Vera Wang reflects on weddings, modernity and that most incredible accessory—eyewear 

By Gloria Nicola

To thousands of women, the name Vera Wang evokes images of the ultimate dream—a stunning bridal gown… the perfect wedding. In fact, since she opened her design business in 1990, she has been credited with changing the fashion face of marriage to one of sophistication and modernity. And to bring her extensive knowledge of weddings to those who can only dream of a Vera Wang gown, she has written her first book, Vera Wang on Weddings. Released by HarperCollins October, 2001, the publication is a comprehensive wedding planning guide, filled with photographs of the many celebrity and society weddings she has participated in.

But weddings and gowns are only one of many facets in the New York-born designer’s life and career. She’s a wife and mother of two young daughters. She’s an avid golfer. As a child she competed nationally in figure skating and studied dance at George Balanchine’s American School of Ballet. She attended the Sorbonne in Paris and graduated from Sarah Lawrence College with a degree in art history. After college, she worked for 17 years as a fashion editor and stylist at Vogue and for two years as a design director for accessories at Ralph Lauren before starting her own design house.

Her many years on the editorial side of fashion have definitely influenced her. “I find it a wonderful challenge to give interviews after spending all those years backstage,” she says. “I always try to be honest and real.” Wang describes herself as a natural type, who doesn’t like to pose and prefers black—and shades of black. “I’m not a pink-type of girl,” she notes. She also prefers a minimum of makeup. Indeed, immediately after the 20/20 cover shoot (she wore black) was completed and before the interview began, she removed all her makeup.

But her interest in fashion started well before her editorial career. “I’ve really been designing since I was eight,” says Wang. “I started sketching dresses I could wear when skating. I was always involved in all aspects of skating, not just the technique, the choreography, the music, but the visual aspects, too—how I looked, what I should wear. I also studied ballet and worked in front of a mirror so I became obsessed with proportions. Because of my skating and ballet background, I see everything as three-dimensional. I’m fanatic about pulling all the dimensions together.”

Fashion has always been an integral part of Wang’s life. As a little girl, she accompanied her stylish mother as she shopped American and Parisian couture. “My mother, who is now 84, was the old-fashioned definition of a clotheshorse, much like a Babe Paley or a Jackie O,” says the designer. “She used clothes to express herself. And she always encouraged me to pursue art forms to express myself.” 

 But Wang actually became involved with the design business out of necessity. “When I decided to get married at 40, I couldn’t find a dress with the modernity or sophistication I wanted. That’s when I saw the opportunity for a wedding gown business,” she notes. She decided she would start with the wedding business and then expand into other fashions, which now include evening wear, footwear, fur and ready-to-wear. Her fragrance will debut in the spring. She is also working on handbags, china and crystal.

Her first eyewear line launches next month at Vision Expo East. The new eyewear line consists of two collections: Vera Wang Luxe, which contains 20 Rx and sunglass styles, including signature pieces featuring buffalo horn and some with jewels, will be distributed exclusively through Oliver Peoples’ sales force to high-end eyewear boutiques and optical stores. The Vera Wang Collection, comprising 25 Rx frames and sunglasses, will have a limited distribution through the sales force of Couteur Designs, a division of Kenmark Group, to select optical stores. Both Vera Wang Luxe and Vera Wang Collection sunglasses will be distributed through Oliver Peoples’ department stores sales reps to higher-end stores, such as Barneys, Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman.

To Wang, eyewear was a natural extension. She has always been fascinated with it and has a collection that includes Oliver Peoples, Armani and Prada, and Oakley, for golf and tennis. “To me, eyewear goes way beyond being a prescription. It’s like makeup. It’s the most incredible accessory,” she explains. “The shape of a frame or the color of lenses can change your whole appearance. Look at Anna Wintour [editor of Vogue]. Those oversize sunglasses she wears have become a part of her identity.”

And Wang likes the fact eyewear is so accessible. “You don’t have to be wealthy to have three or four pair,” she says. “Women collect eyewear these days like they collect handbags.”

She also likes working with eyewear. “It’s very challenging to design in such a small area,” she notes. “I’m obsessed with details and how they relate to the wearer. I visualize women. I do this with all my products. A woman can be an athlete; she can be a classic, traditional individual; she can be vampish. Any or all these personality traits can be part of the same woman. That’s what I want to accomplish with my eyewear. I want eyewear that can be worn in all aspects of her life. It’s all about self expression.”

In creating her fashions, she centers on sleek, architectural designs. “I see myself as a true modernist,” notes Wang. “Even when I do a traditional gown, I give it a modern twist. I go to the past for research. I need to know what came before so I can break the rules. I work with structure, with techniques, but I go outside the box and give it my own spin. I adore the challenge of creating truly modern clothes—where a woman’s personality and sense of style are realized. I want people to see the dress, but focus on the woman.”

What’s most important to the designer is creating fashion that works. “All those years of skating and dancing have carried over,” she says. “I can’t design anything without thinking of how a woman’s body will look and move when she’s wearing it. When I design a wedding dress with a bustle, it has to be one the bride can dance in,” she says. “I love the idea something is practical and still looks great.”
She became especially conscious of the functional side of eyewear when she began golfing. “I had a lot of difficulty finding an attractive rimless golf style that offered a good overall view,” says Wang. She feels both fashion and eyewear are going to be a lot more about science and technology in the future. “Polarization and other lens technologies took eyewear to a whole new plane in the ’90s,” she notes. She adds updated materials with new properties (such as a stretchy leather material incorporated into the design of one of her cocktail dresses) will continue to play a major role in both fashion and eyewear.

Of all her projects, the designer says writing the wedding book was the most challenging. “It’s a remarkable exercise to sit and look at you own work over the years,” she says. “But the fact I could communicate in words gives me such pleasure. I wanted to define the vocabulary of a wedding both visually and intellectually. To me, the book is about more than just weddings or wedding dresses. It’s a metaphor for women’s lives, their creativity, their emotions. It’s a dress rehearsal for life—a support system for women embarking on such an important part of their future. And most importantly, it’s for all the women who embrace my esthetic, but can’t afford a Vera Wang dress. If women can get anything out of it—a little bit of me or a lot of me, that’s what’s important.”

Wang’s one goal in everything she does is to never take women for granted. “As the mother of two daughters, I have great respect for women. And I don’t ever want to lose that.” 

If Wang were not a designer, she would like to be a film director and produce stories about romance, loves, losses, what happens to people. “I’m fascinated by people and emotions. I’m an avid viewer of the ‘Biographies’ channel,” she notes.
Wang’s advice to young designers: “Don’t be afraid to take time to learn. It’s good to work for other people. I worked for others for 20 years. They paid me to learn.”