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Carolina Herrera: 1939—: Fashion Designer

Built Successful Fashion Line

When Herrera announced her intention to become a designer, some friends and even her husband viewed the scheme with skepticism. "I was supportive because I thought this would last fifteen minutes," Reinaldo Herrera told Town & Country's Tapert. "If she had said it would be fifteen years, I would have asked her, 'Are you out of your mind?'" But in the fall of 1980, Herrera brought some 20 dresses of her own design that she'd had sewn up by her Caracas dressmaker. She borrowed a Park Avenue apartment and invited friends to see them; soon buyers for Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman were interested, but Herrera had just the sample dresses, and not even a plan for production. Back in Caracas, she was introduced to Armando de Armas, owner of a Venezuelan publishing empire, who offered her financial backing. In a few months she opened her design atelier and showroom, Carolina Herrera Ltd, on Seventh Avenue.

Herrera's designs, made from rich, luxuriant fabrics, were a hit with well-to-do New York women in the early 1980s. She was said to have popularized the padded shoulder that became ubiquitous with fashions of that decade, and also showed puffy sleeves on many of her formals, once explaining that shoulder pads always made a woman's waist appear smaller, and elaborate sleeves served to frame a face. In her first few collections, noted Koski in WWD, Herrera displayed "a distinctly Latin sense of drama, with influences ranging from the extravagant ruffles of flamenco dancers to matador's jackets and the pure, sculptural shapes of the legendary Spanish couturier Cristobal Balenciaga."

Though Herrera's line was a bit more expensive than most—because of their superb fabrics and costly trim-mings—they became favorites with a certain high-profile kind of woman, including many of the Manhattan socialites who were also Herrera's friends. One distinctly low-profile early client who became a friend was Jacqueline Onassis, and it was a connection that boosted the fortunes of Herrera's company immensely. Still, the designer was adamant that all of her customers required the respect that a friend would command in matters of privacy. "I never mention my clients," Herrera told WWD writer Irene Daria. "If you have to sell a dress because an important client is wearing it, then that means that the dress was not good. I didn't like when it was done to me so I don't do it to anyone." Elsewhere, she dismissed charges that her business had been built, so to speak, on the backs of her much-photographed socialite friends. "If I only dressed my friends," she scoffed in the interview with Tapert, "my company would have folded years ago."

Herrera's design business remained relatively unknown to the general public until 1986, when she designed the wedding dress for Onassis's daughter, Caroline Kennedy. The bridal gown was ultra-feminine and much copied, and the resulting publicity made Herrera a sudden celebrity. Moreover, both Princess Diana—one of the decade's most photographed women—and American First Lady Nancy Reagan soon began to be photographed in Herrera's creations. Still, these first few years of success unnerved her, as she told Tapert. It was much more work than she'd expected. "When I started, I didn't make the connection between the designing and the business," she recalled in the Town & Country interview. "I had a fantasy vision of this career. It was, 'Oh, a designer! How glamorous! This is divine!' I had no idea I would be at the office the whole day. I thought I would design a collection and then go home."

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Brief BiographiesBiographies: James Heneghan (1930-) Biography - Personal to Rick Jacobson Biography - PersonalCarolina Herrera: 1939—: Fashion Designer Biography - Married Twice Into Venezuelan Elite, Built Successful Fashion Line, Expanded Business In New Directions