Wang, a 40-year-old fashion designer, opened a wedding store in New York and debuted her own line of evening dresses at the age of 40. She had previously worked at Condé Nast and Ralph Lauren, but felt unprepared for the challenges of starting a business at 40. Wang’s father, a successful businessman, saw an opportunity in the bridal industry and encouraged her to pursue her passion. Despite her lack of experience in clothes design, Wang’s father’s guidance and support in finding a new venture helped her succeed in the fashion, jewelry, cosmetics, and home goods industries.
Wang opened a wedding store in New York and debuted her own line of evening dresses at the age of 40 after working as an editor for Vogue and an accessory designer for Ralph Lauren. After three decades, her name-brand company has grown to become a major worldwide player in the fashion, jewelry, cosmetics, and home goods industries.
Why did you decide to start your own fashion design business at the age of 40?
Does it have a date? It’s possible that I would have liked to start my job at a younger age—say, 20 or 30—but I don’t think I would have been prepared to comprehend what it takes to succeed in business at those ages. I wasn’t sure if I should be doing it at 40 years old. New firms were not suited to the period. I had previously had two fantastic jobs working for others — at Condé Nast and then Ralph Lauren, the best in the business — before opting to pursue my own enterprises. I had always felt that I should study and earn. But I didn’t feel confident or competent. I never thought I deserved to start a business. I have experience in the creative fields of photography, style, and Vogue, and I was in charge of designing 18 accessory collections for Ralph Lauren. to think I could start, run, and keep a company? I was aware of the difficulty. I was motivated to do it by my dad. I was a little older than typical brides when I got engaged at the age of 39, and I was looking for a dress. I looked everywhere, from retail stores to Chanel couture. My father saw an opening in this and said, “There you go.” Although he did not operate in the clothing sector, he was a successful businessman and understood that brides had less risks: Since people would always want to get married, it had a little amount of inventory, few fabrics at the time, and a steady stream of consumers, but they weren’t usually repeat customers. I had no knowledge in clothes design. I wasn’t feeling prepared. And once I parted ways with Ralph, a lot of doors that had previously been open to me were slammed shut, whether it was a fabric manufacturer or a party I wanted to attend since I was suddenly so little. Harsh. But finding my passion, making a difference, and working hard were all in my genetic make-up, so I accomplished all three.
Did Ralph Lauren serve as your mentor?
The interview started with him asking me, while I’m seated next to him in his office, “What don’t you like about my clothes?” By that time, he had already built an empire. My perception was that an asteroid was heading my way. Do you want me to tell you what you want to hear? I retorted. Or do you rather that I tell you the truth? After that, he said, “The truth.” I thus came to the honest conclusion that I would not be hired for this position. Though I did. Ralph also knows exactly who he is and what his brand stands for. He is not readily influenced by the news. He occasionally gave us instructions during design meetings, saying things like, “Do not tell me what everyone else is doing. I don’t want to watch. I’m not interested in learning. Ralph persuaded others to believe in him and in his vision of America. If somebody didn’t, the door was right there for them. I feel you must learn something while dealing with someone who has such a vision, unless you’re deaf, uneducated, and blind. The word “fashion” itself indicates change. Fashion is currently in style. The obstacle is that you must advance inside your own area. If you move from a turquoise bikini with feathers to a Savile Row tweed suit to a ball gown with flowers to being 90% transparent, who are you? It’s considerably more challenging to stay in your lane.
What advice do you have for aspiring designers?
It is wonderful to be passionate and ambitious. But start by being paid to learn while working for someone you admire, or anyone, for that matter. Not just in terms of information, but also in terms of conduct, there is a learning trajectory. And you can’t break the rules if you don’t educate yourself beforehand. In order to understand (a) that you are not especially imaginative and (b) the conventions you intend to breach, you must study the history. Then, maintain a low profile, stay out of politics, show respect, be grateful for your work, carry out your responsibilities, and most importantly, be accessible. The issue arises if you don’t have enough tasks. Both Ralph and Vogue have no open times. Sunday night? No issue. When I’m with my family and friends on a Saturday afternoon, you want to talk about retail? I’m good to go because I appreciate you asking my input and because I can learn from smart, accomplished people. I worked in this category. I was devoted to my line of work. I felt honored to be there. It was my intention to prove to my superiors that I was the best I could be.
Where do you look for inspiration for your art?
Sometimes it’s a movie. Sometimes it is a piece of art. Sometimes nothing happens; I just start out and think, “Where is this going?” The movie Kill Bill served as the basis for one of my collections. This introduced me to Japanese culture, something I was unfamiliar with. I made an effort to recall key details, such as the big corded rope harnesses that sumo wrestlers use to support their pants or how a kimono is made up of layers upon layers of wrapping. These are the codes that I adopt and apply to myself. I’ve lately developed a crush for Versailles. The first fashion icon was Louis XIV, a fashion aficionado who insisted on his courtiers dressing up. He exercised dominance and control through his clothing. Then I think about how I might portray Louis XIV as being modern, young, and amusing to this generation. I do research, but not as much as I did 30 years ago because of how quickly fashion is changing. I probably never have more than five weeks of actively working time to complete a big collection, from conception to execution.
Is it challenging to stay creative?
