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Vera Wang: A Life in Fashion

From its modest beginnings, Vera Wang the firm has grown into an important licensing-based operation, and Vera Wang the designer, into a major force.

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WWD Milestones issue 05/12/2010

From the moment she unlaced her competitive figure skates for the last time, Vera Wang set her sights on a life in fashion.

In the 40-plus years since, hers has been a singular ride, one that took her first to Vogue magazine, where she learned that no one disturbed the calm of Mr. Penn’s set with chatter, to Ralph Lauren, where she experienced the creative joys of limitless resources, and finally, 20 years ago, to her own company.

From its modest beginnings as a small bridal boutique, Vera Wang the firm has grown into an important licensing-based operation, and Vera Wang the designer, into a major force. Long the go-to goddess for aisle-bound superstars, as of this fall, Wang begins a relationship with the marrying masses via her recent deal with David’s Bridal.

In ready-to-wear, she has dared to be different, adhering steadfastly to her luxe-casual bohemian aesthetic — even though she acknowledges that a more mundane approach might play better at retail. But then, Wang didn’t get into this business for the money.

“For me, fashion was sheerly for the love,” she says. “It was never about the money. And unfortunately, now it has to be. That’s the big adjustment I had to make in my life. You can’t survive with a fashion company if you don’t make any money. That’s just a silly little reality we all want to sweep under the rug, but it’s true.”

 

Twenty years in business — a moment for reflection. You’ve also looked backward for some recent speaking engagements. Any intriguing self-revelations?
As I looked through, it became very apparent that my life has been defined far more by my failures to attain things, my goals or desires or hopes or dreams, than by anything you could perceive as success.

 

That sounds harsh.
I fell in love with figure skating when I was about six. I worked my ass off. Skating was my life. It was more than just a passing fantasy. I was always fourth [in competition] and they only took three.…So when I didn’t make the [1968 Olympic] team, this was such a part of my life, I was devastated. That was the first lesson I learned in life.

 

What was the lesson?
That nobody’s going to get your dreams. It’s not necessarily about winning or having your dream come true. It’s about what you learn along the way. It’s a process; it’s not just the end result. And then it happened again at Vogue.

 

What happened at Vogue?
I started after college as a rover, and then became Polly Mellen’s assistant.

 

What was Polly like?
Oh, killer. Killer. And she knows it. She was a total perfectionist. She was an artist in her own right and, like many artists, they have to work themselves in a fevered pitch to get the result. What I learned from watching Polly was that Polly made the model feel like a queen.

 

But there was a lesson of disappointment?
I was there for 17 years. I became a senior editor. Eventually, I just didn’t see where I was going. I did some really nice work with most of the photographers of that era. But I wasn’t shooting with Penn and I wasn’t getting Avedon because Polly was getting them. And so I decided to leave.

 

And eventually, after several years working as an accessories designer for Ralph Lauren, your father decided to back you in business. Why did he insist on bridal?
It would be manageable, he thought. He said, “The inventory level seems low. You custom-make a dress, it’s controllable. A nice boutique.”

So rather than a passion, bridal was merely a way into fashion design?
It became my passion because as I got better at it and I began to grow it, I could express myself in a way that I hadn’t been able to in a long time. I’ve put everything into it for 20 years. I trained myself on the job. I didn’t know how to work in lace. One day I just said, “I’m going to master the technique of lace, whether I have to cut it out, piece it, drape it, line it.” Bridal became my passion.…It didn’t start that way.

 

What did you bring to bridal that was missing?
I think I brought a fashion sense that changed bridal. I think we really changed the vocabulary of it. I’ve spent 20 years of my life doing that and investing in it financially and with physical energy.

What was your first big celebrity wedding?
The first really big one was Max Kennedy’s, Ethel Kennedy’s son. The bride, Victoria, was heaven. She was a law student and she was beautiful. I didn’t go, but from what I heard, the dress was destroyed within 10 minutes because they were playing football after the ceremony. Victoria Kennedy was the first really big name, social-slash-celebrity, and from there on we got very lucky.

 

Next: More Q&A with Vera Wang >>

 

Why do you think you connected so strongly with the celebrity set? There were and are other major names in bridal….
I think what connected was the single-mindedness of it. There was nothing else. I could focus all that energy into how to cut a veil. I didn’t have an empire. I looked for inspiration just as I would for ready-to-wear, in film or something else that resonated for me.

 

Let’s move to where you are now. How do you assess your business today?
My business today is definitely based on the licensing model. That’s where we have grown the most, that’s where we’ve spent a lot of energy, and I think we’ve been very successful. I don’t want to ever appear like I think I’m really successful because a) it isn’t true, and b) whenever I say I’m feeling good, the next day I come down with strep throat. It’s been a good model for us, but we’ve also worked hard at it. I think my licensees have grown to depend on my participation, which is a challenge because I’m one person. But I do control those businesses carefully, as much as I can.

