“OH MY GOD, YES,” says Wes Gordon, entering a banquette-filled room at the offices of Carolina Herrera, where he became creative director this past February. “It’s Dolly Parton, right?” An ear-to-ear smile breaks across the blue-eyed designer’s face. Parton’s “9 to 5” is pumping through the sound system, and a model—Gordon is in the middle of a fitting, a few days before his debut runway show for the house—has appeared in a dramatic tiered top and skirt. The pieces float with rings of lace and daisy-embellished tulle—the look is very country, something of a New Age Southern-belle Dolly. “It’s a sign,” says the Atlanta-raised Gordon, kicking back and sipping an iced coffee through a paper straw (“a new office policy,” he says). Then he laughs. “Over Labor Day Weekend, I was close to Dollywood. I wanted—needed—to make the 45-minute drive, but nobody else was on board.”

The affable Gordon worked side by side with Herrera—who stepped into the role of global brand ambassador when her successor was announced—for about a year. He had already halted his own nearly decade-old namesake label, which was well known for its contemporary (and quite pretty) womenswear. “I could tell that he had a great eye,” Herrera says. “He understood the style codes of the house and the importance of the atelier, which was important to me.” (An impressive feat on Gordon’s part: At 32, he’s five years younger than the Carolina Herrera label itself, which Herrera founded in 1981.) The two continue to WhatsApp with each other, though Herrera has given Gordon free rein. “She would always tell me, ‘Don’t be afraid to just be elegant,’” Gordon says with a look of fond reminiscence. “I think being wonderfully elegant is kind of daring sometimes. There’s this misconception that elegance has to be stuffy, but it’s often more irreverent and witty. I like to keep that in mind.”

While this fanciful approach is very much in line with the uptown splendor of Herrera’s established aesthetic, Gordon’s early work for the house is augmented FASHION>8 4 with his sunny, charged sense of youthful optimism. The same feeling coursed through New York’s spring shows, as designers seem to be offsetting the country’s tensions and troubles with a countervailing surge of positivity. Given that Carolina Herrera has stood, since its inception, as a bastion of the American good life, Gordon’s sensibilities are no doubt a natural evolution for the company. But it’s his sparky kick and beaming outlook that are both relevant for the times and a propellant for the label going forward. “I don’t think of designing for a certain age range, or just for ‘uptown’—uptown and downtown are blended now,” says the designer. “It’s about making things that are fun. When you do that, it inevitably resonates with a vast spectrum of women. I want to take Mrs. Herrera’s spirit of exuberance and shout it from the rooftops.”

Gordon’s runway debut at the New-York Historical Society boasted a mosaic of peony-patched suede boots (made for Carolina Herrera by longtime collaborator Manolo Blahnik), scarflike and double-layered floral dresses, embroidered equine motifs in almost neon hues, the house’s signature black-and-white polka dots treated with pomp and volume, a sleek emerald-green placket-front frock with a whimsical poppy print, and a polychrome-banded off-the-shoulder finale gown. “I am adamant about happy color,” he says. “I want to put an exclamation point after that, underline it, circle it, and highlight it.” Why? “Because with a new wave of chaos every day, these clothes are… a bit of a rainbow.”

Before September, Gordon had completed two collections at the job—one for resort and one for bridal, a pillar in the Herrera empire. Here, too, he wants to infuse some pep: “I’ve added a bit of green or yellow or even hot pink. I’m always thinking, I hope this isn’t too crazy—but I do love a daring bride.” The unveiling of the spring 2019 line, though, was his cotillion.

Gordon’s ebullience, it’s safe to say, is in part inspired by Herrera herself: Back at HQ, Gordon speaks not only of admiring her iconic portraits (rendered by, among many others, Robert Mapplethorpe and Andy Warhol) but of enjoying her camaraderie. “We would sit in meetings all day long, snacking on candy, and you hit certain points where everything just seems ridiculous. We couldn’t stop laughing—and Mrs. Herrera laughs better than anyone.”

Just as he’s about to take his bow, Gordon fusses with the top button of his shirt and does a nervous little up-and-down jump. But as he steps onto the pink-carpeted runway to a loud cheer—his mother, mother-in-law, sister, and husband to his left, and Herrera a bit farther down to his right—that arresting smile is back. “I think the number-one thing about my job is finding the things that make my heart beat faster,” Gordon says. “That’s what makes me happy.”