Vera Wang balanced wit and humor with seriousness and reflection as she talked about her career and red-carpet styling during a talk at the Chateau Marmont Tuesday.
The luncheon was the start of the “Runway to Red Carpet” initiative put on via a partnership among the Council of Fashion Designers of America, Variety and WWD. The latter two share a parent in Penske Media Corp.
Wang’s talk officially began a two-week showcase at Fred Segal in Los Angeles of 10 CFDA designers.
“Our main mission and goal at the CFDA is to promote American fashion worldwide and we thought there was no better way to do that than here in Los Angeles during awards season,” CFDA president and chief executive officer Steven Kolb said.
Wang’s talk, moderated by WWD West Coast bureau chief Marcy Medina, was aimed at providing insight from a longtime designer who has snagged plenty of red-carpet successes.
“When you’ve had the success and the experience that Vera’s had, you don’t have to hold back on your words,” Kolb said just before the program began. “You can say what you think, and Vera often does, and I find it incredibly refreshing and insightful.”
Here, an edited version of the “Runway to Red Carpet” conversation:
WWD: Why don’t you describe your first experience with the red carpet, because I think it’s important to put into context the difference that’s been created in the last few years between then and now.
Vera Wang: It was 1912 and the Titanic had…and I’m not kidding, but anyway I’d had a very long career at Vogue magazine for many, many years shooting pictures and then after that I worked at Ralph Lauren as a design director for women’s. When I was 39 3/4 and I decided that I wanted to start a fashion company, I think everybody laughed at me, which I understand. I’d already had two very wonderful careers, but what I realized right off the bat is for young designers, it’s not only about your work and how hard you work and what you create, it’s also who’s wearing it.
That’s one of the lessons I always try to get across whenever I’m speaking with them because you can do the most extraordinary blazer tailoring and the most extraordinarily draped gown, but if no one sees it, it’s a secret.
To be on a global stage is just about the best thing you can achieve. So red-carpet dressing, long before it was called red carpet, was already something I realized was very, very necessary to get your message across. I also didn’t really have any money for a fashion show. And because of that I felt it was more going to be about who I dressed than even the shows and Steven [Kolb], you don’t want to hear that, but it was the truth for me at the time. So from the very beginning, my experience in my own company after working for other people for over 20 years was that I felt it was very, very important to get my clothing on the right people. In that day and age, other than socialites, it was really about Hollywood.
WWD: For you, personally, how do you determine who you dress? What are the criteria for you?
V.W.: I never determined anything; I still don’t determine anything. I think that certainly in the old studio days MGM, Warner — many of the stars in that era were dressed by the studio. Grace Kelly, all of them. Certainly Audrey Hepburn with Givenchy was a complete collaboration and endured their entire lifetime.
I think what really happened was I got really lucky in one of those freaky, lucky moments. I’m going to mention Sharon Stone because she’s really perhaps the reason I’m here ultimately. At the time, many of you might not even remember her, but what really happened was I’d seen her movie called “Total Recall” and she was evil and sociopathic in that role.
WWD: She was the crazy wife who turned out to be a robot.
V.W.: Yes and I thought, “That’s really interesting” and she was beautiful. So I asked a friend of mine, who happened to be a makeup artist that I was doing a shoot with, and I said, “This woman is kind of interesting and someday maybe I’ll get to dress her,” because I had a feeling that something would happen with her, which is what I say to a lot of young designers when they ask, “how do we make that happen?” I say, keep an eye on what’s going on in film, in music, in Hollywood. And it may not be the biggest star right now, but there are many young women and men who are emerging and that’s the time for you to really notice them before they sign with major companies and get huge deals. That is the time to find them and I think that in the case of Sharon, we met through this young woman and we sort of just made this pact that if she ever got to the Oscars and if I was lucky enough to still be in business, I would want to dress her. And I ended up dressing her after “Basic Instinct” and it was just one of those insane moments where it was the right girl in the right dress at the right time.
