NEW YORK — For the first time in its 21-year history, the Vera Wang Group has a creative director, Michelle Kessler Sanders.

This story first appeared in the March 30, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Sanders, who will finish up her run at T: The New York Times Style Magazine as fashion director in two weeks, will have plenty of ground to cover at Wang. With retail sales said to be north of $750 million, the designer label has an exhaustive number of products including mattresses, vases, stationery and home products at a myriad of price points. Through a licensing deal with Kohl’s Corp. alone, the designer’s Simply Vera Vera Wang collection offers more than 40 different categories. And Kessler may soon have more to review when she attends design meetings with Wang at Kohl’s: Men’s wear and fine jewelry may be down the road, according to industry sources. A cosmetics deal with Estée Lauder is also said to be in the works.

In her new post, which includes the title of executive vice president, Sanders will help manage the design process of more than 12 licensees and four internal divisions. She reports to Mario Grauso, president of the Vera Wang Group. During an interview Tuesday in the company’s West 39th Street showroom here, Grauso said he and the designer have been hounding Sanders for years to join them. “We were constantly saying to Michelle, ‘When will you come to the other side?’’’ he said. “Finally our business is big enough for her to do it.”

Sanders initially will focus on ramping up the Kohl’s business and building the designer’s Lavender label, which has just been relaunched as a 10-piece dress line exclusively at Neiman Marcus. The balance of high-low is something Sanders has a firm grasp on.

“At the end of the day, a company’s success relies on the secret weapon of the marriage of art and commerce. With my background, I innately understand that,” she said. “I’ve worked at Vogue and Juicy Couture. I’ve done the super-high-end and contemporary. I get both, I love both and I appreciate the value of both so that is thread that won’t break.”

Shoes, a category that has been a strong suit for Wang in recent seasons, will provide another building block for Sanders, whose accessories know-how goes back to her days at Vogue. But she pointed out that she is motivated by the designer’s range of products, not any one category.

While the Kohl’s collaboration accounts for the bulk of Wang’s sales, though Grauso declined to say exactly how much, a separate deal with David’s Bridal is another driving force of the business. Wang teamed up with David’s Bridal, a 308-unit chain geared for thrifty brides, to launch wedding gowns that retail from $600 to $1,500. Wang and Grauso have made a few field trips to David’s stores to check out the White by Vera Wang collection, which is already exceeding sales expectations despite having only been in stores for a few weeks, Grauso said. David’s is said to account for an estimated 30 percent of the bridal business and the company’s Web site boats 40 million unique visitors annually.

Bridesmaid dresses and accessories will be unveiled in the White by Vera Wang collection during next month’s bridal market.

On another front, “Gossip Girl” Leighton Meester has been lined up through a two-year, $3 million deal to be the face of a yet-to-be-named fragrance that will be unveiled this fall.

While poaching editorial types is now a popular strategy for designers and retailers, as evidenced by Barneys New York’s recruitment of Dennis Freedman and Carine Roitfeld, Sanders has already worked on both sides. Early on in her career, she worked in public relations at Prada, Giorgio Armani and Calvin Klein before spending six years at Vogue as accessories director. From there, she went to Juicy Couture as vice president and fashion director, where she launched handbags, shoes, watches, jewelry, sunglasses and fragrance. Sanders then headed to Donna Karan as senior vice president and accessories director for two and a half years before moving on to T.

As appreciative as she is to T editor Sally Singer, who recruited her last summer, Sanders said, “It was exciting for me to get back into editorial but I realized fairly quickly that the skills I have developed in my 22-year career are much better suited for building a global brand and developing product.”

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