NEW YORK (Reuters) - Designer Carolina Herrera didn't grow up dreaming of a fashion career. Born in Caracas, Venezuela, she spent her childhood riding horses and pursuing favorite pastimes on the family estate.
But fashion became her calling and after a lifetime of design, winning awards and providing red carpet looks for stars ranging from Oscar winner Renee Zellweger to Grammy winner Lady Gaga, industry watchers know that family is the thread that runs through Herrera's personal and professional success.
"Maybe fashion was sleeping in me and suddenly it woke up," Herrera, 73, told Reuters. "Because when I was growing up, my great interest was my horses, tennis and that's it, and dogs and normal life, not about fashion."
A huge portrait of the designer by Andy Warhol, a memento of her night-clubbing years in the 1970s with superstar peers such as Mick Jagger, hung in her showroom behind her as she spoke with Reuters in an interview ahead of the February 13 debut of her latest collection at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in New York.
Her office is filled with art books and framed family photos, and two silver statuettes from the Council of Fashion Designers of America -- the Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award she received in 2008 and the Womenswear Designer of the Year Award in 2004 -- take a prominent place.
With her Fall 2012 runway show set for Monday, Herrera talked about her 30 years in fashion and how she built her New York-based company, the privately held Carolina Herrera Ltd., into a global billion-dollar brand.
A FAMILY AFFAIR
Her mother, who was "a very romantic, poetic, cultivated woman," her grandmother and the other women in her family loved haute couture, prizing "the craftsmanship that made them as beautiful on the inside as on the outside," she said.
Herrera saw her first fashion show at age 13 when her grandmother took her to see the Balenciaga collection. When she was almost 16, she began to wear stylish clothes to dances and parties. She married young and her first marriage ended in divorce. A second marriage, to childhood friend Reinaldo Herrera who has ties to Spanish nobility, has lasted.
As a young mother who belonged to the jet set, Herrera caught the eye of photographers with her regal beauty and exquisite taste in clothes. She became a fixture on the best-dressed List in the 1970s and wound up in its Hall of Fame.
But by 1980, Herrera wanted something more and she credits Diana Vreeland, the formidable editor-in-chief of Vogue magazine, with giving her the nod to become a fashion designer.
"I said, you know, 'I think I want to be a designer for material, for fabrics.' And she looked at me straight in the eyes and said, 'Oh my dear, how boring that is. You can't. You have to do something else. Why don't you try to have a collection, or a whole collection from daytime to evening and try to do something like that, which you will like much better.' She gave me the idea," Herrera said.
She showed her first collection in 1981, and said she felt "lucky" to get her start in New York because "the Americans were very generous." Her friend, the late Bill Blass, who was a favorite designer of Nancy Reagan, helped her, coaching her on how to stage a runway show.
Herrera's couture line of women's clothes and her Carolina Herrera collection are sold in boutiques and stores from New York to Moscow, Hong Kong and Dubai.
The trendiest part of her business is CH Carolina Herrera, a more casual line that offers menswear, children's wear, women's wear, handbags, shoes and other accessories, eyewear, fragrances and products for the home.
THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS
Not to be left out are her fragrances - 11, in all - which she says are a designers' passport to the world.
When a designer is asked to do a fragrance, she said, "you should do it immediately because that's what gets your name everywhere." Her daughter Carolina is in charge of the fragrance business -- "she's sort of the face," as her mother put it.
She respects her daughters' taste and their honesty, which help her understand what younger customers want. Patricia's feedback is prized because "she does not lie."
For Herrera herself, the greatest compliment comes from customers, but it's not expressed in words.
"Every time I see someone wearing something from Carolina Herrera, it's a great compliment for me. It doesn't matter if it looks bad - it's better that she looks beautiful. But it's a great compliment because it says that I'm doing something right, and so they're buying it because they like it."
But that sort of statement betrays the business success she has achieved in more than three decades.
"I believe that if you would have asked me 30 years ago, I would have never been able to imagine that we would have gotten to where we are today," she said.
Asked to describe the best and worst parts of her job, she said her favorite functions were being creative - " now I am really in heaven because I'm working in the new collection" - and the worst part were the media interviews. "It scares me so much ... but it's part of the business."
She advises young designers to keep the creative side of the business separate from the numbers, And on the topic of becoming a creative success, Herrera said it is "all about your eye."
"It's about talent, of course. You have to have talent to design and to dress thousands of women or millions of women around the world. And you know very well, the only thing they want is to look more beautiful."
In conversation, most topics seem safe, except retirement. "Why do people ask that question? Is it because of the age?" she asks.
As timeless as her designs seem to be - her self-described "uniform" of a tailored white shirt and slim gray wool dress is always fashionable - Herrera never tires of going to work.
"When you do something that you like and you think you can keep doing it, you don't think about retiring. And this is a private company, so I don't have to retire."
(Reporting by Alicia Powell and Jan Paschal; Writing by Jan Paschal; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte)