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.

VOGUE Australia - - CONTENTS - Vera Wang in one of her sig­na­ture black out­fits.

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.”

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