WWD: We all know it’s about timing.
V.W.: Yeah, and it had been a history really at that point where Europe pretty much controlled the red carpet. It was Chanel, Armani — Mr. Armani. Versace — Gianni — and Valentino. They were the ones that really dressed primarily everyone. Annette Bening and Jodie Foster were dressed by Armani. There were loyalties there.
I think that Women’s Wear did a really great thing. They wrote, “Everywhere we looked we saw Chanel, Armani, Versace, Valentino and.…Vera Wang?” Like that. Like who is she? What is she doing here, even though I spent 20 years in fashion before that.
WWD: And it was time for New York to get into the game.
V.W.: And from there it just exploded. There have been times when I’m watching at home and I watch a lot of people commenting and sometimes it seemed to me that almost what they wear’s overtaken their roles. That’s what I find really extraordinary about what happened in fashion. Fashion really merged with entertainment and music, and those crossovers — they’re totally blurred lines now.
The greatness about it is it opens room for other kinds of creativity and that’s what I think is so exciting.
WWD: And to your point about Sharon and “Basic Instinct,” you think about going with your instincts. You could pay someone to give you a list of the top most up-and-coming people, or you could read the tabloids or you could read the fashion magazines, but it’s really about who you connected with. There was something about Sharon.
V.W.: She was virtually unknown at the time and I’d spent — I won’t say how many years — tons of years in Hollywood and nothing ever happened, but at that particular juncture it just happened.
WWD: The title of our event is “Runway to Red Carpet.” You design a runway collection and it’s editorial, it’s runway. What elements of that, if any, translate best into creating a red-carpet gown or into interpreting one of those looks for the red carpet?
V.W.: It really depends because I’ve been doing it for 30 years so my collections — I think if you read any reviews from Women’s Wear, have been mixed at times — but I think one thing I’ve tried to be is kind of fearless. And if I’m going to do it, I’m going to do what I want to do or I’m not going to do it. That’s been good and that’s been not so good. But, overall, I think any designer today has to believe in that woman that’s in their head. There has to be a muse. There has to be somebody you see when you design.
It doesn’t matter if you’re male or female. That’s not important. Male designers are amazing because they design in an abstract world. They’re not running around the clothes all the time. And women designers design in a very authentic and personal way because, like Donna Karan or a lot of my friends, they literally put on their clothes and try them on, how they work, how they feel, how they move. That’s what makes both valid. Both male and female designers are valid, but each brings different things to fashion.
For me what I did for Hollywood didn’t always reflect what I was doing in my own ready-to-wear. Ready-to-wear I’m known for being black and dark and depressed. That’s what they all say, but for me hopefully as a modernist, black for me, is a symbolic metaphor.
In a way, whatever you do, once you reduce to black, there’s a modernity that comes across. That doesn’t mean it satisfies other categories and you have to be aware of that.
So when I try to transfer runway to red carpet, I think there are three things that enter into it, no matter what ready-to-wear design collection I’m doing on the runway. It could be very sportswear. It could be very masculine. It could be very feminine. It could be whatever I think most of the stylists are looking for: quality or some sort of statement…some sort of vision for something that’s special.
The second part of it is it could also be about technique. There have been years I have been very, very baroque and I wanted to create incredible techniques like bullion embroidery that’s hand-sewn in metal and working lace hand-pieced and that kind of thing. I think that kind of ornamentation can fit into some stylist’s vision of their client.
But then there’s also color. Speaking as someone who designs primarily in black, color becomes very important when you’re talking about being on television and I think skin color, the shape of the star, who she is — all those things factor in. The fact that it started with Charlize [Theron] for me or with Michelle Williams, with Kate Youngs. It started out as they sort of liked something that I did and we collaborated.
Now that there are really people who created this incredible industry of styling, they are fully devoted to that. We were not. We were a design house. We had shows to give. We had things to do, but I was very lucky to dress some of the most amazing actors ever. Now the new generation has the benefit of stylists who are completely devoted and educated and care. I think that’s just an incredible addition.
