Vera Wang talks with Joseph Abboud about Bedford style
At home in Pound Ridge
Women across the globe, the name Vera Wang is synonymous with elegance, sophistication, and style. Wang has brought a tasteful touch to the world of the wedding dress, capturing the tradition of a bride and the individuality of a woman in each of her creations. Whether it is a bridal dress, a diamond necklace, an evening gown, or silk lingerie, Wang has established a distinctive look that’s evident without even peeking at the label.
After studying at Sarah Lawrence and the Sorbonne in Paris, Wang began a 16-year stint at Vogue. She left the publishing powerhouse as senior fashion editor to join the clothing powerhouse Ralph Lauren, becoming a senior member of the design team. Trying to resolve the conflict many women face between home and career, Wang grudgingly left Polo to go it alone—providing her the freedom to produce her own lines and to start a family. In 1990, Wang opened a luxury salon at the Carlyle Hotel to showcase her bridal collection. The Vera Wang label soon exploded, redefining bridal fashions and earning praise for its exquisite detail, modern interpretation of classic lines, and downright simple beauty.
Over time her vision has evolved and crystallized, helping her extend the Vera Wang look into evening wear, footwear, jewelry, fragrance, and more. Last year the fashion elite finally recognized Wang’s immense talents by bestowing her with the industry’s highest honor—Womenswear Designer of the Year from the Council of Fashion Designers of America. “Winning that award meant becoming part of fashion history,” says Wang, who shares her Asian-style Pound Ridge home with her husband, businessman Arthur Becker, and their two daughters. Wang sat down with Joseph Abboud, two-time CFDA Designer of the Year and Bedford Magazine guest editor, to discuss the world of fashion, the influence of teenage daughters, and running your own fashion house.
JA: Vera, I’ve known you for many years as a designer and have always been a big fan, as are so many women around the world. What is it that women see in you, in your designs?
VW: I think it’s something very sensual. At least that’s what I aim for. A woman has a very personal relationship to her clothes. The woman that I am dressing is a very sensual, artistic creature. She’s not aggressively sexual or obvious or tough in her look. When you come to me, you know what you’re going to get. There’s a bit of mystery and a bit of mystique. I’m trying to bring a sense of art, a sense of femaleness.
JA: Sensual is a word that seems to fit you.
VW: It’s what my personal aesthetic is. It’s not big tits and a bustier—which is incredible—but it’s not me.
JA: Last year you had no bigger fan than me when you won the CFDA award.
VW: I know that Joseph.
JA: I was so proud of you and so honored for you. We at the CFDA showed that we honor talent. What did it do for you on a personal level?
VW: I’d gone to CFDA forever. I went as part of Vogue’s editorial team when I was there. I went as part of Ralph’s team. I went for years myself. The fact that I actually won was such a shock. When I was nominated, I felt so honored because it’s your peers. That makes it special. Winning that award meant becoming part of fashion history. When I went there that night, I really didn’t think that I would win. After getting the award—it all went by like a dream—I really saw what it did for my people.
JA: Yes. That is so right.
VW: Every company is about the people. The designer’s name is on the door, but the people make it happen. And you know exactly what I’m talking about. Their efforts, loyalty, and energy earn them the recognition as well.
JA: You’ve become a lifestyle designer. You have a personal style that comes through your clothes. How do you connect the DNA of your line to make sure that even without seeing a label, it says Vera Wang?
VW: It’s hard today. Fashion changes so rapidly. Whether it’s a plate or an evening gown—I think that God is in details. It’s all in the nuance. Like what can be done to a button or a loop or the strap of a dress. That’s the hard work. It’s not a major shift. You’re not going from a jeweled G-string to a suit. It’s trying to stay within your aesthetic but creating newness. Those who have been most successful have been able to keep their viewpoint going.
JA: I never dreamed of talking about wedding dresses with my 15-year-old daughter. Now she knows if someone wears a Vera Wang wedding dress. That’s pretty amazing if you think about it. How did you redefine bridal?
VW: Well, I didn’t come in as a bridal designer. I had an incredible education in fashion at Vogue. You’re exposed to everything from the newest, most edgy designer out of Antwerp or a Geoffrey Beene or Saint Laurent. It’s an education that is extraordinary. I was in the industry for so long as an editor, that by the time I went to work for Ralph, I understood things better, or rather differently, than a young graduate out of a design school. I brought a certain amount of education that was unusual.
JA: What made you take that step to start your own collection? It must have been difficult.
VW: It was so hard to leave Ralph. I was just beginning to understand him. But I was trying to start a new marriage. I was trying to get pregnant. I needed some time off. I felt responsible to Ralph, and those lines come fast and furious, but it became difficult to get time off—to get away. I never left, but left the door open.
JA: So how did you start?
VW: Well, my father came to me and said, “Why don’t you start something in bridal?” I wasn’t sure I wanted to. He kind of pushed me. Which is strange because for years when I wanted him to help me, he didn’t. I wanted to go to design school, and he wouldn’t pay for it—not at the Sorbonne, not at Vogue, never.
