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48 Hours With Carolina Herrera Before Her Show

By Laura Neilson

 
 Fittings, Friday 3:30PM

The fashion designer Carolina Herrera, in the showroom of her garment district headquarters, looks over a model wearing one of the dresses from the brand’s spring/summer 2018 collection, which she’ll present at the Museum of Modern Art on Monday evening. The occasion is especially significant, not just because it is held on the anniversary of 9/11, but also because this is the first time the museum has ever hosted a formal fashion show.

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 Fittings, Friday 3:45PM

Herrera and her team make final adjustments to a taffeta purple-check dress. The brand, often known for its dramatic, glamorous gowns and evening dresses, has long been a go-to label for the Hollywood and red carpet set, as well as brides-to-be (Herrera launched her bridal business in 1987).

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 A Quiet Moment, Friday 4PM

The designer (wearing one of her label’s signature white button-downs), has occupied the same midtown space for over two decades. In 2012, the company expanded to include its atelier on the floor below, an especially advantageous amenity considering the demands of the current fashion calendar, which has accelerated considerably over the course of the brand’s existence.

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 In the Inner Sanctum, Friday 4:15PM

Outside the design studio and her own office, framed photographs of Herrera, solo and with family members, show off a more personal side of the designer.

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 A Music Meeting, Friday 4:30PM

Herrera and Emilie Rubinfeld (left), the company’s president, step away from the showroom for a quick meeting in a nearby design studio with the musical consultant Javier Peral. The show’s soundtrack, an upbeat mix, is intended to set the tone and complement the collection. “We have to stretch it out because the models have a long way to go,” Peral says of the lengthy catwalk through MoMA’s outdoor garden.

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 A Colour-Coded Shelf, Friday 4:35PM

Photography and fashion books, meticulously stacked by size and colour, adorn the design studio’s windowsills.  

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 Reviewing the (Illustrated) Collection, Friday 4:45PM

“This season is all about colour. Colour is powerful,” Herrera says. This is the philosophy behind the collection, though she’s hesitant to pin down one particular inspiration point or colour. Behind her, an illustrated lineup of the spring/summer 2018 collection, complete with fabric swatches and matching accessories for the season, takes up an entire wall.

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Taking it in Stride, Friday 5PM

The model Birgit Kos, wearing a bright red-printed fils coupé gown fit for the red carpet, takes a practice walk. Herrera is especially concerned about the movement of the pieces as they come down the runway. Unlike traditional runways, MoMA’s sculpture garden will require models to climb steps and navigate several tight corners. The route is longer than the typical runway, too.  

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More Fittings, Friday 5:15PM

Though her label is synonymous with polished, uptown glamour, as Herrera’s company has grown, so has the scope of her target consumer base. This white gown with confetti sequin appliqués, for example, might appeal to a more youthful clientele.

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Minor Adjustments, Friday 5:35PM

Tweaks are made to a strapless chartreuse gown embellished with hanging fabric leafs. The effect of the fringe-like fabric pieces in motion is dazzling, but Herrera isn’t satisfied with the dress length. “It needs to be shorter,” Herrera says.

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Parade of Pastels, Friday 5:50PM

Rows of colour-blocked slingback pumps by Manolo Blahnik, a longtime collaborator of Herrera, underscore the collection’s polychromatic motif. “They’re fun, yes?” she says. “I like pairing unexpected colours together.” It’s especially important to pair the right shoes with each look as that will help determine the model’s stride, as well as the fall and movement of the dress.  

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Arriving at MoMA, Monday 6:30PM

On the day of the show, Herrera arrives at the Museum of Modern Art to review the show’s setup in the garden.

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Pre-Show Interviews, Monday 6:30PM

While things are still relatively quiet, Herrera takes a moment to chat with TV interviewers about the collection and staging her show at MoMA; it’s a monumental, first-time event for both the designer and the museum.

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Walk-Through, Monday 6:45PM

Herrera watches the first of several walk-throughs from where the models will enter the garden. All the models are wearing T-shirts that read “I Love New York More Than Ever,” which Herrera has made especially for the occasion, which is also the 16th anniversary of 9/11.

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Another Practice Run, Monday 6:45PM

Herrera and Rubinfeld (in stripes) take in another rehearsal from a new vantage point; as models familiarise themselves with the circuitous route through the garden, Herrera and her team pay special attention to their pace and spacing, as well as the music and its volume in the open-air venue.

