Appeared In
Special Issue
WWD Milestones issue 05/12/2010

Vera Wang and Mario Grauso don’t have time to burn waiting as their Garment Center building’s elevators crawl upward.

This story first appeared in the May 12, 2010 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

In fact, relocating to a one-floor 20,000-square-foot showroom and design space by next spring is just one of the litany of tasks on their to-do list. With the ink barely dry on a megalicensing deal with David’s Bridal for wedding gowns, the two are in talks for a TV show centered around the designer; scouting cities for more signature boutiques; unveiling a new fragrance with Coty next year; revamping the designer’s Madison Avenue bridal salon; launching luggage with Hartmann, and taking care of a few celebrity brides-to-be. Nothing goes unnoticed — even the types of coffee mugs used in a meeting is something they will discuss.

And forget any semblance of normal working hours. Now that Wang knows how to use a BlackBerry, a skill she picked up in November, the e-mails fly at all hours — even in the middle of the night.

Grauso, who returned to Vera Wang Inc. as president last year following a 10-year hiatus, explained, “I’m a chronic insomniac. So sometimes Vera will return my e-mails at two in the morning and we will have this dialogue about, I don’t know — the costume jewelry at Kohl’s,” referring to the designer’s Simply Vera Vera Wang collection.

“Or sometimes she will e-mail to tell me I have to turn on channel 4. I’m not a big TV person and she is desperate for me to become a TV person,” he added. “And she’s hell-bent on me becoming a figure-skating fan. She wanted me to go to the Olympics and I kept making up excuses that I was too busy. I think she’s still upset with me that I didn’t go to the Olympics.”

But last winter’s jaunt to Vancouver, like pretty much everything else the designer does, was work related. She suited up American figure skater Evan Lysacek for his gold-medal win. Unlike many designers who are relative rookies to the celebrity dressing game, Wang has been at it for years, and suiting up well-known brides has helped her build a business estimated at $175 million, according to sources.

While the 20-year-old brand was built on bridal, Wang now has a galaxy of products and is angling for future expansion. Last fall, following a 10-year hiatus, Grauso returned to the company as president, a post that was last occupied by Wang’s longtime confidante Chet Hazzard. With an array of established categories and more to come, much has changed at the company since Grauso’s first run.

During a wide-ranging interview, Grauso spoke of the designer’s bounding enthusiasm, her keen focus and their plans for the decades ahead.

“She’s a 60-year-old woman who is superinterested in what the sunglasses are going to look like,” he said. “She’s not just sending us to meetings, she goes to the shoe development meetings. She wants to talk to me about what’s going to be in the windows at Bloomingdale’s. Being interested is an amazing achievement — after having been in this business for 20 years, that you still can focus on the details with the same amount of passion.”

Grauso said Wang also has learned to reel things in a bit.

“Vera can really stay on a schedule,” he observed. “She’s much more organized and is more careful with time because it is so scarce.”

Time management skills are crucial, given the company’s scope of initiatives. Through a deal with Hartmann, luggage — a first for the designer and a natural for honeymooners — will bow this fall. Wang’s bridal salon at The Carlyle hotel has not been in residence as long as “Madeline” children’s author Ludwig Bemelmans’ drawings have been on the bar’s walls, but the 19-year-old shop is being renovated to reflect the more modern feel of the designer’s two-month-old Los Angeles store. Wang sees bridal in a more modern environment that pairs the category with ready-to-wear, Grauso said.

A Bal Harbour, Fla., store is slated to open this year, and locations in Dallas, Las Vegas, San Francisco and Chicago should bow by 2012. The Middle East and Europe are other opportunities for what is expected to be “a big push for retail,” he said.

Building on the success of the Simply Vera Vera Wang collection at Kohl’s is, of course, another priority. Having to deal with the vast offerings and monthly shipments for the chain has made Wang a stronger designer, Grauso said.

People always ask us kind of tentatively, ‘How is it to work with Kohl’s?’ and I think they expect us not to say positive things, but it’s actually very creative. It’s very interesting and very similar to luxury. It’s just quicker and the pieces are less expensive. It’s a similar process,” he said. “Kohl’s has taught Vera that a lower price point is not a compromise.”

 

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Just don’t expect prices for the designer’s signature rtw to drop. As things stand, shoppers can get an allover beaded cocktail dress for $1,200 and “these are very designed, not simple clothes,” Grauso said.

Lately, buyers have been known to lean on designers to guide them to designing specific styles, but Grauso said: “We are a niche business. Our ready-to-wear business is not enormous, so I don’t think Vera feels that pressure [from buyers to be more commercial]. The department stores come to us for novelty, for Vera’s artisanal spin. They are not going to come to us for basics and core.”

For a more objective perspective, the company has tapped Laird & Partners to size up the branding and PR Consulting to pitch in with public relations. There are plans to relaunch the designer’s Web site with an emphasis on bridal and rtw. Wang will perhaps write a blog for the site or, at the very least, provide tips for brides.

Publishing a second book on wedding tips in 2011 or 2012 is also being considered. Having covered what the perfect bouquet and place settings should look like in her first book, “Vera Wang on Weddings,” Wang, who is known for her candor, could write more of “a down-and-dirty tips book,” Grauso said,

While bridal and fragrances have helped the designer develop international markets, he stated, “Look, international is always challenging for American brands.…It’s not something we are putting a tremendous focus on in terms of ready-to-wear. Europeans are a little more price conscious with American brands.”

Still, he noted, Asia presents an opportunity and it might be prime territory for a diffusion line. “We haven’t really done a great job going after business there, but that is something we will really look into going forward.”

The designer’s contemporary label will remain on hold for now. “We have our hands full. We’re not desperate for a new project. We’re watching to see when it’s right,” Grauso said.

Both he and Wang rely on her husband, Arthur Becker, as an adviser, whom they ask to help negotiate new deals from time to time. (Becker’s full-time job is chief executive officer of the information technology services company NaviSite.)

In the past, Becker’s input has been said to be far more extensive and, in some cases, off-putting to staffers. But Grauso insisted he and Wang steer the ship, saying most people would be surprised to learn “how involved we are with everything. I was in a fitting with Renée Zellweger this morning and then on a conference call with attorneys about a contract,” Grauso said. “One minute we’re talking about dressing [Lysacek] and the next minute we’re talking about the David’s Bridal deal or construction on a new store. We’re looking at real estate to try to move the headquarters, so Vera and I get into a car and go look at the buildings. We’re just superinvolved. Sometimes from the outside, people don’t think the president and the designer are doing these things, and we are.”

Their lives have become so interwoven that both parties take their children along on business trips from time to time, as was the case when Wang was awarded the first annual Leadership in the Arts award from Harvard University last month. If anything rankles Wang, it’s that she and Grauso see too much of each other. Asked where they clash, Grauso, who is in the office by 8 a.m., said: “She probably thinks I ask her to do too many special appearances and events. Sometimes she will say to me, ‘What are you making me do tonight?’ She would probably rather be home with the girls.”

With Grauso’s son off to boarding school in the fall and Wang’s younger daughter heading to college the following year, they will become empty nesters — and that means their workaholic ways may be ratcheted up even more.

“The staff is freaked out,” Grauso said with a laugh. “I think they are all worried we’re going to be spending even more time in the office being control freaks.”

 

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