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Carolina Herrera, patron saint of Manhattan elegance, says farewell in classic style

Carolina Herrera is joined by her design staff after presenting her final collection for her namesake label.

February 13, 2018 04:37 pm Updated: February 13, 2018 04:38 pm

NEW YORK - The small chamber on the ground floor at the Museum of Modern Art was nothing much to look at on its own - no priceless art, no revelatory architecture. But the glass wall at the far end of the space let in the sparkling light of the city, and that is always something quite special. The music on the soundtrack, a little Cole Porter, gave the Monday evening a kind of timeless, foot-tapping, champagne-popping glamour.

And sure enough, at the end of the Carolina Herrera fall 2018 fashion show, waiters shimmied through the crowd balancing silver trays of bubbly. After the models had all walked and the applause was finished, it was time to toast a finale and a beginning. After more than 30 years, Herrera was stepping down from her brand, settling into the role of ambassador and passing the creative reigns to designer Wes Gordon.

Gordon grew up in Atlanta and interned with Oscar de la Renta and Tom Ford before launching his own collection, distinguished by its romantic and feminine sensibility. Gordon was not a hipster designer but rather one who tapped into the quiet formality of modern Southern gentry. He put his label on hiatus last year when he began consulting at Carolina Herrera.

The final collection under Herrera's direction was mostly an homage to a kind of discreet glamour that, while still admired, is often in short supply, requiring too much restraint and good posture to pull off.

The show opened with a group of white shirts paired with black skirts - a look that has become Herrera's work-day uniform. There were followed by silky day dresses in turquoise and orange, along with rose-colored dresses emblazoned with sparkling black panthers.

But the brand is best known for its cocktail and evening wear, and this collection was filled with airy dresses in pink and gray tulle, evening dresses in layers of tulle with a bodice of white embroidery and a particularly sleek tuxedo in fuchsia and red.

Herrera has always turned out sensual and elegant eveningwear, but she has never been an advocate of plunging necklines or leave-nothing-to-the-imagination sheerness.

Some designers think "it's so modern to be naked or almost naked. They think it's going to attract younger people if they do those dresses," Herrera said to the Washington Post in 2015. "They're trying to get people to pay attention to them. In life, there should be a little mystery."

She lamented the tendency of some celebrities to wear provocatively revealing clothes in a bid for attention.

"They're supposed to be fashion icons and they're not wearing anything," Herrera said. "It's an obsession now."

And so when she offers a black dress embroidered with a graceful cloud of maribou, she is sure that the woman is tastefully covered. The dress only hints at what lies just below the shadow of feathers. Her tulle is multi-layered; it is not sheer. Her strapless gowns are properly placed along the torso.

The finale included a parade of models dressed in crisp white shirts and a rainbow of long full skirts paired with a wide belt. It's a look that is Herrera's evening uniform. To say that the designer is going to become an ambassador for the collection is a bit like describing what she always has been. The collection has long reflected her personal sensibility, the style of a woman born wealthy in Venezuela and married into Spanish nobility. She has the posture of a dancer, a style that shuns distracting frills and a sharp, bawdy wit that lands like a jolt of thunder.

Her clothes have always exuded sophistication and propriety. And they attracted a range of clients, from Renee Zellweger to Michelle Obama, who wore a Carolina Herrera ballgown to a White House state dinner in honor of France, and Laura Bush, who chose a Herrera gown for one of the parties celebrating her husband's 2005 inauguration.

After the last model made her final pass to the strains of "I'll Be Seeing You," Herrera emerged to a standing ovation and sustained applause. She was joined at the top of the runway by her studio team wearing their white work smocks. Herrera, of course, was dressed in a crisp white shirt and dark trousers.

After taking her bows, Gordon emerged from stage right to present her with dozens of red roses. The audiences applauded louder. Camera phones glowed in the dark salon and the lights of Manhattan sparkled in the distance.

Herrera's design sensibility evoked a New York of long lunches full of witticisms, cocktails with bon vivants and formal dinners that were raucous rather than prim. To some degree, that version of the city may always have been a bit of fantasy, or at best, a rare truth. But Herrera made a convincing argument that not only was it real, it could be yours.