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Even among designers, Vera Wang is an original. It’s good money that none of her peers would begin an interview about his or her CFDA Lifetime Achievement Award with unsolicited musings on Calvin Klein’s long-in-the-works modernist retreat in the Hamptons. The connection is that our conversation is taking place in Wang’s Park Avenue apartment, formerly her parents’ longtime residence. Its palatial proportions are highlighted by its current gallerylike mode, all impressive art and no furniture, save for the occasional seating situation, the bare minimum necessary to receive guests. In the apartment’s traditional dining room, that means two ergonomic chairs facing not each other but the opposite wall, and in the sitting room, a more conversation-friendly sofa and chair. The vast living room is a different story altogether, lined with rack after rack of Wang’s ready-to-wear through the years. “I want to feel deserving,” she will say about the award, which she calls an unimaginable honor. “That involved looking backwards at my work and my own personal journey and hoping I haven’t disappointed myself of all people.”
But first, she addresses the glorious emptiness of the place she calls home (or one of them) in one of New York’s most storied buildings.
This story first appeared in the June 3, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Vera Wang: I’m missing the new furniture — well, the old furniture. [The renovation] is just starting so I’ve been looking. Calvin has been too because he built that incredible home out in the Hamptons….L.A. has the most incredible contemporary furniture, I mean really contemporary, that you don’t really find here. They have extraordinary editing in all the retail stores. You can find really the best of Milan.
WWD: What stores do you like there?
V.W.: All of them — B&B, Minotti, a place called In-Ex that I buy a lot of accessories from. I wasn’t out there buying for my L.A. house, which I bought furnished. I was buying for New York. This is a labor of love, and I’m not sure I’m even on the right path. Calvin and I often have dinner together and we talk about it because his creative process makes mine look speedy. He’s into the ninth year now with the house in the Hamptons, year nine, and I believe — I’m not sure — but I think many, many architects.
WWD: Who’s your architect?
V.W.: I’m working with a guy named Brian Sawyer, a very, very talented architect. He’s equally as good at traditional as he is at modern. I found the fact that he could do both kind of fascinating. Who’s the architect that was so horrible to me? Ando.
WWD: How was he so horrible?
V.W.: I wanted him to do my store in L.A. and he said no. It was heartbreaking. He said no in no certain terms, permanently and forever and ever. I thought — this was before the crash, needless to say — I was thinking that L.A. is such a melting pot for Asian culture that it was the right place to create that kind of environment.
WWD: What do you want to do here?
V.W.: We want to change the nature of the moldings. The contemporary art I’ve been trying to collect, I just thought it would be kind of poignant to have a juxtaposition of the art with something not entirely modern. Sort of a modern-traditional. The other thing is that I’m not really attached to furniture being in any one room. I’m thinking of moving furniture around. I’ve gotten into this where I have a party planner come in and they will install their world, in a weird way. It’ll be all banquette the length of the living room or all intimate in the morning room. Sort of like a studio. I know it sounds very precious, but it isn’t. I just feel like it’s a very creative way to live.
WWD: Talk about your art.
V.W.: This is Damien Hirst from the “Poisons” painting series. I think there are 30 of them and they’re all variations on the skull.
WWD: When did you start collecting?
V.W.: I was an art history major, but never specifically contemporary. I would say where I really stopped were the abstract expressionists in the New York school. I started looking and thinking about [collecting] four or five years ago, but collecting, about three. I hardly call myself a collector. I am trying to put something together that reflects me and my own feelings and my own take, and from what I’ve been told by some serious collectors, that’s the only way to do it. It’s a pastime for me, it’s not a career; I’m not Miuccia Prada. But I do feel that there’s something about it that keeps my eye fresh and inspires me.
WWD: Tell me about this piece.
V.W.: Rudolf Stingel. It was really crazy — here’s another rejection story. When I opened Mercer and it was not yet the financial debacle that hit the entire world, fashion industry included, I had approached him to do an entire mural on my wall in that material.
WWD: Silver leaf?
V.W.: Silver leaf painted on panels. It was an installation where people came in and signed their names on it and the whole thing started to decay. I thought that was so participatory. It was a dialogue versus a monologue. I loved it. I want to commission him to do a wall in my store on Mercer. I thought one of the tall walls would have been so great because anyone who came in would be able to participate in the store. Nope! Turndown number two. All true.
WWD: It looks amazing here.
V.W.: Of course the apartment [should reflect the art]. I don’t want the apartment to be decorative. I really want it to be more studio.…My parents were here for 40 years. I had to sort of say to my mother and father, “Sorry, I’m taking it apart.” I feel guilty, but anyway.
