Vera Wang doesn’t have much of a collection ready-to-wear business. That’s according to a reliable industry source: Vera Wang. “By any standards of volume, we do not,” she says. While of course, Wang would like to sell more expensive clothes, she’s oddly OK with the status quo. Yet she takes umbrage at the assumption by many that the scale of her rtw business reflects her viability as a commercial designer.
In a recent conversation focused on the 30th anniversary of her business, Wang delved into the purpose of the collection. She maintains that, in terms of design, much of what she does is plenty accessible and that she wants people to love, buy and wear the clothes. But more than that, Wang views her collection as experimental, less about filling market needs than continuing to challenge herself as a creator. “It’s my own personal learning procedure, and it’s my own growth, not only as a designer but as a human being,” she says. “It gives me a reason to learn more, to study more.”
Wang mused on her love of pure fashion clothes and the challenges inherent in remaining true to one’s creative self, “staying in your lane,” while always trying to push forward and evolve. It’s a topic that people who genuinely love clothes used to discuss all the time, but today, not so much.
However, Wang’s deep reverence for the craft of fashion and her desire to always challenge herself do not mean that she can’t make clothes that sell, thank you very much. Exhibit A: her long-running work for Kohl’s. “I do a very big business at Kohl’s that is commercial, and nobody ever mentions that,” she says, almost offended. “They are very, very nice clothes,” of which she’s proud. “I care about all of it.”
As for the anniversary, it’s one of several reasons Wang returns to the runway today after a recess of two years. But there’s a number that she considers bigger than 30: 51. That’s how many years she’s been in fashion, having started on an editorial track at Vogue after graduating from college and the Betty Owens Secretarial School (Sarah Lawrence didn’t teach 90-Words-a-Minute 101). Another nifty/random number Vera shares: thirty-nine-and-three-quarters, the age she was when she went shopping for her own wedding dress, and realized that the bridal market could use a sophistication upgrade.
WWD: So, 30 years — congratulations! What do you want to talk about?
Vera Wang: Who woulda thunk it? Seriously, 30 years is freaky. But the even bigger number — I don’t really want to say, but everyone knows anyway — is it’s my 51st year in fashion. That’s a number.
WWD: That’s a number.
V.W.: I’m going for Polly Mellen’s record here. I’m going for Pol’s. I started as a salesgirl at Saint Laurent in the Rive Gauche Boutique on Madison and 71st. It was a summer job while I was taking summer school courses at Columbia. I used to do the windows, and I sold a lot. I was a good saleswoman. Then I met Frances Stein there and she said, “When you get out of college, call me and I’ll get you a job at Vogue.”
WWD: Was she a client?
V.W.: Yes. I said to my mom, “This lady wants me to talk to her when I get out of Sarah Lawrence. She wants to give me a job at Vogue.” And my mother said, “No she doesn’t, she’s just being polite to you.” But in any event, I did call the legendary Mary Campbell of Condé Nast. I called her and Muriel Hobson, they were the heads of human resources. And I said, “this lady, Frances Patiky Stein, who was then fashion director of Vogue, offered me a job.” I just walked in off the street.
WWD: You just walked in?
V.W.: I went there. I just went to the personnel office and waited in the lobby. And she said to me, “Do you type 90 words a minute?” And I said, “No.” I got through college doing hunt-and-peck for papers. So in order to get the job I went to Betty Owens Secretarial School for three months to learn how to type, and I got up to 90 words a minute. I’ve never used it again; the day I got to Vogue, I never used it. But I did get the job.
I became Polly’s assistant for sittings. And Dick Avedon — I was on a shoot with Polly at Dick’s studio, and he said, “You should make that young woman an editor.” And they did, sittings editor. Both Frances and Polly recommended that. That’s how it all began.
WWD: Great story!
V.W.: That was the story at Vogue and 16 years later, I was still there, what Anna Wintour calls a lifer. She said, there are no lifers anymore.
WWD: And then from there to Ralph Lauren. How long were you at Ralph?
V.W.: Three years. And then I got engaged at the ripe old age of thirty-nine-and-three-quarters. I got married five days before my 40th, so I made it under that wire. Nobody thought I’d ever get married.
WWD: Did you?
