Vera Wang Says: Know When to Walk Away … and Start Something New

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Designer Vera Wang. Photo: Sam Deitch/BFAnyc.com

This week, the Cut is talking advice — the good, the bad, the weird, and the pieces of it you really wish you would have taken. Here, designer Vera Wang on the journey from Olympic-hopeful ice skater to Vogue editor to head of her own line.

I started figure skating when I was 7. Skating is a very, very intense sport. It's all self-generated. You have no one but yourself. And when you're in the top 20 skaters in the United States or world, pretty much all of you have the same technical abilities, but it's all about who can bring it out under pressure. That's what separates champions from everyone else who is doing it. Serena Williams can come out, she can have a 104 fever, and she can still turn it all around. That is the difference between a great champion, and everyone else who aspires to be one.

As hard as I tried and as hard as I worked, I never really achieved the level that I wished. It was a very hard realization that since I was in my late teens, I was never going to get better. I wasn't going to make the Olympic team, and there were younger skaters coming up. So I quit. And I think quitting was a sign to me that I failed. I didn't know if I was ever going to be able to find something else in my life that meant quite as much. I knew no other life. There was no other reality for me. It sounds very obsessive to a normal person, but when you try to become an elite athlete, it's your happiness and your torture at the same time. It's something you live to do. It's the kind of dedication and passion for something that I don't know if everyone gets to experience. And when it's over, and you feel like you've failed? To bounce back from that, it takes so many different things. It takes time. It takes an acceptance that you have to move on. And it takes being open to new experiences.

I had a second chance. It was only because I went to school in Paris. That's what pushed me to move on to fashion as a career. I got home from Paris, and I was working as a salesgirl at Yves Saint Laurent to earn spending money and that's where I was sort of discovered by Vogue fashion director Frances Stein. She said when I graduated, she wanted me to come work at Vogue. So I called her, about a year and a half later, and she actually hired me! That was a lucky, lucky break for me.

And then there was another turning point. After 17 years at Vogue, I realized that what I was doing there was never going to change. My career wasn't going to go any further there. I wasn't in line to get the editor-in-chief job. And I was at a point where I felt there had to be more. So after investing yet another 15 years in a career that really meant something to me, I left. I was a bit discouraged, I can't lie. 

Each time was very, very painful, to make a decision to leave. But I didn't feel like I had reached the summit, the absolute top. It wasn't like I was insanely ambitious, but in my own mind, I always fell short. And I think these two events were very influential for my outlook on life now. And what I do now couldn't have happened without the first two. I had to constantly reinvent myself.

It seems to be a similar thread throughout everything, which is that your life isn't always measured by tangible results. What it really is in the end is the process, and what you learn about yourself and about life. That's something I've taken with me. No matter how bad things get, no matter how discouraged I feel, no matter how much of a failure I feel like — and that applies to motherhood, friendship, everything — I try to believe there's a reason, there's a process, and there's a learning experience. Maybe the journey is where I gained wisdom, where I gained confidence, a sense of reality, a sense of creativity. None of this has been easy. There's an old skater's saying: Don't be afraid of falling. It's 90 percent falling — otherwise, you don't master anything. You might hurt your ass. Or break your ankle. Or crack a rib. It's the same thing in life. There are other places to go. Other things to try. So don't be afraid of failing. I think not trying is worse than failing. Have the courage to try. Otherwise, what are we here for?