First Person | Vera Wang

Vera Wang has turned what began as a single bridal boutique into a fashion and lifestyle empire with an overall retail value of over $1 billion. BoF speaks to the powerhouse entrepreneur about her remarkable professional journey.

Vera Wang | Source: Courtesy photo

NEW YORK, United States — “People have done far better than me in far shorter periods of time, but that wasn’t my story,” Vera Wang tells BoF. “It was brick by brick, client by client, store by store. It’s been a trip of passion, but it has not been a quick trip. Nor has it been easy. And that is the truth.”

The designer is the gold standard in high-end bridalwear, worn by everyone from Jennifer Lopez to Chelsea Clinton. She’s also a powerhouse entrepreneur who has grown a single bridal boutique into a fashion and lifestyle empire that spans a wide range of product segments — from engagement rings and ready-to-wear to dinner plates and cosmetics — at pricepoints that stretch from luxury to mass market.

“I wear many hats,” she says. “I have to be a promoter, a designer, a costumer of movie stars and celebrities, and a businesswoman,” says Wang, who heads both the business and creative sides of the company. “When you throw all of that into one bag, it’s a rough day. I love it, though.”

The results speak for themselves. According to market sources, the retail value of goods bearing Vera Wang’s name is estimated to be upwards of $1 billion per year.

Wang was born in New York City to wealthy immigrants from Shanghai, China. Her father was an entrepreneur who made his fortune in the pharmaceutical industry. “I think, in a way, watching him grow his company influenced me subliminally,” says Wang. Her mother, who worked as a translator at the United Nations, introduced her to fashion. “My mother and I went to a couture show when [Yves Saint Laurent] was on Rue Spontini,” she recalls. “That was his first couture house. It was a little atelier — 33 Rue Spontini, I still remember the address. So I really have been educated in fashion. I grew up with it, exposed to the greatest.”

At an early age, Wang began figure skating and, after years of intensive competition, tried, but failed to make, the 1968 US Olympic team. “When you fall down — which you have to [do] if you want to learn to be a skater — you pick yourself right up and start again. You don’t let anything deter you,” she notes. “Oddly enough, it’s strangely like fashion — you have a limited amount of time in which to get a point of view across.”

With her skating days behind her, Wang turned to fashion. “I thought maybe I could go to design school and my father said ‘Nope, go get a job.’” The summer after her junior year of college, she worked at the Yves Saint Laurent boutique on New York’s Madison Avenue. “It was just fate that I met — well, waited on — Frances Patiky Stein, who was one of the two fashion directors of [American] Vogue at the time. She said, ‘Call me when you’re finished with college.’ For some reason I believed her, and for some reason I did it. I called her two years later and she totally remembered me and got me an interview!”

Wang was hired at Vogue as a rover, or temporary assistant, and quickly worked her way up the ladder, becoming one of the magazine’s youngest ever fashion editors. “I got to work with Irving Penn and Richard Avedon — it’s kind of insane really when I think back on it,” she says of the 15 years she spent at Vogue. “It gives you an education that is parallel to none. There is nothing that isn’t available to you if you believe in it and want it and defend it to your boss. You had the best hairstylists, the best makeup artists, the best new photographers, the best established photographers.”

After being turned down for the editor-in-chief position, Wang left Vogue and, in 1987, joined Ralph Lauren. “I became a design director there,” Wang says. “It was incredible to work there. The budgets and the staff… as many ideas as you could come up with, that’s what they could execute. Very few companies can do that, myself included. So it was like a candy box.”

Two years later, while planning her wedding to Arthur Becker (from whom she is now separated), Wang had an epiphany. “I was a late bride and that experience of metamorphosis, going from being a fashion nun to being a bride, was kind of extreme for me,” she says. “There wasn’t anything, either a retail situation or a couture [designer] that really satisfied the needs of modern women, in my opinion. I was using common sense and thinking, ‘Well, everybody doesn’t want to wear the 4-inch cap-sleeve where you can’t lift your arms and a bodice of sequined lace with a big pouf skirt and stuff around your hair dangling down. I just thought there was another vision.”

In 1990, Wang opened her own bridal boutique, Bridal House Ltd., on Madison Avenue. “Because I didn’t come from a bridal background, I think I brought fashion to [the bridal industry],” she says. “I was fearless because I really didn’t know any better.”

Wang has since pushed the boundaries of bridalwear. “[I] try to bring an edginess to a traditional business,” she says. Her most recent collection, for example, blends a black and white palette, while, a year ago, her bridal gowns came in shades of red. “[I] take a lot of stylistic and visual and intellectual liberties with the concept of a wedding gown. Every season, I try to change it — and that demand I put on myself is enormous. It’s painful.”

A subversive sensibility is even more apparent in Wang’s ready-to-wear collection, first introduced in 2000 and inspired by the urban daywear she wears herself. “Ready-to-wear is far more experimental and a chance for me to express my own aesthetic. But it’s frustrating because I can’t make that into a business,” she says.

“My father had no idea about the garment business; what he did know was common sense business: that all businesses have to make money to survive and to attract the proper talent and the right support systems,” she continues. “I don’t mean you should sacrifice everything [creatively to make money] but there is a lot of fine-line walking there along the tightrope.”

Not only has Wang allied herself with two of the biggest bridalwear retailers in North America (Men’s Warehouse carries Vera Wang tuxedos and David’s Bridal host a line of Vera Wang wedding dresses), she has also teamed up with ubiquitous mall retailer Zales on a collection of engagement and wedding rings.

But calling Wang a bridal designer fails to capture the full range of businesses that live under the Vera Wang brand umbrella. “I follow the Calvin Klein model and the Ralph Lauren model, which is a very American model. You do the collection, but you also do the perfume and other things.”

Indeed, through a number of licensing agreements, Vera Wang’s name is associated with everything from stationery to bedding. Most significant is her longstanding partnership with mass market department store Kohl’s, at which Wang has built a lucrative, full-fledged lifestyle brand, Simply Vera, covering clothing, accessories, sleepwear, shoes, jewellery, home, cosmetics and a fragrance, available exclusively at the retailer.

But with so many different business lines, how does Vera Wang maintain the integrity of her brand name?

Attention to detail is critical. “Whether it’s eyewear for Kohl’s or eyewear for my collection line, the frames should be beautifully shaped, the lenses should be interesting. I study everything about them. I’ve always studied fashion back to tail, since I was 14 years old. So you can imagine now, I’m way more obsessive than I was back then, because my livelihood depends on it.”

Wang is also careful about choosing her partners. “You are there to grow a business together [and] you have a brand to protect. You have to be able to strike that business relationship where they don’t feel it’s us against them or them against us — we are all trying to come together with something that works financially, artistically, and is mutually beneficial.”

Nonetheless, one of the brand’s partners in Asia, a key focus of the company’s expansion plans, recently sparked controversy by charging customers at the recently launched Shanghai bridal flagship a fee for trying on wedding gowns (a practice that Wang has since abolished).

“That wasn’t specifically a statement from me, that was a statement from the Shanghai store operator,” says Wang. “They implemented it to protect [against] counterfeiting. We have very carefully educated their salespeople as to our look, quality, what we believe in aesthetically, how we like a client to feel that they are getting the best treatment possible. But we do not operate those stores. Needless to say, the press was very upsetting to me on a personal level.”

“I try to not get ahead of myself,” she says. “Sometimes you are influenced by the people around you and they’re pushing you and it’s hard to make every decision a right decision. But I try to have my feet on the ground. It’s been a trip of passion and respect for the client and respect for how relevant you have to keep the brand in a changing world.”

Research for this article was contributed by Suleman Anaya.