She made her first appearance on the International Best-Dressed List in 1972 while still living in her native Caracas, Venezuela. After relocating to New York in 1980, she began consorting with the crème de la crème of society and culture – CZ Guest and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis; Andy Warhol and Mick Jagger – and soon the spirited, impeccably groomed Herrera became a fixture on the Manhattan nightlife circuit. Meanwhile, she was designing her first unmistakably crisp, bold and elegant garments, which spoke of sophistication without wild ostentation, of intense labour without sweat, of confidence without striving. Right away Carolina Herrera’s clothes embodied a certain effortless chic. 

Thirty-five years later, they still do. And at age 77, Herrera herself is still full of elan, always immaculate and unfailing in her ability to create the perfect clothes for the occasion. The society names have changed – it was another first lady, Michelle Obama, who was wearing Herrera’s black-lace and periwinkle ball gown to welcome French president François Hollande two years ago – as have those relating to culture. Pop music stars Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift are big fans, as are actresses Kristen Stewart and Lupita Nyong’o. Yet today, as much as at her beginnings, the designer remains the queen of the most difficult grace to achieve, the kind that appears natural. 


That grace is on beautiful display in Refined Irreverence, the first-ever retrospective devoted to Herrera’s 35-year career, which takes place in two locations: the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), where 99 of her garments are on view through 4 September, and at the school’s Atlanta outpost, the year-old SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film, where 35 of her looks can be seen through 25 September. Conceived to celebrate the designer’s vision, Refined Irreverence appears to please the notoriously exacting Herrera as she speaks in her atelier on New York’s Seventh Avenue a short time after the exhibition’s opening in late May. “It’s a great honour to be at two museums at the same time [and] very exciting to see all the dresses together,” she says with enthusiasm. “The curators chose very well, and the dresses have been beautifully mounted. I am very happy to see what I have done in 35 years. It is not an easy business, but I have survived.” Part of what impresses her about the exhibition, she indicates, is that it brings the continuous classic elegance of her creations into vivid relief. “You can’t tell whether it’s 1981 or 2017,” she says. “They are timeless!”  

Timeless elegance quickly became Herrera’s signature, of course, though little of this could have been predicted when she first moved to New York with her second husband, Venezuelan aristocrat Don Reinaldo Herrera Guevara. (An arbiter of style in his own right, he is Vanity Fair’s longtime special projects editor.) Shortly after their arrival, Herrera sought advice from Diana Vreeland, a family friend. “I wanted to design a line of fabrics, and I went to Diana to ask her if it was a good idea,” she recalls. “She said, ‘No, my dear, how boring. You should design a collection of dresses.’ ” Herrera’s success was quick and has proved remarkably enduring, perhaps because she has always handled her customers – from Oscar nominees to single girls on a splurge – with parity. “I treat everyone the same way. I want them all to look fabulous,” she explains. “One has to look as well as the other – chic and elegant and glamorous.” 

Fashion is art in movement. It is evanescent, magical,” says Herrera. “If it is not worn, it does not exist.

Devoted to the privacy of her clientele, she declares: “If the dress doesn’t work without the name wearing it, there must be something wrong with the dress. You cannot let your life be run by the red carpet: That is for the moment only. If you design only for the red carpet, you should retire.” Still, after a little prying, a few celebrity-related tidbits spill out. “They all wear [my dresses],” she concedes, referring to early 21st-century A-list entertainers. When Renée Zellweger was up for an Oscar in 2004 (which she won for Cold Mountain), Herrera dressed her in crisp white taffeta. “I told her, ‘Dress in white because that’s the right thing to do to get an Oscar,’ ” she recalls. Swift, who wore Herrera’s red-and-black strapless bustled gown to the 2014 Golden Globes, is “adorable, a very nice girl,” she opines.  

Herrera is in fact very much connected to the millennial in-crowd – so connected, in fact, that she is a hot ticket on social media, with an Instagram following of more than one million. “Social media is fabulous,” she says. “It lets the client feel very close to the Carolina Herrera brand.” But with her good sense, the designer draws a firm line in the digital sand: “I don’t believe in posting where you are every five seconds and letting people know what you are having for breakfast,” she says. “There has to be some mystery! Life has to have mystery.” 


The designer – who in recent seasons has held her New York Fashion Week shows at  the Frick Collection – clearly believes in the artistry of clothes. “Fashion is art in movement. It is evanescent, magical,” she says. “If it is not worn, it does not exist. You are not going to hang a dress on the wall the way you would a painting.” Well, some fashion aficionados actually do just that, and no one would be surprised if a resplendent Herrera gown were to be found displayed, in its full glory, on one of her devotees’ bedroom walls.   

Others enjoy perusing garments in detail while learning about their inspiration, fabrication and purpose. The luxurious monograph Carolina Herrera, due out from Rizzoli in October, should satisfy those who can neither visit Irreverent Beauty nor wear her creations. Featuring stunning photography – both archival and newly commissioned for the book – along with a preface by legendary fashion journalist Suzy Menkes, text by Milan-based fashion and design writer JJ Martin and tributes from colleagues, friends and fashion greats, the book, like the exhibition, is the first devoted to Herrera’s career. Among the most significant tributes is that of Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour: Herrera’s work has been featured seven times on the magazine’s almighty cover. “When we want to make someone feel especially glamorous in the pages of Vogue, we turn to Carolina Herrera, who personifies the power and the positivity of dressed-up American style,” Wintour writes. “She was, and remains, the very idea of chic for so many women.” 


Fully cognizant of this, Herrera’s reaction to a reporter’s clueless question about her plans to retire should come as no surprise. “Why do you ask? I don’t have it in my mind!” she says with a flash of ire. “Talk to Karl or Ralph or Giorgio Armani and ask them – see what they say.” Lesson learned: American fashion’s very own grande dame is not interested in calling it quits. She has no plans for any sort of big anniversary bash either. “I don’t believe in those big parties,” she declares. “The celebration is every day.” With Herrera, you know that much is true.

James Reginato is writer-at-large of Vanity Fair.

Lead image: The 2005 ivory shirt and tobacco silk faille skirt Herrera wore for a 2012 David Downton portrait. Photograph courtesy of SCAD.