How Designer Wes Gordon is Reimagining Carolina Herrera for the Next Generation

NEW LOOK Designer Wes Gordon doing a pre-show fitting at the New York headquarters of Carolina Herrera.
NEW LOOK Designer Wes Gordon doing a pre-show fitting at the New York headquarters of Carolina Herrera. Photo: Adrianna glaviano for WSJ. Magazine

FOR YEARS, the lobby of the Carolina Herrera offices on Manhattan’s Seventh Avenue was presided over by Carolina Herrera herself in the form of a 1976 Robert Mapplethorpe portrait of her, steely gazed, reclining in a hammock on Mustique. Just a few weeks ago, it was replaced with an image from the new fall 2018 ad campaign, shot by British photographer David Sims. It features models Edie Campbell and Manuela Sanchez, outfitted in windblown ostrich and Mylar coats, laughing under the Manhattan Bridge. “We needed a little color,” explains creative director Wes Gordon, who succeeded Herrera in February 2018 after her 37-year tenure. “It’s right there,” he says, gesturing down the hall at the black-and-white Mapplethorpe image.

Less than 72 hours before Gordon’s inaugural runway show, the showroom has morphed into central command. People buzz in and out: tailors ferrying samples from the atelier downstairs, president Emilie Rubinfeld showing Gordon something on her iPhone, stylist Elin Svahn examining the run of show. Boards covered in model headshots, photos from the fittings and sketches of each ensemble are propped against one wall. The Weeknd’s “I Feel It Coming” plays overhead. Gordon is squatting in the middle of the room in front of a strapless, white guipure-lace frock with black silk-mikado trim. A raffia daisy crunches between his fingers as he holds it up to the ruffled hem. “I was thinking of adding more at the bottom,” he says to his head designer. A cluster of the straw daisies sits on a coffee table facing the dress form. One end of the room is filled with racks of samples—some still pinned as muslin patterns—which will be edited for the wholesale presentation. Crammed together they look like a pack of Tropical Skittles with their rainbow of exuberant island hues. Gordon has given them names like “hibiscus” and “July sky.”

How Designer Wes Gordon is Reimagining Carolina Herrera for the Next Generation
Photo: Adrianna glaviano for WSJ. Magazine

“I’m like a kid in a candy shop,” he says, holding up a necklace of what look like enamel gumballs before moving on to the suede floral appliqués that will be added to the turquoise and vermillion knee-high Manolo Blahnik boots. “Don’t these just make you happy?” The phrase is a question, but Gordon speaks in exclamation points. At 6-foot-3 with hair so thick it adds an extra inch to his height, the 31-year-old Southerner is rakish yet affable, cheeky but respectful and well-mannered to a fault.

Herrera is absent on this pre-show day. But that is by choice. The company founder has remained purposely out of the way since she announced Gordon as her successor and her own move to global ambassador. She took her final bow at the February 2018 show. “That’s the way I say, ‘I trust you,’ ” says Mrs. Herrera, as she is referred to by all. “I had to close the door and really close it. I’m not going to tell him what to do. He’s on his own.” The two remain in close contact, however, communicating regularly by WhatsApp—“Who doesn’t?” asks the 79-year-old—and having monthly lunches at Harry Cipriani on Fifth Avenue.

This rapport was established from their first meeting in January 2017, when Rubinfeld called on Gordon, who had recently shuttered his own namesake line, to interview with Herrera for a consulting position. Scheduled for five minutes, the meeting lasted two hours, “and the thing we discussed the least were clothes,” recalls Gordon. What ensued was a one-year consulting term—part courting period, part audition. Gordon worked at Herrera’s side, earning the trust of her 50-plus-person atelier. The two ate lunch together almost every day, Caesar salads from nearby restaurant Arno. “I knew he could do it, because he liked the same things I do,” says Herrera, “and he wants to maintain the elegance and simplicity of the house. Look at the houses that have really worked—look at the genius of Karl Lagerfeld. You know why it’s working? Because he has known how to maintain the great house of Chanel. That’s what I’m looking for in Wes, and I think he can do it.”