I’ve made an effort to get through the creative obstacles that have stood in my way. My previous ready-to-wear collection was brutal. Because I am aware of how wonderfully plaid works for designers like Ralph Lauren, Vivienne Westwood, Michael Kors, John Galliano, Rei Kawakubo, and Comme des Garçons, I bought these tartan fabrics. How can I make a tartan shirt unique? I developed Celtic and built my entire collection on the capes they wore during battle, which were frequently fastened with a brooch. We used a Celtic typeface for the wording that we put on parts of the clothing. But it’s difficult. What do you and your team create out of a piece of cloth in five weeks?
How do you reconcile being innovative and having broad appeal?
I have the best collection. Any home in Europe might use our seamstresses’ creations. I’ve been teaching them for years. I won’t settle for anything less than superb craftsmanship. People frequently remark that “Vera’s ready-to-wear lines are never very commercial,” but they fail to comprehend that my path as a creator is my journey. It’s about pushing myself to get better in every manner imaginable, both technically and otherwise, until I can’t. My upscale designs and the work we do for Hollywood’s red carpet are meant to serve as examples and, at the very least, have some influence on the American market. Additionally, I create a line for Kohl’s, which varies per quarter and is either the top or second-largest retailer in the US. I am one of its most recognizable trademarks, and this is a sizable company. In our lifestyle wear, we want to exude a feeling of modernism. Even with the high-volume, mass-market range, the materials, colors, and shapes all convey a certain attitude, whether it be sporty or sexy. This philosophy is something we work to become part of the brand.
You have a lengthy history of success as a wedding wear designer. What changes were made to the rest of the business?
Unbelievably, I debuted my bridal line two weeks prior to my couture eveningwear line. That has never been written before. Even my bridal dresses didn’t sell the most when I first began my shop. I bought things everywhere I went, even in London and Paris. I introduced a range of apparel and designers as editor, just as I had done at Vogue. To check whether it would sell, I later added one of my gowns. And then two. The third is next. then another five. And eventually, it became wholly mine. For weddings, I was able to create miniskirts, blazers, and several other non-traditional bridal apparel. We started creating these unique cocktail outfits for the event two weeks later. By word of mouth, women would come in to have them manufactured. We continue to create some unique products, but I also have to learn how to duplicate them. Designing alone is not adequate. Is it possible to measure the clothing? It has been a 30-year journey. I won’t say that it was easy. But despite these challenges, I’ve evolved and am still learning. I’m going to probably quit the day I stop learning.
How can young design talent be identified and nurtured?
It is not an easy process. Each design school, including Bunka in Tokyo, Chambre Syndicale in France, FIT, SCAD, RISD, and Parsons, has its own idea about how to develop talent. The designs have already gone through this filter by the time they get to me. I’m looking for someone who is totally dedicated, though. You should not be in the business if you adhere to traditional business hours. I speak on behalf of the whole sector, which includes France, Italy, Japan, Russia, and the UK. I also look for compatibility with and understanding of my brand, my style, and my body of work. Every firm needs its employees to feel this way. If you approach me with an entirely unique aesthetic, you should surely search for work elsewhere. You might not make it even if you’re all in the same army. If you are unprepared, it will be like D-Day.
You are the organization’s creative and commercial leader. How do you achieve harmony between the two?
It is practically unimaginable. I’m a fanatic for prioritizing. I request that you make room for this before the next, the next, and the next. However, I am up against designers who do nothing but design. They are hired weapons, thus making money is not their concern. Leases, insurance, or remuneration are not of concern to them. You never forget anything you own. There are people whose livelihoods are reliant on you. I thus assess each choice I make in terms of whether it advances the business or my ego. I always think about this continuing civil conflict when I’m awake. However, I think it is difficult to start a firm and not have any control over how it is run. The business climate is difficult. There is fierce rivalry. It is also swift. Tom Ford famously said that he found the lack of leisure time to be the scariest element of the future. It will be interesting to see who can survive as a result. When a firm becomes public, there is more shareholder pressure, but without them, it is challenging to see significant growth. The fashion industry nowadays is extremely similar to any other sector. “Look, I understand that you want to be creative. However, business is creative. And he’s right. One needs to think creatively to achieve.
When you were younger, you used to figure skate. What lessons from the sport have you used in your career?
Young women who enjoy sports will love this one. You learn self-control from it. It allows for the enjoyment of self-expression. There is motion and velocity, and if you fall, you can get back up and try again. It serves as a great life metaphor.
How has your multiracial background—which includes Chinese ancestry, American upbringing, and a sizable amount of time spent in Europe—affected your professional life?
I was never given the royal treatment by my immigrant parents. You kept going. You kept going. You kept going. This perspective is one of an immigrant. And now, whenever I visit China, I feel Chinese. I am proud of all the good things about my background, especially the will to work hard and do better. My mother, who always dressed to please, was also the one who first introduced me to fashion. I remember when Yves Saint Laurent opened on my street, at Madison and 71st, and I spent two summers working there as a salesgirl when I was an undergraduate. But I discovered how to appreciate beauty in France. The French are passionate about their food, wine, and way of life. They enjoy themselves. It is completely different from American society, where everyone is constantly hurrying and trying to do more. I remember being asked by a French lover whether I wanted to have a long and healthy life. Or do you want to live quickly and pass away young? And—are you cognizant?I genuinely stopped and thought about it.
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