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Never one to skirt an issue, Vera Wang left little for speculation during a “This Is Your Life”-type Q&A Tuesday night at the 92Y in New York.
At times laughing at her own expense and occasionally shielding her eyes in faux shame, the designer dealt with such thorny matters as the breakup of her marriage to Arthur Becker, the departure of her company president Mario Grauso, the romantic rumors about Olympian Evan Lysacek, her father’s death, Ralph Lauren’s heart-to-heart advice and her one-time faux-pas of wearing mismatched shoes to a White House luncheon. Taking her company public is not in the cards right now since this year’s big push will be in Asia, Wang told Fern Mallis. Having opened freestanding stores in Hong Kong and Shanghai, bridal boutiques in Seoul, Tokyo’s Ginza district, London, Moscow and Sydney, Wang will unveil a Beijing store in 2014. “We just opened about 15 stores globally this year for bridal. I never take expansion as necessarily a positive thing. I am always very cautious and worried about it,” she said.
When asked if her 33-year-old business had hit $1 billion, the designer said, “God, is this a Dun & Bradstreet checkup? Where is the SEC when I need them? I think we do do over a billion worth of product with my name on it but that doesn’t mean I’m worth a billion dollars. Let’s clarify that.”
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Looking ahead to the next year, she continued, “The big push for us will be in all of Asia. I don’t mean to sound like Genghis Khan here. I’m not on a horse with a whip and a sword. I actually won the second Chinese fashion award ever given. I think Alber Elbaz won the first.”
Wang paired one of her own sweaters with Balenciaga shorts, five-inch heels and leggings she thought were from Danskin. She laughed recalling how she abided by her husband’s request that she look like a bride at their wedding and not “a fashion freak.” That said, the designer had gotten “a little overexcited and had seven dresses made.” (And David LaChapelle shot their wedding photos.) Despite separating from Becker last year, she still works with him. Wang said, “He was never not involved in the business.” And Grauso is also on the scene. “He is consulting for me right now. These are sort of [major changes.] They’re going to be in my life forever. I don’t imagine that they won’t be.”
Wang dished about her days at The Chapin School with Emily Rafferty, the current president of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and classes at Sarah Lawrence with Penelope Tree. Then there was the salesgirl job she took at Yves Saint Laurent’s Madison Avenue boutique, when her parents shut off her spending money. And after describing her Vogue tenure and Ralph Lauren run, Wang spoke of the trials of running her own company. However much she enjoys four-days jaunts to her $10 million Beverly Hills home while in town for celebrity clients, Wang said she likes nothing more than her New York bedroom — “a slice of pizza in bed is kind of perfect.”
“I gave up on perfectionism long ago. When you become a mom, it’s whatever — the house doesn’t really look that great, the plants are dead, you know, the dogs sh-t all over the house. You know, I realized I can’t live like my friend Calvin [Klein]. He lives in perfectionism. I live in chaos. I don’t know anything else.” Wang said.
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Self-effacing aside, the 63-year-old designer, an accomplished amateur figure skater, said her hectic work schedule leaves little time for nonbusiness travel or sports of any kind. Her nearly seven-year-old Simply Vera Vera Wang line at Kohl’s requires 12 deliveries a year, her signature ready-to-wear is four deliveries a year, and then there are bridal, crystal, fragrances, stationery, FDT floral arrangements and all the rest. After joking about the prospect of a deal for donuts, Wang said athletic clothing is an area she could bring a sense of fashion to. She will also be designing costumes again for the Philadelphia Eagles’ cheerleaders. Here are some other highlights:
Working at Ralph Lauren before starting her own business.
“When I left Vogue, I realized I didn’t have much of a personal life. I really wanted to be a parent. At Ralph, I said the one thing I did not want to do was travel a lot. He said, ‘Oh don’t worry you won’t have to travel but I did.’ But it was an extraordinary experience to work for him. Anything you wanted — any fabric, yarn, technique, jewelry, leather or any component you needed — a designer, particularly as a design director, just magically appeared. That just never happened with my own company. It was like being in designer heaven. If Ralph believed in you, he really supported you. It was really very hard when I left. On a plane ride to London he said to me, ‘I don’t want you to become a fashion nun or a fashion widow.’ And I said, ‘Well, I have to be married before I’m a widow.’”
The downside of bridal.
“You don’t really have a repeat customer because if they divorce in your dress, they never want to see you again. The dresses have to be fit for each body specifically. What happens if they become one-of-a-kind in construction? The other issue is the kinds of weddings girls are having. There was one wedding where the bride almost blew away. She weighed about 80 pounds, the veil was really wide because she wanted it that way and this gust of wind in Hawaii came. It was just like Sally Field in ‘The Flying Nun.’”
Winning the 2005 CFDA award for women’s wear.
“I felt like a movie star, like I won an Oscar or something. My speech was really embarrassing and I just grabbed a dress out of the closet. I never thought I would win. My daughters did not come because I did not want them to cry, if I did not win. Anna Wintour said, ‘Get your daughters here.’ And I said, ‘What do you mean? If I don’t win they’re going to cry like when Michelle Kwan didn’t win the Olympics.’ And then she [Anna] said, ‘Well, I don’t sit with losers.’”
Designing gowns for Alicia Keys and Chelsea Clinton, who wed on the same day.
“Alicia Keys got married five hours before Chelsea in Saint-Tropez. I was in Rhinebeck [for the Clinton wedding] thinking, OK, Alicia is getting ready to say her vows. On that day to have done such different weddings — one for the president’s daughter and one for a woman who is such an incredible artist and a friend of mine, it was kind of amazing.”
Any truth to the Evan Lysacek rumors.
“Oh, c’mon, not personal stuff. I’m his mentor, his true mentor I hope for his ongoing life after sports.”
Losing her father the morning of one of her runway shows.
“Like in films, it’s so surreal — the heart is beating and then it just flatlines. My mother had died two years before that and I was so filled with despair that I didn’t want to leave her. When they took her away to the morgue, I wanted to jump on the gurney with her. I thought, She can’t be alone there. And they said, ‘You can’t come down there. First of all, it’s illegal. You can’t just show up at the morgue with your mother.’ With my father, they made me leave the hospital. The doctor said. ‘Go do your fashion show. That’s what he would have wanted.’ We quickly wrote something and put it on every seat. And I decided just this once I am going to walk the runway for him.”
On having a mantra that keeps her balanced and focused.
“None, absolutely none. If someone has a good one, I’m really open. What I try to do, I try every day not to get hysterical. I tell myself, OK, take a deep breath and prioritize. Everything is going to have to wait. We’re going to go from Point A to Point B instead of A, Z, F, G and not knowing where we are.”