Sometimes, cynicism takes a hike. Over three days last week it went wondrously AWOL at Vera Wang’s store on Madison Avenue in Manhattan as the designer and members of her staff too numerous to count focused the company’s attentions on 11 VIP brides. Not of the Hailey Bieber, Hannah Davis, Chelsea Clinton, Lily Aldridge ilk, but VIPs whose names are unfamiliar beyond their own circles. They are all military brides, some in the service themselves, some engaged to military personnel. Some are already married, but circumstances forced them to delay their wedding celebrations.
To celebrate her brand’s 30th anniversary, Wang partnered with Brides Across America, an organization that gifts gowns to military and first-responder brides. Together the two staged a contest that led to 10 couples receiving the extraordinary VIP treatment from Wang, the centerpiece of which is the gifting and fitting of each woman with a Collection wedding look. Playing fly on the wall (albeit an occasionally vocal one) for two of the three days proved very moving for me. It would be impossible for Wang and her fabulous staff to lavish more attention on any bride, no matter how famous. No dress was off limits nor any modifications too complicated if they better suited the woman and retained the design integrity of the gown.
Wang sees her 30th as a milestone of survival in a wildly difficult industry and wanted to acknowledge that accomplishment. She considered various options, including staging a joint ready-to-wear/bridal show in Paris, a city she adores, and possible celebrity tie-ins. Nothing felt right. “When it’s the 30th, everybody comes up with these different ideas — ‘You should do 30 celebrity people talking about you,’” she offered. “And I said, ‘I don’t really know there are 30 celebrities I’d want talking about me that really know me.’ It felt sort of disingenuous for me.”
WATCH: How Vera Wang Is Giving Back to Military Brides
Simultaneously, but unrelated to the anniversary, Wang had become interested in the military, particularly the way service people are treated here at home when they return from deployments. She wanted to do something. Exactly what didn’t crystallize until she became aware of BAA, which led to this initiative, uniquely suited to her and her brand. Planning the project started last year, culminating in last week’s appointments.
“This is one of those rare opportunities when you really feel a lifetime of work can lead to something very positive, very happy, and affect someone’s life,” Wang said. “And for that reason, I feel very, very fortunate. Being able to reach first responders, members of the military, people who have [dedicated] their lives for us, for our safety, was the most direct and emotional and fulfilling way in which I could make a bit of a difference in their lives.”
The 10 couples were among hundreds who submitted their stories online. In addition to outfitting the brides from her collection, Wang is dressing grooms and bridal parties from her Men’s Wearhouse and David’s Bridal bridesmaids lines. The couples also chose wedding bands from the designer’s Vera Wang Love range for Zales Jewelers, invitations from her Crane Stationery line and bedding from Kohl’s. The couples will also receive eight place settings of china from Wedgwood and, for good measure, sunglasses from Kenmark Eyewear and fragrance from Coty. BAA founder Heidi Janson called the project her organization’s most elaborate dress initiative. “Vera is the top,” she said. “For so many other brands to be a part of this — the dresses, but also the wedding bands, the bridesmaids, the tuxedos, everybody working together — it’s a dream come true, a fairy tale.”
Applicants told their stories first in letters, from which 15 finalists were selected, and then, in YouTube videos. “Somewhere along the roads of her career she has lost herself. She no longer feels like the beautiful woman she is,” wrote Christy Simpkins of her wife, Ashley Simpkins, active-duty Air Force for 13 years, who has deployed to Iraq and Kuwait. The women have been together for 12 years and got married as soon as they were legally able, but have not had a wedding. “I would love to win this contest and have her see herself all dolled up in a beautiful Vera Wang…many military women lose their femininity being consumed by their careers. I want her to see that she should be just as passionate about herself as she is with keeping our country safe,” Christy continued.
Her written words left Wang and her staff in tears during the selection process. Fast-forward the few weeks to Simpkins’ dress appointment, and the whole room was reaching for tissue again as the two women professed their love for each other and their gratitude to Wang for celebrating them. Yet the appointment wasn’t just a touching tearfest. It started with Wang engaged in a sofa-jumping session with 2-year-old Aburii-Rose, the younger of the Simpkins’ two children, who joined for the appointment. In fact, the event was a family affair. Christy’s sister, brother and brother’s girlfriend attended as well.
