VERA WANG teaches CHRISTINA KO a thing or two about balance
WE’RE GATHERED FOR pre-lunch champagne at the garden of a private mansion on The Peak that overlooks Hong Kong, and I’m afraid Vera Wang is going to fall. The scene is picture-perfect for a pre-wedding photo shoot, possibly featuring one of Wang’s to-die-for bridal confections, but the stone-covered pathways are certainly not made for those sporting six-inch Alaïa boots. “If she falls, it’ll make for a good story,” suggests the devil on my left shoulder…
She doesn’t, because no self-respecting New Yorker would. But luckily for me, she does give a good story, even if it’s not a tale of the mighty fallen. Although the wedding world forever associates her name with gowns that are the stuff of dreams, those who follow fashion news know that the woman behind the name is something of a tomboy, a spirited, articulate and fast-talking entrepreneur who transcends the title of designer and truly owns both her business and her identity.
That’s perhaps because the first hat Wang wore wasn’t that of a creative, but a teenage figure-skating champ with sights on the Olympics. When she didn’t make the American team in 1968, she did some time in Paris, where she inadvertently picked up enough French flair that when, back home, Vogue Fashion Director Frances Stein spotted her working at an Yves Saint Laurent boutique as a sales girl, she offered the then college student a job.
You won’t hear stories like that today, but Wang reminds, “This was another era. I think she thought I had a real gift for putting clothes together, and understood clothes, and I’d also lived in Paris, in all fairness. I’d always had a willingness to learn, was fascinated by the process of knowledge and learning. I’d studied skating and ballet and movement and dance; line, shape and volume – all that I studied in fashion as well. It wasn’t the glamour, because I didn’t know what glamour meant. It was the work, always the work.”
She stayed at Vogue for 16 years, until she was invited to join Ralph Lauren as design director, a job she held for another three years before launching her own bridal boutique in 1990, just as she herself was engaged to be married. For those who’ve met Wang, a sensible woman with a personal style that leans towards biker-goth and an admitted affinity for androgynous clothing, going bridal was a bizarre, almost illogical move. In fact, the decision to descend into wedding whimsy was driven entirely by pragmatism.
“My father identified a business opportunity that he thought would be very controllable, sustainable, and where I could build a platform. I don’t think he ever thought beyond that, and if you know anything about bridal, there are very few repeat clients – at least you hope not – and there’s no inventory because dresses are cut and made to measure, in very few fabrics compared to ready-to-wear,” she says.
“A lot of the investment for bridal in the beginning was so much smaller than it ever would have been for a collection; I mean not even on a comprehensible scale. It was a very practical business plan: start in bridal, go to evening and from there work backwards to sportswear.”
Few designers would admit that their career plans were commercially driven; fewer yet would cop to taking advice from daddy. But back then, as now, Wang is no template creative. An Asian in a racially homogenous industry, an editor-turned-designer in an era before multi-hyphenates were common, a wedding-dress creator before anyone cared about making a name in that category, she has defied stereotype from the beginning.
When John Galliano and Wang visited Shanghai, they both took home inspiration for their next collections, his manifesting in classic embroideries and Ming Dynasty tropes, hers in the muted hues of modern China, greys and greens and copper – “[My ethnicity] has totally informed my work. I think there is a history, a respect of what came before. There is grace and a sense of mystery from an American perspective, about Asia. For that reason I like to think that whatever work I have created, there are all those elements – a sense of mystery, a sense of sensuality, a sense of grace.”
On a personal level, that mystery has been relatively easy to maintain, as a behind-the-scenes operator – until now. The age of social media today demands that a face accompanies each product, that an editor has a public voice, that a designer acts as a brand ambassador. It’s one of the more jarring changes in Wang’s 45-year career.
“I dress stars, and they are the stars, not me. I do my best to make them look the very best that they can look. The fact that the focus can turn back onto me or any of the other designers, my friends, it’s a bit unsettling for someone who has always worked – in the magazines, at Ralph Lauren, in my own company – behind the scenes,” she says. The editors are getting the same treatment, as well, I point out, particularly those in the fashion beat.
“Yes,” she muses. “It’s turning on everybody and I think there is certainly a freedom to it, but there is also a randomness to it that sometimes is disconcerting. I’m basically quite a quiet person. I have lived a fairly quiet life and I think the people I dress have not, they are movie and TV and music stars and that’s how I’ve always viewed them. I don’t equate myself to that; I don’t feel I have anything to do with that. If my work speaks, that’s where I get most satisfaction, and that could be a bride, not just a movie star.”
Wang may not see herself as a front-and-centre spokesperson, but she definitely has no aversion to seeing her name on efforts that stretch beyond the wedding dress realm. Her bridal line, available in Hong Kong at Central Weddings, and in a standalone boutique in SoHo, needs no further mention. Her ready-to-wear label, launched in 2002, has become a space in which Wang can express her true aesthetic, a sporty, athletic princess with a little rock-star edge. She has more reasonably priced bridal and lifestyle collections with David’s Bridal and Kohl’s respectively, she’s designed for Olympic figure skaters such as Michelle Kwan and Evan Lysacek as a way of paying homage to her own past, and has launched fragrance, jewellery, eyewear, shoe and home collections. “I think there’s a film and I think there’s some books in me. There’s definitely somewhere an athletic line – that is so much a part of how I dress and how I live and would be extremely authentic,” she says. “I think I would love to tap into a market that is somewhere between the price points we’re at.”
So basically…she wants it all. You could call it a thirst for success, but also, on some level, the need for diversity could be born out of a frustration at too much success in one particular realm, the one she first entered. “I do sometimes feel very frustrated [at being primarily associated bridal design]. I always say I’m a fashion designer who happens to do bridal gowns.
“[But] probably one of the reasons we’ve been successful with bridal is because I never came from a bridal place. I think I brought a certain freedom and out-of-the-box experimentation and whimsy to a category that is quite traditional. I wasn’t trapped within a bridal vocabulary. It’s also extremely – in a weird way – liberating. I can express great theatre and drama with wedding, and with ready-to-wear I can have a chance to express my own true personal nature, which is easier. Lighter, cooler, hipper.”