By  on April 7, 2008

Last spring, Vera Wang was meeting a friend for lunch at Barneys New York when a woman she didn’t know approached her.

“She was just the kind of person we’d love as a client,” Wang recalls. “She was not only beautiful, but she was intelligent, and she had a sense of style that was so modern. She ran over to me and said, ‘You’ll think I’m really crazy, but I never do this. I’m a big fan of yours and I love your ready-to-wear.’ I almost started crying. I’ve waited almost 20 years to get here. It’s been a long, long road.”

With her fall collection, Wang may have just reached her destination. For one of the top collections of the New York season, the designer sought inspiration from Dutch painter Kees van Dongen, but a newfound sense of restraint rendered her typically artsy sensibility sensual and sexy—a rare feat for artful clothes. Van Dongen’s strong sense of color informed Wang’s designs, and she mixed and matched her fabrics and proportions, topping it all off with striking Philip Crangi jewelry inspired by vintage baubles from Wang’s own closet.

“This collection was very Twenties, Thirties and Forties, and it was meant to be a little bit tongue-in-cheek,” says Wang, sitting in her West 39th Street showroom three weeks after the show. “It wasn’t literally vintage clothing because that’s not what I like. I really like to have a mood, but I try to make it my own. Using van Dongen’s color palette and love of fashion in some ways enabled me to be freer and not be so locked into one period and one time.”

Wang’s journey from bridal to rtw designer may have been well documented in fashion circles, but to the general public’s perception, the leap has always been less obvious. The collection firmly cemented Wang as a bona fide sportswear designer—a notion that she has been challenged with since launching into the field four years ago.

Wang made a name for herself globally as a bridal and dress designer almost two decades ago, and while it’s a mantle the designer prides herself on, she is also very vocal about wanting to be known for more.

“It’s been the most frustrating thing in the world,” Wang says. “I am very honored to be considered the foremost bridal designer in the world, and that I have had my fair share of Oscar moments, but I think the frustration for me always was that I didn’t want to be qualified as any kind of a designer, but just a designer, period. I’m hoping certainly now, from here on in, we’re going to be viewed as a much more elastic brand.”

Wang, perhaps like no other designer on Seventh Avenue in that time period, has used the last two to three years to make this happen. She recently started incorporating her eveningwear into the collection. She also has ventured into the contemporary arena with the Lavender line, which she put on the runway for the first time this past fashion week, and which is available at Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman, Nordstrom and Harvey Nichols. Then there is Wang’s moderately priced Simply Vera Vera Wang collection, which has been bringing her romantic style to nearly 1,000 Kohl’s stores since September.

The unprecedented growth in recent years has helped raise Wang’s profile, but the designer has so far resisted selling her company.
“I haven’t dared to go down that route because I am so afraid of losing control at this point,” she says. “You may have a sense morally that whoever bought your company should believe in you enough that they would listen to you, but I haven’t necessarily found that to be true of hedge fund investors who really look at things as a three-year window. Nor would I want to go to my friends for investment, because they are my friends. I think I might be among the last that just suffers through and grows every business bit by bit.”

With the past few collections, which sought inspiration from such places as Russia and Rome, Wang has worked to crystallize what she calls her trademark “Vera-isms.” They include a fit that is never skintight and often features an element of volume; detail elements in tops, such as a tunic or a blouse that is draped or knotted; the unexpected mix of fabrics, usually employing different ones in the front and back, and, of course, her unapologetic love for all things artsy.

By all accounts, Wang has come a long way in fashion. Opinionated, outspoken and with an acerbic wit, Wang was raised on the Upper East Side. She was educated at Chapin, Sarah Lawrence College and the Sorbonne in Paris, and after her studies, got the finishing touches at Vogue, where she was a fashion editor for 16 years, and Ralph Lauren, where she designed women’s accessories.

Wang says her training at Vogue and Ralph Lauren has come in handy as she built her own business, and she is full of anecdotes about those years, many of which involve her in some way challenged to stay out of trouble, from Day One.

“I was thrown into Vogue at 22 years old, and I had just come from living in Paris so I wore a white Saint Laurent waist dress with little platform sandals and had my nails done, which is very much what girls in Paris did then,” she recalls. “I walked in to work for Polly Mellon on a sitting, and she says, ‘What are you dressed up like that for?’ I said, ‘But this is Vogue magazine,’ to which she responded, ‘Go home, take the polish off, lose the heels, get out of that white dress and put on a pair of jeans.’”

The Vogue reality was far from what she had envisioned, as she spent the next two weeks on shoots, cleaning and packing and unpacking boxes. She rose through the ranks, even as she got herself into trouble. When she was sittings editor on a shoot at an art gallery that required four girls and four guys to jump up and down in front of a Frank Stella painting, the vibrations from the jumps caused the painting to fall apart. “I almost never worked again for Vogue as a sittings editor,” she recalls. “I had to make all my apologies to Alex Liberman. I was sort of like the enfant terrible of Vogue.”