Ruth “Marie” Wenzel and Sean Shariff Fisher won the grand prize, which meant that Wang herself would fit the dress for their wedding on Oct. 9, 2020. Wenzel, a social worker, said she was actively looking for programs that help with weddings, since between them she and Fisher have three children, and day-to-day expenses leave little left over to fund a wedding. He noted that their lives are “95 percent about the kids,” but for this, they left the kids at home and brought their mothers to revel in the experience. They also brought a gift for Wang, a glittering bag filled with orange food. After learning of their win, Fisher did some research and discovered that when Wang’s daughters were younger, she always had a kitchen shelf stocked with orange goodies: Goldfish, Swedish Fish and the like. Fisher has been in the New Jersey Army National Guard for 16 years. After deployments to Egypt and Qatar, and two to Iraq, he was seriously injured in a training accident in New Jersey, when a tear-gas grenade went off in his pocket. He was severely burned and spent weeks in the hospital, with Wenzel at his side.
Another couple, Melissa and Shane Murdock, recently married in a city clerk’s office. They did a quick no-frills wedding to ensure that he could be there for her should her health demand it; she suffers from a chronic stomach condition and currently receives nutrition via a portal in her chest. “With the military, we were running into problems if I got sick and he needed to help me,” she said. “So we had to get married and we would figure out the [wedding] later.” They had scheduled a celebration, only to cancel when her son also took ill, and was in and out of the hospital for weeks. “It’s been a rough year, so getting this was the biggest, brightest gift,” she said. (Another happy surprise: When they canceled their wedding, the Murdocks thought they would lose their deposit. But the venue offered to hold it until they’re ready, likely October of next year.) “We have had so many blessings, that I’m so grateful,” she said. Murdock arrived with her very proactive daughter, 8-year-old Maya Lagos, who selected most of the dresses and photographed the session. Alas, Mom’s pick was Maya’s second choice.
Seven other brides were feted and fitted as well, many with their grooms in tow. Perhaps a generational thing, I was the only person who seemed at all concerned with the old superstition about the groom not seeing the bride in the dress before the wedding.
“I walk under ladders,” said Jason Chouinard, engaged to Abby Backman. The couple met in high school, after which both joined the National Guard. He is also a volunteer fireman and EMT.
“We’re untraditional,” said Joseph Towery. He (Navy) and Olena Solomnikova (Army) met in the Interservice Respiratory Training Program. Their attraction was immediate, but being in different branches, they were differently assigned post-training, and did not meet up again until three years later, at Pearl Harbor. He asked her out to a Fourth of July dinner, commencing a relationship that would be carried out largely via FaceTime, but it’s worked. Towery proposed with a pair of blue Manolo Blahniks.
For three days, Wang’s entire business revolved around these couples for what senior vice president of bridal Erica Arkin called “perhaps the most important philanthropy that we have ever done. We would be helping couples who had life challenges in having the weddings of their dreams…We gave them that moment.”
At least 25 staffers were intimately involved in taking on an aspect of the project, and Arkin knew “that ultimately, the bridal sales team would carry out the heavy work in providing expertise as well as giving these couples the real customer journey and the ceremony of selling we are so well known for.” (She wasn’t kidding. Hauling around bridal dresses involves some very literal heavy lifting.)
Closing the store to all shoppers of both ready-to-wear and bridal persuasions was just the beginning. The entire store was re-merchandised, including the removal of the ready-to-wear, which, due to limited back-room space, had to be stored elsewhere — in a room at the Carlyle, next door. Taking over the first floor: bridesmaids dresses in a range of colors and two tuxedo options for the guys, one black, one gray. In the second-floor sitting area, brides, grooms and their guests were greeted with Champagne and cookies before getting down to business. Nearby, a long display counter was set up with examples of the bedding and china the couples will receive. The next salon housed invitations and wedding bands. Meghan Carey, creative director of Vera Wang Papers at Crane Stationery, came in from Maine for the event; Signet Jewelers’ marketing manager Nicole Izewski and buyer Kadee McGinnis traveled from Coppell, Tex.
Wang’s camp scheduled appointments at three-hour intervals so that no one would feel rushed. Fittings were done in the largest salon, which was re-merchandised between appointments with dresses appropriate for each bride in terms of sizing and style preferences. The women’s approaches varied widely; some arrived armed with strong fashion opinions and others, eager to let Wang’s staff do their expert thing.
