Wang was born of privilege in New York City in 1949, to wealthy immigrant parents: Her father was an executive in the pharmaceuticals industry, and her mother the child of a Chinese warlord. The couple fled China throughout the Communist revolution, eventually settling on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Vera was educated at prestigious private schools—Sarah Lawrence, the Sorbonne, Columbia—and was a competitive ice skater. As a high school student at Chapin, she was a serious figure skater, too, but, as she recalled in 2001, when she didn’t make the 1968 Olympic team, she “looked to fashion to replace it.”
Wang was working at Yves Saint Laurent when she was scouted by the Vogue editor Frances Patiky Stein. In 1972, she joined the staff as a sittings assistant to Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg. The magazine was in transition in those years, and at the Madison Avenue headquarters of Conde Nast, the legendary Diana Vreeland had recently departed, to be replaced by Grace Mirabella. “Vogue was moving from having been a publication that was all about fantasy—green wigs and green-dyed nails, as if anyone ran around like that—to being one that was all about reality,” Wang said in 2001. “We were responding to the burgeoning women’s-liberation movement and to the needs of the working woman.”
Wang quickly rose to become one of the youngest fashion editors ever at Vogue. She stayed for 15 years, specialising in accessories sittings, but always harbouring aspirations of fitting a designer in her own right. In 1987 she left Vogue to realise her dream at Ralph Lauren. In 1989, while planning her wedding to Arthur Becker, she realised that she could fill a void in the bridal industry: “It just hadn't evolved,” she later said in an interview with her old employer. “There was no modernity of necklines; there was no understanding of the tailoring. There was no relationship between a wedding dress and fashion. There was no good taste, either. I realised that I could make an impression in terms of changing and readdressing the whole industry of bridal.”
In 1990, a year after her own nuptials, she opened her own boutique, with financial support from her father, offering made-to-order wedding gowns as well as bridesmaid dresses and accessories. Endless celebrities would get married in a Vera Wang dress, including Jennifer Lopez, Jessica Simpson, Uma Thurman, Mariah Carey, as well as political daughters Karenna Gore and Chelsea Clinton. After a few years, Wang began to push her bridal brand beyond dresses, into related retail ventures: china, silver, bedding, and fragrance—all the things a chic newlywed might need.
In 1993, she made good on another insight: that her long-dress-making skills would translate well to the red-carpet realm. She began making custom special-occasion gowns for a number of society women and a few actresses, and then launched a full-blown new label,Vera Wang. “The couture line evolved because I wanted to get into design and felt this would give me the opportunity to study the technique of dressmaking—even if you’re going to do a slip dress afterward,” she said in Vogue. “Fashion to me has become quite disposable; I wanted to get back to craft, to clothes that could last.”
In 2000 she at last introduced a ready-to-wear collection. Paul Cavaco, who had worked with her at Vogue before fitting Allure’s creative director, knew it would be good: “Vera loves clothes,” he said in a New York magazine profile of the designer. “Vera loves clothes beyond loving clothes; she loves everything that has to do with clothes. . . . So she's going to present you clothes in an extremely loving manner: beautiful clothes in the most beautiful way possible.” He was 100 percent correct: Before the Age of Vera, bridal designers had typically been regarded with more than a smidgen of disdain, but she made the transition into “real” fashion to the sound of heartfelt critical applause.
Perhaps her greatest achievement, however, has been to retain a quite refined brand image and air of exclusivity while pushing a quite democratic agenda. “Just because you’re from a city ten miles outside of St. Paul,” she told The Wall Street Journal, “it doesn’t mean you don’t read magazines, or the incredible Internet, and what’s going on in the world. I never, ever take a client, or women, for granted.” And so, in 2007, she partnered with the affordable department store Kohl’s to launch Simply Vera Vera Wang, a sportswear and accessories line (the biggest partnership in the store’s history). less
By 2011, her company’s annual sales were an estimated $700 million, and she was catering to both the Palm Beach crowd and Middle America with equal passion. [+]
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