Once, on a shoot with Chris von Wagenheim and Christie Brinkley, a Doberman bit Geoffrey Beene’s dresses, and the designer promptly stopped talking to her. Another time, she took over for Jade Hobson on a shoot with Deborah Turbeville, and continued Hobson’s idea by laying models in shallow water. “I put all the sables and the ranch minks and all the very expensive furs, the chinchillas, in the water,” she says. “They were gorgeous pictures, but of course the rest of Seventh Avenue on the fur side didn’t think so. Vogue had a lawsuit.”

Looking back, she says, she learned about the desire to create images that are fascinating, beautiful or shocking, which to this day informs her work as a designer. “In the nine to 11 minutes of a show, I try to create something that makes it not only about clothes, but about a vision and about a way of looking at women.”

Ralph Lauren, Wang says, was eye-opening in different ways—giving her the satisfaction of seeing someone actually wear her designs. “It was a big deal to me,” she says. “Here I had drawn it, and added an outer pocket and hardware and the handle and the zipper, and somebody actually liked it enough to buy it. I really thought I had finally found my home.”

The idea to start a bridal business came to her at age 40, when she was getting ready to marry husband Arthur Becker and couldn’t find the perfect dress. Opening her first salon at the Carlyle Hotel in 1990, Wang approached the bridal business—until then the land of labor-intensive, voluminous meringues—from the fashion perspective, adding artistic and innovative touches worthy of a runway. Her approach worked. She has dressed the likes of Jennifer Lopez, Jennifer Garner, Melania Trump and Sharon Stone for their weddings, and plenty of other noncelebrities along the way. She has a firm opinion of what women should and shouldn’t do on their most important day.

“Brides’ biggest mistake is to not look like themselves,” she says. “Some come in and drop 20 pounds. They may get a tan, which always results in a strange look with white. Sometimes they try new hairdos. They wear their hair down most of their lives but then at their wedding have this Marie-Antoinette thing happening. I feel that it’s most modern and hip and cool to just be a more well-groomed version of yourself.”

In less than two decades, Wang has been able to parlay her bridal beginnings into books, fragrance with Coty, china and crystal with Wedgwood, fine papers such as wedding invitations with William Arthur and mattresses with Serta. And with the rtw, the company currently has a wholesale volume of $300 million.

While bridal has been an impetus for many extensions, Wang has been able to invest the money she has made from the licensing arrangements to grow her rtw, which has been an important focus for her.

“It’s more limited,” she says of bridal and evening. “In the evening dress/gown department, you don’t get much presence for a great sweater, a great top or a great shrug, and you are just locked into that, and that gave me a certain discipline, but I just feel so much happier now. People would say, ‘Why don’t you wear your own clothes?’ I’d say, ‘I don’t wear my own clothes because I don’t run around in evening clothes.’”

Wang may wear more pieces from her own collection these days, but she continues to be an ardent shopper of other designers’ creations. Unlike many of her peers, she makes no secret about her love for Prada, Comme des Garçons, Ann Demeulemeester and Dries Van Noten.

“I could have had a great art collection and instead, my whole life, I have loved clothes,” she says. “I love to shop—for everything, not just clothing—because I think it’s very important. It’s an education, and, being a woman designer, you have a personal experience with clothes. I also shop because I love to buy things that I’m not doing, and it’s as much for knowing what other people are doing in order to not do it as it is to enjoy the clothing itself.”

For Wang, competition these days comes from a multitude of places. She is all too aware of how the trend of celebrities launching clothing lines has impacted Seventh Avenue.

“True designers are competing against celebutantes and celebrities,” she says. “The real estate hasn’t expanded, or even shrunk, in the stores. There are people who are real designers who are sitting there cutting and draping fabric, and there is no differentiation. That didn’t exist 10 years ago. Ralph and Calvin and Donna weren’t competing against Gwen Stefani and Jennifer Lopez, whom we then also have to dress.”

And it works both ways. The competition forces designers like her to raise their profiles and ultimately become celebrities of sorts, but Wang still shies away from the notion. “I don’t go out much. I am not a socialite,” she says. “Maybe I’m recognized because I have a lot of product out there….I am kind of a crazy character, but I don’t know if I’m a celebrity,” she admits. “Gwen Stefani is a celebrity. Puffy is a celebrity. I think designers have to become celebrities in the next era. Unless there is recognition of the face or the name, it will be really impossible to build a brand because of how much there is out there.”

Now that she has firmly set her language for rtw, Wang hopes to develop handbags and shoes next, and move into freestanding retail. This fall, she will open a freestanding rtw flagship in New York, and two stores—for bridal and Lavender—in Los Angeles. Miami is on the schedule for next year, as is Paris, where she would like to set up shop for her rtw. While she is unlikely to be selling any Simply Vera Vera Wang pieces in her own stores, there are a few things here and there from that line that the designer hopes to integrate into her rtw and Lavender.

“Some of the tops are great in the Kohl’s line because, and this may sound weird, they are washable,” she says. “They are actually a whole other level of practicality. There is something intriguing to me that’s beginning to affect how I’m thinking for Lavender. Maybe I should do a whole cotton program for Lavender or for Collection that women could throw in the wash. How’s that for a whole new way of looking at things?”

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