Haley Schultz is an undergraduate pre-med student, spurred by her years as a combat medic in the New Hampshire National Guard, in which she still serves. Her fiancé is Steve Blanding, a police SWAT team leader. She had no idea what type of dress she wanted. “I let them do a lot of it,” she said. “I mean, they’re all so good at it that they just kind of looked at me and were like, ‘you should try this, this and this.’ And so I did and then said kind of what I liked from each one and then they just sort of modified a dress to get all the things I liked.”
In addition to the bridal consultants, Keith Lissner, executive vice president for apparel design, was on duty to discuss fittings and modifications as per the brides’ requests. For some of the women, special pieces were created in advance, based on preferences and sizing information they supplied. One dress was delivered to Arkin’s apartment building from one of Wang’s factories the morning of the appointment. Ashley Simpkins knew she wouldn’t feel comfortable in a gown and requested a jumpsuit, which Wang doesn’t typically do, so one was made in advance. But rather than have her send in measurements — DIY measurements are almost always resounding failures, according to Lissner — he requested that she send some clothes to the design studio. He and the design staff worked from there.
For other brides, Lissner and chief pattern makers Dean Sonnenberg and Suheyla Sun, (Wang’s first employee, 30 years ago) made changes both subtle and major, removing volume here, reshaping a straight strapless bodice into a sweetheart, adding romantic text to a train as per Wang’s most recent bridal collection, shown earlier this month.
As originally imagined, this initiative called for 10 winning couples, with Wang personally fitting one bride. While she did indeed fit “top” winner Wenzel, she decided to meet every couple, staying at the store for almost the entire three-day run. Along the way, she multitasked, working on, among other things, refining her remarks for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation Benefit at which she was honored on Thursday. (Another powerful event.)
The winners’ excitement upon meeting Wang was palpable, several using the same word to describe the experience. “It was a little surreal. I had never really won a contest before and to think that I was going to go to New York and meet Vera, and it was really, really exciting,” said Victoria Garcia, who made the trip to New York on her own. The mother of four recently married Matthew Feehan, a National Guard platoon leader, at a courthouse because a wedding wasn’t in their budget. Now, they’re planning a March celebration.
“That was so surreal,” said Shakia Guest, whose fiancé Jared Holloway recently returned home to Atlanta after deployment to Afghanistan. “I mean, I was having a fan girl moment. I didn’t expect to see Vera because we weren’t the grand prize winners, but she came and gave me a hug and told me that she thought I was gorgeous in her gown, and that will stay with me forever.”
Anne Taylor’s personality is as big as her home state of Texas. She arrived rocking a jacket that anticipates her future name, “Mrs. Hart,” with a sister, cousin and future sister-in-law in tow. “There was a two-guest limit. We pushed it,” she said. She, too, used the s-word. “Completely surreal. This is better than my engagement; this is probably the best day of my life, which is crazy.” During her appointment, Taylor FaceTimed her father and her aunt, telling the latter to get ready with the Botox. “She’s a dermatologist, and she brings Botox to Thanksgiving dinner. That’s what happens when you’re from Texas,” Taylor mused.
Several of the brides will reconvene on Nov. 20, for a “Today” show appearance and the “reveal” of their finished bridal looks. Last week, Wang presented each with a signed copy of her book, suggesting they all consider it a resource for the big day. “It took me four years to write. I think it’s got some good ideas in there,” she said.
Yet the brides, grooms and families took away more than a coffee table tome; they took with them the experience of a lifetime. And they left something as well — gratitude.
“It’s been awesome,” said Jessica Serafin, a Navy reservist who arrived with her fiancé, West Point grad Ryan Kelly, who has been active duty Army for 15 years. “I can wear a Vera Wang dress on my wedding day. It’s amazing that she has offered this to us.”
Some even thanked her in advance of being selected as winners. “Regardless of your choice, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for what you do for military families,” wrote Feehan in his application. “We need more people like you.”
And from Christy Simpkins’ letter: “Even if we aren’t chosen as the winners, I want to thank you for what it is you are doing. Military service members and emergency responders are forgotten about all the time, so the fact that you are being a blessing to families in need to make their fairy tale come true is simply amazing. Thank you for the opportunity of possibly becoming a part of a dream come true.”