WWD: Guilt can beget a mausoleum.
V.W.: It was mausoleumlike. After they both passed, I couldn’t throw anything out for five years. More than a romanticist, I think I’m a sentimentalist. Things that came before, people and things and experiences — that does mean something to me. It doesn’t mean I don’t embrace the new, but I don’t forget the past either. That’s part of my emotional makeup, or how I was brought up, or it’s Asian.
There is something quite charming about the scale and freedom you can do with this kind of space. I don’t know if subliminally, it’s affected my work. Whatever you seem to be living, I think you are affected by what projects you are doing. You can’t help it.
WWD: Chicken or egg.
V.W.: Chicken or egg, totally. I’ve always tried to push myself technically and to push myself visually. That’s been part of the journey. I make no secret that I don’t have a big ready-to-wear business. That’s not the point of the adventure or the trip or the learning curve. It’s very important for my own growth as a person to keep going and to keep trying and to keep experimenting. In a way, I’m freed up for that because I’m not head of a ready-to-wear empire. That’s been frustrating but also in a way, intimate and lovely. Part of not having a huge collection empire to run is [that] I’m able to try and create something that is more personal. Try to experiment — that’s the word, experiment. That’s not something I could necessarily do at Kohl’s or [with] some of my other business partners. I have to pay a lot of attention to sell-through and merchandising and sku’s and all those other things. But at least in one area, I am able to express myself more freely. Like I said, there’s a good thing to that and there’s a bad thing to that.
WWD: Tell me about all the activity in the other room. Obviously it’s around the CFDA.
V.W.: I’m trying to curate a lifetime of work, with what I have left. Over the last 23 years, there was never a big effort within my company to curate and save original samples. And that’s very hurtful to me.…I had to hire a curator yesterday morning. I need somebody within my own life who would understand me and what I do.
WWD: How do you describe what you do?
V.W.: I love sportswear in my own weird way. Fashion is such a personal journey for me. I’m much more of a girl that’s a T-shirt, legging, layering kind of thing, and outerwear. And yet, where my career has led me from the very beginning is into evening, or whatever Collection can be called today. In a way, it’s fighting a stereotype. Certainly when you’re considered a bridal designer, that implies you’re limited to doing a ballgown, which is so not what I think I’ve contributed to bridal. I’ve tried to explore the bridal vocabulary in a million different ways over 23 years. The same would be said of ready-to-wear, just from a sheer challenge to myself. Let’s see if I can do an anorak, let’s see if I can work in leather, let’s see if I can do something for evening — a modern sensibility that isn’t a mermaid dress all the time.
I’ve been always fighting two very traditional categories of clothing. One is wedding, the other we all now call red carpet, which it certainly wasn’t when I started. It was evening — and then the worlds in between. Cocktail, day-to-night, high day, low day. At some point, you also want to do things that resonate on a personal level, which for women designers is so important. When you look at the women designers today that I idolize, certainly Miuccia Prada, you say, “That is who she is.” When you look at Jil — we all know who Jil is, a very, very strong voice, which developed in the Seventies. We all know who Rei is, God knows. It’s personal. I think men bring an abstractness or a freedom that’s very different. Women bring a very personal journey. It may not be exactly what they want to wear, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t what they are feeling in some sort of deeper sense at that time. By the way, our deeper senses have to come every 12 weeks now, so a deeper sense is relative.
WWD: Describe your aesthetic.
V.W.: I probably am a minimalist, in a weird way. But there is a romanticist in me, no question. I don’t mean that to sound sugary or whatever. Also, a side of me likes something that feels thought-out. I’ve done sheaths, what I call “the three-seamer with two darts.” For me, that isn’t where I feel I should be working; I feel that from the bottom of my heart. Of course, that doesn’t belittle anyone else. I just feel like it would be nice not to be pigeonholed into evening and/or bridal.
WWD: You’re a big fan of other people’s fashion.
V.W.: I respect. I stand in awe. I share how the journey is, how complicated things are. Everyone’s journey is different, but issues come up. A lot of younger designers are friends. I’m not mentoring them, but I stay very much in touch. I hope that they make the right decisions. I really adore Alexander [Wang] because we’re both Chinese and he calls me sort of his aunt. He’s very, very respectful to me, and we have an inner dialogue about being Chinese. That’s such a wonderful solidarity that I feel, in addition to all the Asian designers that exist now that are proliferating everywhere.
WWD: Why is that?
V.W.: They have insane work ethic. I think that they feel that there’s a confidence now in the fact that they can step up to the plate. It’s now their moment to express themselves.
WWD: Whose clothes do you wear, besides your own?
