By  on April 12, 2006

LOS ANGELES — Entering her fourth decade in business, Sue Wong, known for her affordable eveningwear, has plans to take her company to the next level with shoe and jewelry licenses and a print ad campaign.

Wong, who immigrated to California from China 51 years ago at age six, had designed everything from young contemporary clothing to one-of-a-kind artsy pieces to sportswear before finding her niche in the eveningwear market six years ago. Now she wants to grow her $40 million company to $60 million to $70 million in the next three years.

The designer is in talks with licensing companies to make shoes and jewelry that would retail for less than $200.

"This move is ... about presenting my company as a lifestyle brand for a new generation who just discovered me and contemporaries who remember me."

The Sue Wong brand, which comprises three divisions — Nocturne (eveningwear retailing from $300 to $800), Collection (sportswear at $275 to $350) and Chemise (tops for $189 to $220) — retails in department stores such as Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale's, Macy's and Nordstrom, and in more than 24 foreign doors, including Holt Renfrew and Selfridges.

Her story is as colorful as Wong herself.

"I was driven to ambition by a traditional Chinese family, where, as a first-born, I felt rejected because I wasn't a male child," she said.

Her parents, who owned a Chinese laundry in Culver City, Calif., where Wong worked until age 16, didn't approve of design school.

Wong modeled for May Co. during high school, and upon graduation won a design contest held by Arpeja, a California company of the Sixties and Seventies that Wong described as "the BCBG of their time."

She became chief designer for its young contemporary label, and left four-and-a-half years later to open her own store, where she sold more artsy, one-of-a-kind pieces.

After a divorce in 1979 left her bankrupt, Wong returned to work and met her life and business partner, Dieter Raabe, in 1985, when they decided to start a sportswear company. They struggled for 14 years, because "the real estate in that category is owned by a few big boys," she said.Wong switched to eveningwear in July of 1999, in anticipation of millennium celebrations. "We shipped in October of 1999 ... it was a matter of finding the right niche," she said.

A prolific designer who can sketch as many as 20 looks in an hour, Wong works with one assistant based in China. They come up with motifs and contract affordable handiwork details with about 20 factories.

She hopes to enter the home furnishings, makeup and fragrance arenas as well.

"If I'm going to do it, I might as well do it now," she said.

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