Wang and Grauso Map Out a Plan

Mario Grauso will take over the executive reins of the firm, freeing up Vera Wang to focus more on the creative side.

If life does, in fact, imitate art, Vera Wang’s suggestion Tuesday that her company’s new president, Mario Grauso, stand “towering” in the background for a photo session while she sit with a bird’s-eye view of her SoHo store’s intricate mix may very well capture the new pairing.

This story first appeared in the September 23, 2009 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Grauso on Oct. 16 will take over the executive reins of the firm, freeing up Wang to focus more on the creative side. The designer had been seeking to fill that roll for the last five years.

Her newfound creative freedom will continue to be used to raise the 19-year-old company’s profile and build sales worldwide. She just won’t have to worry so much about “astonishing” scissor-sharpening bills, bar-coding her clothes faster, the company’s diet soda budget and all the other minutiae involved with running a business. The Simply Vera Vera Wang line at Kohl’s alone calls for 12 deliveries and 58 categories.

“I have always had to look at the business because it’s my business. You can’t just separate yourself out and say, ‘Oh, I am going to just have fun and play designer.’ It doesn’t really work that way.” Wang said. “I have had to make a lot of business decisions and see them through not only creatively but also fiscally. Having Mario to sort of partner with me and to take that off my hands is such an enormous relief. He is also someone who is very product driven and that is kind of a terrific combination.”

In this business climate, they plan to be cautious. “Now if you take on a new project, you have to really think about where you are going and who is your partner,” Wang said.

“And where is there a need in the market,” Grauso continued, finishing the thought reflexively.

Grauso, who was most recently president of Carolina Herrera Ltd. and Puig Fashion Group, steps in with several tasks at hand — reexamining the designer’s contemporary Lavender business, which is on hiatus; developing the burgeoning jewelry and shoe sectors; expanding distribution internationally, particularly in Asia; opening a freestanding store in Los Angeles next year, and dressing more celebrities for the red carpet. Even though Grauso’s knack for celebrity dressing is often referenced as key to his rising up through the ranks, he said the funny thing is he learned it all from Wang. For example, on Sunday at the Emmy Awards, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Alyson Hannigan turned up in Vera Wang dresses.

Wang and Grauso share a shorthand, as Wang described, from working together in the late Nineties, when Grauso was executive vice president of her company. “It’s nice that we spent four years working together 10 years ago when she had a smaller business. I know where she is coming from with this business. I know what she had to do to get to this place. I know how she built her brand,” said Grauso, who often referred to his new boss as “chief.”

Like many in the industry, Wang has weathered the rocky economic landscape. Late last year, the company laid off about 350 staffers, primarily sewers in its factories in Ohio and Florida. The designer said she maintains a conservative mode, not yet convinced the retail scene is springing back as some have speculated.

Retail sales of all products bearing the Vera Wang brand name are said to be in the $700 million range.

Wang and Grauso will continually reassess how women are shopping, believing generally that consumers are after “perceived value at every price point — it could be contemporary, bridge, moderate — even submoderate people want something for their money. They want to know what goes into the design, the detail, the fabric or on the boots — whatever it is, it has to have some kind of special voice and that’s not an easy thing to do,” Wang said. “I had a very difficult time trying to be creative on so many fronts and bringing Mario in as president will be really wonderful for me.”

Wang continued, “What Mario brings to the table with his work ethic — I think most people know I have a fairly extreme work ethic myself — that’s great.”

“Now there are two crazy control freaks making sure that everything is perfect,” Grauso added with a laugh.

But the duo aims to have the entire team in sync. Wang said, “You have to be a team. You have to move forward together. If everybody is going in different directions, you’re not going to make it no matter how talented you are. I feel really fortunate that I am going to have some more real help to back me up.”