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Even among designers, Vera Wang is an original. It’s good money that none of her peers would begin an interview about his or her CFDA Lifetime Achievement Award with unsolicited musings on Calvin Klein’s long-in-the-works modernist retreat in the Hamptons. The connection is that our conversation is taking place in Wang’s Park Avenue apartment, formerly her parents’ longtime residence. Its palatial proportions are highlighted by its current gallerylike mode, all impressive art and no furniture, save for the occasional seating situation, the bare minimum necessary to receive guests. In the apartment’s traditional dining room, that means two ergonomic chairs facing not each other but the opposite wall, and in the sitting room, a more conversation-friendly sofa and chair. The vast living room is a different story altogether, lined with rack after rack of Wang’s ready-to-wear through the years. “I want to feel deserving,” she will say about the award, which she calls an unimaginable honor. “That involved looking backwards at my work and my own personal journey and hoping I haven’t disappointed myself of all people.”
But first, she addresses the glorious emptiness of the place she calls home (or one of them) in one of New York’s most storied buildings.
Vera Wang: I’m missing the new furniture — well, the old furniture. [The renovation] is just starting so I’ve been looking. Calvin has been too because he built that incredible home out in the Hamptons….L.A. has the most incredible contemporary furniture, I mean really contemporary, that you don’t really find here. They have extraordinary editing in all the retail stores. You can find really the best of Milan.
WWD: What stores do you like there?
V.W.: All of them — B&B, Minotti, a place called In-Ex that I buy a lot of accessories from. I wasn’t out there buying for my L.A. house, which I bought furnished. I was buying for New York. This is a labor of love, and I’m not sure I’m even on the right path. Calvin and I often have dinner together and we talk about it because his creative process makes mine look speedy. He’s into the ninth year now with the house in the Hamptons, year nine, and I believe — I’m not sure — but I think many, many architects.
WWD: Who’s your architect?
V.W.: I’m working with a guy named Brian Sawyer, a very, very talented architect. He’s equally as good at traditional as he is at modern. I found the fact that he could do both kind of fascinating. Who’s the architect that was so horrible to me? Ando.
WWD: How was he so horrible?
V.W.: I wanted him to do my store in L.A. and he said no. It was heartbreaking. He said no in no certain terms, permanently and forever and ever. I thought — this was before the crash, needless to say — I was thinking that L.A. is such a melting pot for Asian culture that it was the right place to create that kind of environment.
WWD: What do you want to do here?
V.W.: We want to change the nature of the moldings. The contemporary art I’ve been trying to collect, I just thought it would be kind of poignant to have a juxtaposition of the art with something not entirely modern. Sort of a modern-traditional. The other thing is that I’m not really attached to furniture being in any one room. I’m thinking of moving furniture around. I’ve gotten into this where I have a party planner come in and they will install their world, in a weird way. It’ll be all banquette the length of the living room or all intimate in the morning room. Sort of like a studio. I know it sounds very precious, but it isn’t. I just feel like it’s a very creative way to live.
WWD: Talk about your art.
V.W.: This is Damien Hirst from the “Poisons” painting series. I think there are 30 of them and they’re all variations on the skull.
WWD: When did you start collecting?
V.W.: I was an art history major, but never specifically contemporary. I would say where I really stopped were the abstract expressionists in the New York school. I started looking and thinking about [collecting] four or five years ago, but collecting, about three. I hardly call myself a collector. I am trying to put something together that reflects me and my own feelings and my own take, and from what I’ve been told by some serious collectors, that’s the only way to do it. It’s a pastime for me, it’s not a career; I’m not Miuccia Prada. But I do feel that there’s something about it that keeps my eye fresh and inspires me.
WWD: Tell me about this piece.
V.W.: Rudolf Stingel. It was really crazy — here’s another rejection story. When I opened Mercer and it was not yet the financial debacle that hit the entire world, fashion industry included, I had approached him to do an entire mural on my wall in that material.
WWD: Silver leaf?
V.W.: Silver leaf painted on panels. It was an installation where people came in and signed their names on it and the whole thing started to decay. I thought that was so participatory. It was a dialogue versus a monologue. I loved it. I want to commission him to do a wall in my store on Mercer. I thought one of the tall walls would have been so great because anyone who came in would be able to participate in the store. Nope! Turndown number two. All true.
WWD: It looks amazing here.
V.W.: Of course the apartment [should reflect the art]. I don’t want the apartment to be decorative. I really want it to be more studio.…My parents were here for 40 years. I had to sort of say to my mother and father, “Sorry, I’m taking it apart.” I feel guilty, but anyway.
WWD: Guilt can beget a mausoleum.
V.W.: It was mausoleumlike. After they both passed, I couldn’t throw anything out for five years. More than a romanticist, I think I’m a sentimentalist. Things that came before, people and things and experiences — that does mean something to me. It doesn’t mean I don’t embrace the new, but I don’t forget the past either. That’s part of my emotional makeup, or how I was brought up, or it’s Asian.
