Yahoo Style Exclusive: Carolina Herrera on Her 35-Year Career and the Secret to Success in Fashion

·Senior Editor
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Designer Carolina Herrera. (Photo: Courtesy of SCAD)

The word iconic is overused these days, but if any designer deserves the descriptor, it’s Carolina Herrera. In her 35-year career, she has dressed first ladies, brides, celebrities, socialites, and working women alike in designs that fuse elegance with a modern spirit that celebrates and elevates femininity. It’s a vision that has earned her an extremely loyal following and has grown the House of Herrera from a New York City atelier into a booming global brand offering ready-to-wear, accessories, bridal wear, and fragrances. Not bad for the woman who started designing only after encouragement by the legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland.

This week, the Savannah College of Art and Design opens Refined Irreverence,” the first-ever museum retrospective of Herrera’s work. Curated by Rafael Gomes, the exhibitions are currently on display at the SCAD Museum of Art in Savannah, Ga., and SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film in Atlanta, and together they celebrate the full scope of Herrera’s work. There are 134 garments in total, including runway pieces from her inaugural collection in 1981 and one worn by Karlie Kloss earlier this year. There are glamorous gowns made for Michelle Obama, soigné red carpet dresses loaned by Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift, and rarely seen pieces from Herrera’s personal collection. Together, the exhibitions are an extraordinary and transporting look at one of the most important names in American fashion.

Carolina Herrera spoke with Yahoo Style at SCAD in Savannah the day after she’d accepted her Étoile award in recognition of her contributions to fashion and design, in a room packed with SCAD students who listened eagerly to her anecdotes and advice from nearly 40 years in fashion. To them, she emphasized the importance of keeping one’s eyes and ears open to the world around them. It’s a lesson she learned in part from her mentor Diana Vreeleand, and it’s her personal creed too. “I’m longing to see the student’s show tonight,” she told us as we parted. Perhaps the secret to a career as celebrated as Carolina Herrera’s is just that — being open to inspiration in all its many forms.

Refined Irreverence” is open now through Sept. 2016 at the SCAD Museum of Art in Savannah, Ga., and SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film in Atlanta.

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Carolina Herrera, SCAD president Paula Wallace, and Patricia Herrera Lansing at the opening of “Carolina Herrera: Refined Irreverence” at SCAD FASH. (Photo courtesy of SCAD)

Yahoo Style: Congratulations on your Étoile award! You mentioned that it’s your first time visiting SCAD in Atlanta and Savannah. What has your impression been?

Carolina Herrera: It’s been spectacular. I’ve never been to SCAD before, and I want the world to know what’s going on here, because it’s extraordinary what [SCAD president and founder] Paula Wallace has done. She has such a clear vision, and the way the teams work together is impeccable … I hope she would be the president of the United States of America someday! [Laughing]

You’ve had a wonderful 35-year career, and “Refined Irreverance” is your first-ever museum retrospective. What was it like for you to see the show?

The curators who work for SCAD, and they worked with my daughter Patricia, also had such a clear vision for the exhibition. We were very careful to select pieces that represented my history but that were timeless. Getting that mix right was very important.

It must have brought back many memories for you.

So many memories came back — some good and some bad! Mostly very good memories, but one dress I saw and thought, Oh my goodness, that was in the show and the hem wasn’t finished! That dress was from my very first collection in ’81.

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“Carolina Herrera: Refined Irreverence” at SCAD FASH. (Photo courtesy of SCAD)

Looking at the exhibition, could you pick a favorite piece?

Not at all. I treat all my dresses the same. Because I always say, to have a favorite is like having four daughters and only liking one. [Laughing] I really do love them all. If they are being shown, it’s because I like them.

You also said that elegance and beauty are the hallmarks of your designs. Do you think elegance is a concept we’ve lost over time?

It has been lost a little bit, yes, but it will come back. Fashion is a repetition of ideas. When something disappears, wait a few years and it will come back. Women don’t like to be called elegant now — I think they like to be called shocking. [Gasping] “Look how shocking she is!”

But elegance is timeless.

Yes. People are always talking about trends, but they don’t realize that trends become uniforms. Your individuality does not come out, because you have to make sure you’re wearing what she’s wearing in order to be fashionable. When everybody wants the same thing, it doesn’t give you time to think What is my style about? What looks good on me? What do I want to wear?

