Herrera, Carolina [née Pacanins y Nino, Maria Carolina Josefina]
- Rebecca Arnold
Venezuelan fashion designer, active also in the USA (see fig.). While Herrera’s designs always contain elements of current fashion, her work is more about the cultivation of a sleek international style that is classically feminine. Her upbringing among the élite, leisured classes of South America encouraged her to view clothing as a visual expression of good taste and ease. Rather than following trends, her designs tend to favor clean lines, with a focus on detail.
Herrera was brought up in an environment where clothes were bought from Parisian couturiers, such as Cristobal Balenciaga, or made by skilled local dressmakers. In each case, craftsmanship and structure were important, combined with a desire to acknowledge wealthy women’s lifestyles within the design of each garment. Herrera therefore developed an appreciation for refined design skills and good fit early in her life, which was to prove crucial to her own evolution as a designer. Combined with this awareness of fashion’s central role in the life of wealthy women was her cosmopolitan outlook. This was nurtured by regular trips to Europe and North America, which provided inspiration through visits to galleries and museums, and gave her an understanding of the international lifestyle of many women of her class. The need of these women to be dressed stylishly and appropriately for diverse events from tennis matches to cocktail parties or office work in a city shaped Herrera’s outlook, as much as her appreciation of art and culture.
Although she was not formally trained, Herrera personified the ideal of the women she would design for and inhabited the same environment. Grooming and immaculate presentation were key to this milieu. Her social sphere provided her with ample opportunity to develop her own individual style, based upon a wardrobe of classic separates: simple white shirts, well-cut dark trousers, tailored skirt suits, and dramatic but understated party and occasion wear. Her well-considered outfits and regular appearance at society events led to her inclusion in the Best Dressed List and, eventually, her entry into its Hall of Fame. Herrera’s style was self-assured and sophisticated, enabling her to mix easily with royalty, holidaying on Mustique with Princess Margaret and with pop culture stars including Mick Jagger and Andy Warhol. During the 1970s, as air travel saw the rise of the international jet set, she was photographed in locations as diverse as Studio 54 and her family’s 16th-century estate in Caracas. Her position as an international style-setter provided her with a platform from which to launch her own career as a designer. In 1980, having garnered praise for evening gowns she had designed and worn herself, Herrera created a collection of twenty dresses in Caracas. Made by local seamstresses, this early work already expressed her design style, as it focused on strong silhouettes and a sense of luxury given by skilled craftsmanship and attention to detail. Her transformation from socialite to international designer followed the career paths of Elsa Schiaparelli in the 1930s and her contemporary Jacqueline de Ribes (b 1931).
Herrera showed the collection in New York to great acclaim, and subsequently moved to the city with her four daughters and second husband Reinaldo Herrera. The following year she presented her first full line at the Metropolitan Club. Important fashion retailers, including Bergdorf Goodman and the stylish uptown boutique Martha’s, bought her designs. She secured the financial backing necessary to put her work into production through a deal with Venezuelan publisher Armando de Armas. This enabled her to develop her line, sketching her ideas herself and then working with assistants to translate them into actual garments. She attracted famous clients from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to Renée Zellweger and Michelle Obama. Herrera’s portfolio of collections grew to include the more affordable CH line in 1986 and bridal gowns in 1987, as well as a series of fragrances beginning with an eponymous perfume for women in 1988 and one for men in 1991. By 1994 she had an annual turnover of $15 million.
Herrera’s style has remained coherent, based on fields of color or monochromes and sculptural silhouettes with interest focused on a particular area, for example exaggerated sleeves or a curving train. This approach was clear in the delicate net and lace detailing on the sleeves and back of the wedding dress she designed for Bella (Kristen Stewart) to wear in the film Twilight Breaking Dawn Part 1 (2011). Among her professional awards recognizing her global status are the prestigious Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America in 2008 and an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York, in 2012.
- Carolina Herrera: 35 Years of Fashion. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 2016.
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- Steele, V. Women of Fashion: Twentieth-Century Designers. New York, 1991.
- Kotur, A. Carolina Herrera: Portrait of a Fashion Icon. New York, 2004.
- Ruiz, V. L. and Sánchez Korrol, V. Latinas in the United States Set: A Historical Encyclopedia, 3 vols. Bloomington, IN, 2006.
- Neumann, Hans and Rivera-Barraza, Gabriel. Nuevo New York. Bologna: Damiani, 2016.