Vera Wang’s Second Honeymoon

In the registry department of Bloomingdale’s, 400 brides-to-be are waiting for Vera Wang. They’ve brought digital cameras and notebooks for their heroine to sign, like so many crazed teenage girls outside Justin Timberlake’s hotel. They’ve prepared questions (is it really necessary to have formal and casual china?), and they’ve dragged along their fiancés, who look, for the most part, tremendously bored.Wang, meanwhile, has arrived, via the giant A-Team–style van she keeps in a garage beside her Park Avenue apartment. She’s in a Bloomingdale’s holding room, holding court.

“Would you like some water, Ms. Wang?” asks one of the many hovering, black-clad assistants.

“Do you have any vodka?” she answers, glancing toward the well-organized row of Poland Spring. Her voice is high and sounds almost deliberately nasal, like a put-on of an old-school garmento. “I mean, there’s got to be some vodka somewhere in this store, right?” Her publicist looks panicked. “Vodka tonic,” Wang insists, and the assistant is off.

“There are 400 brides, Ms. Wang,” another assistant offers.

Wang flaps her hand. “I’ve totally done more.”

What these brides, with their well-thumbed bridal magazines, don’t realize is that Vera Wang is not particularly interested in their rings, which they’ll attempt to show off as they flock around her, or, really, in the details of their Big Day. Wang—who totally transformed the bridal market, is a household name, and runs a $300 million business—has her mind on other things.

Four years ago, Wang launched ready-to-wear, and it took. She’d tried it before, but there was never enough time or money for it. Ready-to-wear is an expensive proposition, one that requires a tremendous outlay of cash and often loses money. But this time everything is different: Wang has licenses. Licenses that last year did $200 million in retail sales, which means plenty of money for ordering fabrics and hiring a design staff.

Finally, Wang is consummating a 34-year love affair with clothes. “I was a total fashion insider who became an outsider when I did bridal,” Wang says. “I’ve had to crawl out of a hole, and it was a huge hole. But I’ve finally done it. I never got to be me. Finally, I’m making clothes that are about me.”

“Not since Donna Karan has there been such an open, clear personality behind a brand in women’s ready-to-wear,” says Anna Wintour. Affirmation has come in several forms: prominent placement on Bergdorf Goodman’s third floor, right near Chloé, Marni, and Balenciaga; and the CFDA’s womenswear designer of the year award last June.

“Vera loves clothes,” says Paul Cavaco, the creative director of Allure who worked with Wang in the Vogue days. “Vera loves clothes beyond loving clothes; she loves everything that has to do with clothes. This is not a make-believe love here; it’s the real thing. Anything that has happened to Vera is a fallout of this love. It’s her only agenda. So she is going to present you clothes in an extremely loving manner: beautiful clothes in the most beautiful way possible.”

Vera Wang considers her own style very edgy. She refers regularly to a pantheon of designers with whom she identifies: Comme des Garçons, Ann Demeulemeester—designers who work in dark colors with deliberately offbeat shapes, designers as far from the frothy fantasy of a wedding day as possible.

In truth, Wang’s attitude toward dressing is shared by lots of fashion editors—one of which she was, at Vogue, for sixteen years. She wears incredibly expensive clothing (a Prada Astrakhan coat, for example) in an incredibly offhand way (thrown over leggings and clogs). She deliberately misaligns the buttons on her fine-gauge cashmere cardigans and gets a tremendous amount of pleasure from layering, particularly if a few of the layers are clever finds from the low end of the market that can be shown off with a mouth-open, wide-eyed display of disbelief that something so good could actually exist.

You thought you were meeting a designer,” says Vera Wang. She’s barefoot in the full-floor living room of her Park Avenue apartment, stuffing a Rice Krispies Treat in her mouth. The room is so ornate—all yellow and gold, with a coordinating Monet on the wall—that it looks more like a grandly named suite in a very, very expensive hotel than a home, and Wang, 56 years old but jiggle-free in a pair of tight black leggings, resembles no one so much as Eloise, calling out to her housekeeper for her shearling coat. “I’m actually a little clown,” she says, grabbing the leggings in both hands and yanking them upward. Her daughter has come home, but Wang doesn’t notice. “Are the girls here?” Wang asks her housekeeper. They are, is the answer. “Okay,” Wang says, and she’s off.

Wang backstage during Fashion Week at Bryant Park in September.Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

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.”

Wang rehearsing models on the runway at Bryant Park.Photo: Patrick McMullan

“I do think I know more about clothes than any 500 designers, because there’s nothing like wearing them,” Wang says. “You buy them, you study them, and you start to understand how they’re crafted. I was never a socialite who wore borrowed clothes to parties—I lived them! When I finally got the chance to design, I was an absolute asshole. When I saw someone in something I designed, I would literally go crazy and be jumping around. My poor assistants, who couldn’t care less because they had to, like, vomit out another collection, were like, ‘Get over it,’ but I was like, ‘This is what I was meant to do.’ I was born for this. Pictures are fun and great, but this is product. I have always loved product. You’ve got to love product.”

