By Harriet Shapiro
May 03, 1982 12:00 PM

I remember thinking, ‘My God, another socialite designing a fly-by-night collection no one will ever buy or wear,’ ” admits Ellin Saltzman, Then Saltzman, who is responsible for stocking the racks of Saks Fifth Avenue with $350 million worth of clothes each year, caught Carolina Herrera’s first collection and discovered Herrera’s “fly-by-night” designs were nothing less than “sensational.” That was 13 months ago. Since then the Venezuelan-born Herrera, herself a member of the Best-Dressed Hall of Fame, has emerged as one of the most exciting new talents this side of Paris.

“Instead of leading a sybaritic life, which she could easily have done,” says Herrera’s (and Nancy Reagan’s) close friend Jerry Zipkin, “Carolina has gone into this very seriously.” Perhaps Herrera’s biggest fan is Bill Blass, who doesn’t seem to mind the competition. “I think she has tremendous potential,” he says. “She is going to be a force in the fashion world.”

She already is. Working out of her Manhattan atelier, she designs exquisitely constructed clothes that are turning up on the backs of international beauties like Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia, Spain’s Duchess of Feria and Countess Consuelo Crespi. A few months ago the First Lady showed up at a private dinner party in Beverly Hills in Herrera’ s twisted one-shoulder number of silver-blue coupe de velours with a matching floor-length maribou feather cape. Actress Kathleen (Body Heat) Turner wore the same dress to the Academy Awards in March.

Carolina, now 42, has been fascinated by fashion ever since she was a little girl making clothes for her dolls. At 13, she was thrilled when her grandmother took her to a fashion show in Paris and introduced her to the legendary couturier Balenciaga. Growing up in Caracas, Carolina and her three sisters led a charmed life in a sprawling, tile-roofed house surrounded by tropical gardens in the Campo Allegre district of the city. Her father, Guillermo Pacanins, then an officer in the Venezuelan Air Force, later became the town’s governor. Until she was 15, Carolina was chaperoned by a Hungarian governess. “When I was a young girl,” she remembers, “I wanted to wear red and dress like a vamp. But it wasn’t allowed, and I was very sad.” Instead, she appeared at her first ball in a white gown from the House of Lanvin.

In 1969 Carolina wed a childhood friend, Reinaldo Herrera. Reinaldo, a landowner on the board of a South American publishing company, is the oldest son of art patron Mimi Herrera, owner of the historic Spanish colonial Hacienda La Vega (the Valley) in Caracas. La Vega, built in 1590, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited houses in South America. Life is gracious and elegant there—linen sheets are ironed directly on the beds daily.

Carolina actually started designing clothes, first for herself and then for her friends, more than 20 years ago. But with the backing of Armando de Armas, a Venezuelan publishing magnate, Herrera decided to turn pro. “Everyone knew me as a social person,” explains Carolina. “That was the most difficult thing to prove—that I was not a dilettante.”

After her first show, Women’s Wear Daily dubbed Herrera “Our Lady of the Sleeves,” a reference to her penchant for exaggerated shoulders. “I am very shy,” Herrera explains. “When I go to a charity ball, I don’t mind if people look at my sleeves. I mind terribly if I have to say something.” She has recently begun to tone down those sleeves, but she still cannot be accused of making wallflower clothes. Herrera excels at designing outfits for the gilded life she no longer has time to lead. That means lightweight wool luncheon suits priced at between $1,500 and $1,800, striped silk poolside pajamas ($1,200) and billowing ball gowns ($2,100 to $4,000), some made of gazar, the stiff hand-loomed silk that was Balenciaga’s trademark in the 1950s.

Carolina admits her meteoric career has cut into the time she spends with her younger girls, Carolina, 12, and Patricia, 8. (A brand-new grandmother, Herrera has two older daughters from a first marriage: Mercedes, 23, and Ana Luisa, 19, both settled in the States.) But, she insists, the sacrifices are worth it. “I love very much what I am doing,” she says with a proud smile. “No one is forcing me. I am very serious about my work.”