Bridget Foley's Diary: Vera's Vision

The designer, who will receive the CFDA’s Lifetime Achievement Award tonight, discusses her career and interests.

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Vera Wang RTW Fall 2013

Photo By Robert Mitra

Vera Wang RTW Fall 2005

Photo By John Aquino/WWD Archive

Vera Wang Bridal Spring 2007

Photo By Robert Mitra/WWD Archive

Vera Wang Pre-Fall 2008

Photo By John Aquino/WWD Archive

WWD: As a CFDA board member, you must know something about the selection process.
I have to tell you, Ralph had the best idea last year. He’s full of ideas. We were all sitting around, trying to figure out who for the icon award. We do really try to come up with creative ideas; it’s not just a whatever. Ralph Lauren is a brilliant man. None of us was thinking a man. We’re all thinking [female] stars, and he said, “How about Johnny Depp? He’s a style maven.” We all just sat and said, “How great!” I thought, “How cool to do a guy! Why does it always have to be a woman?” That was Ralph’s idea. I’m giving him full credit. They’re going to kick me off the board for telling you all of this.

WWD: Back to your award. Does it validate your distinct path, via bridal?
It does. Still, ready-to-wear was always my first love. I was brought up in fashion. I wasn’t brought up in the bridal market.

WWD: The award is for your entire body of work.
I hope it’s the body of work. Bridal enabled me to learn technically how to make dresses and clothes and experiment. And a sense of theater, which perhaps is saved for the European houses in ready-to-wear. I think it enabled me to do this under an umbrella that was rarely even looked at. But I did work hard at it. I did look at it carefully and study it. There have been years that bridal has affected ready-to-wear and years that ready-to-wear has affected bridal. I’ll see something in ready-to-wear and think, “Oh, I’m thinking much more structural or cleaner or more technical.” And then it will affect how I look at weddings, or vice versa….Sometimes it’s very subliminal and sometimes it’s very obvious. But I’m sure if I worked for Moncler, I’d be affected by outerwear. I don’t think you can not be.

WWD: Other influences?
I’m very influenced by men’s wear. I’ve always had that tomboyishness in me. I was an athlete and a dancer, and all these layers and T-shirts and the wrapping and all that — that was part of my life. Movement was so much a part of my life. I think that’s why the bicycle pants, for example, were my way of bringing that other part of me into the clothes. The knee socks, hosiery and the things I’ve done with the gloves. When you live in a ballet studio or a cold rink and you heat up and you get cold again and then your muscles need to warm up and all that technical stuff.

WWD: Bridal. There’s so much more competition than when you started, yet so many high-profile brides still come to you. What is it about Vera Wang?
I don’t want this to sound egotistical, but I never had any rules for bridal. I was at Ralph Lauren, which was about sportswear when I was there, pure and simple. I came in with no predisposed notion of what bridal should be, if that makes any sense. I really started because when I got married, and that’s an old story, but there wasn’t a lot to choose from for somebody who worked in fashion. My father is really the one who pushed the agenda. I was happy to stay at Ralph. I had worked very hard by then, and I didn’t need to take on the stress. Having seen the resources of a big corporation, I knew I wouldn’t have that. I thought to myself, “I’m literally going to be packing boxes, I’m going to be picking fabrics, I’m going to be doing all the myriads of hats you have to wear when you’re a start-up.” I had had the experience, unlike most kids who start up. I’d already seen a lifetime. I came as an old-new designer. I had seen too much. I was afraid.

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WWD: Your father pushed you.
He thought it was time. For all the years I wanted him to send me to Central Saint Martins or Chambre Syndicale — he wouldn’t do it. Then suddenly, when I’m 39 or 40, he says, “I’d like to help.” And I said, “But I don’t want to do my own company.” I remember the day I signed my lease for my Madison Avenue store, I had such a feeling of dread and fear of failure. My father was downright fanatical about this. He was a businessman. He said, “Bridal’s a good business. There will always be brides, and it’s something you can control. You’ll be working just a few fabrics, you won’t be working in wide range.” He was right about all those things.