There is something quite charming about the scale and freedom you can do with this kind of space. I don’t know if subliminally, it’s affected my work. Whatever you seem to be living, I think you are affected by what projects you are doing. You can’t help it.
WWD: Chicken or egg.
V.W.: Chicken or egg, totally. I’ve always tried to push myself technically and to push myself visually. That’s been part of the journey. I make no secret that I don’t have a big ready-to-wear business. That’s not the point of the adventure or the trip or the learning curve. It’s very important for my own growth as a person to keep going and to keep trying and to keep experimenting. In a way, I’m freed up for that because I’m not head of a ready-to-wear empire. That’s been frustrating but also in a way, intimate and lovely. Part of not having a huge collection empire to run is [that] I’m able to try and create something that is more personal. Try to experiment — that’s the word, experiment. That’s not something I could necessarily do at Kohl’s or [with] some of my other business partners. I have to pay a lot of attention to sell-through and merchandising and sku’s and all those other things. But at least in one area, I am able to express myself more freely. Like I said, there’s a good thing to that and there’s a bad thing to that.
WWD: Tell me about all the activity in the other room. Obviously it’s around the CFDA.
V.W.: I’m trying to curate a lifetime of work, with what I have left. Over the last 23 years, there was never a big effort within my company to curate and save original samples. And that’s very hurtful to me.…I had to hire a curator yesterday morning. I need somebody within my own life who would understand me and what I do.
WWD: How do you describe what you do?
V.W.: I love sportswear in my own weird way. Fashion is such a personal journey for me. I’m much more of a girl that’s a T-shirt, legging, layering kind of thing, and outerwear. And yet, where my career has led me from the very beginning is into evening, or whatever Collection can be called today. In a way, it’s fighting a stereotype. Certainly when you’re considered a bridal designer, that implies you’re limited to doing a ballgown, which is so not what I think I’ve contributed to bridal. I’ve tried to explore the bridal vocabulary in a million different ways over 23 years. The same would be said of ready-to-wear, just from a sheer challenge to myself. Let’s see if I can do an anorak, let’s see if I can work in leather, let’s see if I can do something for evening — a modern sensibility that isn’t a mermaid dress all the time.
I’ve been always fighting two very traditional categories of clothing. One is wedding, the other we all now call red carpet, which it certainly wasn’t when I started. It was evening — and then the worlds in between. Cocktail, day-to-night, high day, low day. At some point, you also want to do things that resonate on a personal level, which for women designers is so important. When you look at the women designers today that I idolize, certainly Miuccia Prada, you say, “That is who she is.” When you look at Jil — we all know who Jil is, a very, very strong voice, which developed in the Seventies. We all know who Rei is, God knows. It’s personal. I think men bring an abstractness or a freedom that’s very different. Women bring a very personal journey. It may not be exactly what they want to wear, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t what they are feeling in some sort of deeper sense at that time. By the way, our deeper senses have to come every 12 weeks now, so a deeper sense is relative.
WWD: Describe your aesthetic.
V.W.: I probably am a minimalist, in a weird way. But there is a romanticist in me, no question. I don’t mean that to sound sugary or whatever. Also, a side of me likes something that feels thought-out. I’ve done sheaths, what I call “the three-seamer with two darts.” For me, that isn’t where I feel I should be working; I feel that from the bottom of my heart. Of course, that doesn’t belittle anyone else. I just feel like it would be nice not to be pigeonholed into evening and/or bridal.
WWD: You’re a big fan of other people’s fashion.
V.W.: I respect. I stand in awe. I share how the journey is, how complicated things are. Everyone’s journey is different, but issues come up. A lot of younger designers are friends. I’m not mentoring them, but I stay very much in touch. I hope that they make the right decisions. I really adore Alexander [Wang] because we’re both Chinese and he calls me sort of his aunt. He’s very, very respectful to me, and we have an inner dialogue about being Chinese. That’s such a wonderful solidarity that I feel, in addition to all the Asian designers that exist now that are proliferating everywhere.
WWD: Why is that?
V.W.: They have insane work ethic. I think that they feel that there’s a confidence now in the fact that they can step up to the plate. It’s now their moment to express themselves.
WWD: Whose clothes do you wear, besides your own?
V.W.: At the top of my list would be Margiela and Rick Owens and Junya and Rei and Givenchy. I own two majorly wonderful pieces from Balmain when Decarnin was doing it, his last collection, really beautiful pieces with studs and safety pins. I wear not a lot of Sacai, but I really admire her for coming out of that Japanese umbrella into her own growth. Which is not easy because I think she worked for Rei. And Ann Demeulemeester. Always. Forever. Mixed with Prada. Mixed with Marni. It’s always in the mix for me.
WWD: Lifetime Achievement. What does it mean to you?
V.W.: It means a couple of things. It’s an unimaginable honor. To be respected by your peers — and I don’t mean just the designers, but editors, retailers, everyone who votes — it was just overwhelming. At the same time, I want to feel deserving. That involved looking backwards at my work and my own personal journey and hoping I haven’t disappointed myself of all people.