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Greeting Her Friends, Monday 7:25PM

As showtime approaches, early guests arrive, including many close friends and family members. Here, Herrera greets the photographer Mario Testino, a personal friend and longtime collaborator.

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A Private Moment, Monday 7:28PM

Since launching her label in 1981, Herrera has amassed an impressive swathe of fans and close friends. Here, she greets Lee Radziwill with a hug. 

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Warhol Forever, Monday 7:30PM

A hallway near one of the garden’s entrances has been transformed into a temporary dressing area for the models. The Andy Warhol cow-printed wallpaper in the background seems especially fitting for the occasion: The pop artist was a front-row guest at Herrera’s very first fashion show in 1981, which took place at the Metropolitan Club.

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Final Review, Monday 7:45PM

Backstage, where she’ll stay to watch the show, Herrera individually reviews the looks before each model walks. “I feel so happy because it’s going to be finished very soon,” she said, before the show’s start.

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Live Feed, Monday 8:30PM

Herrera watches the show on several monitors. She’ll also present her fall/winter 2018 collection here at the museum next February. “This location is a great honour. I think it’s one of the best museums of modern art in the word,” she says.

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Finale, Monday 8:35PM

Herrera looks on as models line up to take their final walk.  

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Private Applause, Monday 8:35PM

Herrera claps in approval as the model Jess PW, wearing a strapless chartreuse evening gown (one of the show’s final looks), returns from her turn through the garden.  

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That's a Wrap, Monday 8:45PM

Exuberant and exhilarated, Herrera and her team congratulate each other on the show’s completion.  

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It is Friday afternoon inside the sunlit, plush showroom of Carolina Herrera’s headquarters, a space she’s occupied in New York’s garment district for over two decades. A sweep of colourful gowns in taffeta and sequinned tulle hangs in a back room, and an assortment of belts and pumps in pastels are spread out nearby. A cluster of models linger outside, waiting to be fitted in the looks they’ll wear down the runway this season. The space, however, is devoid of any of the palpable stress that might hang in the air just a few days before a show.

Nearby, Herrera, the stylist Elin Svahn and a coterie of helpers make adjustments to a violet check-print dress on the model Birgit Kos. The discussion is relaxed and punctuated by thoughtful pauses. “As long as I can remember, she’s kept it very calm here,” says Patricia Herrera Lansing, the company’s special projects director (and Herrera’s daughter), as she looks on.

The following Monday evening, Herrera would be presenting her spring/summer 2018 collection at the Museum of Modern Art in the museum’s outdoor sculpture garden — the first time a show has ever been hosted there. Despite her Venezuelan heritage, Herrera very much considers herself a New Yorker. Her brand, whose full name is Carolina Herrera New York, celebrated its 35th anniversary last year. Since her debut show at the Metropolitan Club in 1981, Herrera has always presented her collections here in New York, in landmark settings like the Pierre, Bryant Park and the Frick. MoMA, where she will also show in February, took some persistence. “I spent a lot of time knocking on their door,” she says. Finally, the museum’s administration caved.

Herrera, wearing a denim kick-pleat skirt and a white button-down shirt — a piece that has become synonymous with her label — steps back to watch Kos walk. “Colour is powerful,” she says. This is the underlying theme of the polychromatic collection, she tells me. “Colour makes you think in a different way — like when you see paintings. That’s why I say fashion and art are similar,” she adds. Her statements often have a passionate, declarative quality, and she’s quick to administer affectionate swats to one’s hip when she’s being especially emphatic.

On Monday evening, as guests trickle into the open-air space, Herrera stands near the garden’s entrance where she has just watched a final walk-through to an upbeat soundtrack that includes the Rolling Stones’s “She’s a Rainbow.” Many of the models are wearing T-shirts bearing the phrase, “I Love New York More Than Ever,” which Herrera’s team ordered for the occasion, which falls on the anniversary of 9/11. “I’ve lived here for nearly 40 years. I’m a New Yorker,” she says backstage.

“All my materials had to have colours. But there are no flower prints in this collection, because we’re in a garden, and they should be here,” she says, pointing outside. She’s wearing all black herself, but her mood is buoyant. She looks around to take in the scene. “This — this place — this is really something.”