Carolina Herrera’s Very First Show — and What It Meant for Fashion

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ON APRIL 27, 1981, Carolina Herrera — a remarkably well-dressed, well-liked society figure, Studio 54 fixture, mother of four and Warhol muse — presented her first collection as a fashion designer. It was a career move suggested by Diana Vreeland, the former editor of American Vogue who was by then a curator to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute in Manhattan. “I wanted to design textiles,” the 79-year-old Herrera recalls. “I came to see Diana, and I told her my story and asked whether she liked the idea or not. And she said, ‘My God, that’s very boring. Why don’t you do something else, connected with fashion? Why don’t you do a collection?’ ” So she did. It was around 20 outfits, on a group of models corralled with help from her friend, the designer Bill Blass. It was shown at the Metropolitan Club, an august private social club founded in 1891 by J.P. Morgan and housed on New York’s East 60th Street — the first time the venue had permitted a fashion show within its walls. Musicians played Cole Porter. It was an event.

Almost 37 years later, Carolina Herrera speaks in a low, patrician voice via telephone from her atelier in New York. It’s February, two days after her fall 2018 show, where she officially relinquished her post as creative director, moving into an ambassadorial role at her company.

Herrera’s debut in 1981 was something of a milestone. Not only did it announce her line, which was immediately picked up by major department stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman, but it marked the end of one era in the city and the start of another. New York’s fashion landscape was shifting. The old guard who came up in the ’60s — Blass, Oscar de la Renta, Geoffrey Beene, Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein — were joined by a new soon-to-be establishment, from uptown and downtown alike. Herrera was from the former, Upper East Side in ideology and geography — her headquarters were on 57th Street, within two blocks of both the Four Seasons and St. Regis hotels. Two miles south, the Andy Warhol acolyte Stephen Sprouse was starting out, designing his signature fluoro-graffitied leggings and shift dresses that became the definition of ’80s street style. Then there was the 15-year-old avant-garde favorite Andre Walker, who began selling his clothes to Patricia Field. Names like Marc Jacobs, Donna Karan and society designer Carolyne Roehm followed soon after.

BEFORE THE LATE 1970s, the U.S. had mostly followed the trends set by European couturiers. But come the ’80s, the vague outline of American style finally came into sharp focus: modern clothes with a sense of informality and freedom, rooted in utilitarian sportswear. Everything from a Herrera ball gown to a Sprouse tailored coat had the ease of a pair of jeans — an ideology that both appealed to and reflected the attitude of a new generation of liberated women. These clothes — Karan’s jersey separates, Jacobs’s easy knits, Herrera’s ready-to-wear glamour — suddenly reflected their lives, the way little in Paris or Milan could.

Presented in the Stanford White-designed mansion, Herrera’s first show was a mingling of different worlds and societies — a heady mix that would come to define Manhattan’s creative culture in the ’80s. “The Metropolitan Club didn’t allow men without ties,” recalls Herrera. “Everybody arrived, including Steve Rubell, who was the owner of 54, and they didn’t allow him to go in. So he went to Bergdorf Goodman and bought a tie. And he put on his jacket and said, ‘Here I am.’ And then they let him in.” It was, she acknowledges, a different kind of place to show. And the crowd — buyers, press, artists and the likes of Vreeland, Rubell, Bianca Jagger and a roster of heavyweight New York socialites — felt different, exciting.

Looking at Herrera’s 1981 collection today, the clothes seem the apotheosis of ’80s extravagance. Opulent is the word she uses. “Everything was over the top,” she says. A dress from that show, now part of the collection at Manhattan’s Fashion Institute of Technology, is ecru silk, with puffed sleeves that fluff the upper body to roughly twice its natural width — The New York Times critic John Duka dubbed Herrera’s ruffles “thunderous.”

Downtown woman shot by Amy Arbus, circa 1983.CreditAmy Arbus

It was a fashion moment that, unexpectedly, has found itself newly resonant today: Herrera ironically takes her last bow in a season where the hard-edged, wide-shouldered opulence and glamour of the ’80s is re-emerging as a key trend. Even as some of the most talented American designers are opting to present their collections in Paris, not New York, we are harking back to a moment when American fashion came into its own. Echoing the ’80s reminds us of why we got excited about New York fashion in the first place.

Herrera’s final show this year — she is the first designer to hold a runway show at the Museum of Modern Art — links with her debut: the old generation making way for the new; in Herrera’s case, the 31-year-old American designer Wes Gordon. But it also echoes her fundamental ambitions: to celebrate glamour and beauty, even in unglamorous times. “I think to survive in this business you have to believe in something. Make it your own and stay with it,” she says. “If you want to be a designer, you have to be really sure that what you’re doing is what you really believe in. I believe in glamour. I believe in beautiful, elegant women. And I believe women become beautiful when they wear Herrera.”

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