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September 7 2019
Wes Gordon with Carolina Herrera.

It’s been a busy summer for the fashion designer Wes Gordon. On his sprawling hilltop farm, in Roxbury, Connecticut, a cow gave birth. His friend Martha Stewart dropped off a brood of prize-winning chickens. And Gordon, who is the 33-year-old creative director of Carolina Herrera, hosted enough sunset cocktail parties to fill an Instagram feed, which, given the number of unwanted visitors who have begun driving up the private road to his Thistledown Farm, might actually be turning into a problem. “I’ve taken the whole gentleman farmer thing pretty far,” he admits.

Sitting in his atelier in Midtown Manhattan, Gordon radiates success. At an age when many millennials are still living at home, he took over the reins of Carolina Herrera from the brand’s storied founder, who transitioned into a global-ambassador role. Since his appointment last year, Gordon has cultivated an optimistic youthfulness, all the while upholding the house’s pillars: color, florals, polka dots, swanning glamour for women with exceptionally large bank accounts.

Gordon on the Carolina Herrera runway during New York Fashion Week in February 2019.

“I wanted to de-starch the perception some people have of Herrera, make it more modern, a relaxed elegance, with life, laughter, and color,” says Gordon. “The real spirit of Mrs. Herrera is a vivacious, hilarious, witty, fun woman.”

The Woman, the Myth, the Legend

In 1979, Carolina Herrera was a young Venezuelan socialite in New York, already the magnificently attired woman she remains today. Upon noticing her at Studio 54, Andy Warhol captured her portrait, and the screen print serves as Gordon’s defining reference point for the brand—the contrast of uptown and down, of something delightfully naughty hiding behind the polished veneer. “This fabulous, cool woman in these bright, saturated colors, the woman who never wants to be a wallflower, the woman who, if everyone else on the street is in black, she’s in hot pink,” Gordon says of his muse. “It’s about living life to the fullest. It’s anti-greige.”

The House of Herrera has always been the commercial manifestation of its founder. Gordon, with his bucolic estate, dashing husband, and bright-eyed humility, is a natural fit. On this sweltering city afternoon, his tan is perfectly golden. His blond hair, tussled just so. The square jaw, the tall frame in lightly wrinkled chinos and monogrammed button-down, all have the effect of conjuring a Kennedy who has wandered into the Garment District.

“It’s about living life to the fullest. It’s anti-greige.”

Gordon slid into his new role with ease, but the succession plan was complicated. Pre-Herrera, Gordon spent eight years working on his eponymous label. (The Atlanta native graduated from Central Saint Martins and interned with Oscar de la Renta and Tom Ford.) In 2015, Herrera hired a rising star from Oscar de la Renta, Laura Kim, who is reported to have thought she was being brought on to eventually replace the designer when she retired. A contract dispute between the two brands ensued, and soon after, Gordon came on as a consultant. He spent about a year working closely with Mrs. Herrera—as everyone calls her—in the design studio. “There’s no one with a better eye,” says Gordon. Despite Herrera’s famous sense of restraint—she always erred on the side of elegance—he insists she was anything but that behind closed doors. “She always said, ‘Start with something over the top, and if we have to take it down, we’ll take it down.’” The two remain close, and speak or text multiple times a month, although never at the office. Since she took her final bow last February, she has not returned. However, it’s clear her presence remains. Gordon has not moved into her formal corner office, but his is right next door.

The Herrera of the Future

The walls of Gordon’s office are lined with images for his spring 2020 collection, which will be shown on September 9 at the Gardens of the Battery, in Lower Manhattan. It will be an evolution from what he showed last season—he’s loosened up the Herrera silhouette, designing unstructured, floor-grazing gowns in vibrant colors; short, floral day dresses; suiting with suggestive cutouts. They’re destined for European vacations and decadent nights on the town. “The brand is about beauty, and fantasy and romance and freshness, but it’s also about clothes that women want to wear,” he says. “This is not an art-school project. This is very much about making pieces that a woman covets. Which means that they sell.” When designing, he thinks of Lauren Santo Domingo, Saoirse Ronan, and Meghan Markle—all of whom have been big supporters of Gordon’s work at Carolina Herrera.

“This is not an art-school project. This is very much about making pieces that a woman covets. Which means that they sell.”

Beyond ready-to-wear and bridal, Gordon’s influence is permeating other aspects of the business. After an eight-month renovation, Carolina Herrera’s Madison Avenue flagship reopened in August. “It has very old-world bones, with colorful eclectic icing,” says Gordon, who was involved in every decision down to the hardware. The black-and-white checkered floor, made of reclaimed limestone, was inspired by Cy Twombly’s apartment in Rome. The semi-matte Venetian-plaster walls are blush pink, which Gordon estimates took 45 tries to get right. He even designed some of the furniture, such as a “really cool, Cocteau-looking table with squiggly legs, mixed with a red sofa, and then a chrome table and a Cecil Beaton–looking rug.” No surprise, then, that this month he will unveil a collection of hand-painted glasses, plates, and linens in collaboration with Cabana magazine and its Milanese founder, Martina Mondadori.

Ultimately, Gordon’s goal for the brand is to create beautiful pieces, irrespective of trend forecasts or hot lists. That is what Herrera has always been, and should remain. “The world is scary and dark and bleak, and you could easily get weighed down in that,” he says. “I’d rather fight the ugly with beauty. Whether it’s a smile or a beautiful dress or a delicious meal or a lovely arrangement of flowers—things that some people see as shallow. I think they speak volumes.”

Whitney Vargas is a writer and editor based in New York