MRS. CAROLINA HERRERA AND ME. A TRUE FASHION STORY BY RUBIN SINGER
Many years ago, before I started my line, before I worked at Oscar de La Renta and Bill Blass, I had an amazing experience with one of American fashion’s great designers. At the age of 21, I had finished a spring in Moscow working with my father on one of his theater productions he was doing the costumes for. It was a period piece and so we had a lot of study and prep work done on the Rococco period. It was an incredible experience, one I had learned a great deal from.
Upon my return to NY, I got a call from a close friend of mine who knew what I was working on the Russia the months prior. He said “Someone very important in fashion is looking for a designer who could create an authentic Madame De Pompadour Costume. I recommended you for the job.” I asked who it was, he replied “Carolina Herrera. She is going to Prince Michael of Kent’s Costume Ball at Kensington Palace. She is expecting you at her office tomorrow at 11.” I freaked out and told him there is now way I could get this done. After much cajooliung and convincing, I agreed to meet with her. With great trepidation, I prepared for the meeting.
At her 7th avenue offices, I sat facing the giant imperious Warhol portrait of Mrs Herrera, biting my nails. My friend told me that morning that he had spoken to her and that all would be fine… he said “I told her you were a genius.” I wish he had never said that. When Mrs Herrera walked through her doors she was the epytomy of exquisite refinement. A vision in beige she had on a perfectly tailored skirt suit in summer tweed. Her hair was perfectly coiffed.A beige alligator bag on one arm and her little dog under the other. She had on fabulous oversized sunglasses, which she pulled down to look at me and say ” So YOU”RE THE GENIUS?!?” She dropped the dog and walked away. At this point my stomach was in my shoes.
I was escorted to her office where I first met with Mr. Herrera who gave me some serious questioning. After his questions were answered he pulled out a huge tome of historical costumes. He opened to the page of Madame de Pompadour as Mrs Herrera walked into the room. As she sat down she asked me ” So can you do this?” With my knees shaking, after a pregnant pause, I replied “Yes, I believe I can.” “Wonderful” she replied…. ” I need to wear it in two weeks and I am leaving the country in 10 days. When can we have the 1st fitting?” The fear and horror on my face must have been visible, because I was asked if there was a problem I said ” No, its just a very tight time line, and that I had to get to work right away” She had pre selected a silk taffeta in and extraordinary kiwi color. As she handed me the 60 yard roll of fabric she reminded me that she wanted the ribbons and bows and detailing exactly as it was in the painting. I concurred and promised it would be. With bolt of fabric, the book, and her measuements in hand I raced back to our shop on Orchard Street.
Luckily my dad was due to arrive back in NY the following day. With his help I began the daunting task of creating this gown. 1st was the corsetry and the under layers. I was due to see Mrs Herrera 5 days after our initial meeting. With the help of my father and two sewers I was able to pull together the skeleton of the gown of the fitting. I also prepped all of the hand painted organza ribbons created the ruffles and made a one sleeve (which took 15 yards of fabric!)
I met again with Mrs. Herrera for the 1st fitting. After I laced her into the corset and she saw the beginnings on what I was making she smiled and said “I think it will beautiful”. The problem was that I was only going to get 1 more fitting before she left, so I had to hustle.
The dress had to have seven skirts. Two Linings, the crinoline, and four layered skirts which included the train. The base skirt which was hand ruched and tacked was the only one I had time to finish for the second fitting. As hard as we were working there just wasn’t enough time. Mrs Herrera understood this of course. Upon the completion of the second fitting, she requested that I personally bring the dress to her in London. “You are the only one that will understand how to put me into this dress. I want you to fly it to me along with my powdered wig” she said. With anxiety and excitement I agreed.
I was booked on British Airways with two seats, one for me and one for the dress. In the final week of work in NY we had used all of the 60 yards of fabric, 40 yards of ribbon, endless amounts of boning and wiring and tulle. The dress was done 2 days before my departure. My friend who made the connection organized a photo shoot for me. I am so happy he did. We documented the 1st great piece I ever created. Off to London I went with the dress stuffed into a giant garment bag in hand. My peculiar travel companion received many strange glances from our fellow passengers on the flight.
When the dress and I arrived in London we were whisked to the legendary Dorchester Hotel in Mayfair where I was put up for a night prior to the ball. The following morning I met Mr. & Mrs Herrera in their suite to dress her. To greet me, she got up out of the makeup chair where a make-up artist was applying the calcimine white base for her make-up (appropriate of the time period). When I removed the dress from its cocoon, she saw the dress and was elated! “I love it it is beautiful” she said. After 20 nominates of lacing and closing Mrs Herrera BECAME Mme. De Pompadour. The joy and pride I felt for my accoplishment was indiscriblable. It was an incredible achievement for me.
Later that afternoon when I was relived, I took a walk in Hype Park. I will never forget that sunny July afternoon, when I achieved the unachievable. I was commissioned by one of the most influential and important designers of our time to dress her personally. It was milestone in my life. it was an experience that taught me that I could do anything I put my heart hands and mind to. Mrs Herrera, a true lady in every sense, gave a lesson and gift that I will treasure for the rest of my life. Thank you. RS