This week's Designer Spotlight takes us on a brief foray into new territory: bridal fashion.
Our designer this week is Vera Wang. Having created wedding gowns for names like Alicia Keys, Victoria Beckham, Khloe Kardashian, and Avril Lavigne, Wang is a staple name at celebrity weddings. Opening her own design salon in 1990, Vera Wang has turned her one bridal boutique into a booming fashion empire, worth over $1 billion. Yes, that's billion with a b. Let's meet her.
The daughter of wealthy Chinese immigrants, Wang was born and raised in New York City. She graduated from the Chapin School in 1967. She then attended the University of Paris and finally graduated from Sarah Lawrence College with a degree in Art History.
Vera Wang's parents were both successful in their respective careers: Her father was an entrepreneur in the pharmaceutical industry while her mother worked as a translator at the United Nations. Wang credits her mother with introducing 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.”
Before fashion, however, Wang’s original love was ice skating. At the age of 7, Wang began the sport. She wasn't a natural, but through hard work, she rose to the top, eventually trying out for the 1968 U.S. Olympic team. Yes, she was that good. But not good enough, it seems: Vera failed to make the team. She quit the sport a year later. After that brutal letdown, she stayed in her parents’ apartment in Sorbonne. There, she attended couture shows and then started thinking about a career in a different area: fashion.
Post-college, Wang had her eye on design school, but when her father refused, she got a job instead. She returned to New York City where she worked in Madison Avenue’s Yves Saint Laurent boutique. There, she met Frances Patiky Stein, then the fashion director of American Vogue. As Vera told BoF,
“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!”
Ever tenacious and bold, Wang worked her way up from temporary assistant to become Vogue’s youngest fashion editor. She worked with magazine legends Irving Penn and Richard Avedon, obtaining a fashion education one can only get at Vogue. In 1987, after being turned down for the job of Editor-in-Chief, Wang made yet another move. In an effort to prove her fashion prowess to her father, she joined Ralph Lauren as a design director.
Here Comes the Bride
Wang's bridal business began in 1990. While planning her wedding to longtime boyfriend Arthur Becker, Wang just couldn't find “the dress.” As we frequently discuss in the Designer Spotlight series, necessity breeds innovation and invention. Wang, naturally, decided to design her own wedding dress.
After the wedding, Wang took things one step further. In 1990, with backing from her father, she launched her own bridal boutique, Bridal House Ltd., in the Carlyle Hotel on Madison Avenue in New York City.
“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.”
Vera Wang’s designs were a breath of fresh air in bridal fashion. She hated the excessive frou-frou that characterized most '90s wedding gowns. Her gowns, by contrast, were dramatic but still sophisticated. Her brand was an instant hit—and it has only grown from there.
These days, Wang, at the age of 60, juggles the roles of CEO, chairman and lead designer of her own privately held company. Since opening her first boutique, she has dressed dozens of celebrities and has opened boutiques in London, Tokyo, and Sydney. Wang has also evolved her business into a lifestyle brand, creating fragrance, jewelry, shoes and housewares. She has also expanded into ready-to-wear, opening her first boutique in Soho in 2008. In 2007, she launched an affordable line in partnership with Kohl’s.
Wang has won several awards for her designs. In June 2005 she was named CFDA Womenswear Designer of the Year. In 2006, she won the Andre Leon Talley Lifetime Achievement Award from Savannah College of Art and Design. She even made it to the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame, albeit not as a skater - it was for her contribution to the sport as a costume designer. (She dressed names like Nancy Kerrigan and Michelle Kwan.) Regardless, it’s proof that sometimes things come full circle.
“People have done far better than me in far shorter periods of time, but that wasn’t my story,” Vera told Business of Fashion. “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.”
A hardworking, fabulous perfectionist, Wang is our definition of a #girlboss.
What do you think?
Do you dream of getting married in one of Vera's designs? What do you think of her story? Are you as inspired by her as we are? Tell us in the comments!