GEOFFREY BEENE LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD
This story first appeared in the May 28, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Bridal was the way in.
An ironic one at that, given Vera Wang’s self-classification as a tomboy at heart. Yet tulle did indeed make Wang the fashion star she is today—as did chiffon, reembroidered laces and a chic, artful approach that challenged the saccharine froth typical of the genre while still honoring essential traditions. Along the way, Wang elevated the bridal category to a new level of relevance. It would make her the most successful, most famous bridal designer on the planet, the choice for starry-eyed brides from rock stars to girls next door.
None of which Wang anticipated. She merely wanted entrée into the fashion world she’d loved since her childhood days of visiting the Paris couture houses with her mother.
Wang’s story is well known: Olympic-hopeful ice skater; beloved father who refused to fund fashion school; Sarah Lawrence; 16 years at Vogue; an illuminating stint at Ralph Lauren (he taught her to break rules). The lore is that Wang started her company when she was getting married and couldn’t find a dress that appealed to her high-fashion expectations. That lore is but half the story. Her father Cheng Ching Wang—not a fashion guy by any measure—saw a business opportunity. “For all the years I wanted him to send me to Central Saint Martins or Chambre Syndicale—he wouldn’t do it,” Wang says. “Then suddenly, when I’m 39 or 40, he says, ‘I’d like to help.’ He thought it was time.” The brilliant businessman considered bridal a smart choice, given controlled inventories and the limited range of fabrics needed to get going. Though unsure she even wanted her own company at that point, the dutiful daughter went for it, always with an eye toward ready-to-wear.
That would come soon enough, when Barneys New York was making its move uptown to Madison Avenue. Gene Pressman and Connie Darrow committed to Wang’s “modern illusion dresses in black” from sketches. Suddenly, Wang was designing rtw, even if her start would hit a few bumps along the way. She soon found her voice, her aesthetic an intriguing mix of artful opulence with a casual undercurrent; as an athlete and dancer, ease of movement would always be in the forefront of Wang’s approach to design. “If I look at the clothes just photographed, I don’t feel as good,” she says. “Clothes have to move.” Wang’s look was and remains as daring as it is distinctive. It has proven challenging, particularly as she tries to break free of the stereotype that she’s an evening specialist. “Bridal implies that you’re limited to doing ballgowns,” she laments. “I love sportswear, in my own weird way.”
Wang has found ample ways to expand her reach. With the 2007 launch of Simply Vera by Vera Wang for Kohl’s, she became one of the first designers to commit to fashion’s high-low duality for the long term. She punctuated that resolve by inking a deal with David’s Bridal in 2010, helping countless brides whose high-style aspirations were too often clipped by budgetary realities.
The brand’s global reach extends to 35 countries, including 17 Vera Wang boutiques. In addition to expected categories such as accessories, eyewear and fragrance, she’s taken savvy advantage of her queen-of-bridal reputation to move into tabletop, stationery, bedding and, for a time, even mattresses, making Vera Wang a true lifestyle brand.
News that she would be recognized with the CFDA’s Lifetime Achievement Award awed and surprised her. “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.” —Bridget Foley
FOUNDERS AWARD IN HONOR OF ELEANOR LAMBERT
Oscar de la Renta
Oscar de la Renta is in a feisty mood as he discusses his recently announced Founders Award, in honor of Eleanor Lambert. “The only award I’m interested in is the one I’m not getting,” he deadpans, the half smile and signature charm doing nothing to disguise the fact that he means exactly what he says. After decades in business; a rock-solid, multigenerational clientele, and accolades galore—he received the CFDA’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989—de la Renta covets Womenswear Designer of the Year. “I’d like to get an award for what I’m doing now, not what I did.”
The Founders citation isn’t a designer award at all. Rather, it honors someone who has made “a unique contribution to the world of fashion and/or deserves the industry’s special recognition.” Past winners include a businessman/designer patron (Andrew Rosen), a press triptych (Hal Rubenstein, Tonne Goodman, Jim Moore) and a famed photographer (Patrick Demarchelier).
De la Renta is the first designer recipient. If he’s confused as to how he fits in, he shouldn’t be. At once elder statesman, designer of currency and a staunch competitor, he more than meets the uniqueness standard. His thriving business speaks to the loyalty of a core customer long wooed and kept happy, while fashionista fans from Sarah Jessica Parker to Pamela Love indicate an appeal that defies demographic classification. At the shoot for this special CFDA issue, Love couldn’t temper her excitement at meeting de la Renta: “I bought one of your wedding dresses,” she told him. “And I’m already married!”
De la Renta faces controversy boldly when he believes in something; hence John Galliano’s now famous “designer in residency” opportunity during the most recent collections season. Nor does he fear challenging the status quo, even if it means ruffling fashionable feathers— including the very institution honoring him.