The result has been a lesson in what can often seem an impossible task: how to reinvent a heritage brand to appeal to new customers without alienating the loyal clients who are the current linchpin of the business. It’s a challenge that all long-running houses eventually confront. The more successful the founder’s vision, the higher the pressure for his or her successor. Some brands become the new designer, such as Givenchy and Riccardo Tisci or Balenciaga and Nicolas Ghesquière. Others struggle to find the right inheritor: Geoffrey Beene and Halston are just two 20th-century casualties. The incoming designer’s ego must be robust enough to take on the task but malleable enough to work under another’s name. At a moment when many of fashion’s lions are nearing or in their ninth decade—Karl Lagerfeld, Giorgio Armani, Ralph Lauren—the question of how to enact a successful handoff has never been more relevant.

Carolina Herrera the fashion brand was born when Carolina Herrera the woman, a patrician Venezuelan socialite, was already a 42-year-old mother of four. After former Vogue editor Diana Vreeland encouraged her to launch a fashion brand instead of the textile line she had been considering, Herrera held an inaugural runway show at New York’s Metropolitan Club in the spring of 1981. The styles exemplified the new era in American fashion, which until the mid-’70s had tended to take cues from the European couture houses. Herrera’s pieces were made for women like her—or women who wanted to be like her—who spent their days in Upper East Side townhouses and their nights at Studio 54 with Steve Rubell or at Indochine with Andy Warhol. Herrera’s muses were her friends: Vreeland, Jayne Wrightsman, Jacqueline Onassis. Her first wedding dress of note was for Caroline Kennedy. The designs were opulent yet wearable, seductive but elegant. They reflected the glamour and excess of the ’80s but also its changing pace.

The Wes Wing

Designer Wes Gordon takes the reigns at Carolina Herrera

A spring 2019 gown.
Adrianna Glaviano for WSJ. Magazine

In 1995, the family-owned Spanish conglomerate Puig, known for its expertise in fragrance, bought the Carolina Herrera brand and in the ensuing 23 years helped build it into a $1.4 billion–a-year enterprise. A large percentage of those earnings come from Herrera’s successful 31-scent fragrance business, including the best-selling Good Girl and 212, and the brand’s CH Carolina Herrera diffusion line, which has 344 stores worldwide. By comparison, Carolina Herrera ready-to-wear has four. According to Puig’s brands, markets and operations president, José Manuel Albesa, the company hopes to grow the brand internationally. With its recent acquisition of a majority stake in fashion brand Dries Van Noten, the company is making a play to compete against the other European fashion behemoths. In addition to Herrera, Puig owns Nina Ricci, Paco Rabanne and Jean Paul Gaultier. “I have faith in Wes,” says Albesa. “It is an evolution not a revolution.”

Gordon is not the first young designer the brand has engaged with. In February 2016, Laura Kim, an Oscar de la Renta alum who had co-founded her own line, Monse, with partner Fernando Garcia, was brought in as senior vice president of design at Carolina Herrera. Five months later, Kim resigned, stating in an affidavit filed in December 2016 that she was promised the position of creative director by then–Carolina Herrera CEO François Kress. According to her affidavit, Kim says it appeared to her that Mrs. Herrera had not been briefed on this plan, and so Kim quit. After it was reported that Oscar de la Renta was hiring Kim and Garcia as co–design directors, Carolina Herrera Ltd. sued Kim for breach of contract. The suit was settled, but still provided plenty of tabloid fodder. Kim and a spokesperson for Carolina Herrera declined to comment.

Gordon grew up in Atlanta, the son of a financier father and a former marketing executive mother. He was obsessed with design from an early age. He refused to attend kindergarten without red suspenders and blue suede bucks and later pored over Visconti films and fashion biographies. Reading biographies of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano inspired Gordon to apply to the designers’ London alma mater, Central Saint Martins. While there, Gordon interned for Tom Ford and Oscar de la Renta and upon graduation, at 22, launched his own brand. With a rack of slinky separates and slipdresses, five models and a donated room at New York’s St. Regis hotel, he presented his first collection in February 2010. Still in the throes of the financial crisis, retailers were hesitant to buy from “a young brat,” as he calls himself, but they would allow him to do trunk shows at their stores. Eventually Saks and Neiman Marcus carried the line. He also had critical success, becoming a two-time finalist for the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Award. But after eight years, the market dynamics became too difficult, and he was ready for something new.