WWD: It enhances what you all do.
V.W.: Yes, it helps them. Everybody’s under so much scrutiny. I am as a designer, the stylists are, the stars are and with Instagram and Snapchat and everything else. It’s harder on everyone than it ever was, but by the same token, the caliber of everything has risen because of it. It’s big changes from when I started.
WWD: It also brings to mind the Michelle Williams marigold dress in 2004. It’s just such a watershed moment for many of us here.
V.W.: That’s cause you’re all young.
WWD: Well, we’re not all that young. But with social media spurring that pressure to always create the perfect moment and we all know that’s a combination of timing and collaboration.
V.W.: And also roles. She came out of an incredible film. Her role in it was amazing and one of my favorite films of all time and she also had Heath [Ledger], forgive me for this. Rest in peace. But she had the best arm candy or accessory you could possibly have, which was the wonderful Heath Ledger and I think that it was a moment in time. Everything else was magical and they were magical and they’d just had Matilda and she was still breastfeeding and she may be mad at me for saying that. They were just happy and I think that reflects, too, when you’re lucky enough to get a Hollywood couple that are together and happy, that’s the ultimate dream.
WWD: It’s hard to miss that we are going through quite a watershed moment in society, in our industry. As a woman and as a leader in this industry, what role do you think we, as a fashion industry, can play in promoting gender equality? Do you think there’s still more work to be done in our industry specifically?
V.W.: I think there always is and I don’t think it’s just in our industry. It’s in everything. I know certain people would like to regard us all as left, left of left liberals, but in all fairness, I have to say that what was so amazing about the Golden Globes was that it was all our industries put together. It wasn’t just fashion. It wasn’t just entertainment, the world of entertainment film and specifically TV, and it wasn’t just music. It was everyone coming together. The common goal. I think sometimes, although we are so influential in culture globally, all these industries, sometimes I do think they think of us as sort of all glamorous, all fun, and maybe sometimes frivolous. When we could raise that kind of power and awareness, I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but it was very, very moving for someone from my generation because people realized that we do account for not only talent, but also commerciality. We make money. We’re industries that make money and affect so many thousands and millions of lives in every generation. I was unfortunately sitting in New York watching it on TV, but it was very empowering to me and made me feel very optimistic. And I happened to have had the good luck to dress Meryl Streep, who I worship. That gave it not only a seriousness, but a sense of purpose.
WWD: As an industry leader, do you feel an obligation to consider, cooperate with or even lead when it comes to, sartorially, how you can make a symbol with such watershed moments?
V.W.: I’ve really felt that the diversity is amazing. The fact that we can dress women of all colors and all sizes and all kinds of massive talent, I think that is the message we have to give — that we are important. We are significant. We do contribute and that’s just a wonderful thing for my generation to see. It’s just great to have lived to see it.
WWD: Well I think you still have many, many years left in the industry.
V.W.: I don’t know. I’m trying to make the next Olympics. I’ve got a deal with somebody that we’re going to get to Beijing somehow and they just said “Pace yourself.”
WWD: What do you think is next, not just for the Oscars on March 4, but for the red carpet of the future?
V.W.: I’d love to see women and men perhaps experiment a little bit more. Believe me, if anyone understands what’s weighing on all of this, the right look and the right moment and the right magic can enhance an artist’s career. And a bad moment, which I have had, can be very destructive. So that responsibility I never, ever forget about whenever I dress anybody, whether it’s Nathan Chen at the Olympics or it’s Meryl Street at the Golden Globes. You have an innate responsibility to your client and the stylists work so hard to make sure that moment is magical for them and recognizes their individuality. I think that I’ve now realized the seriousness of it, but at the same time I think it wouldn’t be the world we’re all in if we didn’t experiment a little bit more so that would be something that I would love to see going forward.