JA: Really? That’s interesting.
VW: And finally he suggested, “Start something small and manageable.” Bridal was great for that—it’s small and manageable and there’s no inventory. It was something we felt that we could afford to do. I knew the cost of ready-to-wear and didn’t want to get into that.
JA: When I left Ralph, he appreciated what I was going to do because it was different from what he was doing. I had my own point of view. Do you still have a good relationship with him?
VW: Yes, it’s fantastic. He came to the opening of my store. He doesn’t go to anything. Nothing. In a way, he can really be in awe of all his disciples. He was an incredible mentor. In fact, after I won, he said: “Everyone who has won was one of my assistants. They’ve all worked for me!” And he’s right. He’s sort of like the Harvard B-school for fashion.
JA: That’s so true. What’s your advice to young women going into the business?
VW: Work for somebody. Rather than starting on your own, work for someone you admire. Learn anything you can about the industry—and get paid to do it.
JA: Right. There’s no textbook
for our industry.
VW: That’s why I love it.
JA: How do you manage the balance between designer and owner?
VW: That’s very tricky. Designers have to be very free. Very relaxed. Very open to creativity. Business is all about control and being disciplined. Which is just the opposite. It’s very difficult to combine the two. I do try to find help in places where I don’t know enough. I ask a lot of questions. It’s brutal to try and reconcile them both. I’m not sure that it’s the right way to go.
JA: I don’t either. Not to sound like Frank Sinatra, but it’s how you did it. It’s your way. That’s what comes through. Is it tough being a woman in this business?
VW: It’s always difficult for women. I don’t care what anyone says. If a woman is at all successful, she’s often perceived as a man. Many women eminently more successful than I have told me they have paid an incredible price one way or the other. If you raise kids, it becomes more apparent every day—for kids, there is never enough time.
JA: Yes, even responsible dads—and I’d
like to think of myself as one—we don’t bear the same kinds of responsibilities as the moms do.
VW: No, and you never will.
JA: OK. Daughters. My girls are 12 and 15. They influence me so much. Do they influence you?
VW: My girls are also 12 and 15. They are way savvier than we ever were. They know so much—it never ceases to amaze me. I go shopping with my girls. I get a unique take on how they move through stores, through designers, through clothing. For every stage of development, they evolve, and I evolve, too. It’s fascinating and fun. You see them identifying their own style. They have trends in certain things, but they also make it their own.
JA: Did they have any affect on your new fragrance, Princess, which is geared toward teens? That’s really exciting, by the way.
VW: That age group—teens—is on every trend. They are fascinated by clothing. But life has not yet affected them to the point where they need very expensive stuff. For them, it’s pure curiosity and youthful passion. They embrace it, they’re fascinated by it. How girls define themselves is what we’ve always dreamed about in fashion. That’s what led me to do my own fragrance. There’s an innocence and that desire for sophistication—that child-woman thing that I find so fascinating.
JA: I’m sure it will be enormously successful.
VW: Let’s hope so. You just throw it out there and hope you had a good idea.
JA: Why is it important for you to be international? I know that you have a shop in Shanghai.
VW: It’s important today because, more than ever, American designers are being embraced. The mega-brands are everywhere. You realize the influence of American fashion—the sense of freedom, the fact that we can wear a very expensive jacket, but the way we wear it is much freer. That really comes across, and the world loves that. It’s a wide world out there.
JA: It’s promoting American creativity and diversity. It’s who we are.
VW: The Europeans have their heritage, and I’ll never underestimate that. Whereas, we have an attitude that is fabulous. We’re taking our rightful place.
JA: You are on the verge of so many exciting things. How do you manage to find ways to get creative?
VW: I treasure getting away. Being able to escape, like to the house in Pound Ridge, is when I feel the most relaxed. I can get in touch with my thoughts.
JA: I love it in Bedford. What’s your experience being here?
VW: I love it too. There is a tranquility, which is why we came to Pound Ridge in the first place. I came from a family that was never incredibly social. We were sociable, but appreciated family time.
JA: It’s understated, not in your face—just like your style. Does this area inspire you?
VW: It’s such beautiful country. It gives the feeling of being secluded without actually being secluded. Particularly from Bedford and Pound Ridge—there are so many places to go, Greenwich for dinner, New York City. I love to go antiquing. Each town has its own personality.
JA: This is a very sophisticated and stylish area we live in—and that’s also you.
VW: My home is sophisticated in its subtlety—it’s a sort of Japanese teahouse. It’s such a very beautiful place. My brother is building a golf course in Pound Ridge now—making his nine-hole course into an 18-hole course, designed by Pete Dye. It’s a wonderful piece of property on High Ridge Road—about 180 acres. It will be a daily public-fee course. He didn’t develop houses on the property, so it will remain pristine. Just a wonderful addition to the area, really first-class.
JA: I guess that runs in the family.
VW: High praise, indeed, Joseph.