V.W.: At the top of my list would be Margiela and Rick Owens and Junya and Rei and Givenchy. I own two majorly wonderful pieces from Balmain when Decarnin was doing it, his last collection, really beautiful pieces with studs and safety pins. I wear not a lot of Sacai, but I really admire her for coming out of that Japanese umbrella into her own growth. Which is not easy because I think she worked for Rei. And Ann Demeulemeester. Always. Forever. Mixed with Prada. Mixed with Marni. It’s always in the mix for me.
WWD: Lifetime Achievement. What does it mean to you?
V.W.: It means a couple of things. It’s an unimaginable honor. To be respected by your peers — and I don’t mean just the designers, but editors, retailers, everyone who votes — it was just overwhelming. At the same time, I want to feel deserving. That involved looking backwards at my work and my own personal journey and hoping I haven’t disappointed myself of all people.
WWD: As a CFDA board member, you must know something about the selection process.
V.W.: I have to tell you, Ralph had the best idea last year. He’s full of ideas. We were all sitting around, trying to figure out who for the icon award. We do really try to come up with creative ideas; it’s not just a whatever. Ralph Lauren is a brilliant man. None of us was thinking a man. We’re all thinking [female] stars, and he said, “How about Johnny Depp? He’s a style maven.” We all just sat and said, “How great!” I thought, “How cool to do a guy! Why does it always have to be a woman?” That was Ralph’s idea. I’m giving him full credit. They’re going to kick me off the board for telling you all of this.
WWD: Back to your award. Does it validate your distinct path, via bridal?
V.W.: It does. Still, ready-to-wear was always my first love. I was brought up in fashion. I wasn’t brought up in the bridal market.
WWD: The award is for your entire body of work.
V.W.: I hope it’s the body of work. Bridal enabled me to learn technically how to make dresses and clothes and experiment. And a sense of theater, which perhaps is saved for the European houses in ready-to-wear. I think it enabled me to do this under an umbrella that was rarely even looked at. But I did work hard at it. I did look at it carefully and study it. There have been years that bridal has affected ready-to-wear and years that ready-to-wear has affected bridal. I’ll see something in ready-to-wear and think, “Oh, I’m thinking much more structural or cleaner or more technical.” And then it will affect how I look at weddings, or vice versa….Sometimes it’s very subliminal and sometimes it’s very obvious. But I’m sure if I worked for Moncler, I’d be affected by outerwear. I don’t think you can not be.
WWD: Other influences?
V.W.: I’m very influenced by men’s wear. I’ve always had that tomboyishness in me. I was an athlete and a dancer, and all these layers and T-shirts and the wrapping and all that — that was part of my life. Movement was so much a part of my life. I think that’s why the bicycle pants, for example, were my way of bringing that other part of me into the clothes. The knee socks, hosiery and the things I’ve done with the gloves. When you live in a ballet studio or a cold rink and you heat up and you get cold again and then your muscles need to warm up and all that technical stuff.
WWD: Bridal. There’s so much more competition than when you started, yet so many high-profile brides still come to you. What is it about Vera Wang?
V.W.: I don’t want this to sound egotistical, but I never had any rules for bridal. I was at Ralph Lauren, which was about sportswear when I was there, pure and simple. I came in with no predisposed notion of what bridal should be, if that makes any sense. I really started because when I got married, and that’s an old story, but there wasn’t a lot to choose from for somebody who worked in fashion. My father is really the one who pushed the agenda. I was happy to stay at Ralph. I had worked very hard by then, and I didn’t need to take on the stress. Having seen the resources of a big corporation, I knew I wouldn’t have that. I thought to myself, “I’m literally going to be packing boxes, I’m going to be picking fabrics, I’m going to be doing all the myriads of hats you have to wear when you’re a start-up.” I had had the experience, unlike most kids who start up. I’d already seen a lifetime. I came as an old-new designer. I had seen too much. I was afraid.
WWD: Your father pushed you.
V.W.: He thought it was time. For all the years I wanted him to send me to Central Saint Martins or Chambre Syndicale — he wouldn’t do it. Then suddenly, when I’m 39 or 40, he says, “I’d like to help.” And I said, “But I don’t want to do my own company.” I remember the day I signed my lease for my Madison Avenue store, I had such a feeling of dread and fear of failure. My father was downright fanatical about this. He was a businessman. He said, “Bridal’s a good business. There will always be brides, and it’s something you can control. You’ll be working just a few fabrics, you won’t be working in wide range.” He was right about all those things.
WWD: Who’s been the ideal bride, celebrity-wise?
