How Carolina Herrera turned being chic into big business

Story highlights

I like to be classic with a modern twist, says fashion designer

The key to building a successful brand is separating creative and business sides

Style is something different in everyone, Herrera says

New York CNN  — 

In her “uniform” of a crisp, classic white shirt, Carolina Herrera exudes the kind of elegance and easy grace that has defined her fashion label for more than 30 years.

It’s a look that has been sought after by some of the world’s leading ladies, from style icon Jackie Onassis to actress Renee Zellweger and comedian Tina Fey, who stepped out in a navy Herrera gown at this year’s Oscars.

Herrera’s rise to the top of the cutthroat world of fashion started in 1981, when she launched her flagship Carolina Herrera brand in New York.

Today, her empire encompasses the signature fashion collection, a bridal collection, fragrances and accessories. Herrera has more than 280 stores in 104 countries and all this brings in billions of dollars.

Herrera says she was more interested in horses than fashion growing up in Caracas, Venezuela, where here father was Governor. But adds that she was lucky to always be surrounded by exquisitely dressed women. Today, the women in her life include her four daughters, two of whom also work for the Carolina Herrera brand.

Here, Herrera speaks exclusively to CNN about style, business, family and getting ahead in a man’s world.

On building a business …

(Fashion is) a very difficult business, as you know, because fashion is a business. If you don’t sell, then you are not in the business.

You might be the best designer and you are so creative and new, have the most beautiful ideas, but if they all stay in your room and they don’t go out to be worn by someone, then you are not in business.

The most difficult (part) of this business is to have the right teams, because I (could not have done) everything I have done alone.

If I (didn’t) have my teams behind me, I wouldn’t be sitting here. Fashion is a collaboration with many people.

More from Leading Women: Women-only hotel floors take off

On the Herrera team …

I have a team, a fantastic president who takes care of the numbers of the company. If you ask me to take care of that side, I would be sitting there crying because I don’t know what to do. If I ask her to design clothes, she wouldn’t know how to do (it). But I always tell the young designers that you have to separate the creative side with the business side. You have to have somebody very capable to run the business side. Because then, you’re successful.

On style …

Style is something so different in everyone. But a style is something that you do that is totally different from the other or something that you’re wearing that is the same as the other person but it looks different on you. It’s a special touch. Some people have it and some people cannot.

On juggling work and family life …

We women manage to do many things at the same time. Men, no. Men do one thing at a time. I see my husband say ‘why are you doing all these at the same time? You’re going to do something wrong here.’

I say, ‘No.’ Because women, we are able to do that. Because we have children; we have to work sometime; we run a house; we have a husband and everything works. It’s a question of organizing yourself.

More from Leading Women: Women! Embrace your inner geek

On the Carolina Herrera brand …

I think women in Carolina Herrera … I like them to be sophisticated and I like them to be classic with a modern twist.

You can be dressed by Carolina Herrera New York, but you can have the accessories from CH and it’s like a lifestyle.

On dressing for your age and figure …

It’s about finding the style for the right figure or the right age. Sometimes you see women that don’t realize that age is changing your style, and they don’t change.

What you wore when you were 15 doesn’t look that well when you’re 30 and certainly looks terrible when you’re older. So, you have to change with the times. It’s the same thing with a fuller figure or a very thin one.

On the white blouse …

The white shirt is one of the easiest things to wear, because you can dress it up or you can wear it with jeans or you can wear it with a ball gown. I mean with a ball skirt. It’s so easy.

For me it’s like a security blanket. When I don’t know what to wear, I say a white blouse. You can give your own look to it.

More from Leading Women: Interactive: Power in the boardroom: Women versus men

On fashion egos …

You have to deal with the fashion egos. You know, there is a lot. It shouldn’t be treated that seriously because fashion is only making dresses to make women look beautiful. We’re not inventing anything new.

On her inspiration …

The inspiration comes from things that you have seen all your life. Sometimes you see collections that are inspired by the ’20s and the ‘30s and the ‘40s and the ‘50s. That means fashion is a repetition of ideas. It’s the way you put it together that makes it modern …

On her managerial style …

I don’t think I like to go around shouting. I don’t believe in this. I believe that you have to treat the people who work with you like your family.

On advice for women going into fashion …

First of all you have to love it. Second you have to remember that it’s not going to be easy. You have a lot of problems. You have to have perseverance. You have to do it even if it doesn’t work and you have to keep going. You have to be strong about it. They have to have the talent to do it, because without talent, how can you do fashion?