Carolona Herrera Asks Why Women All Wear the Same Thing

If we stay here, they will feel they have to stay until we are finished,” explained Carolina Herrera on a Friday afternoon (read: half-day) at her Seventh Avenue office. “Would you mind lunching at Balthazar?”

Mrs. Herrera’s car was waiting downstairs. Her brief appearance on the sidewalk caused quite a stir in the garment center. She wore a steel gray silk man’s tailored shirt, a narrow gray skirt and sling-back spectator shoes. But the princess royale of American fashion seemed oblivious to her reception. Even a vendor selling fake designer bags off a blanket looked up.

We got into her sedan. The chauffeur closed the car door.

“I don’t understand status bags, status shoes,” Mrs. Herrera said, smoothing the folds in her skirt. “Why? Why wear a label? Why wear what everyone else has? It’s no fun.”

Of course, she has had her own label for 17 years. “I was 40 years old when I started, so you can count, go right ahead,” Mrs. Herrera said, laughing.

In 1981, when Carolina Herrera, the wife of Reinaldo Herrera, now special projects editor for Vanity Fair , made her curtsy into the fierce world of fashion, there were those not prepared to take her venture seriously. But the clothes were too good to be dismissed. “Herrera excels at designing outfits for the glittering life style she no longer has time to lead,” wrote a fashion reporter at the time, conferring designer status on the newcomer.

Slowly, and conservatively, Mrs. Herrera built her empire, her business tremendously aided by the success of her original fragrance, Carolina Herrera, and the launch last year of 212, her uptown-downtown inspired scent which she produced with the second youngest of her four daughters, Carolina Adriana, a filmmaker now based in Los Angeles.

“What I’ve tried to do,” Mrs. Herrera explained as we drove past Pennsylvania Station, “is evolve. Evolve as a designer. Evolve in my own personal style, what I wear. My collections, I think, represent this process. I started in 1981 with big sleeves and shoulders that don’t fit at all now. Maybe they will come back. I don’t care. Whatever. Whatever ,” she laughed. “But the key is, you can’t stay stuck!”

Mrs. Herrera’s most recent collection, shown in New York last spring, was inspired by the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain. “I hadn’t seen the museum in person, but when I saw it photographed in all the magazines I was amazed. It must be as important as the Tour Eiffel was in the 19th century.”

The inspiration manifested itself in steel silver colors and lean, geometric lines, like the shirt and skirt she wore today. When the powers that be in Bilbao read the various interviews in which Mrs. Herrera talked about how much the museum had inspired her, they invited her to give a fashion show at the museum. The event took place on June 22 with about 600 Basque fashionistas in attendance.

“Divine, divine,” Mrs. Herrera said, describing the experience of seeing her fashions on show in the Guggenheim adjunct.

“And my preconceived notions of the city of Bilbao were all wrong,” she added. “I thought it was one of those unattractive industrial cities, but it is marvelous. The food! The best. You cannot imagine. There’s a code to dining in Bilbao. They’re eating and they are discussing how the meal is made. So good.”

Alas, Mrs. Herrera wasn’t as forthcoming about the four-day weekend she and Mr. Herrera spent in England before they returned to the States. They visited their longtime friend, Princess Margaret, at Kensington Palace in London and ending up spending the weekend, at the invitation of Queen Elizabeth, at Windsor Castle. Just the jolly foursome, sightseeing one particular afternoon in the countryside, I’d been told by an English friend who happened upon them, in some sort of nondescript car driven by the Queen.

“It wouldn’t be polite to discuss the weekend,” Mrs. Herrera said, looking out the window near Union Square.

She sighed. “You used to see women on the street who were so beautifully put together, but today the majority of women are afraid to be glamorous or elegant,” she said. “They are afraid to be labeled as the sort of person who is interested in fashion. Because it might make them look like they aren’t busy? Aren’t serious? I don’t agree.”

Wading through the traffic on lower Broadway, the car slouched toward Balthazar. “One of the biggest changes since I started the company is that there are more options for women, for men too, in terms of dressing. It’s more open. Wear what you want. But you would hope that freedom would generate more appreciation for fashion, but when I look around the street, like today, there’s nothing much going on,” Mrs. Herrera said.

Three young women in beige short sleeve shirts and khaki cargo pants crossed the street at the next stop light. “You know, if I didn’t wear my own clothes, I think I’d wear John Galliano. He’s totally different than anyone else. Fashion,” Carolina Herrera said, “is becoming like the Army. Everybody looking exactly the same. Galliano, at least, goes out of his way to do whatever he likes. That, I think, is fashion.”

I asked Mrs. Herrera how she felt about the 1970′s revival rampant in all parts these days, from clothes to music. I told her about the experience I had recently when an associate and I were rushing to an appointment in the West Village and passed a clothes shop I mistook for a thrift shop.

I had exclaimed, “What great 70′s things. Let’s stop on the way back.”

“That’s not a vintage shop,” my colleague said. “Those are new clothes.”

“I love that! Why wear what you already wore? We want the news.” Carolina Herrera laughed entering Balthazar. “You cannot be inspired only by the past, nor only by the future,” she said. “The thing is to try and be inspired by the moments we live now.”

Billy’s List: Quiz time!

1. Who made the satin slippers Drew Barrymore wears in Ever After ?

a. Kenneth Cole.

b. Salvatore Ferragamo.

c. Manolo Blahnik.

2. At last month’s convergence of fellows at the Bohemian Grove, who appeared onstage in but a puff of smoke during the comedy review?

a. Clint Eastwood.

b. Bill Blass.

c. David Rockefeller.

3. Just checking: Who made Monica Lewinsky’s famous, best dress?

a. Donna Karan.

b. Banana Republic.

c. The Gap.

Answers: (1) b; (2); a; (3) c.