He questions what he considers the CFDA’s hyperfocus on young designers. “The mandate of the CFDA is to promote American fashion,” he says, suggesting that, while “Diane [von Furstenberg] has done an extraordinary, great job,” the organization should spend more time on significant, albeit unsexy, trade issues. “We’re talking about ‘made in the U.S.’ The only way we can be competitive is if our tariffs [on supplies] for import are lower.”
De la Renta both speaks his mind and keeps an open mind. He’s one of the few designers—let’s say it, probably the only designer—equally proud to dress a First Lady from either political persuasion. And they love him for it. This summer, at Hillary Clinton’s suggestion, the Clinton Library will house a retrospective of the designer’s clothes. The show opened this month, with a party scheduled on July 8 to accommodate the just-returning couture set. De la Renta wanted to focus on Clinton’s wardrobe; she insisted the spotlight shine on him. The show then goes on tour—to the Bush and Reagan libraries. Its title: “Oscar de la Renta: American Icon.” —Bridget Foley
Born into a large family of meager means, and raised in Taranto and Como, Italy, Riccardo Tisci was dreaming about America since he was a child. “I went to sleep in a little bed in a room with my eight sisters, and on top of my bed was the American flag,” he recalls in an interview. Tisci would go on to realize his own American Dream in Europe, following his ambition to work in fashion and ultimately rising to the crème de la crème of the Paris fashion establishment—as Givenchy’s fifth couturier. As an adolescent, Tisci worked as a delivery boy, store clerk and carpenter to scrabble together enough money for art school abroad. At 16, he scored a job designing fabrics at a textile firm, which only fueled his dreams of the runway.
And he made it to fashion school abroad, attending London’s prestigious Central Saint Martins, the school that produced John Galliano, Phoebe Philo, Hussein Chalayan and Alexander McQueen’s Sarah Burton. Upon completion of its B.A. (Hons.) program, Tisci worked in London and Milan, doing stints at Puma, Antonio Berardi, Coccopani and Ruffo Research. All the while, he nurtured a Goth-tinged signature label he designed and crafted himself, with a little help from friends like the arresting, dark-eyed model Mariacarla Boscono. Ultimately, his talent and drive came to the attention of luxury giant LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, which was searching for a talent to lead Givenchy down an exciting new path. (Following Hubert de Givenchy’s retirement in 1995, Galliano, Alexander McQueen and Julian Macdonald had held the design reins.)
Since arriving at Givenchy in 2005, Tisci has heated up the brand to the boiling point with his pulse-pounding shows, and his inimitable blend of streetwear and couture; masculinity and femininity; darkness and romanticism. And America has remained a favorite destination, as well as a key reference in his women’s and men’s collections for Givenchy. “America is a very dynamic country—that’s why so much happens there,” enthuses Tisci, who collaborates frequently with major musical artists including Rihanna, Kanye West and Madonna, and his great friend Marina Abramovic, the performance artist with whom he shares a townhouse in downtown Manhattan. Tisci said he appreciates “the freedom, the individuality, the multiculturalism, the easiness of people for wearing clothes” in America, particularly the utilitarian basics they favor. References to America in Givenchy collections are frequent and diverse, from cowboys in his spring 2009 women’s collection to surf culture, pinups and American sportswear for his spring 2012 outing. Since taking on Givenchy men’s wear in 2008, the designer has referenced Fifties workwear, baseball and the iconography of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in his collections.
“It’s always been there,” he says of those influences. “I interpret it in my own way because I’m European. I play a lot with sexuality, men’s wear…”
Indeed, the blending of European and American fashion sensibilities may be the key to Tisci’s appeal. “Europeans sometimes do not care about wearability. They want dreams to happen. They make collections full of dreams and then they are doing basic commercial collections on the side, which for me is wrong,” he explains. “As for Americans, they concentrate too much on urban simplicity and wearability without thinking that clothes should have a dream, which is also wrong.” Perhaps that explains why American couture clients and department stores gravitated early to Tisci’s take on Givenchy. Asked to account for the reasons he’s popular in the U.S., Tisci says, “One of the most important is because Americans love European fashion and I do love Americans and the American dream. So I can combine both. I make with my identity, my craftsmanship and my creativity what American people dream of, i.e. easy, dynamic and wearable collections. But at the same time, they are couture and very designed clothing.”
Tisci insists it takes “a few years to learn what is really the soul of the house,” and he continues to define Givenchy’s distinctive brand of edgy femininity. Plus he’s only getting warmed up. “I’ve learn so much at Givenchy, about creativity, about how to cut clothes,” he says.
And while he continues to mature as a talent, the Paris power player hasn’t forgotten what fascinated him as a child, noting, “I collect American flags.” —Miles Socha
BOARD OF DIRECTORS TRIBUTE AWARD
Three Oscar wins and 10 nominations haven’t diminished costume designer Colleen Atwood’s latest accolade. “This is a major thing for me,” she notes of her CFDA Board of Directors’ Tribute Award. Movie fans know her finery from such films as Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha and Alicein Wonderland.
