From Michelle Obama to Lily Aldridge: Carolina Herrera Retrospective Opens at SCAD

Courtesy of SCAD
Carolina Herrera

'Refined Irreverence' — which spans two museums and includes 134 garments, some loaned by Lady Gaga and Renee Zellweger — coincides with the 35th anniversary of the designer's atelier: Celebrities on the red carpet "are very insecure about what they're wearing. And I understand."

Among the garments on view by designer Carolina Herrera in the first-ever museum exhibition of her work are ensembles worn by first lady Michelle Obama, Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, Angelina Jolie, Jennifer Lopez, Lupita Nyong’o, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tina Fey, Renée Zellweger, Emmy Rossum, Sandra Bullock, Julie Bowen, Lucy Liu, Lily Aldridge, Zhang Ziyi, Camilla Belle, Jessica Simpson and Sofía Vergara. 

The retrospective, Refined Irreverence, is meant to honor the 35th anniversary of the designer’s atelier.

FEMININE FLORAL: Installation of Carolina Herrera: Refined Irreverence at SCAD FASH and SCAD Museum of Art. (Photo: Courtesy of SCAD)

The exhibition spans two museums. Ninety-nine garments by Herrera are on view in an expansive and trip-worthy installation at the Savannah College of Art and Design's Museum of Fashion + Film, which opened in Atlanta last fall. The sister show is at SCAD’s Museum of Art in Savannah, Ga., where the university’s main teaching facilities are located. Yet the Savannah installation feels like an also-ran; about 30 Herrera ensembles line a small gallery named for longtime Vogue editor (and SCAD trustee) André Leon Talley. 

The Venezuelan-born, New York-based Herrera sat for a one-on-one interview in a garden cottage owned by SCAD, where she was staying with her entourage. The designer, who said she had no connection to the university or its museum until the idea of a retrospective emerged, spoke at length about how impressed she was with the institution (“It’s amazing!”) and how honored she was to be recognized for her work.

Speaking of the challenges of dressing celebrities for the red carpet, she explained they are no different from dressing anyone else, except that “they are very insecure about what they are wearing." She added, “And I understand that because they have all the eyes of the world on them.” (No one wants to be ridiculed on E!’s Fashion Police.)

FUCHSIA: Installation of Carolina Herrera: Refined Irreverence at SCAD FASH and SCAD Museum of Art. (Photo: Courtesy of SCAD)

At the private exhibition preview in Atlanta, the designer circulated with the grace of royalty among a crowd of well-turned out Georgians. At her side was the designer’s younger daughter, Patricia Herrera Lansing, who helped organize the retrospective. Rafael Gomes, the director of fashion exhibitions for SCAD who curated both shows, said of Patricia Herrera Lansing that, “It was fantastic to hear her side of the story growing up in such a fashionable environment and getting a profound understanding of Mrs. Herrera's designs and inspirations.”

“The exhibition is an homage of Mrs. Herrera's 35th anniversary in fashion and the idea was to tell a history of her journey through the decades,” Gomes added. 

Most of the 99 garments on view in Atlanta and more than 30 in Savannah were lent by Herrera’s atelier. But Gomes noted that Gaga, Zellweger, Louis-Dreyfus and Simpson were among the private lenders to the exhibition.

CHIC LADIES: Carolina Herrera, SCAD President Paula Wallace and Patricia Herrera Lansing. (Photo: Courtesy of SCAD)

The expansive exhibit in Atlanta is largely organized thematically (florals, bridal, black/white, etc.), although ensembles from her very first collection are grouped together here. A bumblebee-toned sequined houndstooth skirt suit drew gawks and squawks from visitors who seemed to have been born circa 1981, when the House of Herrera made its debut. But a cloud-gray velour gown of the same vintage would draw nothing but compliments if worn today. 

There are several standouts among the gowns worn by Hollywood celebrities. First, there is the custom black leather sleeveless gown with a jeweled serpent snaking from the arch of the back and over the right shoulder. It was worn by Lady Gaga when she accepted the Trevor Project’s 2011 Trevor Hero Award. And Angelina Jolie’s fuchsia duchess satin strapless gown with Korean goreum bow accents on the bodice is displayed on its own against a black and white backdrop, ready-made for selfies.

PRETTY PRESENTATION: Installation of Carolina Herrera: Refined Irreverence at SCAD FASH and SCAD Museum of Art. (Photo: Courtesy of SCAD)

The openings for the dual exhibitions were timed with a ceremony on Friday during which SCAD’s founding president Paula Wallace presented Herrera with the Etoile for achievement in design. Past recipients of SCAD’s Etoile award include actress Catherine Deneuve, entertainment and fashion mogul Russell Simmons, Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, and designers Pierre Cardin and David Yurman.

Dressed in a coral colored pencil-skirt and one of her signature white blouses (many iterations of which are on view in the Atlanta exhibition), Herrera fielded interview questions from SCAD professor of fashion history, Carmela Spinelli. The auditorium on SCAD’s Savannah Campus was overflowing with students.

Onstage, when challenged to name the three words that define the House of Herrera, the designer said: “elegance, beauty, femininity.” Later, in private, she agreed that elegance may not be a quality that younger generations value. “In, fashion, it changes. And at this moment, I think they don’t want to be called elegant, they want to be edgy.”  Pausing, then adding with a smile, “But on the red carpet, that does play. They don’t want anything shocking or very, very new.” 

In an interview with WWD early this year, Herrera was quoted as saying, “You cannot be run by the red carpet. You cannot be run by Instagram. You have to be run by your idea of what you want to show … ”  However, to the audience of students, she noted with pride that @houseofherrera just attained 1 million followers on Instagram.

'Refined Irreverence' is on view through Sept. 25 at Savannah College of Art and Design's Museum of Fashion + Film in Atlanta and at SCAD’s Museum of Art in Savannah, GA.