WWD: Who’s been the ideal bride, celebrity-wise?
Chelsea Clinton was very much a dream bride. She is a girl that, in her own humble way, and I mean with humility, embraces fashion. She also was very clear in what she wanted, which makes a collaboration much, much easier. She said, “I want to express something artistic, and something with a mixture of fashion but also being a bride.” Those two things could get me onto at least the detail of the skirt, and we could take chances with that. Alicia Keys, on the same day, was totally a dream. She said, “Vera, I want to look like a Grecian goddess. I’m pregnant, I want to feel like…” I’ll put words in her mouth — a fertility goddess. She did. She looked Grecian with just a thing tied in her hair and just about barefoot, in sandals.

WWD: With or without names, what’s the worst bridal story?
One I worked on for a year and it didn’t happen.

WWD: Jennifer Lopez?
No, that I got. I got it with Marc Anthony. As happy as weddings are as an experience, they can be really devastating if it doesn’t work out prior. If you’re left at the altar or you have a change of heart.

WWD: What was it in this case?
Change of heart. Real change of heart and just couldn’t go through with it. But we did the work. It was devastating, not only because of the work involved and the team involved, but also on a personal level, for the bride.

WWD: Sympathy aside, it must be frustrating, all of that work for naught.
It’s like the Oscars. We haven’t talked about that.

WWD: So talk Oscars and red carpet.
It worries me a great deal. A lot of anxiety. Because I do care about what we put out there on such a public, global platform. Part of my responsibility is to be truly creative if I can be. Part of my responsibility is also to be responsible for the star. That they are able to not only reflect some sort of creative statement that I’m trying to make with them together, but also that the statement will be one where they’re not ridiculed or ignored or the dress just technically doesn’t work or worse. The worst is when someone is criticized. You take that very personally on behalf of the star.

WWD: It must be devastating when you put in the work and the actress changes her mind last-minute.
I don’t care what status of designer or what history you had or whether you’re an emerging designer, it’s so painful not only to you, but your sewers, your staff, your assistants and p.r. people. It is devastating. It’s like having your guts ripped out of you because you’ve given it your all. I remember something Carolina Herrera said once that was so profound: “You know, when you hurt me you’re not just hurting me. I can take it. But everyone around me that gives up their life for me can’t.” [The red carpet] is a gamble of the highest order. It’s Vegas and then some.

WWD: What in fashion has changed the most since you started?
A lack of definition of what a designer is, what they do and who they are. Not that I can brag that I graduated top of my class at Central Saint Martins, but I can tell you that I studied patterns, I can drape, I know how to fit, I know where to put technique, I know where the proportions should be, I know where the armholes should fall. I don’t know if that matters anymore. I think that we’re in a very different time, and people have built major brands without any of that knowledge.

And I honestly don’t know if anyone cares. The difference of scale, that three inches wider here makes a jacket look new, whereas two inches narrower will make it look retro — whatever the nuance, I’m not sure anyone even cares. Massive brands have been built that way, and retail chains. That’s what’s changed the most for me. Does that make any sense? I don’t mean to sound like I’m the bitter 140-year-old designer that says stuff like that, but there is a difference.

When you see Rei’s or Junya’s work, you can see where the mind is, if you really look, if you really know or care, which I do. I appreciate it and I worship it. They’re able to keep reinventing, and it’s kind of amazing! I always joke, “What are they smoking over there?” because it’s not only them, it’s their teams. If you can get even three people in a room to agree or even understand what you’re talking about, it’s unbelievable. Or Marc Jacobs. He can move from Eighties to underwear to, this year, the sensuality, which I never associate with him. But it’s a new Marc. I get that you want to change where you’re at, because where you are at in your life affects where you’re at in your work.

WWD: It’s interesting that the biggest change for you is about the clothes. It’s not about globalization or e-commerce.
I talked about the craft. Because globalization, I think that’s been happening. I think that the Internet is a whole other issue.

WWD: What’s your approach to social media?
We tweet about events I go to, which isn’t often. Someone paid me a real compliment the other day and said, “You don’t go to a lot of events.” …I feel responsible to go to fashion-oriented things or if I’m invited to support other designers, but a social life per se has never been me. Ever.

WWD: Do you Tweet?
I’m not a fanatical Tweeter. I think that in this day of total access, a little bit of mystery isn’t a terrible thing. A little bit of not knowing what time you went to the john, you know what I mean? I don’t find everything in my life that important. The journey of trying to be a designer and creator, and wear my other hats — I’m an owner, an operator, a ceo — to continue on that journey takes so much effort out of me. I love fashion, but it isn’t easy.


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