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Making Her Move

A fine-tuning of her business spells strong sales for Sue Wong.<br><br><br><br>Sue Wong has got her groove back. In the last four years, her business has exploded, swelling from $2 million in annual wholesale volume to $25 million planned for this...

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A fine-tuning of her business spells strong sales for Sue Wong.

Sue Wong has got her groove back. In the last four years, her business has exploded, swelling from $2 million in annual wholesale volume to $25 million planned for this year.

The phenomenal growth reminds her of her first big success — about 30 years ago — when she designed junior dresses for Arpeja and watched that business mushroom from $3 million to $51 million in three years.

“For many years, I have been making a fortune for everybody else, and now I think it’s my turn,’’ said Wong, whose line is carried by Dan Strauss Apparel, Suite 11E107 in Atlanta’s AmericasMart. “Great things are happening for us now.’’

The designer is known for form-fitting dresses accented with embroidery and beadwork.

“I’m not a minimalist, I’m a maximalist,’’ Wong said.

“If you look at my work, you see a lot of hand embroidery and beadwork and appliqués. In this age of expediency that we are living in, I think people really have a respect and appreciation for handwork. It is almost a lost art.’’

Wong, who is based in Los Angeles, favors slinky bias-cut dresses in flowing diaphanous silk and devoré fabrics.

“I love the bias cut because it naturally contours to the shape and form of the woman who is wearing it,’’ she said. “It’s a beautiful, fluid silhouette and was very prevalent in the Thirties.”

Wong, who started her own eponymous company in 1985, said her fortunes began to shift about four years ago when she refocused on designing dresses, her forte, after years of producing sportswear.

She also credited her success to the talents of her husband, Dieter Raabe, who handles finance, and her sales manager, Joanie Graham-Pepper, who brought Wong myriad contacts and experience accumulated over 30 years of selling dresses.

Wong had no big-store accounts before Graham-Pepper joined, and now she sells to many big specialty chains, including Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom and Caché.

This story first appeared in the October 2, 2002 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“Sue Wong is carried in all 33 Neiman Marcus stores, and business is growing,” said Joan Berkowitz, eveningwear buyer for Neiman Marcus. “It’s distinctive and self-expressive.”

Wong’s decision to shift all manufacturing to China nearly three years ago was critical in producing those styles.

“We have gone through a remarkable transformation ever since we started Asian production,’’ Wong said.

“Now I have access to truly magnificent handwork and age-old techniques from centuries ago. It would be prohibitive to do this kind of work in the USA.’’

“She takes a low markup on her dresses,’’ noted Joanie Graham-Pepper. “She likes to give all the benefit to her customers.’’

Wong foresees a time when the handwork on her dresses can no longer be done in China.

“China is getting so industrialized, and the younger gals don’t want to be trained in that craft. I think that when this generation of women dies out, the art will probably be lost with it.’’

Wong has more than a professional interest in China.

She was born in southern China in 1949 — the year the Communists seized power — and escaped the country five years later when her mother bribed a border guard with her wedding jewelry. They went first to Hong Kong and then joined Wong’s father in California, where she grew up.

Painting, drawing and art were her passions during her childhood, but she turned to fashion because her parents did not consider being an artist respectable.

After about a year in a Los Angeles trade school, Wong became an assistant designer at Arpeja, establishing herself as a prolific producer.

That ability shows in her three labels: Sue Wong Collection, contemporary dresses that wholesale from $89 to $149; Sue Wong Nocturne, an evening line priced from $139 to $350, and Sue Wong Bridal Alternative, a small collection of bridal and bridesmaid dresses ranging from $200 to $350.

Sue Wong Collection, for early spring deliveries starting in January, features silk and cotton day-into-evening dresses with prints inspired by vintage floral scarves.

For January and February deliveries, the collection’s color palette will be composed primarily of dusty antique colors, such as oyster, sand, rose and celadon. Later spring looks will carry brighter colors including fuchsia , kiwi, lime and turquoise.

Another grouping is based on batik prints embellished with beads. Still another grouping is Moroccan-influenced, and includes a crepe silk du chine slip dress with silver-thread embroidery and coral-stone beading.

Wong described Sue Wong Nocturne this spring as “culled from a bygone, glamorous era. I do a lot of period adaptations from the Twenties and Thirties, and even turn-of-the-century, Edwardian looks.”

One of her favorite designs: An evening-length dress in a pearly silk charmeuse, with antique silver beading outlining floral cutouts.

Her lines are also shown by the Ritz Group in Dallas, at StyleMax in Chicago and at a corporate Sue Wong showroom at the CaliforniaMart in Los Angeles.

Among her specialty store accounts are Mooncake in Atlanta, and Mirabella’s in Melbourne, Fla.

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