I am on a mission to discover myself as a well-dressed woman. You know who she is; elegant, thoughtful, worldly. She commands the attention of the room with her voice and her attitude. She does not dress ostentatiously, rather, classically, with flirtations of anti-traditional elements. Her fashion is not the first thing you notice, because it frames her so well that it fades into the tableaux that is her personality, her actions, and her self-confidence. Only later, as you fish for her business card in your wallet, do you remember her as the exceptionally dressed woman you met last week.
In a time when trends trump all, one wonders if classic is passé. Perhaps you are “boho chic,” or “southern prep.” It seems to me that very few designers and retailers dress the everywoman anymore. The working woman, the glamorous woman, the casual woman. In fact, who’s to say that she is not one woman with multiple personas? She is a woman that runs a business or a busy household, she regularly attends fundraising occasions to benefit her community and causes, she reads or draws to unwind, and in her spare time you can find her taking a walk or gardening. Perhaps she’s an avid watcher of Friends reruns. Many people look to her for her opinions and advice because she is confident and she lives in such a way that is timeless.
Truthfully, I would not call myself a fashionable woman, despite my passion for couture and design. But to me, and I think to many women of quotidian style, Carolina Herrera exemplifies fashion in its truest mission: to strengthen the woman inside the clothes. “I have a responsibility to the woman of today — to make her feel confident, modern and above all else beautiful,” Herrera has said. “Refined Irreverence,” the exhibit of her designs at SCAD FASH: Museum of Fashion and Film in Atlanta is a sumptuous manifestation of that responsibility. The icon of the tailored white blouse and black skirt combination has a portfolio that embodies classic, sophisticated style, with irreverent panache.
This summer, my mother and I met in Atlanta to see the collection by a woman I have admired for years and have long considered to be a role model.
SCAD FASH itself was a chic experience. A modern gray fortress of a building in the intersection matrix of I-85 and I-75, to enter the sparkling fourth floor is nearly transcendent. Bright white floors with copper and stone accent walls envelope stylish mid-century furniture with gold accents. Smiling SCAD students in ubiquitous lab coats greet you at the reception desk to check you in and introduce you to the exhibit. Though only occupying a single floor, SCAD FASH offers a distinctive and elegant museum visit, and, indeed, one of my favorites in my 20+ years of museum-going.
Acclaimed for her ability to flatter the shape and style of every woman, Herrera has dressed the likes of Jacqueline Onassis, Michelle Obama, Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, and Tina Fey. It is evident that classic silhouettes are the lynchpin of her designs, while lush and exotic fabrics or embellishments amplify the look. It is clear that Herrera has a love of texture—some outfits were constructed entirely of sequins, others featured extensive embroidery or appliqué; the skirt of one dress was crafted with pony hair that had been hand-dyed to a vibrant fuchsia. The entire exhibit was sensory parade through the decades, complete with life-size papier-mâché zebras.
The most astounding thing about Carolina Herrera is the lesson she has to teach women of all walks of life. We don’t have to wear her clothes (goodness knows I cannot afford them), but we can embrace her aesthetic and her sensibilities. The feminine, the strong, the mysterious. Herrera is a priestess of mystery. “Mystery is important in life,” she says in an interview with Leandra Medine of Man Repeller (another girl-crush of mine). Mystery attributes to the singularity of each woman she dresses. On a few occasions, as I was walking around the exhibit with my mother, I muttered how a dress didn’t quite appeal to me, how it didn’t quite make sense. Then, there it was, projected on the wall in a runway video, and the garment took on a vitality when worn that was impossible to see on a faceless white mannequin. It was stunning; the woman completed the dress. Her mystery brought it to life, made it real.