In 16 years, Vera Wang has made the leap from bridal designer to running a $300 million lifestyle brand that covers sportswear, fragrance, footwear, lingerie, fine jewelry, stationery and even a coffee table book. The path has been as eclectic and animated as the designer herself.
“For nearly four decades, my life has been defined — some would say consumed — by fashion,” Wang admitted, “but my career has been every bit as much about adversity as it has about passion, coupled with the necessary willingness to accept change.”
That passion came through in Wang’s keynote presentation, which opened the WWD/DNR CEO Summit. Wang mesmerized the audience and often had it in stitches with a poignant and candid speech about her diverse upbringing, her career, the challenges she continues to face as a designer and businesswoman and her views on fashion today.
Wang let the audience know just how worried she was about speaking in public and said her nerves had kept her and her husband up for six weeks.
“I just want to begin by saying that even after a giant vodka — actually, two giant vodkas — this is all still incredibly surreal, if not downright terrifying,” said Wang. “As someone who never once even considered pursuing an MBA, this evening provides its own special measure of irony and personal vindication.”
Wang’s career trajectory has been well documented in fashion circles. Raised on the New York’s Upper East Side, Wang was educated at Chapin and studied at Sarah Lawrence College and the Sorbonne. She was a fashion editor at Vogue for 16 years before switching over to the manufacturing side and taking a job as fashion design director at Ralph Lauren. The idea to start her bridal business came to her at age 40 when she was preparing herself to tie the knot and, like all brides, was looking for the perfect dress.
“As a first-time bride of 40, the very idea of getting married, let alone designing wedding gowns, was clearly less than compelling,” she said. “But throughout my search for the perfect dress, my father and I had indeed identified a unique business opportunity.”
It was one full of pros and cons, though. On the positive side, it was commercially valid since bridal designers had little or no inventory, long delivery and lead times and limited fabric exposure.
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But it also came with many negative restrictions.
“For starters, the dresses were voluminous, impossible to fit and very labor-intensive, and the clients were, let’s just say, not always at their most pleasant,” she noted, causing a few chuckles in the audience. “There were also never big cutting tickets, because each gown had to be individually cut and sewn, and finally, there would never be any possibility for repeat clients for very obvious reasons … At least hopefully, and I actually have had a few repeats.”
But the pros outweighed the cons for Wang, and so she set out to realize a new vision for the bridal sector: high-fashion bridal.
“Although it was very much a stepchild of fashion, it did afford me the personal opportunity to dress women on the most significant day of their lives,” she said. “If I could transform people’s perception of wedding gowns by making them more modern, artistic, inventive or stylish, then perhaps I could create a valuable, emotional franchise for the rest of their lives.”
She admitted she never set out to start a bridal company, but realized she “had stumbled upon a unique opportunity to create a brand based on intimacy, romance and beauty which resonated with modern women. And although it did all begin with a dress, it ultimately came to symbolize the promise of a dream … And that seemed to be as good a foundation as any for a business.”
Plus, she admitted candidly, “there weren’t a whole lot of viable financial suitors anxious to help with a start-up … not even one, actually, and bridal was the only apparel-related business my family was willing to fund.”
Wang opened her first salon at the Carlyle Hotel in 1990. Since then, she has ventured into ready-to-wear, lingerie, fur, fragrance, fine jewelry and home classifications such as china.
Bridal, she said while answering a question after her presentation, taught her how to construct a dress that was purely about the client rather than a designer’s whimsy.
“I became more of an Edith Head in bridal than a Calvin Klein,” she said. “By that I mean bridal is about the client. It’s about costuming her in the way she wants to be on her wedding day. It’s not Vera imposing a modernist, or a feminine, or a new minimalism on her. So I learned this craft client by client…standing in a dressing room with and trying to make them look the best they could possibly look. And I guarantee that that is not an easy thing to do, and they’re not necessarily always happy. If you succeed in that, then dressing a model on the runway is a lot easier.”
Wang conceded her biggest business challenge to date has been to make the leap from bridal into other areas.
“The very thing that had once determined our success had, by now, become our biggest limitation,” she admitted. “So I cautiously embarked on a plan that would maximize our bridal position through wedding registry, fragrance, home and gifts…and jewelry and underwear.”
She was determined to launch into women’s sportswear, but knew that it would require more time and financial investment than some of the other categories, so she waited — “patiently and impatiently,” she said — until her licenses stabilized enough.
The strategy seems to have paid off. In June, Wang was honored at the Council of Fashion Designers of America Fashion Awards as the women’s wear designer of the year, and her spring sportswear collection, which was inspired by the women on the HBO hit show “Deadwood,” was widely considered her best to date.
Wang has been serving as both designer and chief executive officer of her firm and seems as involved in the business side as she is in design. The leap from a creative to a business mind-set, without forsaking a balance between the two, has been the most profound challenge she has faced in her career, she said, adding that the freedom, extravagance and passion needed for the creative process often may be at odds with the discipline and control needed to run a business.
“While that transformation has at times been much too gradual and far too painful, I’ve come to believe that, on some gut level, it’s ultimately not possible to isolate the creative process from the multifaceted considerations of business,” she said.
