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.
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.
Las Herreras concur on the wonders of Madrid's children's clothing shops. In fact, it's a topic of conversation that crops up often in the family. "We make lots of babies," the designer says, explaining that one of her daughters seems to be pregnant every time there's a group photo shoot. "Chez Pois is one of the best," declares Carolina. This pink-and-green-painted boutique features clothes embroidered with non-cloying patterns of ladybugs and flowers. Patricia chimes in to suggest Papo d'Anjo, just a few blocks away, where, in her opinion, the outfits are a bit more graphically adventurous, using retro printed fabrics that recall the sort of tablecloths used at a picnic on the Costa del Sol in the 1960's.
When Carolina wants cut flowers, a minimalist glass vase, or a woven basket for her apartment, she heads to Casa Florida, an industrial space of glass and steel tucked behind a glowering 19th-century apartment-house façade. Today, she has brought her mother and sister by for a visit. "It's fantastic, no?" Herrera says, stepping into the sunny, double-height space and heading straight for a galvanized tin pail overflowing with lush green viburnum blossoms, the kind of countrified flowers the designer prefers over hothouse varieties. Carolina is also a fan of the Showroom, a design shop run by interior architect Isabel López-Quesada. Here, chrome stools and linen-upholstered sofas cozy up to antique Queen Anne chairs and Chinese lacquerwork. "Have you seen the market?" Carolina asks, referring to Mercado San Miguel, a glass-andcast iron pavilion next door to Plaza Mayor. Even if you don't need to pick up fresh vegetables and fruits, she adds, it's worth a visit, just to take a look at the fanciful edifice, designed in 1915. One thing the women don't agree on is El Rastro, a Sunday-morning ritual for many Madrileños, thanks to the flea market's plethora of regional curiosities, including curvaceous furniture in the Isabelino style (an Iberian variant of Victorian) and Spanish Art Deco pieces. Carolina makes periodic visits, but her sister and mother aren't flea market types.
They all appreciate the beauty of Madrid, however. The strength of the city's considerable charms is that they are "less obviously beautiful" than those of other European capitals, Carolina says. Parts of the city were redesigned in the early 20th century, during the reign of the Francophile king Alfonso XIII, resulting in grand avenues lined with eclectic Beaux-Artsstyle buildings so white and so exuberantly ornamented that some boulevards resemble allées of snow-white wedding cakes. Flamboyant fountains fringed with greenery and topped with statues punctuate the traffic circles, and in warmer months women of all ages cool off while waiting for the next bus by snapping open delicate fans—some of them CH creations—and fluttering them like modern majas. "Opening a fan is one of the most elegant gestures in the world," Herrera says.
Madrid also possesses a majestic train station, Atocha, a red-brick, iron, and glass relic. The structure was unharmed in the 2004 terrorist bombing that contributed to the downfall of the government of Prime Minister José María Aznar. It rises above Plaza del Emperador Carlos V, its heart a glass-topped indoor garden planted with towering palm trees. Close by is the Parque del Buen Retiro and several renowned museums—the Prado, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, and the Reina Sofía. Across town is the Palacio Real. "You must go see the armor," Herrera says of the royal palace that anchors Campo del Moro, a Versailles-style park. "You've never seen anything so beautifully made."
Herrera is also smitten with the scent of Madrid. "Cities have a certain smell," she asserts. Seville, she declares, is redolent of carnations, while Jerez de la Frontera, in the heart of sherry country, is perfumed with orange blossoms. Madrid's particular fragrance, however, momentarily eludes her. After asking her daughters' opinion, the designer claps her hands for attention. "Madrid," she says, "smells like honey and white locust trees in bloom."
MITCHELL OWENS is an editor at Traditional Home and writes for the New York Times.
WHERE TO STAY
Casa de Madrid
A tiny bed-and-breakfast across from the Royal Opera House. DOUBLES FROM $310
2 CALLE ARRIETA; 34/91-559-5791
Hotel Ritz Madrid
DOUBLES FROM $595
5 PLAZA DE LA LEALTAD; 34/91-701-6767
DOUBLES FROM $310
34 CARRERA DE SAN JERÓNIMO; 34/91-787-7770
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
DINNER FOR TWO $175
2931 CALLE DE MIGUEL ÁNGEL; 34/91-399-3437
DINNER FOR TWO $125
35 CALLE CAVA BAJA; 34/91-365-3252
Chocolatería San Ginés
Churros and chocolate—who could want anything else?LUNCH FOR TWO $20
11 PASADIZO DE SAN GINÉS; 34/91-365-6546
An airy café for pastries and coffee. LUNCH FOR TWO $30
14 COSTANILLA DE SAN ANDRÉS; 34/91-364-5450
La Paninoteca d'É
Black walls and artful lighting provide a stylish setting for gourmet sandwiches. LUNCH FOR TWO $37
2 CALLE VELÁZQUEZ; 34/91-426-3816
DINNER FOR TWO $148
16 CALLE JORGE JUAN; 34/91-431-5840
La Trattoria Sant'Arcangelo
DINNER FOR TWO $75
15 CALLE MORETO; 34/91-369-1093
WHERE TO SHOP
30 CALLE TOLEDO; 34/91-366-4017
41 CALLE CLAUDIO COELLO; 34/91-577-4445
CH Carolina Herrera
16 CALLE DE SERRANO; 34/91-781-4380
113 CALLE CLAUDIO COELLO; 34/91-577-0848
The flea market is held on Sundays, from early morning into the afternoon.
CALLE RIBERA DE CURTIDORES, BETWEEN PLAZA DE CASCORRO AND RONDA DE TOLEDO
43 CALLE BARQUILLO; 34/91-319-1671
75 CALLE VELÁZQUEZ; 34/91-577-2060
The Showroom Isabel López-Quesada
22 CALLE ALFONSO RODRíGUEZ SANTAMARíA; 34/91-411-9612
Antiques and modern furniture and accessories.
76 CALLE VELÁZQUEZ; 34/91-431-4559
WHAT TO SEE
Museo del Traje
2 AVDA. DE JUAN DE HERRERA 34/91-549-7150
Museo Nacional del Prado
PASEO DEL PRADO; 34/91-330-2892
8 PASEO DEL PRADO; 34/91-369-0151
CALLE BAILÉN; 34/91-454-8800