By Jean Li Spencer
Evolution comes naturally to Vera Wang. She has always possessed an instinct for reinvention, and as the matriarch of bridal fashion celebrated her seventieth birthday this year, the woman behind the name remains an eternally fresh cultural icon. Wang has been worn by brides from Mariah Carey to Chelsea Clinton and has worked with the likes of Irving Penn, Anna Wintour, Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg and Tommy Hilfiger.
In 1990, Wang founded her eponymous brand on a mission to design the perfect wedding dress for herself at the age of forty, and since then, she has been defining American women’s nuptial fantasies across three successful decades. Without Vera, all the sparkling, vertiginous details that makeup weddings as we know them– in real life, television and magazines– would not exist.
Chinese American Wang first learned how to stage a comeback while training as a competitive figure skater– something that inevitably happens when you vault yourself into a double axel and land on the ice in an unforgiving way. If there was one edge that figure skating gave her, it was how to fall down and pick herself up again. When she did not make the U.S. Olympic team in 1968, Wang retired from skating and swiftly turned to another lifelong passion: fashion.
The summer after her junior year at Sarah Lawrence, Wang secured a job working at the Yves Saint Laurent boutique on Madison Avenue, where she received her calling card from Frances Patiky Stein, one of two fashion directors at American Vogue at the time. She told Wang to contact her when she finished college, and so of course, it followed that Wang did just that. She landed an interview at Vogue and worked her way up from a temporary assistant to one of the magazine’s youngest ever fashion editors. In 1987, she left Vogue after being passed over for the position of editor-in-chief and joined Ralph Lauren. From that time forward, Wang has designed a celebrated oeuvre of clothing like pricey custom special-occasion gowns, red carpet stunners for celebrities and even ready-to-wear shirts that go for $19.99 from her Kohl’s clothing line, Simply Vera. She has also expanded into designs for engagement and wedding bands, eyewear, fragrances, bedding and home decor. According to Forbes, she has an estimated net worth of $430 million.
Wang was born in 1949 to wealthy Chinese immigrant parents from Shanghai who fled the Cultural Revolution. They raised her on the Upper East Side of Manhattan where she attended Chapin. Her father was an MIT graduate that became an executive at a pharmaceuticals company while her mother worked as a translator at the United Nations. Wang has two daughters, Cecilia and Josephine, whom she adopted with her ex-husband Arthur Becker. She leads a self-proclaimed minimalist lifestyle and keeps an opulent home in her native Manhattan, which was recently renovated over a ten-year period by the prestigious firm Sawyer/Berson. Wang has been the recipient of many awards, including the 1993 Chinese American Planning Council Honoree of the Year Award and the 2005 CFDA Womenswear Designer of the Year. In October 2019, she debuted her 60th bridal collection.
Wang’s allure is hard to resist. She dominates markets in the Americas, Europe and Asia, although the latter brought her into public scrutiny after the soft launch of her Shanghai store in 2013, which charged customers RMB 3000 (equivalent to about US $480) for a 90-minute appointment according to CNN. In the ensuing finger-pointing frenzy, she was accused of discriminatory practices against Chinese customers when she herself is Chinese by heritage. She has since then said that this decision to charge customers was not authorized by her, and the practice was rapidly abolished.
Wang’s taste for simplicity infuses itself into her clothing designs, which tend to feature romantic shapes and a monochromatic palette, and her philosophy for easy living. Over the past few years, Wang has established her presence on social media with an Instagram following of 378k. A fan asked Wang how she stays in great shape on a May 3rd Instagram post, to which the designer graciously replied: “Work, sleep, a vodka cocktail, not much sun.”
If this new decade in the designer’s life proves anything, it is that Wang is perennial. Although her performance art, i.e. her fashion, is always metamorphosizing, she retains a sense of wit and an earthy rootedness. There is no anonymity in Wang’s fame, but she has somehow managed to retain a lot of privacy in her personal affairs. That enduring privacy does not obfuscate who she is so much as it has immortalized it– and in an era when celebrities Tweet more than less, that respect for distance is not only rare but worthy of notice. Instead, she is defined by her couture and true grit.
Wang possesses the stamina of a Derby racehorse– this is what she’ll be remembered by, with terrific ease. As Vera Wang ushers in a new stage of her life– one that will surely include a lot of creativity, toned leg muscles and evolution– she’ll retain the sense that there is not a lot she cannot do. Let’s toast to that.