Prelude to the Runway

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

c.2014 New York Times News Service

At a little before 10 a.m. on Monday, the fifth day of New York Fashion Week, the backstage area at Lincoln Center was mobbed. Cameramen, designers, makeup artists and photographers were elbowing one another out of the way. Fashion executives Marc Puig and Ralph Toledano, each in expensively tailored suits, were chatting casually among the chaos. A few feet away, a member of Carolina Herrera’s atelier was steaming an enormous gown. And now it was showtime.

“OK, girls!” James Scully, the casting director for Herrera’s show, shouted out. “First looks, first looks. Guys, we got to let these girls get dressed.”

A few dozen models, who had been lounging around for the last hour, quickly set into motion. They stripped, slipped on expensive dresses and assembled into a lineup that snaked around the entire room.

“Oh, my God, they’re so big,” said the model Diana Moldovan, trying to walk in her bright yellow heels. The height of the shoe wasn’t the problem. The size was. She wore a size 37. These were a size 39, packed with pads to make up the difference. There was nothing smaller. She would have to make do.

Herrera, 76, dressed in her usual crisp white shirt and a knee-length black skirt, began pacing. She walked down the lineup, taking a look at each girl, examining all 45 designs in her collection. An adjustment of a sleeve here, a dusting off there.

“Don’t put your hands in the pockets,” Herrera said to one model. She wanted to see her arms.

It’s normal for fashion shows to start late, usually 20 to 25 minutes past their appointed hour. And although Herrera wasn’t wearing a watch on Monday, she kept looking at her wrist. She must have had an idea that this day’s show was going a bit off schedule because at around 10:30, the normally easygoing designer snapped.

“She’s standing in the middle!” she said, pointing at the monitor showing a live feed of the runway, which revealed an audience member chatting amiably with another attendee. “Why is she standing there?” “Mommy,” said her 40-year-old daughter, Patricia Herrera Lansing, in a calming tone, “they are still seating people.”

“Are we ready or not?” Herrera said.

At a little after 10:30, the music started, the house lights came up and the first model walked out. This was a moment three months in the making. From the time her resort collection was presented in her showroom in early June, Herrera and her team have spent countless hours preparing for this runway show, to display the House of Herrera spring 2015 line.

The cost of a fashion show can vary widely, from a few thousand dollars that a fledgling designer may cobble together for a show in a friend’s art gallery on the Lower East Side, to the estimated $10 million Fendi paid to stage a show at the Great Wall of China in 2007. But a show like this one — with the rental of the Lincoln Center space, the booking of the models, hairstylists and makeup artists, and the fees paid for music, set and lighting design — will run at least $1 million.

And it will all be over in about 12 minutes.

All of this began with one idea.

“That tulip,” said Herrera, sitting in her office in late July and pointing to an inspiration wall in her design studio, often called the “mood board” by members of the fashion flock.

Hervé Pierre, her exuberant 48-year-old French creative director, added: “This time Mrs. Herrera said we are literally going to take the color code of a tulip and it’ll determine the colors of the collection. Just look at that tulip inside.”


When a design assistant provided a color spectrum of tulips, they found pinks, blues, purples, yellows, whites and grays.

“I’d like to have a very dramatic collection this time,” Herrera said that afternoon. “With these type of prints, and these flowers, I need overscale. We’ve done a lot of little small ones. And I’m thinking big this time. Huge.” Herrera’s Seventh Avenue office is sun-drenched and filled with black-and-white striped chairs and couches. The walls are lined with photographs of herself, including an enormous 1979 Andy Warhol portrait. (There seems to be something about designers and pictures of themselves: Diane von Furstenberg has a giant portrait in her office, as well.) Herrera said the Warhol is also in her Upper East Side home (“I have it upstairs”) and serves as her iPhone background, as well.

When guests arrive at her office, they are offered cappuccino or espresso (or Champagne, if the hour is late enough), served on a silver tray with a white napkin. There’s an aristocratic sensibility to the place.

“There’s no place like this, no place,” said Anne Landy, a producer of the show. “And we’ve worked everywhere.”


Between late June and mid-July, mere months before the show, Herrera took a three-week vacation to Greece, Italy and London. She also forces her design team to take vacation. Labor Day is a day off. The days leading up to the show are for tidying up, not panicking.


“As Mrs. Herrera says all the time, we could not ask somebody eating a pizza in the corner at 2 in the morning to do something so beautiful,” Pierre said.

A critic could argue that this attitude is a little too laid back, maybe indifferent. But Herrera insists that creativity flourishes when things are “civilized,” she said.