Those considerations require her to be accepting and adapting to the constantly changing requirements of fashion, and she credited her family for her openness to change in her career. After all, change was something her parents had become all too accustomed to. Wang’s mother was the daughter of a feudal Chinese warlord, while her father was the son of the war minister under China’s president, Chiang Kai Shek. Both had left behind lives of privilege and sophistication in China to come to the U.S. and had encouraged their two children to think outside the box and to accept and embrace cultural and social diversity. Wang’s mother, in particular, instilled in her daughter a sense of style and culture, and the designer grew up becoming a bona fide figure skater and connoisseur of the arts, ballet and classical piano. “There were times I felt like a cross between a Chinese Shirley Temple and Sonja Henie,” she recalled.
Wang is all too aware that fashion has changed much since those days.
“Fashion has also become truly democratic, and today, it’s also about big entertainment, quite literally and figuratively,” she said. “Designers are now competing against the very stars and celebrities they dress for licensing deals and positioning in stores. Also, the copyists, or imitators, as I call them, are extraordinarily adept at capturing the essence of fashion trends at a fraction of the cost, often trivializing our more laborious, intellectual creative process. And finally, let’s not forget, the enormous consolidation on all sides of the fashion business.
“And in this sea of uncertainty, now more than ever, we have to invent our own formulas…and create our own road maps for success,” she said.
“We must all think more strategically and creatively than ever just to stay relevant,” she added. “For an owner-designer like myself, however, what makes the fashion business still so compelling is the fact that, regardless of these dynamic conditions…there’s still the potential for significant personal change, and that’s what has always fascinated and surprised me and seduced me about our industry. There’s no question that change is challenging, change is scary and change is hard to effect. And as I always remind my assistants, ‘If you’re afraid of change, you’re in the wrong business.’ But change is also exciting, entertaining and creative, and let’s face it, like it or not, inevitable!”
Wang, who claimed she was a skeptic, concluded on a highly optimistic note. “That the changes around us can also help to effect profound changes within us,” she said. “And to me, that’s a truly exciting concept.”
When the floor opened to questions, one summit attendee asked Wang about her view on the recent shift of focus onto celebrities in fashion, particularly the front-row frenzy at fashion shows.
“What troubles me is a lack of respect,” she said of the frenzy. “People in our industry kill ourselves for what we do, and for most of us, we don’t do it for a lot of money. We do it because we really love it….I don’t think it’s the issue of them [celebrities] coming. The whole world looks at them. If they don’t give the designer, the press and the fashion professionals respect — those that not only make their livelihood doing this, but also are the ones that help our industry — then I find that to be a bit disgraceful. I probably won’t be dressing anybody at the Golden Globes now, but it’s OK.”
Asked why there weren’t more freestanding Vera Wang boutiques, the designer candidly said: “A store is a store is a store. You have to have a message, even as a retailer, and that takes money and organization. [A new store] would have to be something quite special because unless it has some architectural merit or is something that makes you want to buy clothes or lifts your spirit, to be just another store I don’t particularly find fascinating.”
She said that she clearly would like to embrace the Internet as a selling opportunity, but noted: “It’s hard to embrace $10,000 dresses on the Internet.
“I don’t foresee doing bridal dresses on the Internet,” she continued. “I think there are many parts of the fashion rtw business that could work on the Internet, such as handbags or accessories. Once your weight is involved, it becomes more complex for a woman. When I have my up moments, or up years, as they sometimes are now, I’d feel more secure going to the store. Certainly for a wedding that would be the case because that is your Oscar day. In general, you need a strong accessories business to be successful on the Internet, and we are not quite there yet.”
Then Damon Dash raised his hand and wanted to know how she balances the business with the fashion end.
“I had to be involved in the business from the beginning because I own my business,” she said. “Not only do I own it, I pay for it. That says it all. There’s nothing like signing checks for getting a huge dose of reality. I want a fabric in seven color-ways and seven fabrications, and can’t have it. I try to look at it as an advantage. It forces a discipline….I am someone who really has to look at the bottom line with the chart and how much each fabric costs by the yarn, and if I even want it in a second color.”
She added that it was almost impossible to separate the business from the fashion side.
“When they say that Calvin [Klein] was the creative and Barry [Schwartz] the business, and [Pierre] Bergé was the brains and [Yves] Saint Laurent the talent, I can’t believe it. Somewhere there is that interesting alchemy between the two, like Mrs. Prada and her husband, Señor Bertelli. There has to be that confluence of ideas, of philosophy, of talent, of thought in order to be that successful. You can’t just isolate one and cut off the other.”
Dash, clearly not completely satisfied with the answer, persevered.
“You have to have compassion for sales, and compassion for design, and sometimes sales try to influence design. As the boss, whose side are you on?” he asked.
Wang said that both sides would naturally have an understanding of each other or else it would not be a good match. It is important for the business mind to understand the designer’s vision and build on it, she said, because designers need to remain loyal to their vision in order to be successful.
“As a consumer, no one needs another sweater, no one needs another skirt,” Wang said. “What people really need is a vision. If that [business] person isn’t supportive of what you do, then it’s not the right person for you. There must be an overall philosophy in what you are trying to do, it’s never just about a single garment.”
Wang recalled a piece of advice she once got from the late Amy Spindler of The New York Times at a time when the designer was feeling extremely depressed about her business. Spindler told her that it was better to fail doing what she believed in than to succeed listening to other people. “That is my ultimate mantra,” she said.