trips at Lanvin. She was immersed in the world of Studio 54, hobnobbing with the likes of Andy Warhol and Bianca Jagger, and became well-known for her standout style. In 1980, she founded her namesake line and less than a year later, staged a fashion show in which Iman walked the runway. Back then, it was very much an occasion-wear brand, centered on crisp blouses and elaborately structured skirts. Gordon’s work still abides by that same concept, but with one major twist: there’s no rules about what can and cannot be worn to a gala, luncheon or party.

In the past few months, Sharon Stone, Chrissy Teigen and Amanda Seyfried have all worn Gordon’s creations. Along with the wives of politicians, great-grandchildren of billionaire oil tycoons, and royals—all whose lifestyles are staggeringly different than they were when Herrera launched her brand in the 1980s, as many of them now find themselves balancing careers with charitable efforts and a life lived in pursuit of high style. Known for his poppy colors that draw on the house codes of Herrera, Gordon studied at Central Saint Martins in London before founding his own label in 2009–the same year he graduated. Prior to taking the reins at Carolina Herrera, he was consulting at the label starting in 2017. He hit pause on his own line then, later shutting it down completely to continue work with Herrera. Gordon was only 31 when he was appointed, but the fashion world had already lauded his work. His own line, for example, had become a twice-CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund- nominated label.

“I think some of my biggest impacts have been color,” he tells us. Interestingly, Gordon moves in a similar social world as Herrera once did–he is married to Paul Arnhold of the storied banking family. With his boyishly messy side-part of curly cropped hair and ice blue eyes, he easily looks like any of the Upper East Side WASPs who buy the brand. “From day one, I thought to make the house name synonymous with bold colors, drawing inspiration from that Latin foundation of Mrs. Herrera and her Venezuela upbringing.”

As the creative director, Gordon has made Herrera herself the central reference point, pulling many of his ideas from the personal aesthetic of Herrera, who is known to dress up in taffeta puff sleeves up to her ears and jeweled earrings that dripped down to her shoulders. “I have an absolute ban on anything that's gray or sad,” he says firmly.

Those saturated pigments, rich electric rainbows, and vibrant hues could only be described as “alive.” Those hemlines, cut-outs and skin-baring hints? Higher, bigger and better than what you usually might see at a benefit, luncheon or traditional red carpet, even in 2022—when old school rules seem to still apply to more conservative corners of society Still, “the rules are not as strict nowadays as they were, you know, 30 years ago in the ‘80s or ‘90s when the Herrera brand was really getting off the ground,” says Amy Fine Collins, the historian and author—who herself goes to a handful of charity lunches, gala balls, and fundraising cocktail parties per week. “I think Wes also helped to change the idea of when you wear a long dress. It used to be short for day and long for night, but now it's all kind of more mixed up.”

For anyone who might raise an eyebrow at the baby blue taffeta puff sleeves floating off a tailored black suit jacket, or the dramatic sculpted bustiers that sit over a classic peplum and descend into the madness of fluffy ball of tulle, Gordon has an answer: “I think there's confusion that elegance has to be formal,” he says. “That's something that I try to disprove with every collection. I think the idea of elegance can often be casual and whimsical and playful and not so serious.”

The original ladies who defined the archetypes of high society fashion in the 1950s, like C.Z. Guest, Babe Paley or Lee Radziwill, had style all their own, opting for European labels first and foremost. Herrera’s generation in the 1980s laid out a more formal set of rules and with it, a refined American palette by designers like Oscar de la Renta and Bill Blass. But today’s society is less concerned with fitting into a box. They want to stand out, to be remembered not for following rules, but for forging their own paths, dressing with distinction and personality, and reinterpreting what a modern swan is. The concept of dressing up just to look rich? People want to lift the veil and make a show who they are and what they stand for.That’s partly why they might choose to celebrate a young designer. They don’t want to dress how their grandmothers did, either. “I like to respect a dress code in honor of the people who work hard to put together events, but generally if I feel pressure to fit into a box, I immediately RSVP no and then lapse into a rage-fueled tantrum on instagram,” says Hoover.

As it turns out, the ultra-wealthy are just as unable to resist the siren calls of Instagram as anyone else. Fine Collins suggests that the platform might be the biggest contribution to a change in attitudes when it comes to dressing for society events, which may be why Gordon’s work is also so popular. “People are looking for things that look good on Instagram. They need to photograph well,” she says. She also adds that brands that cater to inclusivity–in race and all genders—obviously have massive appeal in 2022. “The way people dress in society has really changed,” she adds. “That’s the biggest difference. Look at someone like Jordan Roth, who has worn Carolina Herrera.” Lena Waithe also wore Gordon’s electric rainbow cape for the 2018 Met Gala. The swans of today care about brands that celebrate representation and diversity.

The next generation of the high social circle, like Ivy Getty (who nets over 70k followers on TikTok), who attended the Frick ball as Gordon’s guest, are excited to have a dramatic moment that feels uniquely personal to their own aesthetic and personality. Getty wore a Carolina Herrera gown splashed with text that read, “the art of kissing” all over it to an event earlier this year, for instance. But she also wears a lot of vintage Blurmarine and Jean Paul Gaultier, as well as rarer ‘70s era pieces she inherited from her late father. “A lot of people were surprised that it was Carolina,” she says. “I like doing something that always has an element that's unique or different. I grew up in San Francisco, and I feel really lucky, because there's no judgment in the city and you can really experiment. I love texture. I love feathers. I love silk and velvet.”

Stylists are feeling the vibe shift of the society lady, too. “One girl made a comment to me a couple months ago about wanting to deviate from the expectations of what her mother and grandmother wore, because if she only wore the same brands, she'd feel like she wasn't her own person,” says Nolan Meader, a stylist who works exclusively with the ladies-who-lunch crowd, including Lauren Remington Platt and Candice Bushnell. “I see so many people experiment in New York,” adds Getty. “I never feel like a black sheep dressing differently. And I love that.”

While Herrera is a decidedly established brand that has existed since the 1980s, Gordon’s work is changing the narrative and DNA of the house. There’s been a rise of this crowd shopping for smaller labels that haven’t been around for decades, like Makarian or Jonathan Cohen, which, because of Wes’s direction, feel more aligned with Herrera, than say, Oscar de la Renta or Chanel, which are instead rather faceless and connect less directly with the shopper. “As consumers, that crowd has become much more aware of their importance and their power outside of just these big brands,” adds Meader.

Dressing up was relegated to social media platforms for many when COVID hit, quite literally for years, and perhaps that’s one of the reasons why Gordan’s work feels expressive of this moment in time—when society calendars are brimming without restrictions and the people who are dressing up are enjoying the actual notion of putting on clothes. A veritable feeling of ostentation is back, and it’s about freedom and doing whatever you want, but with a conscience.

It goes beyond that, too: “Much to the delight of designers at the moment, socialites and celebrities are all having fun getting dressed,” explains Gordon. “It's not frivolous; the act of putting on makeup and putting on your favorite jewelry and putting on a shirt or a dress or a jacket or pair of shoes that makes you feel great. There's something really important about it that tells the world who you are, it gives a window into your personality and your soul.”

Gordon is correct: in a world where fashion is ever reflective of our tastes and social presentations, he has given Carolina Herrera an identity that grabs the attention of the modern social doyenne. Bushwick has its Telfar bag, the Lower East Side has its Grailed Comme des Garcons and Vaquera picks, and a new subsection of New Yorkers has Wes Gordon as their own oracle of personality-driven fashion.

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