“People get so paranoid about fashion,” she said. “Everyone thinks it has to be chaos everywhere. We’re only making dresses. If it doesn’t work, we’ll make another one.”

But there were decisions that had to be made, plenty of them. For one, keeping her show at Lincoln Center was not a foregone conclusion. In the past year, Diane von Furstenberg, Michael Kors and Vera Wang all left Lincoln Center for other venues. “It’s very cheesy, the entrance,” Herrera said in June, talking about the commercial zoo that is Lincoln Center during Fashion Week. “But where do you go? You go to a square room downtown where the traffic is impossible and the elevator traps people forever.”

She added: “I’m not one of those designers that are in a pack of people: ‘Because they all move downtown, I’ll move downtown, too,’” she said. “No, if I’m comfortable uptown, I’ll stay uptown.” But there were significant issues with her set design within the rigid confines of the theater, the biggest space at Lincoln Center.

The first set design included panels of mirrored glass. That became a logistical headache (mostly involving flashbulbs reflecting off the mirrors), and, ultimately, was deemed really boring. “It was old-fashioned,” Herrera said.

The second idea, having the models roaming in a giant spiral, wasn’t feasible. By the time they got a rendering from Lincoln Center, their spiral was squished into “something that looked like a surfboard,” said Owen Davidson, a producer.

“I was very upset when we couldn’t do it,” Herrera said. In the low-stress ethos of the House of Herrera, this amounted to something of a crisis.On an early evening in mid-August, Herrera was in her Mercedes being driven back home. She preaches about the importance of not bringing the office back home (“When I leave here every day, I close the door and I don’t talk anymore about work,” she said), but this was one of those rare days where there was an imminent problem. The show was in three weeks, and there was no set.

“I was in the middle of Central Park, I saw all that green and I said: a garden!” Herrera said.

She rang up Pierre from her car.

“I want a garden,” she told him. “But not a topiary garden. That has been done a lot. Let’s have something futuristic. We need to do something more sculpted. It’s not a garden party. The collection has flowers, but the flowers are not defined exactly. It’s abstracted.”

He began to sketch, and Davidson worked with the folks at IMG, which runs Fashion Week, to come up with a plan. They’d raise the theater’s floor and extend it over the first two rows of seats. The existing runway was 15 feet wide. This would make it 28 feet. “We’re really manipulating the space to create a sense of openness,” Davidson said a few days later at a meeting in Herrera’s design studio. They would lose seats (from about 950 seats to about 750), but Herrera did not mind.

“I need to have the feeling of a huge space,” Pierre told Davidson.

Herrera replied: “We cannot have it tight. It won’t create the same illusion.”


Within the center of the runway, they’d create a so-called forest, complete with more than a dozen green, wooden trees. Ninety seats would exist in the middle of the runway, with the models crisscrossing throughout. But the size of these faux-trees (they referred to them as obelisks since it’s “futuristic”) was up for debate. “They’ll be about 14 feet high,” Davidson said.

“What’s 14?” asked Pierre, looking at the wall within the design studio for scale. “No, we need to go much higher.”

Davidson was concerned that at 16 feet, the trees would have an obtrusive base, which would mean smaller pathways for the models.

“That’s not impressive,” Pierre said. “It needs to be 16. Fourteen feet is nothing.”

Herrera whispered, “It’s not easy, huh?”

She was concerned that a bunch of 16-foot objects could interfere with sight lines. Ultimately, they staggered the obelisks at 8, 12 and 16 feet.

They discussed runway music. Herrera was mostly unimpressed. Over the course of 30 minutes, she kept interjecting her objections: “This is confusing;” “This makes me nervous.” “This one is called ‘Escape From Home?’ That’s why she escaped! This music.” “No, no, no, no. The show’s at 10 in the morning. This is too electronic.”

Javier Peral, her mild-mannered music director, was frustrated, politely explaining that she was wrong. “It’s a very pretty piano and strings,” he replied. “That’s not electronic.”

Peral was curious if the show would last longer than the usual 10 minutes.

“It actually could be longer just because we could have the models snaking back,” Davidson said.

“It’s going to be longer than 10 minutes?” asked Herrera, in a tone that suggested she didn’t want to hear “yes” as the answer.

Between discussing the new set and their runway music, this meeting lasted well over an hour. There were fittings to get to as well.

“All this work for 10 minutes,” Herrera said. “Always.”


If she had it her way, her collections would be shown in her office. The spectacle of a show is so needless. But she has just so many guests.

“It’s like a Broadway show,” she said later. “They rehearse for six months, and the show is one or two hours. This show shouldn’t be longer than 10 or 12 minutes. People get bored. They have to see so many shows everywhere in the world, and at the end of the fashion season, will you remember everything you saw? You can’t. You have to be right to the point.”

