The Workhorse

Vera Wang chose the travails of building a fashion company over the easy life of a society lady.

ou might say Vera Wang's fashion empire was her very oxlike solution to two very personal problems.

     She encountered the first in 1989 as a worldly first-time society bride at the age of 40: Wang couldn't find a suitably fetching wedding gown worth a darn.

     She wanted her wedding to be a lavish affair, a true piece of theater. This was, after all, a woman who had spent her life creating theater on stages and skating rinks and in magazine pages, and this was the most dramatic event of her life. Yet she couldn't find “a real retail bridal operation” in Manhattan, meaning a store that would advise on everything — not just the gown, but the shoes and flowers and accessories and hair and the groom's outfit and the bridesmaid’s dresses and whatever else a bride-to-be might need to know about.

     Even worse, Wang couldn't find a wedding dress appropriate for a sophisticated, modern woman. Not only were they frilly and poufy and geared toward a young, innocent bride, but they were designed for a bygone era. As much as women had evolved over the years, it seemed their wedding dresses had remained frozen in time.

     After several failed purchase attempts, Wang finally paid $10,000 for a hand-beaded duchesse satin gown and planned by herself a wedding for 400 guests at New York's Pierre hotel. What with a 22-piece orchestra, hundreds of off-white roses and copious quantities of Cristal champagne and caviar, it got full coverage in The New York Times Magazine alongside the weddings of Princess Diana's brother and the president of Chanel.

     Matters might have ended there but for a second, even more personal problem. Her wedding was followed by a “grueling infertility” which required Wang to go to the hospital every other day for sonograms and blood tests. That made it impossible for her to devote herself to her work as design director at Ralph Lauren. Wang quit, as much for Lauren's sake as for her own.

     A year later Wang wasn't pregnant, but with a $4 million check from her father and no day job, she was free to open her own bridal store on Madison Avenue and a custom-order salon just across the street. Wang used a quarter of her father's investment to redecorate the boutique. While the work was being finished, she and an assistant sold wedding gowns from a hotel suite. In September 1990, Vera Wang Bridal House Ltd. officially opened its doors. Wang's former colleagues at Vogue paid tribute to her with a six-page article, and soon prospective brides were flocking to the boutique.

     Vera Wang was born in New York on June 27, 1949. Her father Cheng Ching Wang was a businessman who had the advantage of descending from a family of high-ranking Chinese generals and government officials. Her fashion-conscious mother Florence Wu was the pampered daughter of a Chinese warlord. Together they gave Vera a privileged girlhood on the moneyed Upper East Side. When Vera was a little girl her father bought her a pair of skates and took her to Central Park to try them out. Vera fell in love with the sport and was soon taking private lessons at Madison Square Garden.

     Given her parents' insistence on giving her the snootiest credentials Wang considers it "wild" that they allowed her to pursue figure skating. "It wasn't tennis or skiing or croquet or golf, things that were acceptable in those days," she says. "It was really a very blue-collar sport."

     "There's such a small window in which to make it," Wang says, "and you're judged so subjectively. And it's very political. There are factions and cliques, and you're not judged, you know, on whether you got to the wall first or broke through the tape first."

     Wang's Olympic dreams died at the age of 18 when she failed to place in singles at the National Figure Skating Championships. The following year she returned to compete in pairs and came in fifth. At that time she was dating the French national champion, so she trained for one more year and did some exhibition skating. She quit soon after deciding that she couldn't live on the ice-show circuit.

     After finishing Chapin Vera attended Sarah Lawrence. She majored in theater since it was "just a hop and a skip away from ice skating." But she soon decided that an Asian woman in the early '70s was never going to make it as an actress. She switched her major to art history and spent one of her undergraduate years at the Sorbonne soaking up French fashion. That time kindled the love of fashion that would translate into her life's work though she didn't start thinking about making it her career until after graduation.

     During her year in Paris while studying at the Sorbonne Vera had lived at her parents' apartment on the fashionable rue Spontini, steps from Yves Saint Laurent's salon. Then there were two summers working at the Yves Saint Laurent store in New York, first as a salesgirl and then as a window dresser. Attending design school seemed a natural next step.

     Her father disagreed. Cheng Ching Wang had founded Singapore Petroleum and the Summit Company, a U.S.-based pharmaceutical trading and distribution company with offices throughout the Far East. He felt it was time his daughter got serious, like her younger brother Kenneth who was working for the family business. He encouraged Vera to pursue something practical like business or law. Vera was distraught.

     "I had finished skating and finished college, and there was a very big void in my life," Wang recalls. "I really didn't want to go to law school or business school. And so my father said, 'Okay, if you think you're such a hotshot and you're talented in fashion, then get a job.'"

     Wang used a connection to get hired as an assistant editor at Vogue. She recalls her 16 years at Vogue as a time of around-the-clock work and unrelenting pressure. During collection season, for example, she would attend shows from 9:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m., run back to Vogue to look at film, select her choices of clothing, edit film until late afternoon, and then rush to the studio and work straight through until 2:00 in the morning, only to do the same thing the next day, and every day after that for a month and a half straight in order to catch the Italian, French, English and American collections.

     "To be a fashion editor at Vogue, which is about the highest you can attain in fashion magazine-land, there's nothing you haven't been exposed to, no conditions under which you haven't worked, and you had to produce," she says. "It's like boot camp," she continues after some thought. "When you walk out of there your mind functions differently. You don't ever see the world in the same way. And for that I'll always be so incredibly grateful."

     Wang left Vogue when it became evident that she wasn't in line for editor-in-chief because she wanted the power inherent in that position, not the power to rule over underlings, but the power to create, to have a vision and be able to express it and have it make an impact on people's lives.

     Wang calls her vision, which is reflected in the clothing she now designs, "modern clothes for modern women." It means an overall look that is sensual as opposed to aggressively sexy, feminine without being fussy, understated and confident, and above all, comfortable. She has nothing but disdain for jeweled dresses that weigh 30 pounds and practically put women in bondage. "I don't see modern women as wanting any part of that," she says.

     "I am a feminist," she declares. "When I stop and think about it, there's no other way I can label myself. I am for women. I think some of the greatest designers have been men, but I think there are some for whom women are abstract. It's a design concept. Or it's some kind of fantasy or joke on women. Either way, it's not based on a real understanding of women and women's needs. I respect other women, and my clothes show it. I'm not making fun of them or trying to degrade them or make them feel silly. I'm trying, if anything, to make them be at their very best."

     Her adopted daughters provide all the more reason for her to labor long hours like an ox to liberate her gender from the tyranny of male design dictates.

     "It's such a special privilege to be a mom," Wang says, "probably one of the greatest things that's ever happened to me. Unfortunately, I also have a business that is successful, and that is growing." She does take occasional vacations with her family, but they are working vacations, spent on the phone or sketching by the pool. It is how she imagines her daughters will remember her, and this fact causes her no small amount of anguish.

     Perhaps they will take comfort in the fact that their mother used that stolen time to help liberate women from outmoded fashion sensibilities.

Vera Wang makes an appearance for the Berlin launch of her Princess perfume. (Photo by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images Europe)

“When I stop and think about it, there's no other way I can label myself. I am for women.”


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