LUST FOR LIFE
With a decades-long career in fashion that has seen her morph from Vogue editor to designer of many forms, Vera Wang reflects on lessons learnt, style and epiphanies. By Claire Brayford.
With a decades-long career in fashion, Vera Wang reflects on lessons learnt, style and epiphanies.
Vera Wang loves to list. Her bridal legacy: “Colour, nude, black, empire waistlines, seductive mermaids, stretch illusion, asymmetry and subtle nudity.” What she looks for in a brand partner: “Heritage, history, quality, innovation and trust.” And modern designers should be: “Promoters, personalities, artists, managers, branders and multimedia global thinkers.”
Whether it is to emphasise her point, fill time in an interview, or simply a habit acquired from reciting the many iterations of her multi-million-dollar empire, she uses lists repeatedly.
Her name is synonymous with the gold standard of bridal wear, but her business boasts ready-to-wear, homewares, fragrance, jewellery, eyewear, footwear, stationery and bedding, as well as her affordable fashion and lifestyle line Simply Vera. That particular list has made the 69-year-old one of America’s richest businesswomen.
We meet to celebrate one of her longstanding partnerships, with luxury tableware brand Wedgwood, at its museum/ showroom in Stoke-on-Trent in the north of England. Wang, dressed in her signature black, her long ebony hair blurring into her gothic vest, trousers and towering heels, is in stark contrast to the shelves of white china, her fine, delicate features the only similarity. Her handshake is firm and her gaze direct, but she is warm, open and focussed.
The native New Yorker is a powerhouse entrepreneur. In 2017, she was made a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur in France, and she claims to have lived three lives. In her youth she trained as a champion ice-skater (she recently designed the sleek ensembles for Nathan Chen for the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang); she was made the youngest senior fashion editor of Vogue, at 23; and now her business is enjoying unimaginable success.
She was born, as she points out, shortly after World War II (her father was a pharmaceutical entrepreneur, her mother a translator at the United Nations, and her maternal grandfather a famous general in the Chinese army) and yet she lives to embrace the new.
Her Vera Wang Gang Insta Stories are filled with glimpses of the woman behind the brand: a breathtaking holiday at Amanzoe in Greece, for example, or her birthday treat, captioned: ‘All of my favourite things’, comprising of cakes in the shapes of a croissant, a Chinese takeout box and a bottle of Chopin potato vodka. “Things I would never have dreamed of have happened and that keeps your passion for design and the hard work it takes,” she says. “Every day, another thing occurs that I don’t expect and that surprise is wonderful – I wish it for all young women.”
She crossed the Atlantic to her beloved Paris on ocean liners as a child but is excited to now have the digital world at her fingertips. “Technology has created a new culture, a new way of interacting, purchasing and being inspired. It is scarily and excitingly new, and that difference keeps me thinking young,” she says. “I feel the need to push further, and anything that does that is a wonderful way to live. If you stop learning and growing that is really the end.”
Hamish Bowles, Vogue’s international editor at large, who first spent time with Wang while working on a story about her elegant Park Avenue apartment, describes her as the “quintessential fashionista”, admiring her passion, energy and great comic timing. “She has a real instinct for the fashion Zeitgeist,” he says. “And, of course, she is her own best model. I love that she celebrates other designers (and often wears their work) but has defined a strong look of her own. It was so remarkably apt that she saw a gap in the market and developed her bridal brand, applying the same high aesthetic standards that she would to her fashion line – and in the process has made generations of brides truly chic.”
So what does it take to be Vera Wang? “I’m not sure I can express it,” Wang says, “but a sincere passion or devotion, if you will, for fashion and a true respect for creativity would be part of it, but also, a lifelong work ethic as well.”
Wang admits to struggling to find a balance between the creative and commercial alchemy required in any business today, but has a stoical attitude to switching off from the world. “I sleep,” she says. “I eat. I love a cocktail! And I don’t bring my phone.”
She’s famed for working hard and being positive, and those traits were tested on her very first day at Vogue, reporting to then fashion editor Polly Mellen. Wang arrived to assist on a shoot in a white Saint Laurent crepe-de-chine dress, sandals and, as she recalls: “Excuse me, red nails!” Mellen told her to change. “I went home and put on jeans and a boy’s shirt and the rest is sort of history,” she says with a smile.
At Vogue she worked with Irving Penn, Richard Avedon and Herb Ritts, but the desire to build her own business, as her father had done, always lingered. After nearly two decades, she left to join Ralph Lauren as design director.
It marked a new chapter, not only at work but also her personal life, with US Vogue’s editor-in-chief Anna Wintour encouraging her to start a family.
“We first met when she first moved to NYC,” Wang explains. “We still argue over how old we both were, but we were young and Anna loved tennis even then. Throughout our careers, ups and downs, we were always able to confide and encourage and support each other. When I was still single, and Anna had just had Bee, she lectured me one evening in Paris: ‘It’s time for you to get married and think of starting a family’, but then Ralph Lauren had actually advised me the same thing.”
While planning her wedding and struggling to find a dress she had her epiphany. Invariably dressed in black, she was perhaps the last person expected to become a bridal designer, but in 1990 she opened her first store on Madison Avenue, delivering brides, as Wintour put it, “from having to look like over-aerated cream puffs”.
“I have always insisted that I brought freedom,” says Wang, who for spring/ summer ’19 created wedding gowns in cascading handpainted tulle in colours inspired by the Dutch master Johannes Vermeer. “I was not a bridal gown designer per se, and nothing in my resume at Vogue or Ralph Lauren would suggest that. However, I was a fashion editor and designer who did not feel the need to conform to the standardised look of bridal gowns in the 90s. Opening the door to wedding fashion for brides of all sensibilities and styles was probably my greatest contribution.”
She says her secret is to put the bride first, creating a gown that reflects her personality. “When I do ready-to-wear it is very much my aesthetic. For a bride it is very different, but hopefully the same intellect,” she says.
Yet despite that empathy, it is often the parents she feels for the most. “At Chelsea Clinton’s wedding, I remember getting emotional for the President [Bill Clinton] because I had never seen him so nervous – even for his inauguration,” says Wang. “She was quite relaxed; he was not. I was fixing her train in sweatpants and he said: ‘I hope you are not going like that to the wedding?’”
So is there anything she would like to add to her list of achievements – perhaps a return to Vogue if the right job came along?
She refuses to take the bait: “A guest editorship would be fun in a new context and with a different perspective. Magazines take many forms today, but sharing ideas, thoughts, experiences and life will never get old.”