V.W.: I didn’t really think about it. It wasn’t in my scope of reference. Ralph once said to me, “I don’t want you to be a fashion nun. I’d like to see you get married and have a family.” It wasn’t that I didn’t want it, it wasn’t that I didn’t have boyfriends, it’s simply that we’re very busy, we travel a lot. I said to Grace [Coddington], “Who am I going to meet between the taxicab and the 14th floor?”
WWD: You told me Calvin didn’t think you were going to get married?
V.W.: Calvin couldn’t believe I was going into the wedding business. He said, “You’re going to design bridal dresses? Let me know when you get over that.” It’s true. The girl least likely to be married, the girl least likely to be a bride, the girl who ran around always in leggings and Norma Kamali and Agnès B., and a little Saint Laurent mixed in there and a little bit of Chanel mixed in there, did bridal gowns. Isn’t that kind of crazy?
WWD: You picked it because you saw a spot in the market, right?
V.W.: Yes. Because when I went looking, I was thirty-nine-and-three-quarters, everybody else was 25 in that era, and I just didn’t see dresses I could relate to. My friend Tina Chow said something to me one night in Paris. She said, “You know, Vera, you should get Karl to do your wedding gown. With your love of clothes, you should own one couture dress made out of chiffon, muslin, before those ladies are gone. That’s what you should do.”
WWD: Before those ladies are gone?
V.W.: Meaning the sewers, the petite mains, the incredible rooms that Chanel has. She wore a lot of Chanel because she was so close to Karl. And she said to me, “You of all people, with your love of clothes, should own one couture dress by the house of Chanel while they still make that kind of clothing, and it should be your wedding gown, even if it’s in black.” I never did get that Chanel couture dress.
WWD: A shame! That was good advice.
V.W.: It was. She said, “for you who loves clothing so much, and who curates and collects and all that stuff, it would be so good for you to have one piece while they still can do that kind of work.” In a way, to me, Prada and other designers who do that level of workmanship are the new couture. Don’t you agree? I like to hope that the clothing we make and the effort we put to hand-sew, all of that is the new couture. Because ready-to-wear as we knew it [years ago] was very different, right?
V.W.: There was couture and there was ready-to-wear. And now ready-to-wear is really contemporary and other things, Supreme and that kind of stuff.
WWD: There are different kinds of clothes.
V.W.: I love clothing. I’m a collector and a curator, I have great respect for the craft. For me, being a fashion designer is a learning process, learning and understanding shoulder construction and collars and fabric gauge and weight and how to align which part of the body and trying to drape and tackle things that are maybe a bit above my grade, but I’m going to give it a shot and experiment. That’s part of why I went into it, because I love the craft, this side of it.
WWD: You are a different drummer, particularly in New York.
V.W.: Our collection — people always say, “You don’t have a ready-to-wear business,” and we don’t, really. By any standards of volume, we do not. But I’m going to be very honest, it’s my own personal learning procedure, and it’s my own growth, not only as a designer, but as a human being. It gives me a reason to learn more, to study more.
But at the same time, I do a very big business at Kohl’s that is commercial, and nobody ever mentions that. We do clothes that are commercial and they are very, very nice clothes.
WWD: What’s your level of involvement in that collection?
V.W.: A lot. I’m not at every design meeting; I was for the first seven years. They have very, very good teams to back us there. But the style is very much derived from [my collection]. I’ll give you an example from the [fall 2019] Celtic collection. The new Kohl’s collection has a ton of plaid — window pane, Harris tweed — all those kinds of British men’s wear fabrics. Collection affects everything that we do there. If there’s a great trench, it’s going to appear in the Kohl’s line. It’s a curation of what I’m thinking.
WWD: Folks, Vera can do commercial. Vera does do commercial!
V.W.: Right. People ignore that. That collection is a very big deal. It’s a very big deal because we sell clothes to women all over America. Not only ath-leisure, although we have some of it, but wearable clothes. I care a great deal about the knitwear, about the pants, about the jean program, the little black dresses. I care about how the shoes look, the little booties and the small leather goods. I care about all of it. I’m very proud of that collection.
WWD: You should be.
V.W.: I really am. And we do another business in Korea as well that is beautifully made.
WWD: What is that?
V.W.: CJO. It’s home shopping. Those clothes sell to real women. This is not the more esoteric, elevated, experimental, conceptual clothing I try to bring to the runway, but even so, my runway clothing is wearable. You can wear my blazers. You break it apart, it actually is really wearable.
