Carolina Herrera Shares Her Style
The fashion designer speaks candidly about her family and what it was like to reinvent herself at age 40
En español | Carolina Herrera projects her style with ease, whether in her home, at her office or anywhere she goes. The award-winning Venezuelan designer not only dresses the world's most stylish women, but is in fact one of them; for years her name has appeared on the "International Best-Dressed List."
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Herrera was born María Carolina Josefina Pacanins y Niño in Caracas, on Jan. 8, 1939. At age 40, after leading a very full life, she moved to New York and reinvented herself. She was financially set, happily married to Reinaldo Herrera and the mother of four girls. Taking a 180-degree turn, she began her career as a fashion designer, a difficult and competitive business in which she's been highly successful for 30 years.
At 73, Herrera walks tall, shoulders back, and projects an inner peace. When she greets us in her New York office surrounded by photos of her family, she's slim, polished and dressed impeccably in a simple skirt and a white blouse. During the interview, Herrera shares her thoughts on what makes a woman beautiful, which pieces constitute a perfect wardrobe and how important personal happiness is to beauty.
You grew up in Caracas, Venezuela, and though you've lived in New York for many years and are a U.S. citizen, you seem very Latin American to me.
Of course I am! I grew up in Venezuela with my three sisters. My father was Guillermo Pacanins, a former governor of Caracas, and my mother was María Cristina Niño, from whom I learned the value of a good education, studying, curiosity and the appreciation of beautiful things.
And that's why I'm very close to my four daughters. We speak every day, no matter where in the world we are; and if you ask them, they'll tell you that from an early age I passed on to them the values my own mother taught me. My family — my husband, my daughters, my grandchildren, my great-grandchildren, all of them — are the most important thing in the world to me. As to Reinaldo, we've been married many years, he's my best friend, and we have fun together. A sense of humor is very important in human relationships. Don't you think?
Work and business travel — don't they take up a lot of your time?
I'm very organized and find time for everything. I'm often asked that question, and it surprises me, because when you're organized and budget your time well, there's no problem. Also, when the work day is over, at 5 p.m., I don't take work home. What doesn't get done in the office between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. can wait until the next day.
You are much admired. What is your secret to achieving the harmony you project?
Feeling good about yourself and your life is very important. I'm a happy woman, happy with my husband, my daughters, my grandchildren. We all get along quite well, and that keeps me centered.
Does anything make you nervous or anxious?
Of course, especially when we're about to bring out a new collection! But I control myself very well! Nobody realizes when I'm nervous, because I appear quite calm; if I fall apart, we all fall apart, and that can't happen. I was brought up with considerable discipline, and I was taught it wasn't proper to display certain very private emotions in public.
Have you ever thought of retiring?
Why give up something I love? I grew up surrounded by beautiful things and developed a good eye for fashion, for which I feel real passion. And the fact that at work I'm surrounded by people who share that passion makes everything easy.
There is one question I'm dying to ask you. Why do you wear white blouses so often?
Because I love them and I've worn them all my life. They are my security blanket, as they say (Laughs). They make me feel secure, and I can match them up with anything. They're very feminine, and when I'm getting dressed in the morning and can't decide what to wear, a white blouse always fits the bill. They also bring back happy memories. As a child, I wore white blouses to school, and I remember them always being ready and perfectly ironed.
White blouses have always been favored by designers like Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent, but you've made the more casual cotton shirts fashionable.
They go better than anything else with certain outfits, short skirts as well as pants, and even long evening skirts. They're also very flattering, because they light up one's face. But they have to look neat, well-ironed, buttons in perfect condition. I'm always saying that about clothes. What good does it do you to wear an expensive dress if one of the buttons is falling off or if it hasn't been properly ironed? Or to wear really expensive shoes if they're dusty and scuffed?
Are you a perfectionist?
Well, I'm a Capricorn (laughs) and I don't like to do things halfway. Attention to detail is of utmost importance when you want to look good.
You have said that fashion must be, above all, pleasing to the eye. How can we look pleasing to the eye without spending a fortune?
Essential pieces — of the best possible quality that fits your budget — are the most important ingredients. It's better to have just a few high-quality things than many things that aren't. Wear a white blouse with black or beige pants, a good-looking belt, a pearl necklace and well-polished shoes, with a pretty purse in a cheerful color such as yellow, and you'll look perfect. In winter, we'll always look good in a beautiful jacket — or a coat of the best cut and quality possible — over a simple blouse or pullover sweater and straight-leg pants. It's a very classic and feminine style. And I feel very well-dressed that way.
Describe for us an ideal wardrobe of essential pieces.
Two pairs of pants (black and beige) and a well-cut skirt of quality fabric. Several white tailored shirts — one cotton, one taffeta and one of embroidered linen. And some striped shirts, which I also like a lot. One pretty jacket or blazer. And one pretty cocktail dress. And I always say it's essential to have a good full-length mirror and a magnifying mirror, so we can put makeup on correctly.
Your collections turned 30 this year, your wedding dresses are what all the girls want to wear — even the character Bella Swan, in the latest Twilight movie — your CH boutiques have met with great success around the world, and your perfumes are very popular. How do you explain all that success?
We must be doing something people like. Our CH boutiques offer an enormous assortment of accessories and products that reflect the lifestyle I prefer. As for the wedding dresses, they're popular because they're feminine as well as comfortable, because brides need to feel comfortable when they dance and move at their wedding.
You are constantly asked this question, but what does it mean to be stylish?
True style money can't buy. Style is something subtle that shows in small details. It's not the clothes you wear; it's the way you act, move, speak.
How do you define beauty?
Beauty is also something you project through your personality and the way you are. Sometimes you see a woman who's not very pretty, but she has so much personality that you say, "She's so pretty!" It's not just something visual, but a combination of thousands of things: of thoughts, of tastes, of what you like in books, in art. It's a collection of things.
What is your most important beauty secret?
Apart from basic skin care, staying active, routine and preventive health check-ups, I firmly believe that to look well it's essential to eat right. It's the key to beauty, health and looking young at any age. Good nutrition is reflected in the skin on your face and in your body.
It's important to have love in one's life, because it makes us more human and, incidentally, more beautiful. Those are tips that don't cost a thing, right?
How would you describe yourself?
I'm very curious; I like to do research and discover new things. What makes me the happiest is to see my family and friends happy. And what upsets me the most is to see someone I love suffer because of something he or she is going through, whether it's an illness or a situation. I like people who have a sense of humor, because without a sense of humor life is empty, and you never forget someone who makes you laugh. A sense of humor makes life easier!