 

What have been the biggest challenges?
Each one of the businesses is different, and I’ve had to come up to speed on all. I’ve had to understand what the market will bear and yet I try not to let go of my own aesthetic. It’s that constant challenge that is very, very difficult. At Wedgewood alone, there are 15 categories that I have to satisfy — the crystal, the sub-crystal, the plates, the gifting, the picture-frame business.

 

You’ve learned a lot about arenas far removed from fashion.
Stationery — that’s worse than 500 ready-to-wear collections: the shape of the flap, the proportion of the envelope square, the myriad [details]. You learn here’s the price point for that and here’s the price point for that. If you add a ribbon or tie, it’s that much more. It’s the specificity of it all that is boggling. I’m not in one business, I’m in 30 little ones.

 

Tabletop, flatware, gifts, stationery.
As a brand, it’s certainly related to the bridal part of the business. So much a part of the bridal experience is invitations. Nobody got mattresses, but 70 percent of the mattress business is when [people] get married. We do sheets, we do towels, why wouldn’t we do the mattress underneath? I’m sort of a bed fanatic. I spend a lot of time in bed.

 

It seems a great deal radiates from bridal.
[It’s about] the credibility, the dedication, the singular energy, the fact that we work with brides, we fit brides. This isn’t ready-to-wear — you really are involved. You have to deliver a perfect dress. They don’t have three in the closet — they’re depending on you. That responsibility never escapes me in bridal, and I think [it crosses over] to all the licensees. I mean, I said to Wedgewood, “I want the weight of the stainless to be heavy because there’s nothing worse than a fork you can bend, and most people don’t use sterling.” I said, “Make sure that the stainless is heavy enough that people feel there’s value.” Defending all that on every level is a full-time job.

 

While most designers start with ready-to-wear, your collection is only six years old. What is its great challenge for you?
It’s trying to push a contemporary — I don’t mean a contemporary business — but a more contemporary, younger feel. Why should women at any age, young or old, have to dress old? It’s been challenging.

 

Why so challenging?
Because does anyone care? We understand, but are there 12 people [who understand]? And, then, the question of [growth]: I know what I could do to be bigger, but something in me doesn’t allow me to do it.

 

Please explain.
I would have to do dresses with really tight waists and skinny skirts, and I’d probably have to make them fairly boring, if they’re going to be commercially successful. And do more evening for mermaids. And certainly more color — bright color probably, bright prints. But are you going to be honest to yourself or are you going to be doing what you think is formulaic? Those aren’t small questions. I think that every designer today faces that on the upper end.

 

Such realization must be frustrating.
I understand stores’ needs. But I question myself: Am I, at this stage of the game, true to who I am? I try to walk the fine line. I try to make black go to different places — that’s what I was trying to do the last time.

 

For most designers, ready-to-wear is the nucleus around which they build their brands. For you, the bridal is the nucleus. How important is rtw to your business?
It is [important] because it expresses who I really am as a woman, as a person and as a designer. It’s important for me to be able wear my own clothes, which is not a small thing to me after all the years of work and investment. I like to wear my knits. I like to wear my T-shirts. I’m doing things, finally, that are real to me.

 

But how important is it to the health of your business, to the brand? Almost across the board, designer ready-to-wear is not where the money is.
I can afford it. And it enables me to be constantly challenged. A lot of what I do is about attitude. That’s what I love most in clothing: It gives attitude. When you’re wearing a blousy dress, you feel so different than when you’re wearing a narrow dress. When you’re wearing a knit, it’s very different from wearing a tight top and little blazer. The clothes that lend that sense of who [women] can express themselves as can only come from ready-to-wear. That can’t come from bridal. Evening, to some extent, but evening is very formulaic. Also, it’s an older aesthetic.

 

How difficult is it to balance your casual attitude with the realities of the business?
That’s always been my problem — how do you reconcile who you are as a person and as, I would say, a fashion professional after all these years? And what do you have to do to be really successful, if it doesn’t come naturally to you?

You’ve talked about your life having been defined by things that didn’t go as planned. Relating that to the business, getting established in contemporary had been problematic.
We’ve tried three times, the most recent time with Lavender.

 

What happened?
I’ll tell you what happened. We got too big too fast — too much distribution. And then the economy turned and the combination of the two — a double whammy. Lavender was only a year-and-a-half old, and I just said this isn’t the time to continue this.

