It’s very difficult to get Wang to talk about wedding dresses. Ask her what it’s like to deal with a celebrity wedding, and she’ll tell you about putting Charlize Theron in a tangerine-colored, thirties-style evening gown for the Oscars when she was still feeling “very Bagger Vance.” To Wang, weddings and evening gowns are the same. “It’s costuming,” she says. “I’m making sure it looks good, and my taste is obviously involved, but it’s still using someone else’s idea of what they want to look like.”
“Anna said, ‘You have got to get a family going here. You’ve been single for three decades now.’ So I married my husband.”
In 1999, a Unilever executive named Laura Lee Miller contacted Chet Hazzard to discuss a Vera Wang fragrance. Two years later, a fragrance, designed for brides to wear on their wedding day, arrived. “The olfactory sense is so tied to memory,” Miller explains. The fragrance, therefore, was marketed as yet another piece of the phantasmagoria of the American wedding. It worked.
In 2004, Miller left Unilever to join Wang’s company as the head of its licensing division. Quickly there were dishes, flatware, stationery, and, this season, lingerie—there’s even a $5,500-a-night Vera Wang honeymoon suite at an expensive Hawaiian resort, filled with all these Vera Wang products and, Wang promises the assembled brides at Bloomingdale’s, “a well-stocked bar and lots of videos about sad single girls that you can watch and laugh at because now you’re married.” In the lobby of the hotel is a Vera Wang shop.
“Bridal pays the bills. But mostly, licensing pays the bills,” Wang says. “And that’s what makes the ready-to-wear possible. Whatever losses I incur with this, I cover with fragrance or with china. I’ve never had that kind of money before.” These days, there are four apparel divisions at Vera Wang. There’s bridal and bridesmaids, there’s a line of dresses at a bridge-level price point (they average around $550), and then there’s the ready-to-wear. “What the ready-to-wear does is create more visibility for the brand,” says Susan Sokol, the company’s president of apparel. “And these are the opportunities that drive the licensing opportunities. It’s a domino effect—you can’t have one without the other.”
“I'm so not a dress girl,” Wang says on a cold December afternoon in her design studio. She waves at a board of photos and sketches and fabric swatches. “These are clothes that I would wear—99 percent of my energy is going to ready-to-wear.” After a slow build over the past three seasons, Wang has become the talked-about American ready-to-wear designer. Her spring 2006 collection, which was inspired by HBO’s Deadwood, cinched it. The clothes are incredibly sumptuous without being fussy. It’s sportswear, but it’s dressy and cool—not lady or, as Wang puts it with an elaborate accent on the second syllable, “madame.” It is one of the only American collections to adopt a spirit that’s been exploding European brands like Lanvin and Rochas for the past several years: it’s the idea that, as the low-end fashion market becomes increasingly well done—the savvy designs of brands like Abercrombie and Fitch and American Apparel have all but obliterated the world of the $500 T-shirt— the pressure is on expensive clothes to really feel expensive, with luscious fabrics and an incredibly sophisticated touch. A $2,000 cashmere sweater may feel spectacular, but will it look, to the untrained eye, terribly different from the $200 version from J.Crew?
Wang understands this. “Look,” she says, “I love Michael Kors, and he is one of my best friends, but I got these adorable Peruvian pullovers for my daughters at Abercrombie and you just, like, throw them on for $30. Michael does it on the runway, and yes, his is cashmere and the fur is lynx and it looks great, but why? That is what I ask myself always from a design point of view. As a designer, as a consumer, and as a woman who adores clothes. I try to wear all these hats at once. Everything has to scream special. If you’re selling product that’s expensive, by God it better look it.”
So far, the Big Idea for next collection, which will show February 9 in Bryant Park, is The Talented Mr. Ripley. But this could still change. Wang is sitting cross-legged on a chair, directing a team that includes Margo LaFontaine, who sources fabric; Jacques Mugnier, the pattern-maker and draper; and Luca, a lanky, fit model in a terry robe. Another designer, Eric Sartori, pops his head in to say he’s off to do a fitting for a celebrity at home. “We’re doing house calls for these people now?” Wang clutches her head between her hands.
“We’re kind of moving towards Goya,” she says, “because I’m chairing the Frick ball, and I have to dress all these women, and it might be nice to make some clothes we could actually use as opposed to just making a whole collection of dresses for socialites to wear once.” (A few weeks later, the theme will have migrated further. “Slip dresses,” Wang will announce with finality. “Constructed and deconstructed all at once.” And then, naturally, the all-important suffix: “Because that’s how I dress.”)