A picture of Grace

Even when Carolina Herrera is out promoting a coffee table book among the masses, the fashion designer embodies style.

April 25, 2005|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

CHEVY CHASE - When people opine about "women of substance," there's a tendency to fixate on those solid, studious types, with sensible hair and various advanced degrees.

But there is something to be said for the substance involved in simply being a woman of beauty.

Carolina Herrera, arguably the top female designer in American fashion, is one of those women.

For all those who would argue that accoutrements are frivolous and fashion is silly, her steady rise to prominence in our stubbornly low-rise, denim-and-khakis society proves that there is room still for women who bring to every affair effortless grace and impeccable style.

Herrera, who is descended from Venezuelan landowners and statesmen, believes that stylish, feminine women are substantial. And that philosophy comes through in her beautiful, feminine designs - which are at once classic and modern, of-the-moment and timeless.

Even more than that, Herrera is one of those classically stylish women - something that radiated during one of her rare public appearances last week at Saks Fifth Avenue in Chevy Chase.

She did not tug at her clothes. She did not fuss with her hair. She smiled for hours and turned away from the camera flashes when she sipped her wine. She was gracious and easy, and efficient when she spoke. Which made everything she said seem substantial.

"She's a real lady," says designer George Simonton, who has dressed first lady Laura Bush and the Bush twins. "A lot of times elegance is sort of old-world, and hers is not."

Like her award-winning clothes, Herrera makes elegance seem trendy and possible.

At the Saks Fifth Avenue cocktail party and book signing for her new coffee table book, Carolina Herrera: Portrait of a Fashion Icon, by Alexandra Kotur ($60, Assouline Publishing), the handsomely blond Herrera's grace stood out in a crowd full of put-together women.

Herrera was a walking billboard for her designer clothes. She wore a full pleated skirt in a rich chocolate with delicate white piping. The sleeves of her high-collared, white blouse were rolled up chicly at her elbows.

Her shoes, tied prettily at the ankle, seemed somehow daintier than other women's. Her signature akimbo stance - hand placed casually on her hip - was absent attitude, and was instead, dancer-like.

Her posture suggests that she is waiting for a handsome gentleman to escort her somewhere.

Surrounded by women

In Herrera's busy real life, however, she is almost always surrounded by women. She dresses women; she sweetens them with her line of fragrances. And she is a woman's woman, most comfortable in skirts and heels, tasteful makeup and jewelry, and happiest around her four grown daughters (two of whom work with her in the business).

"I want the women to look elegant and glamorous and chic," Herrera says, sitting ankles crossed in a lush back room of Saks' designer salon, before her book signing, "and not to be afraid to wear pretty things."

Over 23 years as a designer, Herrera has made a name for herself creating seriously pretty things. Her clothes have been worn by women from many age groups and backgrounds, from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to actresses Renee Zellweger and Michael Michele.

Designer of the Year

Last year, Herrera was given fashion's highest honor, Womenswear Designer of the Year, by the Council of Fashion Designers of America, who called her "one of the pillars of American fashion" - and ranked her up there with such heavy hitters as Oscar de la Renta and Bill Blass.

On Friday, Marymount University in Arlington, Va., handed her its Designer of the Year award for the second time in 15 years.

`A wonderful eye'

"She's legendary in a certain way," says Janice Ellinwood, chairwoman of Marymount's department of fine and applied arts, which gives out the annual award. "It's not as common for a woman to be as successful as a designer commercially as it is for a man. She has had longstanding power. And women know her clothes. They are more feminine. She has a wonderful eye for proportion. She knows her fabrics. And at the same time, she knows she has to make clothes for real people."

In fact, despite her influence with red-carpet clients, Herrera's bread-and-butter is women in their 40s, 50s and 60s - fashionable mothers, attorneys, businesswomen, board chairwomen. Those ladies who lunch and look good doing it.

"As a young girl, I looked up to Grace Kelly. At this age, I look up to this woman," says Evelyn Brandt, wife of Washington real estate developer Lawrence Brandt and one of the four Metro-area socialites who brought Herrera to Saks Fifth Avenue to sign her book and mingle with their crowd. "Other clothes, they come and go. But she has stayed her course. She has never strayed from class, elegance, sophistication."

Brandt, who will say only that she is "over 55," was busy playing hostess Thursday, but she also was shopping. She ordered a pink checked skirt from Herrera's fall collection and one of the pleated skirts Herrera was wearing.

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