WWD: You have two levels of bridal.
V.W.: In all fairness, I have a bottom-line business in bridal, too, at David’s. I have both tiers. Because the other tier enables me to do the upper tier in a more artful way.
WWD: You cover both sides.
V.W.: But I’m not often judged that way; you know that. I am viewed only for the two upper ends. Am I wrong? I don’t think I am.
WWD: So, two sides to Vera Wang, experimental designs and smart fashion for a broad audience. Let’s talk about the experimental collection side.
V.W.: When people say, “You do your shows and you’re not that commercial” — my shows are for me to express myself and to learn and to grow as a designer, as an artist, as a person.
WWD: You’re getting worked up.
V.W.: This is my personal journey, to become a better designer, to become a better artist, to be better, to learn more.
WWD: Is color study part of that journey? When you do it, you show an intriguing color sense, moody and a little odd in the combinations, yet you don’t often do it. You love your black.
V.W.: Thank you, I do love color if I find a way to do it that’s modern. A bright yellow suit is never going to be me. In this past bridal collection, where I’m mixing color, it worked. I like a sophisticated palette. It is very much based on Vermeer, on Rembrandt. If I find a reason in bridal to make it valid, I will do it. Ready-to-wear I find more challenging to work in color.
WWD: That’s certainly interesting. Why?
V.W.: Because the modernity of ready-to-wear, it’s harder to make color look modern. I mean, just doing a red dress because it’s color wouldn’t be authentic; it wouldn’t be honest of me.
WWD: Your last runway show was two years ago. Are you returning now because of the anniversary?
V.W.: It’s many things. I’m going to choose the right word here. Fun isn’t the word, but I had a desire to show on the runway again, the thought that it would feel meaningful to me. The second part of it is that we’ve been in flux in our industry. I’m an officer on the board of the CFDA, and I felt it would be supportive to show during fashion week. I thought it was the right time. Then the 30th came up and honestly, there is an emotional side to me about my 30th. Not in a celebratory way, but that I have survived. For me, fashion is emotional. So I thought on so many levels it would be such a great thing to do, and I felt capable of doing it.
WWD: Describe the collection at this point.
V.W.: I’ll use one word. I think it’s louche. I’ve done a lot of tailoring in the past few years, good tailoring, and I wanted a chance to bring that other side in for tension. Louche against tailoring, and maybe subliminally, a little bit of bridal. Maybe subliminally, I wanted to bring in things that were a bit more romantic mixed with a bit tougher or more tailored, not just tailoring. If you look back at the two last collections, there’s a lot of tailoring.
So I would say, if I get it right, louche. If I don’t get it right, God knows what it is. At one point, I was thinking of showing during couture in Paris, ready-to-wear and bridal together. I thought I could give myself an excuse to use more complicated techniques for ready-to-wear. I don’t often let myself [think that way] because I’ve fought my whole life not to be thought of as just an evening gown designer. I’ve spent years doing [clothes for] the way I dress. I don’t run around in evening gowns and wedding gowns. You know me, I’m a legging girl, It used to embarrass my daughters when I went to pick them up at dancing school. They said, “please mom, don’t come in a legging.”
WWD: Your last bridal collection had some of the most memorable dresses I’ve ever seen. And I don’t mean bridal, I mean some of the most memorable period. For a hot minute, you thought of showing in Paris this season. You told me recently that André Leon Talley once said you might be perceived differently as a designer if you’d based your business in Europe.
V.W.: André did say that. I’m kind of a studier. If I wanted a Saint Laurent jacket, I wanted to see how wide the pad was season to season. And there are 80 ways to do a shoulder pad. It can be thinner here and then here it can be thicker. It can be thicker here, like what’s going on with Balenciaga, the shoulders they’re creating that are this high. I paid attention to that because to me, that separates all the stuff that’s out there from the creators.
I don’t know what happens when there are no more creators. When people have the desire, the knowhow and the passion, but there are no houses to support them anymore, then what will it be? Will everything be contemporary? Will everything be a cold-shoulder blouse or top? Contemporary is the new ready-to-wear.
WWD: A lot of contemporary looks great.
