Vera Wang: Wedding belles

Vera Wang made her name (and fortune) creating fantasy bridal gowns for Hollywood's A-list, but now she's concentrating on a new venture: 'luxury streetwear'. Susie Rushton meets her

Saturday 29 July 2006 00:00 BST

On 22 June 1989, Vera Wang got married. She and her fiancé, Arthur Becker, a computer executive, had planned "a nice little cocktail-slash-buffet" in downtown Manhattan. But the production snowballed, as weddings tend to, and by the time Wang and Becker finally got hitched, it was in front of 300 guests at the Pierre Hotel, some of them flown in from Hawaii, Paris, LA. The ceremony was announced in The New York Times. Wang, a design director at Ralph Lauren and former fashion editor at American Vogue, was 40 at the time, Becker 39. "We already had 20 years of our own lives," she recalls. "It was more two adults celebrating our lives."

What dress did Wang, today the biggest name in bridalwear, wear on her wedding day?

"Well, I had nine."

It's traditional, Wang explains, for Chinese brides to wear a succession of dresses - including a fuchsia-pink frock and another in red - during their wedding day. She couldn't ask Ralph Lauren, her boss, to design one for her, though, "because if I didn't like it, I would have been in trouble". Even for a fashionista of Wang's calibre - she counts Anna Wintour among her close friends - the search for the perfect dress was fraught with disappointment and frustration. She eventually hired a dressmaker to execute her specific instructions.

Seventeen years on, the "Queen of Bridal" is perched on an overstuffed sofa in her Upper East Side apartment, her girlish taffeta skirt spreading over the cushions. Does that moniker irritate her? "I think I'm proud of it," she says, without enthusiasm, before correcting me: "Well, I've also been called the 'Queen of the red carpet'." Gosh, sorry. "Oh, no, it's fine," the sapling-slender designer bellows cheerfully, in a exaggeratedly nasal New York twang that seems to make the air vibrate. She waves a hand away. "It's not something I set out to get."

Even if you were only dimly aware of Wang's reign on the red carpet - at this year's Oscars, Michelle Williams's canary yellow gown and Keira Knightley's bordeaux silk taffeta dress were both hers - you'd have been hard pressed to meet a bride over the past decade who hasn't nurtured a fantasy about wearing a Vera Wang dress on her big day. Quite a few have realised that dream, too, or at least bought the perfume: according to Women's Wear Daily, the privately-owned company generates $300m in sales.

As she points out herself, Wang's name is to bridalwear what Armani is to softly-constructed tailoring, what Prada is to nylon, what Chanel is to the cardigan jacket. In the years before Vera, many brides - those who couldn't afford an haute couture dress from Paris, say, or a lovely hand-me-down from their mother - couldn't see beyond a Princess Di meringue, blizzards of sequins and a fantasy that had more in common with a little girl's dressing-up box than anything seen on a contemporary designer catwalk. When Wang introduced the idea of modernity and subtly fashionable silhouettes, she effected nothing less than a revolution on the bridalwear market.

When she started, at the beginning of the 1990s, the disparity between bridal design (post-Lady-Di frou-frou) and the prevailing fashion aesthetic (minimalism and sportswear) was starker than ever. Off the peg, at least, there was little to cater to the career-woman bride, the older bride or the fashion-conscious-bride: three identities that could describe Wang herself, a self-confessed fashion "insider" who set out to find her own bridal outfit at the end of the 1980s. "It was a commodity," says Wang of the archetypal big white dress at that time. "In America, it was a dress with a four-inch cap sleeve, straight across, and big skirt probably not even in real silk, and lace on the bodice with see-through sequins."

Wang not only introduced a fashionable sensibility to wedding dress design but also benefited from dozens of high-profile celebrity nuptials, at a time when there was no obvious bridal "brand" on the fashion landscape. Sharon Stone, Uma Thurman, Jennifer Lopez and Mariah Carey, among others, have all walked up the aisle in Vera Wang; the designer's UK profile was raised considerably in 1999 when Victoria Beckham chose an ivory satin gown with a broad skirt worthy of Marie Antoinette. "That was a 'transatlantic' dress," recalls Wang. "The underpinning was flown back and forth. I had thought, God, she's going to want something asymmetric and very sexy because she's f - you know - body-conscious. But she wanted it to be all about a bustier, very cinched in, with an enormous skirt. It was a lot of work to create that silhouette." Although uncluttered, dramatic silhouettes are probably most typical of Wang's vision, over the years, she says, "there's almost nothing I've not done. We brought everything that was happening in fashion and translated it into a wedding vocabulary. Deconstructed. Constructed. Micro-minis. I've done dresses with 20-foot trains. I've been able to explore the world of dressmaking through bridal."

"She started off the corset-with-a-big-skirt look," says Bryony Toogood, fashion editor at Brides magazine. "But she's not a one-trick pony. She's very current and keeps on top of trends, but also keeps all the elements of a sophisticated wedding dress." Toogood believes that Wang's perceived kudos as a former fashion insider has benefited the business as a whole. "I think other designers used to think bridal was naff. But it's more acceptable now - and she's bridged that gap. A lot of [bridal designers] do things that are really safe."

