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An audience with Vera Wang: it’s all about the dress

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 September, 2012, 11:01am
UPDATED : Friday, 14 September, 2012, 4:11pm
 

Bridal designer Vera Wang  is the first to admit that she was not the best dressed woman at her own wedding. Instead, that accolade went to her chic mother, who wore a custom-made cheongsam.

“She was the most stunning woman there,” says Wang, pointing to the photo that takes pride of place in the living room of her Park Avenue apartment in New York.
“There’s a true sensuality to Chinese culture that I love,” she adds. “I always joke that we are the Italians of the Far East, with our love of food, the good life, sensuality, and beautiful things. That’s all very Chinese and it’s something I am proud of.”

Wang herself embodies Chinese beauty, with her creamy skin and waist-length, shiny black hair. It’s only when she starts talking with her broad accent and no-holds-barred,  can-do attitude that the New Yorker in her begins to emerge.

The American designer’s Chinese heritage influenced her from a young age. She spent 20 years building her business in the US, but now things are set to change, as she plants new roots in Asia. Next Monday, she opens her first stand-alone Hong Kong boutique, in a multilevel townhouse on SoHo’s Staunton Street. It’s her third bridalwear boutique in the region.

“We have been in Asia for 12 years, but this is the beginning of a bigger expansion for us,” she says. “Hong Kong is a big deal because of its stature as a fashion capital. I’ve had a long history with the city, which started with Joyce Ma.  But this is the big bang for us. I’d love to start spending more time there.”

Wang is a household name when it comes to bridalwear. The designer, who founded her eponymous label in 1993 in New York, has outfitted everyone from celebrities to politicians for their big day. She has dressed pop culture icon Kim Kardashian  and former first daughter Chelsea Clinton. 

Today, her empire has expanded to include everything from luxurious ready-to-wear and mass-market lines to accessories, perfume, stationary and even mattresses.

Did we mention that she was once a  figure skater as well? “I was competitive and very, very serious, but I didn’t make it in skating when I wanted to. That’s why I went into fashion,” she says.

It all happened when Wang was in college. She started competitive skating when she was eight. But after  failing to make the  US Olympic team, she decided to take a break from the pressures of competition.

“I wanted to escape from the ‘tiger mother’ syndrome. I had a bit of a breakdown and lots of self-doubt,” she says. “I went to Paris, and found myself. I was looking for something else, something that was artistic and that I could use to express myself. I was immediately drawn to fashion.

“I went home saying I wanted to be in fashion, but my father had other plans. He wanted me to go to Yale Law School. My mother thought I should get married and have kids,” she says, laughing.

She had her Lana Turner moment during a summer job at the Yves Saint Laurent boutique in New York.  US Vogue’s fashion director Frances Stein  came up to  Wang and told her to call her for a job once she had finished studying.

“I told my mum, and she thought I was being ridiculous. But when I finished college, I called and met the director of personnel. They asked me if I typed and I didn’t, so I had to go to secretarial school. I’ve never typed as much as that since.”

Wang ended up spending 15 years at Vogue, which she describes as a “Harvard Business School”  for fashion. She worked with the likes of Richard Avedon  and Irving Penn. 

After leaving, she joined mentor and friend  Ralph Lauren as a design director for two years, learning the fundamentals of her craft.

Bridalwear came into the picture when she couldn’t find a gown to wear at her own wedding.

“It was off-kilter considering my background. I don’t in any way mean to belittle bridal, but I remember Calvin Klein saying to me, ‘Call me when you are done with that’,” she says.

“It really was my father’s idea, being the businessman he was. From his point of view it was a no-brainer, as there’s low inventory, no mark downs, orders you can control, and a way to build a name.”

Wang soon brought a much-needed modern aesthetic to the category. In place of frothy meringue creations came elegant gowns with couture details such as draping and handmade lace. Each season, she pushed the envelope a little further.

Her current autumn-winter collection features airy nude and black dresses inspired by sexy undergarments, while red dresses reference passion and good fortune in her collection for next spring.

“I’ve always been more of an explorer, so what I do is ever-evolving. I think it’s my editor’s background. Part of my job is to be able to explore new ways of looking at something.

“Bridal is challenging because you have to think out of the box. I tell my staff, ‘Think menswear, womenswear and something will come to you’.”

What I do is ever-evolving. Part of my job is to be able to explore new ways of looking at something.

Since 2000, she has been adding to her brand, starting with a ready-to-wear line which is based more on her personal style aesthetic – think edgy, boy-meets-girl separates.

Last year, the company’s annual turnover was estimated to be about US$700 million.

Wang eventually hopes to  create a sports line, along the lines of Nike or Double RL,  based on her own experiences as an athlete. But bridal will always come first.

“Bridal is a very hard creative journey. When you sell to real people, you have to think how real women look. That’s an enormous education. It’s not a T-shirt or stretch jeans – it’s very technical and singular.

“Success for me is about the enthusiasm, passion and respect I have for design. I don’t just see it as a garment. It’s all about the vision of the house. I also have a personal relationship with the clothes.

“You can’t ask that of men – for them it’s abstract and they have to have some sort of muse. For me, and other female designers like Miuccia Prada and Jil Sander, it’s a personal journey,” she says.

Wang is one of a few designers in the industry to completely own her business.

“We’ve always been cautious, because we are self-funded and privately owned. In this day and age, it’s an anachronism. Most brands are involved with public money, or have massive partners and investors.

“I own 100 per cent of my company, for better or worse, and that is an unusual path to take in this day and age. I’m both a businesswoman and designer. It’s been very difficult to wear those two contrary hats for so long.

“You have to be involved in the business side if you own it. If you don’t, you have other people to worry about that, or to interfere with it. So you pick your poison,” she adds.

Wang’s biggest worry is that she won’t be able to come up with something new for each season.

“It’s one of my biggest fears. Creativity is a pressure. We all share that, whether you are on a big or small team. Things are sacrificed along the way in the name of productivity. I want it to be better,” she says.

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