When she was just shy of her 40th birthday, she married Arthur Becker, a computer executive. “I just made it,” she says. “I was the girl who nobody thought would ever get married. I was going to be a fashion nun the rest of my life. There are generations of them, those fashion nuns, living, eating, breathing clothes. But Ralph said, ‘Get yourself a husband and a family.’ Anna said, ‘You have got to get a family going here. You’ve been single for three decades now.’ So I married my husband. There are days I’m not happy I did it, but there are days I’m thrilled—I mean, he has always understood my nature, which is that it’s always about product.”

So there was Wang, married and trying to get pregnant. She had stopped, for the first time in her life, trying to launch a fashion label. And then her father came around.

“All those years, it was, would you pay for design school? No. Would you help me do a blouse business? No. Finally, there I was at Ralph, 40 years old and trying to get pregnant, and he said, ‘Hey, why don’t you start your own business?’ I said, ‘What, are you joking? I don’t want to do it.’ And he said, ‘Now is the right time, because you don’t want to do it. You won’t be so emotional.’ Isn’t that bizarre? But that’s my whole life, right there. And then he said, ‘Bridal.’ I said, ‘Are you kidding? I don’t want to do bridal. It’s a commodity. It’s not fashion.’

“I mean, that I should end up in bridal … I might as well have been doing scuba equipment.”

There was, however, a great big hole in the bridal business: It was a brand-name moment, and there was no bridal brand name. “If you’re someone who buys couture, you’ll get a Valentino one-off wedding dress,” says Cavaco, “but for the girl who does love fashion and does spend a lot of money on ready-to-wear, you can’t afford that, but you also didn’t want to go to Schmegegies in Brooklyn. That was the hole Vera filled.” She also became the go-to designer for celebrities: Jessica Simpson, Mariah Carey, Jennifer Lopez, Karenna Gore, Sharon Stone, Melania Trump.Bridal is an industry as separate from fashion as possible, considering both are businesses that traffic in dress. Bridal tends toward hokey: the stuff of princesses and fantasy. Wang realized that she could make it far more sophisticated. She partnered with Chet Hazzard, who’d worked with Anne Klein and others. “Chet always believed in Vera,” says a friend. “Sometimes even more than Vera believed in Vera.” Hazzard died last year—the same day that Wang was nominated for the CFDA award.

Wang started out doing retail (her shop now is on Madison Avenue). She sold wedding dresses by obscure European designers and established a reputation as tasteful, refined, and elegant. Slowly, she began showing her own designs as well. “I thought of myself not as a bridal designer but a fashion designer who happens to do white, ivory, nude. It’s good because it’s so off the radar,” she says. It was great training. “There are people out there who can’t even cut on the bias. I do know how to make a dress.”

She and Becker started a family, adopting two girls, both Eurasian. “He did have a say in the whole thing,” she says. “I mean, it’s all about me, but he did have a say.”

From bridal, Wang expanded a bit. She’d been a competitive figure skater, and she began designing costumes for Olympic skaters like Nancy Kerrigan. (She still designs for Michelle Kwan, a close friend.) And she began doing eveningwear. Still, all the avant-garde sophistication she’d picked up in her years at Vogue just sort of languished. “We were doing ripped seams ten years ago in bridal,” Wang says with a sigh, “but no one got it.”

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.”)

In true fashion-editor form, the biggest compliment Wang can give is “modern.” What’s not modern to Vera Wang is anything predictable: A bias-cut skirt, then, is not modern. Expected color combinations are not modern—Wang is becoming known for her colors: rich emerald green, soft mustard yellow, the perfect periwinkle. Today she has fallen hard for a lavender Brunschwig & Fils taffeta that is $200 a yard and, truly, far more beautiful than the other taffetas that had previously seemed perfectly good.

As Jacques cinches the fabric of a silk blouse at Luca’s waist, Wang announces that anything that “goes in and out,” anything that’s “va-va-voom,” is not modern because “it’s not how I dress.” The Wang silhouette is long and lean, with skirts that hit in the middle of the calf and narrow trousers. There is a great deal of interest in silhouette—a nod to her bridal training. Wang shows full taffeta skirts with balloon hems, cocoons the shoulders of a cocktail dress, and cuts heavy wools close to the body for envelope coats.

Her teenage daughters are her current muses. She loves, she says, to “put together looks” with them, to teach them the value of a good Miu Miu duffle coat, but also how to mix it all up. “I love the way they dress,” she says. “So modern.”

I’m very much a feminist,” Wang says one day, cruising along in the backseat of her giant van, discussing her daughters, one of whom might like to be an actress. “I think that any profession that makes you feel old by the time you’re 21 is very negative. You’ve got to start off with something you at least stand half a chance of doing.”Husband though she has, Wang is still a fashion nun. She can’t help herself. But, finally, she’s a happy one.

Vera Wang’s Second Honeymoon