The remarkable journey of Carolina Herrera: from Venezuelan high society to building a fashion empire at 42


Although she was introduced to haute couture at an early age, the fashion designer would not make waves in the industry until her early forties

Carolina Herrera on the runway at New York Fashion Week in 2017.
Carolina Herrera on the runway at New York Fashion Week in 2017.SHUTTERSTOCK

"Education is the most important dress to wear for the party of life". The author of this quote is none other than the renowned Venezuelan designer, Carolina Herrera, creator of a fashion and perfume emporium that spans the globe and has dressed the likes of Hillary Clinton, Jackie Onassis, Salma Hayek, Nicole Kidman, Angelina Jolie, Meryl Streep and Lady Gaga, among many others.

This quote resonates deeply with the origins of this glamorous woman, born in Caracas on January 8, 1939, into a family of Venezuelan high society. Her father, Commander Guillermo Pacanins Acevedo, served as the governor of Caracas from 1950 to 1958, and her mother, María Cristina Niño, was a well-known writer. This upbringing allowed her access to a very exclusive world from a young age. She had a Hungarian nanny, lived with her parents in the beautiful La Vega mansion surrounded by exotic gardens, and traveled frequently to Europe.

At a very young age, she was already wearing haute couture clothes, as evidenced by the fact that she wore a model by the French designer Lanvin at her debutante ball, and since 1971 she has featured on the lists of the world's most elegant women. At 13, her grandmother introduced her to the famous Spanish designer Cristóbal Balenciaga, igniting her passion for fashion. However, she chose to materialize this passion later in life, at 42, to instead prioritize her role as a mother. She married landowner Guillermo Behrens Tello at 18, father of her two eldest daughters, Mercedes and Ana, but the marriage broke down and ended in divorce. After their separation, Carolina started working at an Italian Pucci store in Caracas, where she would meet her second husband, aristocrat Reinaldo Herrera Uslar. They married in 1968 and had two more daughters, Carolina Adriana, who became her mother's right-hand in fashion and gained fame in Spain through her marriage to bullfighter Miguel Báez Litri (from whom she is now divorced), and Patricia Cristina.

Reinaldo Herrera, whose surname Carolina took, was the Marquis of Torre Casa (a title he later lost), a millionaire, and the editor of Vanity Fair. He served as a patron for his wife in the fashion world, thanks to his high-level social connections with figures like Andy Warhol, Estée Lauder, and Jackie Kennedy, whom Carolina dressed for 12 years.

To further Carolina's fashion career, the Herrera couple decided to move to New York, establishing their residence on Park Avenue. In 1980, at the age of 42 and as a grandmother of one, the stylist presented her first collection, encouraged by her friend Diana Vreeland, the former editor of Vogue. A year later, she showcased her first fashion show at the Metropolitan Club in New York and rapidly became one of the most recognized designers, a benchmark of luxury and exclusivity, with clients including Queen Elizabeth II of England herself. Carolina Herrera has also manage to combine the world of fashion, which she began exporting internationally in 2008, with the world of perfumes: through the Spanish company Puig, she has created 60 fragrances.

She has received countless awards and honors, including the Spanish Gold Medal of Merit in the Fine Arts, presented by King Juan Carlos, with whom she maintains a close friendship, in 2005. In 2018, she handed over the creative direction of her brand to Wes Gordon and, currently, at 85 years old (as of January 8), she is still married to Reinaldo Herrera, with whom she has formed one of the most robust marriages in the fashion world. Far from feeling jealous of the empire created by his wife, attributed with a fortune of $130 million, Reinaldo is her most ardent admirer. "I suppose there is a touch of vanity in this because Carolina wouldn't have succeeded without me. She knows it," he stated in a recent interview.