V.W.: Yes, absolutely. But I’m just saying, where does fashion go if there are only the pretty floral dresses? Not that I don’t like a pretty floral dress; I have a very beautiful one from Prada. It’s not that. I just admire the creatives. I’m in awe of Rick [Owens] because I know how hard it is to stay within your wheelhouse and not jump around and yet innovate. It’s much easier to jump around.
V.W.: Hey, you want to turn around and do an evening gown cut down to your ass? And then the next season you’re doing Savile Row tailoring and then the next season you’re doing jeans that are sliced in 50 different positions, and with a torn T-shirt and a hoodie. I’m just saying to stay within one’s lane and to evolve, it takes far more discipline and is harder than to jump around. And the companies that succeed in the past have stuck to their lane, such as Chanel; such as Ralph Lauren; such as Miuccia Prada; such as even, I mean, Rei Kawakubo; such as Sacai. These, to me, are creators. They stay within their lane but they evolve their lane. That’s really hard to do.
WWD: The CFDA. What do you think of the new chairman and how he is doing so far?
V.W.: Obviously, Tom [Ford] is brilliant. You don’t achieve what he has achieved by accident. I think he will bring that level of seriousness and commitment and determination. Each president is different. I’ve served under a few.
WWD: I thought there might be negative fallout over the truncated schedule, but I haven’t heard much.
V.W.: I think what happened is that with Diane [von Furstenberg], we tried to be very inclusive, which is appropriate and respectful. Whether you design ID bracelets or you design couture jackets, whatever, you are a designer. But what happened as the shows started to get bigger and bigger and the weeks started stretching longer and longer and the days went from six to seven to eight to nine, pretty soon we’re headed toward 14, and we did not discuss it. None of us felt it was fair to say to people, well, you don’t qualify. And the schedule just started to get more and more out of hand. That’s part of the reason I said I’m going to get lost in 400 shows off-calendar and on-calendar. So the truncated schedule seems to have flown. My coming back was many things. It was emotional. I felt excited, I felt, not an obligation, but I wanted to be supportive of CFDA. And it happened to be my 30th. So let’s see what happens.
WWD: Instead of a big party for your 30th, you’re doing an initiative with Brides Across America, outfitting 10 military and first responder brides and grooms and their wedding parties for their weddings. Have you picked the couples yet?
V.W.: No, but I read some submissions over the weekend and I started crying. These people wrote to me personally; it wasn’t some typed-out p.r. statement. One woman wrote, “I have children now, and don’t have the money to get married, to throw a wedding.” Another letter, these people were walking home from a mess hall or whatever. They weren’t dating, they were talking, getting to know each other, and a bomb blew up. She said she was so frightened, and even though she was in the military, she fell apart, and he was there to comfort her.
WWD: These stories sound so moving.
V.W.: People who came back from Afghanistan — I mean, when you see a man who has no legs from his knees down and he’s brave, it makes you look at your own life and say what the — [with] your own bulls–t, I mean.
So when this concept came up for my 30th, I just thought, “wow, this is a chance to do something.” They’ve given and sacrificed in ways that most civilians have not. And to tie it into something happy.
WWD: It will mean so much to these couples. The gift of a Vera gown, and the full wedding party extras and all the extras.
V.W.: I didn’t think anybody would be that interested.
WWD: The world’s most renowned bridal designer who dresses legions of gorgeous celebrity brides in exquisite gowns? Nah, why would anyone be interested?
V.W.: I’m hearing bridal is down around the world. I mean, it’s a very changed mentality of Millennials. But this project, I’m just happy to do it.
WWD: Back to your 30th anniversary show. How many looks?
V.W.: We’re going to work backward. Because it depends on the staging and the pacing. Originally,I wanted 30 and then I thought it would be an impossible stage for 30 because it goes by so quickly in a bigger venue than in a showroom. I would guess 35 to 40.
WWD: That’s a good number.
V.W.: Yes, that’s a lot. I’m glad we talked about Kohl’s. It means something to me, you know? It really does mean something.
WWD: You keep coming back to Kohl’s. You sound as passionate about it as about collection.
V.W.: It means a great deal to me because I don’t know why women all over America shouldn’t get great clothes for their money. I’m proud that we make an effort; we really work. We care about everything, all the art associated with it, whether it’s TV or something for Instagram. I mean, it’s very, very important to us, it’s not just a check. We care.