 

You’ve said it’s “on hiatus.” Do you want to bring it back?
We’re planning on bringing it back, but how we’re bringing it back is another issue.

 

Next: More Q&A with Vera Wang >>

 

Would it be less expensive?
Yes, it has to be. And it would depend on whether we do it with a partner as a joint venture, or whether we own it and we produce it with the factories we know in China, or whether we license it. Those are three totally different alternatives and we’ve been busy in the last year trying to figure that out.

 

Conversely, Kohl’s is working.
I’ll tell you why — because Kohl’s has tremendous distribution. I’m able to be myself within the world of Kohl’s, the context of Kohl’s. They’re really moving into fashion — that’s been their big goal. That was the whole reason they brought me on. And they’ve always had a great juniors business.

 

Otherwise, besides Lavender, how has the recession impacted the Vera Wang business?
It affected bridal. At the same time, I made sure that I got away from any fabrics that were $40 to $50 a yard. You have to also realize that Neiman’s and Saks closed bridal doors. In the major cities — L.A. or Dallas or Chicago — that’s where I was. When you’re at the upper end and you lose, let’s say, 15, 16 doors in the key cities in the U.S., that’s a bit of a blow. I heard it from WWD before I heard it from the buyer.

 

Were you angry?
It wasn’t about being angry — I was just so worried. How was I going to replace businesses in Chicago and L.A.? That’s partly why we opened [a store]. When Barneys shut its [bridal] boutique that was [just] us, that’s when I started to look [for a store] in L.A.

 

What do you see as the recession’s residual effects, both bottom line and psychologically?
Financially, I was OK because I have a very, very good licensing business. But in terms of our business, we had to shave costs; we had to adjust everything. We had to change some leases. For example, I had a bigger store slated for L.A. because I was doing bridal and ready-to-wear, and bridal takes a lot of room. I gave up on that lease and took the smaller store, which is the one we’re in now. But — I can’t do alterations out of that store. I had to get another, less expensive space for alterations, which brings in other issues in terms of functionality and how you get it done. Welcome to my world. I’ve had to make the toughest decisions. I’m actually very proud to say this because I like change in clothes, but I don’t like change in my life. We’ve had to make big changes, but I think we’re in a good place. We’re in a solid place. I’m not being boastful or anything, because you know, I’m never going to be Ralph.

 

In between Vogue and opening that first bridal shop, you worked for Ralph, What was that like?
I was design director for accessories. I just adored it because you could just be creative. You don’t have to worry about getting it made, you don’t have to worry about pricing it, you don’t have to worry about whether we can duplicate this [or] are we spending too much money? It was kind of like being in a candy store. The amount of product we created — it’s just inconceivable.

 

Talk about your relationship with Mario [Grauso].
Mario knows me very well. He is the strategic person and my right arm. He worked here years ago as vice president when Chet [Hazzard, the original president of Vera Wang] was so sick. [Hazzard died of AIDS in 2005.]

It must have been emotionally wrenching, and difficult for a fledgling business.
There were months at a time maybe when Chet couldn’t really come to work. But his life I knew was coming to work. He couldn’t get on planes and fly every week to China or to L.A., so many things, we kept things at the status quo.

How do you view Chet’s legacy?
Chet supported me emotionally as a friend, as a brother. He was just there for me as a human being, and I needed that. I really didn’t have anyone else there. On a business level, it was challenging. Part of it had to do with his health, for sure. Part of it had to deal with, you know, it takes a certain amount of experience — can I be honest? — to run even a small company. And that wasn’t Chet’s background. Yes, he had some licensing, yes he did. But I think he was unable to visualize strategically and implement — not taking away from his own emotional support of me — he couldn’t implement significant growth.

 

What’s next for Vera Wang?
Retail is a very important component for us. I don’t need 30 stores. I’m not trying to be an empire at the upper end, but I would like four or five stores in America. After that, what we want to do is a line somewhere between high and low. I think there’s room for women in America to have something that isn’t at Kohl’s and isn’t more elitist.

 

Would you like your daughters, Cecilia and Josephine, to go into the business?
Only if they want to. I would like them to do something that gives them discipline. When I went to Vogue as an assistant, I’d come home and say to my father, “I went to Sarah Lawrence. I almost have a master’s in art history and I’m doing messenger slips.” And he’d say to me, “You have no idea what you’re learning. So go do those messenger slips.” That’s the kind of family I came from.

 

Do you feel at all daunted? So many people in fashion say that starting out, they were too ignorant to be scared.
I was ignorant and scared. I may have been a neophyte bridal designer, but I wasn’t a neophyte in fashion. Because when you work for Vogue, you see businesses come and go. And when you work for Ralph, you see what it takes.

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