Before Herrera became a fashion designer, she was a fashion icon. She grew up well off in Venezuela, attended her first fashion show at 13 in Paris (Balenciaga) and spent the 1970s on best-dressed lists and jetting around the world with her husband, Reinaldo Herrera. Even before they moved to New York, they were fixtures of society pages.

She told her friend the legendary Vogue editor Diana Vreeland that she wanted to make materials. “What a bore,” Vreeland told her. She suggested she design a collection.

Herrera’s first collection was shown in 1981 at the Metropolitan Club. The fashion press was skeptical and “some people thought she was just another society lady designing clothes,” as Bianca Jagger once put it.

But after Jacqueline Onassis began wearing her clothes, it brought “Carolina’s career over the mountain to the other side,” said André Leon Talley in the book “Carolina Herrera.” By the late 1980s, she had a fragrance, and by 1995, the Spanish company Puig had bought her line. The fashion brand is said to have more than $1 billion in annual sales.

“She’s made her mark in American fashion,” Ralph Lauren said. “And she’s an individual who’s got great taste.”


When Herrera hosted a group of young designers in her studio this summer, Virginia Smith, a Vogue editor, described her as “one of the most iconic and certainly one of the most chic American designers.”

And what should a Carolina Herrera model look like?

“She should really have carriage, the carriage of a moneyed, refined woman,” said Scully, her casting director. “Even if you’re an edgy girl, we bring you into this world.”

It was early September and Scully was in Herrera’s showroom to discuss models. About 35 had been selected, with about 10 to go.

“Where are the redheads?” Herrera asked, examining a board with photos of the models.

“Look,” said Scully, pointing at five girls with red hair. Herrera gasped.

“Wow, I love this,” she said. “The red hair goes so well with the colors of the collections. And the skin tone is perfect. It’s perfect.”

She paused and examined the board again. “Who are we missing?” she asked. “Where’s Karlie?”

She was referring to supermodel Karlie Kloss, who had walked in four consecutive Herrera shows.

“She has a Maybelline contract day on Monday,” replied Scully, referring to the day of the show. There were a few finishing touches on the dresses — an embroidery was added around the neckline and in the front of one pink silk dress — but the bulk of the collection was done days before the show. Even the seating chart was proving easier than in most years. There wasn’t much in the way of celebrities this year: Olivia Palermo was the biggest get.

“It’s like seating a 1,000-person wedding where no one likes each other,” Davidson said.

Marino Isolani, a designer for the house, said, “This is the fastest and quickest we’ve ever been ready.”

But once you get to the show, there’s only so much you can do. Time is limited and little things — a slightly wrinkled dress, a model who is concerned about her big shoe — pop up.


For years, Herrera has had this one nightmare in the run-up to a show.

“We go to the show and everybody’s there,” she said. “It’s full of people. And suddenly I realize we are not ready. And I have to come out and stand in front of the public and say, ‘Can you please come back tomorrow?’”

For her staff, the show is a strange moment: happy but not.

“I’m always a little depressed the day of the show,” Pierre said. “We are the only ones to know what’s going on, then everyone arrives, and you say, ‘Oh, my God, why are they touching our babies?’”

And what about that anxiety that causes Herrera’s nightmares? Just how much does she get stressed?

“She does,” Pierre said, “but it’s not chic to show it. Everybody expresses their feelings in public now. In two seconds, you know if someone’s crying. That’s not chic.”

Herrera certainly does not like public displays. When her daughter asked her backstage if she’d walk the distance of the runway after the finale (as many designers do), an incredulous Herrera said, “Are you mad?” (Likewise, when she was honored last week with the Couture Council Award for Artistry of Fashion, her acceptance speech wasn’t even a minute.)

The show went off seamlessly: the music, the big shoe, the set. It lasted exactly 12 minutes, 33 seconds. Ninety minutes after the show, back at Herrera’s office, there was relief. Early reactions were encouraging. “I got an email from Ms. Wintour,” Pierre said, speaking to two colleagues about Anna Wintour. “It’s an order for a dress, sent at 10:54.”

Her staff convened to watch a video of the show. This is a tradition for the house.

“This is the second show,” Herrera said. “It’s done, so now we can criticize.”

They watched it unfold, and the entire room clapped when it concluded.

“What do we do now?” a staff member shouted.

That wasn’t hard to answer. On Friday, Pierre goes to Paris to find materials for the pre-fall collection and the next ready-to-wear show, which will be in five months.

“We get to work on the next collection,” Herrera replied, laughing.