Wang's entrée into the fashion world reads like scene from The Devil Wears Prada, the forthcoming film starring Meryl Streep: having abandoned a girlhood ambition of becoming a figure-skater, a 22-year-old former art history student of Colombia and the Sorbonne is taken on as an assistant at American Vogue and finds herself taking calls from Calvin Klein (himself) on her first day. Unlike that film's gauche young heroine, however, Vera, who had already developed a taste for Saint Laurent and whose mother shopped in Paris for her wardrobe, wasn't fazed at all. In fact, so precociously chic was she, the legendary fashion editor Polly Mellen sent her home on her first day in the photographic studio for being over-dressed. "I didn't know what to wear. In Funny Face the editors had all dressed up as if they were going to a ball. So I came in wearing a white YSL shirt waister and red nails. She said, 'Put on some jeans - we are going to work.' And I never dressed up at Vogue again."

Wang remained at Vogue for 16 years, working as a fashion editor and revelling in the discovery of previously unknown labels. "I loved trawling Chelsea for young designers. I remember when Isaac [Mizrahi] started, when Marc [Jacobs] started. It was astonishing that the magazine let me do it. They let me bring in Norma Kamali. It was a dream job." She idolises Vivienne Westwood, she says, and "I collect Comme, Yohji and wear a lot of Prada and Marni. I respect other talent." You get the feeling much of her ambivalence about her success as a bridalwear designer is borne out of a niggling fear that designing fantasy dresses - however chic - for white weddings isn't quite as avant-garde a calling as she would prefer.

In fact, Wang says she constantly nursed an ambition to become a designer with her own label - but her father refused to pay for her to attend fashion school. For 16 years, while Vogue was as near as she could get to her ambition, she loved being the international fashion insider. She's insistent that it wasn't the long-lunches-and-shoe-shopping lifestyle many suspect it to be. "I don't know what people think fashion editors do," she yells. "We used to do two issues a month. Put that in your pipe and smoke it! You have to be in great physical shape. It hasn't been a dilettante life - it's been a real work life."

Every so often, she would attempt to persuade her father - a wealthy Chinese businessman - to invest in her own fashion f label. He refused. At 38 years old, Wang took a design job at Ralph Lauren, an experience she describes as "sort of like being in a candy box". Wang, a self-confessed "fashion nun" whose relationships had previously floundered due to a gruelling travel schedule, also realised it was time to settle down. "When I got married, I do believe a friend of mine who worked for Fendi said, 'If you can get married, anybody can get married.' I use that term 'fashion nun' in all honesty, because those of us who are that passionate about fashion, when you're working those kind of hours, it doesn't leave you the freedom to put energy into a relationship."

Ironically, it was just as Wang began to think about starting a family with her new husband (she now has two teenaged daughters) that her father offered to invest in her long-held dream to be a designer: so long as she do wedding dresses.

(That Wang decided to become a bridal designer following her own quest is, it turns out, an apocryphal story.)

"I might as well have been doing scuba equipment," she recently quipped to New York magazine. Nonetheless, she took up his offer, and started out with a boutique on Madison Avenue that sold a hand-picked selection of wedding dresses. "It was a business decision," she says. Gradually, she introduced her own designs - and they sold. Today, she helms an empire that, if not on a Polo Ralph Lauren scale, sprawls across continents and product categories. Predictably, the brand attends to the multifaceted requirements of the modern bride: stationary, china, fragrance and even a $5,500-a-night Vera Wang-designed honeymoon suite, which recently opened at the Halekulani resort in Hawaii. In July a dedicated Vera Wang concession opened at Selfridges on Oxford Street, the only bridalwear available at the store. Her dresses have a reputation for being expensive, but, actually, the brand has three "levels", with the most affordable starting just below £2,000 and the most costly running into several tens of thousands of pounds. Personal fittings with Wang herself at her New York atelier inflate prices to around £75,000. In 2001 she published a coffee table book, Vera Wang On Weddings, that offers advice on everything from how to choose a song for one's first dance, to whom to invite for a pre-wedding brunch. "Nothing lends more dignity to a wedding venue than an incredible floor," she counsels. And, "Even for a night-time wedding, obvious decolleté is never appropriate for the ceremony". Cheryl Tweedy take note.

Over the past two years Wang has been able to concentrate on designing ready-to-wear: her long-held ambition. "It was upsetting to have such a name in bridal but not in other areas," she admits. And, the modern-romantic instincts that made her a clever wedding-dress designer appear to be serving her well as a designer of opulent daywear. Big taffeta skirts in moody colours, gently gathered little black dresses and artfully frayed hems are typically Vera Wang. She describes her ready-to-wear collections as "luxury street". Like most female designers, she makes clothes for herself, and tries everything on. Last year, she beat fellow nominees Ralph Rucci and Marc Jacobs to pick up the prestigious Womenswear Designer of the Year prize at the Council of the Fashion Designers of America awards. She's hard on herself, she says. "I've been on a diet of the world's greatest clothes since I was 17. At 57, I'm not going to ooh and ahh because I've made a great blouse!" Although she constantly refers to her battle to achieve recognition as a ready-to-wear designer, for her natural tendency toward unabashed femininity and opulence, Wang is probably constitutionally suited to creating bridalwear. The prettily voluminous dresses in this autumn's ready-to-wear collection are, she says, inspired by Degas. It's hard to think of a more romantic muse.

"You know, I do try to bring a high level of thought to my bridal collections," she reflects. "I always think I've done everything there is to do in bridal, but then I always come up with another idea that looks new - to me. Of course, from far away all big white dresses tend to look the same. But not when you're close up."

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