The Venezuelan-born Herrera, a fierce beauty with an iconic look (she’s frequently named to the International Best-Dressed List) of her own, is a wonderful choice to highlight, especially considering how rarely female voices in the industry are spotlighted.
There are, of course, plenty of male designers who appreciate and celebrate the female body. But there is something utterly delightful in Herrera’s approach: an appreciation of the female form, but also an unabashed love of material, silhouette and embellishment that suggests nearly every dress has been made to delight the maker as much as the eventual buyer.
Even at her most avant-garde, Herrera’s designs retain wearability and appeal, a sense that they will flatter rather than overshadow the woman who wears them. Even in her most embellished, complex designs, like a 2002 cocktail coat composed of a pelt of thousands of small sequins, Herrera’s tendency to pull back and allow the classic, simple lines of her work to shine through feels like a distinguishing feature of her work, restraint and imagination delicately interlaced.
Many of the exquisite clothes on display in this exhibition, curated by SCAD director of fashion exhibitions Rafael Gomes, carry an extra frisson of excitement for having adorned the famous forms of Lady Gaga, Tina Fey, Angelina Jolie and the designer herself. An iconic Herrera look, as familiar to fans of design as Karl Lagerfeld’s white clerical collar or John Galliano’s pirate mustache, is Herrera’s ivory shirt and tobacco silk faille skirt, on display here and worn for the designer’s portrait in Vanity Fair. It’s the kind of regal, flirtatious combination, and feminine take on the tux that spawned a million Junior League gala and ladies who lunch knockoffs.
Also on display: The polished white blouse that Herrera has made a kind of personal uniform is shown in eight incarnations. Each comes with a subtle tweak: a fringe of feathers, distinctive collar and cuff details, a confectionary flounce, highlighting how a seemingly straightforward item can assume infinite variety in the hands of a designer with a fertile imagination.
Though the exhibition terms Herrera’s work “Refined Irreverence,” I looked hard to find a trace of anything like irreverence on display. Originality, wit, imagination, verve and the “classic with a modern twist” self-definition Herrera has given her signature look, yes. A thumbed nose to propriety, harder to discern. But this well-born woman celebrating her 35th year in business does exhibit a talent for making refinement look fun, in dresses like her vintage-y print of art deco ladies plunging into a swimming pool in a gown on display worn by Jennifer Lopez for the January 2005 cover of Vogue.
Thematic groupings of dresses are placed on alabaster mannequins scrubbed of detail, floating on glossy black platforms in minimalist settings that can variously suggest runways and grand apartments. There is a promenade of vintage looks, many of which retain a sense of timelessness despite their origin in the excessive display of the 1980s; a selection of wedding gowns includes the design worn by Herrera’s daughter Carolina Herrera de Baez for her 2004 wedding.
A cross section of Herrera’s contemporary designs is presented on a stage set suggesting a designer’s atelier, with a wall featuring framed photographs of Herrera to highlight the woman, and also the lifestyle that informs the Herrera mystique. As much as designer Ralph Lauren’s persona has permeated his brand, Herrera’s clothes and identity are intertwined, so that her incredible garments are as covetable as the lifestyle she projects.