V.W.: Chelsea Clinton was very much a dream bride. She is a girl that, in her own humble way, and I mean with humility, embraces fashion. She also was very clear in what she wanted, which makes a collaboration much, much easier. She said, “I want to express something artistic, and something with a mixture of fashion but also being a bride.” Those two things could get me onto at least the detail of the skirt, and we could take chances with that. Alicia Keys, on the same day, was totally a dream. She said, “Vera, I want to look like a Grecian goddess. I’m pregnant, I want to feel like…” I’ll put words in her mouth — a fertility goddess. She did. She looked Grecian with just a thing tied in her hair and just about barefoot, in sandals.
WWD: With or without names, what’s the worst bridal story?
V.W.: One I worked on for a year and it didn’t happen.
WWD: Jennifer Lopez?
V.W.: No, that I got. I got it with Marc Anthony. As happy as weddings are as an experience, they can be really devastating if it doesn’t work out prior. If you’re left at the altar or you have a change of heart.
WWD: What was it in this case?
V.W.: Change of heart. Real change of heart and just couldn’t go through with it. But we did the work. It was devastating, not only because of the work involved and the team involved, but also on a personal level, for the bride.
WWD: Sympathy aside, it must be frustrating, all of that work for naught.
V.W.: It’s like the Oscars. We haven’t talked about that.
WWD: So talk Oscars and red carpet.
V.W.: It worries me a great deal. A lot of anxiety. Because I do care about what we put out there on such a public, global platform. Part of my responsibility is to be truly creative if I can be. Part of my responsibility is also to be responsible for the star. That they are able to not only reflect some sort of creative statement that I’m trying to make with them together, but also that the statement will be one where they’re not ridiculed or ignored or the dress just technically doesn’t work or worse. The worst is when someone is criticized. You take that very personally on behalf of the star.
WWD: It must be devastating when you put in the work and the actress changes her mind last-minute.
V.W.: I don’t care what status of designer or what history you had or whether you’re an emerging designer, it’s so painful not only to you, but your sewers, your staff, your assistants and p.r. people. It is devastating. It’s like having your guts ripped out of you because you’ve given it your all. I remember something Carolina Herrera said once that was so profound: “You know, when you hurt me you’re not just hurting me. I can take it. But everyone around me that gives up their life for me can’t.” [The red carpet] is a gamble of the highest order. It’s Vegas and then some.
WWD: What in fashion has changed the most since you started?
V.W.: A lack of definition of what a designer is, what they do and who they are. Not that I can brag that I graduated top of my class at Central Saint Martins, but I can tell you that I studied patterns, I can drape, I know how to fit, I know where to put technique, I know where the proportions should be, I know where the armholes should fall. I don’t know if that matters anymore. I think that we’re in a very different time, and people have built major brands without any of that knowledge.
And I honestly don’t know if anyone cares. The difference of scale, that three inches wider here makes a jacket look new, whereas two inches narrower will make it look retro — whatever the nuance, I’m not sure anyone even cares. Massive brands have been built that way, and retail chains. That’s what’s changed the most for me. Does that make any sense? I don’t mean to sound like I’m the bitter 140-year-old designer that says stuff like that, but there is a difference.
When you see Rei’s or Junya’s work, you can see where the mind is, if you really look, if you really know or care, which I do. I appreciate it and I worship it. They’re able to keep reinventing, and it’s kind of amazing! I always joke, “What are they smoking over there?” because it’s not only them, it’s their teams. If you can get even three people in a room to agree or even understand what you’re talking about, it’s unbelievable. Or Marc Jacobs. He can move from Eighties to underwear to, this year, the sensuality, which I never associate with him. But it’s a new Marc. I get that you want to change where you’re at, because where you are at in your life affects where you’re at in your work.
WWD: It’s interesting that the biggest change for you is about the clothes. It’s not about globalization or e-commerce.
V.W.: I talked about the craft. Because globalization, I think that’s been happening. I think that the Internet is a whole other issue.
WWD: What’s your approach to social media?
V.W.: We tweet about events I go to, which isn’t often. Someone paid me a real compliment the other day and said, “You don’t go to a lot of events.” …I feel responsible to go to fashion-oriented things or if I’m invited to support other designers, but a social life per se has never been me. Ever.
WWD: Do you Tweet?
V.W.: I’m not a fanatical Tweeter. I think that in this day of total access, a little bit of mystery isn’t a terrible thing. A little bit of not knowing what time you went to the john, you know what I mean? I don’t find everything in my life that important. The journey of trying to be a designer and creator, and wear my other hats — I’m an owner, an operator, a ceo — to continue on that journey takes so much effort out of me. I love fashion, but it isn’t easy.