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This fuchsia duchesse satin gown is from Carolina Herrera’s spring 2011 collection and was worn by Angelina Jolie in a 2010 Vogue profile photographed by Mario Testino. From “Carolina Herrera: Refined Irreverence” at SCAD FASH. (Photo courtesy of SCAD)

How do you balance elegance with looking modern?

Well, you cannot ignore the times. You have to see what’s going on in the world and adapt it without losing your style or the style of the house. But it has to be for today. You can have the most beautiful dress inspired by the 18th century, but where is a woman going in that big dress? She can’t catch a cab in it.

So you take little bits of inspiration?

Yes, there are details in fashion, and there’s a way to make your inspiration modern without being totally shocking. I don’t believe too much in nudity, for instance, because I like a bit of mystery. Maybe the idea of romance and mystery is something that’s disappeared.

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“Carolina Herrera: Refined Irreverence” at the SCAD Museum of Art. (Photo courtesy of SCAD)

Why is that?

I think people have confused sexy with vulgar. And it’s not the same thing. You can see a woman who’s completely covered, and she’s still very sexy. You don’t have to wear a dress three sizes too small, or show half of what you have to be sexy. In fact, I think it’s much sexier not to show everything and to leave the mystery going in your head.

You spoke yesterday about how the great Diana Vreeland encouraged you to start your fashion line. What do you remember best about her?

Ah, she was great! She was a woman with such a modern mind, so full of curiosity, fantasy, and intelligence. You had to admire her. For me, curiosity is the number one quality you need to have in life — for men, women, children, anyone. You must be interested in the world around you. And she was absolutely full of curiosity. She wanted to know what you were doing and thinking, your plans for 30 years from now. She had a very big mind and a lot of style and elegance. And she was not a beautiful woman in the traditional sense. But she was modern — and you had to notice her, because she was fascinating. I was very lucky to have her as a mentor.

Is mentorship something you’ve tried to provide to younger designers?

Well, if they ask me, but I’m not going around saying “I can mentor you?” [Laughing]

That would be a little presumptuous, maybe.

Very! I was a mentor for Prabal Gurung when he was in the Vogue fund, and he is so talented and so wonderful to work with. I think I learned from him more than he learned from me.

That’s incredible.

And it should be that way! New ideas keep you fresh. You have to have your eyes open and your ears too.

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“Carolina Herrera: Refined Irreverence” at SCAD FASH. (Photo courtesy of SCAD)

To all the SCAD students graduating this month, what is your advice for how to have a successful and long career?

First of all, they have to love fashion with a passion. With a passion. Because it’s not easy. And it’s not just the glamour of the runway show — to put on a show is a lot of work, and many ingredients have to go right. And you also have to realize that you have to live with the egos of the fashion world.

Those are some big egos.

Oh yes! [Laughing] That’s why I say you have to love it. Because it’s a lot of work, and there’s so much of yourself that you’ll need to put into this career. But the most important thing for fashion designers is they have to show their own style. Because at the end, if you start copying this, that, and the other because it’s fashionable, you’ll be nowhere.

What are three things you think every woman should have in her closet?

Oh my God — those three things don’t exist. I don’t know any woman who only needs to have three things! The feminine way is “I need to go shopping for a pair of shoes” and you see an evening gown: “Oh, how beautiful that is; I’m going to try it — I love it!” You don’t need it, but you buy it, hang it in your closet, and it looks beautiful. So if you need just one thing, maybe it’s a pair of shoes to leave your house. To go shopping in!

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“Carolina Herrera: Refined Irreverence” at SCAD FASH. (Photo courtesy of SCAD)

And finally, over the course of your career, what has been your favorite type of woman to dress?

There are so many different ones, it all depends. But I like the women who know exactly what style they are. Those that are not too trendy, that know how to project themselves, that have a certain originality in their minds and know how to put a look together. Because in my work, I give the ingredients, and you wear it with your own style. I’m not going to tell you, “Oh, why didn’t you wear the shoes that went with that dress in the show?” No. You have to give your own touch to it. And I like the women who do.

It’s such an honor speaking with you, and congratulations again.

Thank you so much, and I’ll see you tonight at the [SCAD fashion] show. I am longing to see that show!

Refined Irreverence” is open now through Sept. 2016 at the SCAD Museum of Art in Savannah, Ga., and SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film in Atlanta.