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Madrid with Carolina Herrera

Richard Phibbs Carolina Herrera in her favorite Hotel Ritz suite.

Photo: Richard Phibbs

Curiously, seeing Madrid through the eyes of different generations doesn't fragment the place: it actually brings it into sharper focus, drawing the disparate barrios of the city into one tidy package of mingled experiences. Herrera's Madrid is suave and dependable, an old-fashioned, slightly provincial capital where royalty matters, good manners are prized, men and women are meticulously groomed, and the cuisine is gutsy and authentic. "I like to eat peasant food," Herrera says, clenching her fist in an emphatic gesture that's more Anna Magnani than diva of design. For a woman known for her personal elegance (her slow, studied grace owes a bit to a childhood spent transfixed by Hollywood film sirens), Herrera has surprisingly simple tastes. She invariably eschews the establishments of celebrity chefs, preferring to patronize a handful of dependable restaurants that are popular with old-guard Madrileños, where down-home dishes are accompanied by tumblers of sturdy Rioja. One of Herrera's new favorites is El Paraguas. Opened last year, the restaurant is owned by the hand­some young chef Sandro Silva, who executes deftly updated takes on rib-sticking Asturian standards like roast duck, artichokes in basil oil, and an array of apple-based desserts. Other times, Herrera can be found lunching at La Trattoria Sant'Arcangelo, an Italian spot a couple of blocks from the Prado, or Casa Lucio, a Castilian restaurant whose clientele, Herrera confides, ranges from "the king and queen to the local hooker." Along with "tiny, tiny lamb chops the size of a half-dollar," she explains, Lucio's specialty is huevos rotos, a dish of eggs scrambled with fried potatoes. Her cook has never managed to re-create it, she says, despite "using thousands of eggs." As for that uninspired paella in the Plaza Mayor, she lets me in on a secret: "Go out of the plaza and down any side street and you'll find the best tapas bars anywhere."

The designer's daughters have an appreciation for a more modern side of Madrid. When Hotel Urban opened in 2004, for example, Carolina was in attendance, partly in her official capacity as the face of CH in Europe, but also out of sheer curiosity. "Everyone in Madrid was there that night," she says one afternoon as she, her mother, her sister, and a dozen or more guests gather around a dining table in the hip hotel's restaurant, where totems from Papua New Guinea are set on plinths in front of walls covered in glittering gold-glass mosaics. Boutique hotels, however, are not to her mother's liking: "I don't understand modern hotels. I can't get the lights to work."

Patricia, who visits Madrid several times a year, and her sister Carolina are also admirers of La Broche, run by chef Sergi Arola. A disciple of food god Ferran Adrià, he has caught Spain's attention with controversial innovations such as a degustation menu conceived as a color-coded progression from dark meats to pale fish. "At first you think it's pretentious," Carolina says, but eventually, Arola's creations make you rethink the way you approach food. Her mother shakes her head in disbelief. "Food that is too complicated or too challenging doesn't interest me," she says. "I don't want to eat chicken that tastes like fish or fish that tastes like beef."

Herrera's daughters are taken with Madrid's quality of life. "When I moved here a few years ago, it reminded me of South America," says Carolina, explaining what attracted her to the city. "It's calm, everybody takes their afternoon naps seriously, and family is very important." Pointing out that Madrid has something that you don't find in Caracas or New York (where the designer has lived since 1980), Herrera adds: "The life here is so civilized. The lunches are late and the dinners are even later, which allows you to do so many things during the day. And have you noticed that nobody eats or drinks while they are walking?In New York, everybody eats in the street. But in Madrid, people go to a café and they sit down. Even in Starbucks, you buy your coffee and sit and drink." In the fall and winter, she heads out at night to go flamenco dancing or to attend a zarzuela, the comic light operas that are particular to Spain and "so much fun to watch."

Besides her daughter Carolina, Herrera's other family members living here include her aunt Eugenia Niño, a pioneering contemporary art dealer who runs Galería Sen, arguably the cradle of contemporary Spanish art. "Eugenia was the first person to understand painters like José Miguel Rodríguez, Luis Gordillo, and Isabel Villar," Herrera says as she walks arm in arm through the gallery with her cousin, Álvaro de Suñer, who runs the space with his mother. But the most prominent member of Herrera's family, as far as the society columns and sports pages are concerned, is her son-in-law Báez Spinola, who in his bullfighting days was known as El Litri (the Dandy), a name that seems tailor-made for membership in this chic clan. The designer, her husband, Reinaldo (who is the special projects editor of  Vanity Fair), and daughters Carolina and Patricia are all members of the International Best-Dressed List's Hall of Fame.

"It is funny, no?" Herrera says of her son-in-law's nickname, in between making kitchy-koo faces at Olimpia, the Báezes' seven-month-old baby daughter and her own seventh grandchild (an eighth, Gerrit Livingston, was born to Patricia and son-in-law Gerrity Lansing this past summer). Sitting in the shade of a tree at the Palacio Real and clad in her hallmark crisp white cotton shirt and close-fitting skirt (of her own design), dazzling legs terminating in sky-high lizard-skin Manolo Blahniks, Herrera is arguably the world's most glamorous grandmother, a designation once claimed by her childhood idol, Marlene Dietrich. Small wonder that when she and her daughters step outdoors, more than a few heads turn as they walk down the street.

Given las Herreras' prominence in the world of style, it's no surprise that shopping, whether for fashion or flowers, is a bit of an obsession for the designer and her daughters. Calzados Lobo, a store that has stood near Plaza Mayor for more than a century, is where the Herrera women stock up on the traditional handmade espadrilles (they start at around $8 a pair) that found favor with the Paris Opéra, which ordered dozens of Lobo shoes for a production of Carmen. The shop is about half the size of a one-car garage; its open shelves are crammed with boxes, and dozens of customers stand elbow-to-elbow clutching wait-your-turn numbers. "When I was a child in Caracas, we wore espadrilles all the time," Patricia says.

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