“It’s an interesting time for fashion and film with the immediacy of the media now,” she says. “Everyone’s designing has become so cross-pollinated. It’s great to feel like I’m part of something that I have really never been part of, in a sense. I am influenced by fashion and always have been, as are fashion people who are influenced by film. But it’s nice to have the dialogue between the two be noted.” Years before the Yakima, Wash., native started collaborating with such directors as Tim Burton, Rob Marshall and Jonathan Demme, Atwood worked in an Yves Saint Laurent shop in a Frederick & Nelson store in Seattle, where she graduated from Cornish College. “I started in fashion selling clothes and being a personal shopper—not being in fashion as a designer—as a j-o-b,” she recalls. “But it taught me a lot. I learned what looks good on people and how to alter clothes so they work on the human body.”
After reading a script, Atwood researches in libraries and book stores. (She prefers to hand over online research to others.) “I’m a book person. I like looking through books, daydreaming and finding stuff I don’t expect.”
Burton’s Big Eyes and Michael Mann’s yet-to-be-named cyber espionage flick are next on her agenda. Atwood has also teamed up with Citizens for Humanity to design a handbag collection that will launch next year. “There are not that many actors who actually want to be involved in designing their costumes. It’s more character work with them, creating a whole persona with them,” she observes. “It’s a misconception that they’re in there saying how they want the coat or dress [to be.] I have never seen an actor do that.”
Singling out Charlize Theron, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, Atwood says, “They’re just such amazing actors. When you start putting clothing on them for a movie, it comes together for a moment in the room, and you get on with it. They are not fashion designers nor are they costume designers. They are people who have to work and function in a costume and they appreciate when it does that for them.”
Atwood’s on-set uniform is a white shirt and jeans (preferably Acne, Adriano Goldschmied or vintage Levi’s.) She shops for herself twice a year and can buy an outfit in 15 minutes flat. “I don’t even try things on mostly. If I see something that is really useful, I know right away. That’s surprising to people. They ask, ‘Wow, how did you know that would fit you?’ It’s like, ‘Well, hello, it’s what I do all day long,’” she says.
Gucci, The Row, Victoria Beckham, Prada, Marni and Céline are top picks. “I have a little bit of everything — a very little bit,” Atwood says. “I would definitely have more if I had more money.” As someone who has more of a working life than a cocktail-fueled, red-carpet one, Atwood still needs to figure out what to wear to the CFDA Awards. “I am sort of worried actually to tell you the truth,” she admits. “So TBD on that one — I need to get on it.” —Rosemary Feitelberg
MEDIA AWARD IN HONOR OF EUGENIA SHEPPARD
Tim Blanks, honored with this year’s Media Award, moved to Toronto in 1978, with not a whole lot of prospects ahead. He ditched his native New Zealand at 18 to pursue a thesis in London on early 20th-century American Gothic literature—he had wanted to write on H.P. Lovecraft—only to get sidetracked by the remaining dying embers of glam rock.
“I was always, always and still am, as anyone knows, totally obsessed with David Bowie,” he says, sipping on a glass of rosé on a recent May afternoon in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. “I had all this money saved up from my postgrad work, and I spent it all. I was having fun until I wasn’t, and then I had to change things a little bit.” In Toronto, then in his early 20s, he still bummed around for a long time until a friend offered him an interview for a blip of a magazine called Close Up, now defunct, with the vaguely ridiculous, and press-shy, Canadian interviewer Brian Linehan—Martin Short’s Jiminy Glick character is inspired by him.
“All these magazines called me afterward,” Blanks recalls, and that led to a full-time job at the fashion offshoot of local magazine Toronto Life. “That’s really what got me. It was kind of an accident.” From that inauspicious interview sprang, when he was 35, Fashion File, the Canadian TV show he hosted from 1989 to 2006 and that was eventually broadcast in more than 100 countries, and a prolific career with so many bylines in so many different magazines (Another Magazine, Fantastic Man, Interview and more) as to make the London-based Blanks fashion media’s globe-trotting editor at large. Fashion TV was a novel concept when Blanks started making Fashion File. Designers spoke only to a privileged audience, and few journalists were on television explaining fashion to the masses. “I just approached it from the point of view these people had never been filmed speaking about themselves before.
I just wanted to hear what they had to say,” he says.
The show became immensely popular, especially in countries where fashion wasn’t readily accessible. “All these magazine editors from Russia would go up to me at the most inopportune moments and tell me it’s how they learned about fashion,” he says. Blanks’ interviewing style hasn’t changed much over the years, and so in his videos at Style.com, where he holds the title editor at large, he comes across as the calmest man in a room full of peacocks and drama queens.
“I have worked in music and I have worked in publishing over the course of my life,” he notes. “I do think fashion brings them all together in a way none of them do. Fashion absorbs more creative energy. I’m always asked, ‘How can you keep doing it?’ It sounds like Pollyanna, but it’s always new.” —Erik Maza