Carolina A. Herrera on the Magic Behind a Fragrance and the Sweet Smell of Success
For most of her 20-plus–year tenure at her mother’s brand, Carolina A. Herrera has worked in fragrance—developing, packaging, and marketing such blockbuster scents as Good Girl, CH, Herrera Confidential, and 212. Carolina Jr., as she’s sometimes known, has worked on so many fragrances that she’s lost count. Now, as the creative director of all beauty at the brand, she’s overseen the launch of a whole new category of Carolina Herrera makeup, with an emphasis on lipstick. Her mother’s red lips, especially memorable in Andy Warhol’s portraits, are so integral to the brand that Carolina Jr. sees them in her sleep. She spoke with Interview about those lips, the magic behind a fragrance, and the sweet smell of success.
INTERVIEW: What is your role at the company? Have things changed now that your mom no longer designs for the brand?
CAROLINA A. HERRERA: I am creative director of beauty, which includes fragrance, and we just launched beauty last year. Through the many years I’ve been here, which is now almost 24, I never worked on the fashion side.
INTERVIEW: What made you go into the beauty side of the business?
HERRERA: It was organic. In 1996, I was in that in-between time of having graduated from college and waiting to get a job. I had been pre-med, and I was studying to take my MCATs. I started to work on the launch of 212, the second Carolina fragrance with Fabien Baron. It was like an internship. I think they just wanted a different viewpoint, so they asked me. Now it’s 2021, and I’m still here. I didn’t dream of working in fragrance, but I fell in love with working in fragrance, and I love it to this day.
INTERVIEW: How did you originally fall in love with fragrance?
HERRERA: It was the flowers and the magic behind a fragrance. In fashion, you design clothes. You touch thec lothes, you see them, you know the trends. With fragrance, there are loose trends, but it’s way more romantic. It’s intangible. It’s based on memories, and on sensual smell. It’s a whole different vocabulary and a whole different world. You want to have a fragrance that you’re still buying 10 or 20 years later. Whereas, fashion is im- mediate. What’s in is out next season.
INTERVIEW: So you have to think of something perennial, that’s going to last.
HERRERA: You create something that’s very intangible, which is a smell. There are no rules. It’s based on a sensual memory. It’s based on the prime materials. It’s different if you use a jasmine from Egypt, or a jasmine from Turkey, or a jasmine from India, and how you mix it, and the nose you use, and the lab you use, and the processes you use. That mystery is what I love because there isn’t a path to success.
INTERVIEW: So you can make mistakes.
HERRERA: All the time. Of course, the brand name is very important, but it’s also the time and the emotion you create, and the reality behind the dream that you’re selling, and, of course, the materials and the nose and the person you choose to represent the perfume, and how you sell it. There’s so much that goes into a launch.
INTERVIEW: What innovations have you seen over the time that you’ve worked in fragrance?
HERRERA: There are always innovations in the way you extract, in the way that you pick the flower. There are innovations in synthetic smells, how you recreate the smell of a coffee bean, for instance. Now, there’s a big move into fragrance that is vegan, organic, and uses less alcohol. I think we’re moving to very pared-down, sustainable, organic fragrances, and that’s a big challenge for the world of perfumery. It’s how you harvest, and where you harvest. The chain goes way back to who even picks the flowers. We’re trying to do all this in a conscious, sustainable way that benefits everybody.
INTERVIEW: How did you develop your nose? How did it mature?
HERRERA: I have a really good instinct and I know what I love. I’ve also learned to go beyond just what I love. But your nose is constantly developing. If you don’t put a stop to a perfumist, he can go on working on a scent for years and years.
INTERVIEW: What would you consider the signature aspects of a Carolina Herrera scent?
HERRERA: There’s a touch of jasmine in most of the perfume. Before she started designing, my mom would mix oils of jasmine and tuberose. That’s actually what became her first perfume.
INTERVIEW: I know your mom loves flowers. Is that something you got from her?
HERRERA: It must be, because I don’t remember a day in my life without flowers, without being in love with gardens and greens and nature.
INTERVIEW: How important is the design of the perfume bottle these days?
HERRERA: It’s super important. The bottle for Good Girl is in the shape of a heel. We were working on that bottle for three or four years. It’s definitely a team thing. It’s not my design, but it’s very important and we worked really hard and did so much research. The bottle is the first thing you see, but you could have a great bottle and a shitty perfume, and then no one comes to buy it. So, in the end, you could have everything great, but if you have a bad perfume, people buy it once, and you don’t have success. We were pioneers when we did 212, which looked sort of like a pill. It was 1996, and the shape was very new at the time. Carolina Herrera has always been very edgy in terms of bottle design. The fragrance bottles have always been quite spectacular.
INTERVIEW: Does a perfume have to smell good on you, personally, in order to go into the marketplace?
HERRERA: No, definitely not just on me. Some of them do not smell good on me and they’ve been great successes. That’s another reason why I love working in fragrance, because it depends on your skin and even your mood at certain points.
INTERVIEW: Do you go out and experiment with other scents?
HERRERA: All the time. If I’m in an airport, I will go into duty free and try so many perfumes on that I’m like, “Oh god, who’s going to be sitting next to me because this is not good.” I try and I try, because I don’t like smelling perfumes on those sticks. I like them on my skin.
INTERVIEW: What would you say is the Carolina Herrera philosophy about makeup and beauty in general?
HERRERA: I think it’s, “Make the best out of you.” Look good, feel beautiful, feel sexy, feel feminine. We always say alegría de vivir which is the happiness in life. There are no barriers. Just do it, express yourself, be a beauty in the now. You can do it with five different-colored lipsticks, or if you want, just one. You can even wear lipstick on your eyes at this point. These days, there are no real rules in terms of this stuff. It’s what makes you feel brave, what makes you feel beautiful, and how you express yourself.
INTERVIEW: How has your approach to makeup changed over the last 20 years?
HERRERA: I’ve gone through an existential period, I’ve gone through a French makeup period, and I’ve gone through a no-makeup period. It’s changed with age. There’s a time when you’re 20 and you want to look 40 or 50, and then when you’re 50 you want to look 20. I think people are wearing more lipstick. They love a red lip. I think it’s very empowering. Even under the mask, a good lip is empowering.
INTERVIEW: When you’re out and about do you smell things a lot more than you used to?
HERRERA: I smell everything, and I smell people, too.
INTERVIEW: You do?
HERRERA: If there’s something good! Yesterday, I was at dinner with friends and one of them had great hair. I was like, “Oh my god, what are you wearing?” And I stuck my nose in her hair and her neck. I find myself doing that a lot more.
Signature scent by A Touch of Jasmine.