Wang has always been an Upper East Side girl, the daughter of a wealthy Chinese businessman. She went to Chapin and then, when her dreams of becoming an Olympic figure skater didn’t work out, to Sarah Lawrence, where she studied art history (with stints at Columbia and the Sorbonne). She spent summers working at Yves Saint Laurent on Madison, where she was already a familiar face from shopping trips with her mother.
Her fashion madness is legendary. There’s a story people tell about Wang at Vogue: Wang’s assistant once rolled a chock-full rack of current-season fashions into the office of Grace Mirabella, Vogue’s then-editor, for a meeting before a shoot. Wang quickly corrected her: Those aren’t for the shoot—those are my personals.
After college, she wanted to go straight to design school, but her father wouldn’t pay. “He thought the chances of me making it as a designer were, like, less than zero. He said, ‘Listen, I paid for five years of undergraduate. How about law school or business school? Go to Yale Law.’ I said nope. And then, I think just to make me really aggravated, he said, ‘I’m not paying for anything else.’ ”
But Frances Stein, then the fashion director at Vogue, had taken a liking to Wang at the YSL boutique and suggested she interview at the magazine. Wang got a job as a sittings assistant to Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg. “Me,” Wang says, rolling her eyes. “Assistant to someone with a name like that. Can you imagine?” For all of Wang’s money and education, she aggressively identifies herself as not glamorous: It’s like the glamour is a strange appendage to what she’s far more interested in: seams, buttons, and silhouettes.
At Vogue, she was in heaven. “I’d waited there a long time, and I knew I wasn’t getting Anna’s job,” she says of the moment when Mirabella was fired. She considers Wintour a close friend—Wintour once dated Wang’s brother.
“There were a bunch of us there, and we were all cruising around our late thirties and forties, and it was like, we had to get on with it. So I became European editor and moved to Paris. Right away, I was like, ‘Listen, I want to come back.’ It was a little grand for me as a job. I like the gritty parts of fashion, the design, the studio, the pictures. I’m not really a girl who likes to go out to lunch or cocktails or store openings. I felt very removed. It wasn’t just that I didn’t like having lunch with Gianni Versace, it was just that I wanted to be a designer still. Very much.”
Wang continued to approach her father with ideas: For a while, she fixated on doing a business consisting entirely of tops. “Ship to Shore,” she called it. “And trust me, it was novel then.”
“I was going to be a fashion nun,” says Wang. “I mean, that I should end up in bridal . . . I might as well have been doing scuba equipment.”
Her father was never interested. So she started looking for a job and got an offer from Geoffrey Beene. “Geoffrey was a real artist, and he wanted people around who would be fretting over a collar for a long time. That’s what I loved.” Wang accepted, but the day before she was scheduled to start, she got a call from Ralph Lauren. “He offered me four times what I’d ever had in my life, so I took it. It was very hard on me because I idolized Geoffrey, and he never spoke to me again. But I had to have some money. I was 38 years old, and I was still living off my parents. But he didn’t understand.”
At Ralph Lauren, Wang got to design: accessories, mostly, but also lingerie and sportswear. It was an ideal fit. “Vera was the first woman I knew who exercised,” Cavaco says. “It was that moment when exercising was starting to be something you did in public and influencing fashion. She was the perfect person for it.”
For all her Upper East Side fashion-world credentials, Wang has never been much of a socialite. Her love has always been her work. Her best friend is Lisa Jackson, an interior decorator who lives just a few doors down on Park. They bonded twenty years ago when a mutual friend had nine wedding showers for herself, and have been inseparable ever since. “We have literally shopped around the world together,” Jackson says. There was the time in Paris when they got into such a frenzy at Lacoste that they stopped bothering with the dressing room. “That was over T-shirts!” Jackson says. There are also the trips to the mall in Palm Beach. “We do all of Abercrombie, all of Bloomingdale’s, and we eat Chinese food at the food court,” Jackson says. “And Vera often brings an assistant to carry the bags, because you just have to buy and you have to buy multiples, and it’s always more than you can carry.”