For the last 37 years, Carolina Herrera has dutifully waved at the audience who've just watched a parade of models showcase her latest collection, the next of which she's set to debut on Monday during New York Fashion Week. For fall 2018, though, Herrera is mixing up the old formula: She'll also be waving to pretty much her entire family, as well as names like Calvin Klein and Bianca Jagger whom she invited and who've promised their attendance. Most importantly of all, though, she's making it the last time she'll step out on the runway: By Tuesday, the very next day, Herrera plans to transition to a new role as her company's global brand ambassador, ceding her creative director position to her 31-year-old creative consultant, Wes Gordon.
Herrera, 79, announced the news via the New York Times on Friday morning, though with a careful stipulation to the paper: "Just don’t say I am retiring. I am not retiring! I am moving forward."
For Herrera, "forward" means stepping away from designing—or "going to wake up every day worried about where to put the sleeve, or whether the skirt should be long or short," as she put it—and toward roles like putting in appearances at her stores around the world. (As well as, of course, spending more time with her husband Reinaldo, as well as her 12 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.)
In addition to adding to New York Fashion Week's disruption, as more and more designers seem to be dropping like flies as they step away from the city to show in cities like Paris, or simply opt to show things on their own terms, Herrera's move holds a particular significance: Now that Azzedine Alaïa and Oscar de la Renta have both passed away, she's one of the few remaining seasoned names to champion a very specific type of luxury—the classic type favored by more traditional society names and A-listers, who often find themselves at galas and on the red carpet.
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Sure, de la Renta's brand has stayed very much alive—it's currently run by two of the most in-demand designers, Fernando Garcia and Laura Kim of Monse—but its look has headed in a different, more contemporary direction, away from the ball gowns de la Renta and Herrera have favored for decades and decades. Not that that's a bad thing—unbeknownst to Herrera, her former chief executive actually plotted for Kim to replace her in 2016—but it's undeniably an example of something Herrera readily admits to: that "fashion has changed a lot."
"There’s a collection every six weeks," Herrera told the Times, pointing to instances like being asked to go to a store opening in Dallas when she's in the midst of working on yet another show. But to Herrera, the industry-wide change is importantly an aesthetic one, too: "What they like now is ugliness. Women dress in a very strange way. Like clowns. There is a lot of pressure to change all the time. But it’s better to wear what suits you. Add something new and you have a great look. Consistency is important."
Herrera has never specialized in so-called "ugliness"—she's famed for doing her best to make her name synonymous with class and elegance, whether by reliably churning out very society-friendly designs appropriate for uptown galas or Washington parties, or simply being known for dressing herself in crisp white button-down shirts. (Among the aphorisms she writes on her eccru-colored notepads and keeps in her office, the Times notes, are phrases like "Elegance is to be remembered" and "The easiest way to look old is to dress young.") Indeed, despite being a native Venezuela, she's synonymous with a certain idea of American elegance. She has after all dresses multiple first ladies.
Gordon, a Southerner who shuttered his own brand last year, may be decades younger, but he definitely seems to agree with Herrera when it comes to topics like "luxury" and "bold femininity"—and, above all, favoring being "beautiful" over being "cool." This, Herrera discovered herself in the months she was working with Gordon as her creative consultant, casting a careful eye over his fittings and designs. Perhaps in a move inspired by her own conspired ousting, unbeknownst to Gordon, she was actually trying him out for the job to replace her. This time, though, in keeping with tradition, she was doing it for the brand on her own terms.