Wes Gordon will be the first to admit that there's a bit of pressure helming not only one of America's biggest fashion houses, but one whose founder is still very much present.
"It's a personal responsibility I feel towards her — you know, every piece of clothing that we ship has her name on it," he says. "I try not to dwell on it or think about it. Instead, I approach my day in a series of a million little decisions, and each one of those I make from my heart and my eye to be what I think is the best answer."
The "her" here is, of course, Carolina Herrera — Mrs. Herrera, if you'd like to show the proper deference to the fashion icon — who stepped down from her eponymous brand in 2018. She named Gordon, then only 31 years old and himself the founder of his own twice-CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund- nominated label, as her successor. He had been serving as a consultant for the House of Herrera for some months beforehand, but being handed the reins was an entirely different challenge.
Plenty of creative directors, both experienced and novice, have stumbled stepping into the shoes of designers who came before them. Not Gordon: From Resort 2019, his debut collection, it was clear that the combination of his youthful vision with the rich history of Herrera only made each stronger.
"I feel lucky and confident in the sense that I work at the right place — that's not always the case for a creative director," he says. "I think it's so sad when there's a creative director whose own personal style is very, very different from that of the house where they're working and you see that conflict or, at best, that he or she has to always second guess their instincts, and I think that would be really difficult. Whereas Herrera is a house that I respect. It's a legacy I respect. I feel what I naturally like, the colors I pick on my own, are right for Herrera."
It's hard to argue with that when you see the fruits of his labor on everyone from Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex to Zendaya, from Vice President Kamala Harris to Saoirse Ronan — to say nothing of the less famous but no less fabulous Herrera clientele — each looking perfectly suited to the occasion, perfectly stylish and perfectly themselves. He's managed to stay true to the roots of the brand on the tag without churning out boring remakes of original pieces and to infuse his point of view into the label without turning it into something else entirely, balances achieved by refusing to get tied up in the details of it all.
"I'm coming in with a different set of references, different friends, just different life experience than hers — and one's not better, one's not worse," Gordon says. "It's about finding a roadmap that transcends just house prints or colors that are trademarks the collection, or certain styles, because a great brand is about more than that. It's an essence and you have to dig deeper."
He's got his girl covered from a poolside brunch to a black-tie gala and everything in between, all in one place. It could mean an explosion of prints or a flurry of sequins, but one thing is for sure: These are clothes for women who want to stand out.
Gordon's North Star since day one has been a portrait of Mrs. Herrera by none other than Andy Warhol. "It's a confident, fearless, fabulous woman living life as if every second is a celebration," he says, boiling that essence of the Herrera brand down to one mission statement.
"The other things, the more surface brand codes — whether it's a polka dots or red or a white cotton shirt — are really important, but without that heart and that essence, I think it's easy to lose track of the soul of a house as you're trying to bring it into the future," he says. "It's important to dig deeper, to really find the true heart and soul of what makes the house special, and to hold onto that, because that's something more poetic and abstract than specific design details. As long as you're always aware of that and always loving that, as well as the woman who to whom your brand speaks, then you'll never stray too far from the foundation of the house."
And so, Gordon steers the house that Mrs. Herrera built into its 40th year with the skill and confidence of someone who has been behind the wheel for all forty years instead of just short of four.
It could be yet another pressure point for the creative director, but coming off of 18 months without fashion shows, it's instead a chance to celebrate everything he loves about Herrera: the close-knit team, the hard-working atelier situated on the 16th floor who turn Gordon's dreams into a dreamy reality, Mrs. Herrera herself, the storied past and promising future of one of America's few remaining heritage brands.
This presented Gordon with an opportunity to, as he puts it, "look back to look forward," which crystallized in two flash points for the brand. The first was one of his own making: the rainbow cape he created for Lena Waithe at the 2018 Met Gala, his first big statement-making red carpet moment at the helm of Herrera. Waithe told him that it made her feel like the superhero version of herself, "who she was on the inside," something Gordon now aims to recreate for every woman.
"It's 2021, there are eight billion people in the world — the idea of a designer saying, 'This season, every woman has to wear these three colors and a skirt length that's this length and this silhouette,' it's so old fashioned," he says. "I think it's about dressing for you and dressing to amplify your personality. I try to make sure our collection has enough pieces in there that any woman can come and find something that makes her feel like the superhero version of herself."
The second came from a chance Instagram DM. A woman in Wisconsin reached out to Gordon offering up a buried treasure: scrapbooks which belonged to her brother, who had recently passed, from the time he spent in the '80s working as a designer at Herrera. This creative had taken the time to lovingly paste in fabric samples and runway images from collections he'd worked on. In a fortuitous twist, he'd had a hand in the Carolina Herrera Spring 1983 line — one of Gordon's personal favorites. With this new perspective on its creation in hand, he'll be infusing elements from that collection into his own for Spring 2022, which is set to debut on Thursday.
After a lifetime spent loving American fashion, Gordon now gets to be a cornerstone holding down not only the return of New York Fashion Week, but the entire American industry. It could be a heady brew for any young designer, but Gordon's got plenty going on — including an absolutely adorable new addition to his family — to keep him grounded.
"I grew up in America and I've loved fashion my entire life — even before I knew what fashion was I loved it — and it's impossible to love fashion, and to love fashion in America, without holding Herrera in very high regard," he says. "To me, as a young designer who grew up dreaming about New York and fashion, the idea of steering and spearheading the direction of a house of that caliber and in New York, it's still something that is surreal."
With the legacy of his own he's already started to create, one can only hope the partnership between Gordon and the house of Herrera flourishes for another 40 years.