Carolina Herrera President Emilie Rubinfeld on Building Brand Staying Power

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“The two of them share a lot of qualities. They see things in the same way when it comes to how they approach work — that made it a smooth transition,” said Emilie Rubinfeld.

As president of Carolina Herrera since 2012, she’s worked shoulder-to-shoulder with both the house founder and her successor, creative director Wes Gordon.

“It’s unique,” she said, reflecting on the 40th anniversary of the brand, and how she worked with “Mrs. Herrera” and stakeholders at parent company Puig to zero in on Gordon. “It wasn’t a formal job interview, but when we were looking at talent in New York and Carolina met Wes and sat down, there was immediate chemistry, and with that chemistry a sense that this was going to work.”

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An earlier attempt by Puig to install designers Laura Kim and Fernando Garcia as co-creative directors resulted in two tumultuous years for Herrera, and a high-profile legal battle with rival Oscar de la Renta, where Kim and Fernando are now co-creative directors.

But in 2017, a happier chapter began when Gordon was hired as a creative consultant, working together with Herrera for a year, during which time the chemistry and respect were reinforced.

In February 2018, Herrera took a last runway bow at the Museum of Modern Art. It was a farewell to one of fashion’s grand dames, who remains global ambassador of the brand and has attended every one of Gordon’s runway shows since.

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The unknown was how clients would perceive the shift. “We conveyed that this was a very amicable transition rooted in a partnership versus something that had a subtext, so the fact there was that respect and shared vision for what Carolina built made it appreciated in the eyes of the consumer and the industry,” said Rubinfeld of the strategy. “And Carolina working with Wes was joy. You see it in the early collections when he was partnered with Carolina and now that he’s the creative director. There is continuity.”

What are Gordon’s best assets now?

“There’s a lot of standout qualities that make him a strong creative director but what’s most pronounced is his unwavering sense of optimism,” she said. “To always come into every situation with energy and a smile. Even in the darkest days of the pandemic, Wes was seeing light, color, good and positive things. It was great for the team, his colleagues and the collection. He was focused on communicating joy and fun and conveying that in the clothes.”

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That personality makes him well suited to a dinner party, a personal appearance and a press interview.

“If I could have him working out of our Madison Avenue boutique every single day I would. Aside from Mrs. Herrera, he’s our best ambassador. He has an enthusiasm for what he does, and he’s so excited someone would be interested in the collection and wearing the clothes.”

After nearly two dozen fragrances, which account for the bulk of the brand’s sales, Herrera launched beauty in 2020. First debuting in Europe, the collection will finally arrive in the New York flagship in September.

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“This is a moment to create this first world of physical experience,” said Rubinfeld of the launch of the products with customizable cases and accessories. “We believe in omnichannel, in physical stores, and our Madison boutique is a testament to that commitment. When you walk in, you feel the energy of the brand, Wes’ spirit and get a sense it’s Carolina’s home, too. You never know if she will be there because she’s checking in quite often.”

For an American brand, even one backed by Spanish conglomerate Puig, competing with bigger luxury giants that team with celebrities like Travis Scott and Miley Cyrus, and hold shows in far-flung spots like the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens, is not easy. “But what we have is an energy and optimism that comes from New York and from American fashion…That has a cache,” said Rubinfeld.

“When Carolina founded this company, her vision was taking the pragmatism of what was happening in New York fashion at the time, liberating women in the sense of creating clothes that gave them confidence, imbuing them with power, and blending it with European craftsmanship, which is something she had an eye for. What I find so inspiring is 40 years later and with a new creative director, we have that same approach to bring exceptional quality to made-in-New York product. We are firmly rooted in the heart of the Garment District and have physically been working here in our atelier since we were legally allowed to be here, which was June 2021.”

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Like it has been for many, navigating the pandemic has been Rubinfeld’s greatest leadership challenge in recent memory.

“In our case, we’re stronger than ever, not just Herrera fashion but our whole Carolina Herrera ecosystem and it’s interesting that auspiciously it’s also our 40th anniversary,” she said. “Coming out of this, I anticipate we will be in a better position than when we went into it. The house, what we stand for, the sense of joy, fun, happiness, color and light, that’s what’s carried the team through, and it’s been conveyed to the consumer.”

Being agile was essential, especially when it came to synchronizing delivery of raw materials, samples and more. “From a management perspective one of the first steps was orchestrating communication with teams, because we were going to be up against a challenge every step of the way with creation, product development, manufacturing and distribution. So we have a rep on the leadership team from all aspects of the life cycle to have Zoom check-ins and go down the list, flag issues, pivot.”

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That way of working is not going to let up anytime soon, she predicted. “It’s this idea of evolving every step of the way, continuously adapting, modifying and improving. If you don’t sustain that way of operating, you are going to be blocked from moving forward. The team did a great job of sharing information and being open to changing how they work. It brought a big awakening that we can’t operate in silos on a micro level or a macro level and we have to question everything we do.”

As a result, the brand is on the upswing. Buyers have had an appetite for Herrera and the past four collections have beat sales projections, she said, declining to share numbers.

“Party clothes, par-tee clothes, have been doing well. We kept them in the collection throughout, gave them more energy, more boldness, and that’s what we see trending in our points of sale,” she said.

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Neiman Marcus will debut a Herrera capsule collection in November pegged to the anniversary, and designed around the store’s butterfly motif. “Our relationship with the Herrera family is one that goes back to Stanley Marcus himself, who instantly recognized the potential in her first trunk show,” said Lana Todorovich, president and chief merchandising officer for Neiman Marcus. “It has been an absolute pleasure to watch the brand evolve under the new direction of Wes Gordon. We applaud how he has given a modern and vibrant energy to the American luxury brand while keeping the DNA true to Carolina,” she added, noting category expansion and fabric innovation as sources of growth.

Getting back to the runway during the 40th-anniversary year was key to keeping the momentum going, Rubinfeld said of the show tonight. “Seeing the clothes in person is the best way to get a sense of the magic and the essence of a brand, what the designer had in mind, and the skill of the atelier,” she explained.

It’s also a platform for digital storytelling that goes beyond the physical event.

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“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Rubinfeld said of the future, nodding to the ever-shifting landscape of the COVID-19 era. “If we had this conversation a month ago, I might have a different perspective and if we have it in a week it could be totally different.…But I’m excited to be on the incredible roster of shows in this amazing city. And I hope we can pull this off — for all of us.”

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