Carolina Herrera

High society’s designer of choice for decades, Carolina Herrera talks of her love of New York and Rome, dressing Michelle Obama – and looking stylish whatever your age

Interview by Hilary Rose
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Carolina Herrera

"If the world’s most beautiful dress doesn’t fit, it’s a mistake."

You waited until 1981, when you were 42, before launching your fashion house. Why?
There comes a time in your life when you need to do something new, and that was the right time for me. I’d never done anything before. I asked my friend Diana Vreeland what she thought about me designing some materials and she said, “That’s so boring. Why don’t you design a fashion collection?” She gave me the idea.
What did your husband think of you starting work?
He believed that I should do it, and that was very important for me. You have to have the support of your family, because if you do something they don’t agree with then it’s hell.
Did you ever feel any self-doubt?
Sometimes everything’s fantastic and you think you’re on top of the world; other times it’s more difficult. Fashion, and dealing with the egos in the industry, is a very difficult business.
Were you ambitious?
You have to be ambitious in fashion, otherwise you won’t get anywhere. You have to persevere and realize that you are designing for many different tastes, not just your own. I design things that I wouldn’t wear, but I know they’re going to sell.
You had no formal design training. Did that matter?
No, because in design, the most important thing is to have an eye: for proportion, for mixing colors. You can go to fashion school and learn how to cut a pattern and how to sew, but if you don’t have the vision you won’t know how to put it together. I sketch very badly, but I know exactly what I want. I can’t sew on a button, but I know how it should be sewn on.
Why did you choose to live in New York?
I’ve been in love with New York since I was a child. It’s a very glamorous city, and one of the few cities in the world where there are so many events every night that you always see men looking handsome in black tie and women in evening gowns.
What are the best and worst things about the city?
The best is the weather: when it’s very cold and the sky is blue. The worst is
the traffic.
Apart from New York, which is your favourite city in the world?
Rome. It’s so chic, the Italians are so delicious and the Romans are divine. You can be walking in a small street and suddenly you find something grandiose in front of you, something out of this world. And the Italians are always in a happy mood. They ask you things with a smile, so you can’t refuse. I love London, too, but I don’t like the weather too much.
Where is your favorite place to go on holiday?
Patmos in Greece. We stay with our great friend [interior designer] John Stefanidis, who has a lovely house there. The island is really beautiful, and not so crowded.
How often do you visit Caracas, where you were brought up?
I haven’t been in a long time. I love my country, and I would love to be there all the time, but we became a left-wing country. It’s difficult. Our family house is still there – it was built in 1590 and has always been in the hands of the same family – but we don’t live there any more.
What is the key to looking well-dressed?
Your clothes have to fit properly. You can be in the most beautiful dress in the world, but if it doesn’t fit, it’s a mistake. Sometimes women say, “I want to look sexy”, and for them, sexy is three sizes too small. That’s also a mistake.
You’re a regular on the best-dressed lists. Do such things matter?
It’s very flattering, and it’s very nice of people to say that you are well-dressed, but you cannot think about it all day long.
What is the biggest mistake celebrities make when dressing for the
red carpet?

They wear clothes that don’t fit or don’t suit them. And their shoes are three sizes too big, because they’re on loan.
You have had a long working relationship with Renée Zellweger. How important to a brand is celebrity endorsement?
Renée is great because she doesn’t use a stylist. She comes to me and we discuss what she wants. She knows exactly what she likes, and that’s very rare.
Who in the public eye would you like to wear your clothes? The Duchess of Cambridge, perhaps?
Well, why not? Of course! She has a fantastic figure and she is always properly dressed for her role. I know some people say she’s too serious, but what they don’t realize is that she is representing something.
Is it true that you can get ready for a black-tie ball in ten minutes?
I can get ready for anything in ten minutes. In my mother’s time it was very different, because none of them worked. These women today who take two hours to get dressed – what are they doing after the first 10 or 15 minutes? If I had to spend two hours getting dressed, I’d be so tired by the time I arrived at the party I’d want to go home.
You’re 76. Are you ever tempted to retire?
No, I adore my work. Nobody’s forcing me to do this.
Two of your four daughters work for your company. Does that ever
cause friction?

It’s fun to work with both of them because they have a different approach to what they do and a different eye. They both have a lot of style, but they’re different. Carolina lives in Madrid and is responsible for the perfumes. Patricia lives in New York and is on my design team.
Do they find it difficult to combine working with motherhood?
No. They are very well-organized. To be a working mother
you have to have a lot of discipline and some help.
Did you ever struggle to combine work and home life?
No, never, because I stop talking about work the moment
I leave the office.
Do you burn the midnight oil at the office?
No. If you can’t do what you have to do between 9am and 5pm then there’s either something wrong with you, or something wrong with the organization.
Can women have it all?
Yes. Women are very lucky because we can do many things at the same time.
Men can’t.
You dressed Jackie Onassis in the last decade of her life. Is her style
still current?

Look at photographs of her now: she looks so modern. She was an amazing woman, so cultivated and intelligent, and a great inspiration for me. I have dressed Michelle Obama, too, and she has a different style to Jackie. She mixes it up a lot and wears a lot of young designers. She has created her own style: more informal I suppose. But the world is getting less formal.
What is the most important thing a woman should have in her closet?
A full-length mirror.
Do you find yourself looking backwards now, rather than forwards?
I like the future much more than the past. If you just sit and think about the past, you’re lost.
Have you made any concessions to age in the way you dress?
Of course. Sometimes you see a woman with a fantastic figure in a mini-skirt, and when she turns around she’s ancient. That doesn’t look right to me. You need to be soigné – or at least more soigné than you were when you were 20. The key thing is to dress according to your age, your style and your figure. It doesn’t matter if something’s fashionable or not – if it looks good, wear it.
Does your husband notice what you’re wearing?
Yes and that’s great, because he has a very good eye and he’s not going to lie to me.
You’ve been married for 46 years. What is the secret of a happy marriage?
Love, respect, friendship and a sense of humor. You have to be able to
laugh together.
If you had your time again, what would you change?
I wouldn’t change anything. I would do it all exactly the same way. Even
the mistakes.
When and where were you happiest?
When I had my first child. I loved it. It’s a fantastic experience.
What advice would you give to a fashion designer starting out today?
Love what you’re doing, believe in it, find your own style and like fashion a lot. Nobody knows what fashion is. It’s a mystery.


Images by Conde Nast Archive/Corbis, Christopher Little/Corbis, Alexis Rodrigues-Duarte/Corbis, Bettman/Corbis


Carolina Herrera in 1974

With daughter Carolina Adriana, 1999

In her New York office last year