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Madrid with Carolina Herrera

Richard Phibbs Carolina Herrera in her favorite Hotel Ritz suite.

Photo: Richard Phibbs

It's high noon in Plaza Mayor, the vast square that embodies the pomp and circumstance of 17th-century Madrid the way the Palais Royal does ancien régime Paris. Bare of greenery, paved with acres of stone, it is an architectural wonder, hemmed by austere, spire-topped red buildings. Sightseers wander through the shadows of the arcades, poking into little shops selling old coins and new berets. Along one side of the plaza, workers are unloading metal bleachers from trucks, preparing for a performance by a local rock band; clusters of bright-orange canvas umbrellas mark the location of cafés offering overpriced paella and racks of postcards.

The combination of tourist traps and second-rate food might put off some fastidious types who prefer historic sites to be blemish-free, but the fashion designer Carolina Herrera revels in the bustle of  Plaza Mayor. "If I were single, this is where I would live," Herrera says, clapping her hands together—a gesture that's at once childlike and impassioned—as she surveys the clamorous scene from the balcony of her daughter Carolina's apartment. It's an admiration that seems to contradict the immaculate South American designer's popular image: the blond beauty, recorded cool and expressionless in photographs by Andy Warhol and Robert Mapplethorpe; the collections of classic soigné dresses that have been worn by everyone from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to Renée Zellweger. "The buildings are beautiful, and the vitality of the place is amazing," Herrera says, peering down into the plaza. "And there is so much history, so much to see. You absolutely could not be bored here, ever."

Madrid has always been an integral element in the peripatetic life of Carolina Herrera. Part of the allure is cultural: Herrera is a descendant of Spaniards who settled in Venezuela in the 16th century, so the city acts as an ancestral touchstone. On her first visit to the Spanish capital, as an infant, she was known as María Carolina Josefina Pacanins y Niño, the daughter of Guillermo Pacanins, governor of Caracas. As a six-year-old, she toured the Museo del Prado's galleries with her Hungarian governess and stayed up the street at the Hotel Ritz, where she still resides when she comes to town—a month here, four days there—always in the same suite. Madrid is the place she chose as the launching pad for CH Carolina Herrera, which is both a lifestyle brand and an international chain of boutiques that markets el mundo Herrera from Bilbao to Coral Gables. And the Museo del Traje, the clothing museum that opened in 2004 with displays emphasizing historical and modern Spanish fashion, recently accepted one of Herrera's couture dresses into its permanent collection.

Later this month, Herrera will be returning to accept a Gold Medal for Merit in the Fine Arts, which will be presented by the Spanish king and queen, Juan Carlos and Sofía; previous recipients of the award include architect Santiago Calatrava and ballet mistress Carmen Roche. But on this visit, she is simply spending a week in the company of her two youngest daughters—there are four altogether. Her daughter Carolina ("We are all Carolinas," the mother says, explaining that more than a dozen close relatives confusingly bear the same name), who has the angular, wide-eyed good looks of a Henry James heroine, is the face of CH and has also taken part in the creation and marketing of Herrera fragrances. She divides her time between Madrid and a ranch in Cáceres in western Spain, where her husband, the famous former matador Miguel Báez Spinola, raises bulls, cows, and horses. They met when she left New York for Madrid a few years ago to work with a friend on a documentary film about bullfighters. Her sister Patricia Lansing, who resembles her mother as a young woman, is a former fashion editor for Vanity Fair who is now a part of Carolina Herrera's design team in New York.

"It's a lot of fun to work with them," Herrera says, quick to assert that enlightened nepotism has its advantages. "They don't lie to me. They are not 'yes men.' " She pauses and then bursts into a throaty laugh. "You know, sometimes I find them too honest, and I think, Wait a minute, I'm your mother, you can't talk to me like that. But I always listen, even if I don't always agree; they have good instincts." Her offspring's influence is palpable, best evidenced in the youthful, sexier edge that now infuses the brand. At the two clean-lined, wood-paneled CH stores on Calle de Serrano, Madrid's answer to Madison Avenue, the air is fragrant with a heady mix of scented candles, and the products range from a deluxe logo-covered baby carriage to flirty-chic ready-to-wear.

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