While many designers go to great lengths to embellish their lives, Vera Wang is frank as ever, after 30 years in fashion.
With razor-sharp wit and great candor, the designer traced her career during Monday night’s edition of “The Atelier with Alina Cho” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Her modernist mother’s everlasting influence holds true for the New York designer, who accelerated the dated bridal industry into the 20th century and excels in edginess in ready-to-wear. Wang brought the crowd up-to-speed about her career and future plans without sparing any of the casualties along the way.
Testimony to the black-and-white images of her teenage self skating, Wang explained how the sport was her first passion. Consumed by her competitive skating, Wang dropped out of the scholastically demanding Chapin to attend the Professional Children’s School for her final year, where she joined Balanchine-trained ballerinas, Lincoln Center-bound violinists and other artists. The designer said, “It definitely was not a college preparatory competitive school. My joke every time I speak at a college is, ‘I not only didn’t graduate from Chapin, I didn’t win an Olympic medal either.’ I spent a lot of time feeling like a failure in both regards, but it’s the truth. I probably made the wrong decision, but when you are that passionate about something — it’s very hard to let go of your dream.”
After quitting skating, she had a nervous breakdown and dropped out of Sarah Lawrence for a year (later making up those credits at Columbia University). “Lost,” she moved to Paris and realized there was something that she could love as much as she loved skating — fashion, Wang said. Before joining Vogue for what would be a 16-year run, she was a salesgirl at Yves Saint Laurent’s Madison Avenue store, where she sold Jack Nicholson “clothing for all of his girlfriends,” among other male clients like Woody Allen. At Condé Nast, it was photographer Richard Avedon who championed her to become a sittings editor at Vogue at the age of 23. “’The Devil Wears Prada’ is kind of a sanitized version of what daily life was like at Vogue. There were no hours and I traveled a great deal. There was one year between September and Easter where I was maybe home for two weekends and one was Christmas.”
As for leaving Vogue and three years’ worth of paychecks in her desk, Wang said, “Well, I wasn’t paid that much. I was never at Vogue for financial gain. I was at Vogue because I wanted to be educated.”
She also had high praise for Anna Wintour’s “intelligence, foresight and the way she looked at the fashion industry. I have to say Anna was and is a leader. I have to say this rather honestly, I’m not sure the entire world is that fascinated by fashion anymore…I’m not sure that many people could have sustained that love of high fashion and low fashion and appreciate the two.” Later at Ralph Lauren as design director for accessories, where she oversaw 20 lines, Wang said Lauren taught her to stick to her own vision and not to be swayed.
Pushing 40 and “older than your average bride,” Wang decided to create her own gown. Her husband cautioned, “Please, do not make a fashion statement at the wedding. Don’t come in in one of your Kenzo-meets-Saint-Laurent whatever you’re doing. Just try to come in like a bride so that when we look back at the pictures, you don’t look like a fashion freak.”
Wang credited her father with recognizing the business opportunity in bridal and recalled how launching her own company, many were surprised. “Believe me, I shocked a lot of people like Calvin Klein. He said, ‘Really, you’re doing bridal? When you get over that, let me know.’”
Having dressed “a who’s-who of celebrities and daughters of politicians,” as Cho indicated, Wang’s most recent starry client was Hailey Baldwin Bieber, for whom she also broke from her own tradition and designed a reception dress. Baldwin Bieber’s physicality, more specifically a long neck and “very beautiful back,” and the way she wears clothes won over Wang. “It was very much the kind of dress that she would wear to party in. Do you know what I mean?” Wang said. “That’s what she did.” Cho offered and Wang responded, “Yeah, that’s what I hear.”
Having had 22 licensing deals at one time, Wang ventured into that side of the business with tabletop products 24 year ago. Wang said alcohol is a prospect that she is open to. “Yes, because I drink — a lot. Well, consistently. We’re not dealing with five drinks a night, but I do like to have a cocktail,” she said, adding that wine or Champagne are possibilities for a license.
Designing a limited-edition headband for “Minnie Mouse”-inspired ears for Disney, Wang noted that Disney is the leading wedding destination in the world “between theme parks, cruise ships and weddings they give. In a sea of bad retail, Disney is on fire,” she said. “I have always been fascinated by Disney because they defy time. Their studios have produced some of the greatest films and all kinds of creative projects. When you look at what happened with ‘Frozen,’ everybody’s little girl who I knew was singing that song — for three years. That’s the kind of influence that Disney has. So many of the hippest young stars in music and acting have all been Disney kids.”
To that point, Wang dressed Disney Channel alum Zendaya for this year’s Emmys. As always with the red carpet, that was not a sure thing. “I’ve had 30 years of experience — some good, some dreadful. There have been times where — I can’t name names — you think someone is in your dress at 2:30 L.A. time but by the time they walk the red carpet at 4:30 or 5, they are not in you. Even if your designers were in their homes at 2:30, so you never really know.”
As a board member of the CFDA, Wang spoke highly of new chairman Tom Ford. “He could not have built the empire that he built if he weren’t an incredible businessman. His sense of organization even after one meeting — I was very impressed. He’s very serious. Quite recently at his first meeting embracing the entire CFDA, I was unable to attend because I was very, very ill; I have to say I got so much paperwork that I was really, really astonished. He bulleted everything that he hoped to accomplish and what he could do to bring in the whole CFDA. We all tried that for years to include jewelry designers, accessories designers, jeans designers in L.A. We have tried to be inclusive. Diane [von Furstenberg] has tried very hard to be inclusive — we all have. What amazed me was that he could listen to others but also bring a great agenda.”
At 70, Wang acknowledged owning 100 percent of her business, “which means that I’m insane,” she said. As for any plans to sell her company or retire, Wang said, “If your work starts to fall or you feel — more than anyone else — that you can’t give it your all…If I can’t come up with the goods — as I see it, how other people see it is up to them — then I would not be very happy to continue. I would know.”