“A lot of my time was no longer the creative part, he says. “I feel really grateful to have an opportunity now where my focus 24/7 is on design,” Gordon adds later as he rifles through racks in the Carolina Herrera showroom, whipping out favorite pieces. “We’re not a basics brand,” he says, revealing the peony silk lining of a crystal-embellished day coat in a yellow so traffic-stopping they’ve named it “taxicab.” “We are a brand for the fabulous.” The designer himself is dressed in black Tom Ford jeans, Saint Laurent sneakers and a Uniqlo button-down. “I’m asked all the time how luxury works in 2018, and I think it’s just about making pieces that are fun to wear. You don’t think anymore about your cocktail clothes, your daytime clothes—you just want items that make your heart beat faster,” says Gordon, lingering over a cerulean tulle dress flocked with sequined ponies. “That’s how luxury stays relevant.”

“I think Wes is very aware of how a woman is going out and carrying herself,” says Lauren Santo Domingo, co-founder and chief brand officer of luxury online retailer Moda Operandi. “He’s friends with this woman—he and his husband are an incredibly refined young couple—and I think he truly understands this world he’s designing in.” Gordon and husband Paul Arnhold, who works in real estate and also has a glass-blowing company, married in a cheeky-chic Las Vegas ceremony in 2017. They are fixtures at New York galas, nattily dressed and flanked by their friends test-driving Gordon’s Herrera designs. “You can’t be in a box and try to design clothes that are relevant for women to wear,” Gordon explains, “so to be out with women wearing Herrera is an absolute necessity. Your clothes will lack an authenticity and a relevance if you don’t understand what they’re for.”

Anna Wintour reviews the collection with Gordon.
Anna Wintour reviews the collection with Gordon. Photo: Adrianna glaviano for WSJ. Magazine

For the 2018 Costume Institute gala at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gordon worked with actor and TV writer Lena Waithe to design a custom silk-faille rainbow cape, a nod to gay pride at the Catholic-themed exhibition and event. “I think that underlining your personality, circling it, putting an exclamation point after it, is what fashion is about right now,” he says. Actor Sarah Paulson keeps returning to the label for red-carpet occasions for just that reason. “I’m always looking to find something that makes me feel like a grown-ass woman, but I still like to look soft and pretty,” she says. “What Wes does is an incredibly dynamic mix of strength and whimsy.”

Red-carpet dressing is just one aspect of how Carolina Herrera now communicates with potential customers—social media presence is also growing as e-commerce becomes more important. Online sales are up 20 percent. “Wes thinks about the product and the clothes and how they’ll look from an image perspective,” says Rubinfeld. “Often our clients’ first impression of a Carolina Herrera dress is coming from an Instagram feed or an online retailer, so he’s very mindful of how [designs] will look in a picture. The fact that he’s really making his mark at the house with color and whimsical prints lends itself to visual strength and impact online.”

On the morning of September 10, a rainy Monday, the second floor of the New-York Historical Society is starting to fill up for Gordon’s first show. Clients wearing floor-skimming gowns at 10 a.m. linger in front of photographers, hoping to have their picture taken. Magazine editors hurry in, their rainwear dripping on the pristine blush carpeting. Dolly Parton’s classic “9 to 5” echoes in the high-ceilinged room. Models Hailey Baldwin and Lily Aldridge enter together, followed by a film crew. Martha Stewart and Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman find their seats. Meanwhile, Carolina Herrera, regal with her toreador posture and helmetlike coif, sits between her husband, Reinaldo, daughter Patricia and granddaughter Carolina.

Herrera has seen nothing of the collection. She texted Gordon “Good luck” early that morning, but did not offer advice, and he did not ask it. “He knows that he cannot. After I announced he was going to be succeeding me, we were going to do the bridal show, and he called me to ask if I wanted white or off-white, and I said, ‘Wessss! You didn’t understand what I said! You have to do this on your own!’ ” says Herrera. “And I think this is the best way, because you cannot be in the past.”

Backstage, models wear buttons reading “Era of Herrera.” As a jazzy rendition of Aretha Franklin’s “I Say a Little Prayer” plays over the speakers, a jaunty parade of smiling models trots down the runway. The colors are punchy and vivid, the prints bright and Instagram-friendly. The crunchy taffeta and faille skirts, a hallmark of the house, are reinterpreted as silky palazzo pants or georgette ruffles, better made for lounging and dancing. The iconic Herrera white shirt is rewritten in a myriad of ways: cropped, ruched, smocked, sleeveless. It’s a deftly done reference to the Herrera heritage. “The Warhol portrait sums it up best,” says Gordon of the artist’s 1979 silkscreen of Herrera. “The bright, bold colors, the big jewelry, the red lips—that is Carolina Herrera.”

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