- The Washington Times - Monday, September 12, 2005

Vera Wang says that in fashion, you’re only as good as your last collection. Lucky for her that her fall collection, full of floating dresses and luxe velvet separates in a woodsy palette of greens, browns and golds, received rave reviews and earned her this year’s Council of Fashion Designers of America trophy as the top womenswear designer.

She promises a spring collection worthy of “a 1950s heiress who visits exciting places — think Doris Duke.”

Miss Wang is a favorite with modern-day celebrities. Just this year, Oprah Winfrey wore a gold hand-embroidered off-the-shoulder gown with a tiered skirt to the Oscars, Melania Knauss Trump changed into a Wang dress for her wedding reception, and Mariska Hargitay was in an asymmetrical, dusty-rose satin gown by Miss Wang when she picked up her best-actress Golden Globe.

One of the best all-time Oscar fashion moments is Sharon Stone’s outfit from 1998 when she paired a crisp white men’s shirt with a lavender Vera Wang skirt.

Miss Wang’s success hardly came overnight, though.

Miss Wang, who grew up in the 1960s, says fashion was a big part of her life. She lived part of the time in Paris, the Beatles were making their splash, and she was interested in everything from what Betsey Johnson was doing at Paraphernalia in Manhattan to what Brigitte Bardot was wearing in St. Tropez.

However, her first aspiration was to be an actress. “But there still were not many roles for Asian women. I could only play Ophelia if I moved to Hong Kong. I made the right career choice,” she says with a laugh.

She went to Sarah Lawrence College and studied art history — and her love and appreciation of art is front and center in the clothes she makes. Fall, for example, was influenced by Flemish painters, and spring “is all about Matisse.”

After graduation, she wanted to go to the Fashion Institute of Technology for further study, but her father wouldn’t pay for it. She took a job at Vogue, instead.

“It’s not a bad place for an education,” Miss Wang says.

From Vogue, she moved to Ralph Lauren, and the elegant aesthetic she learned there is still an influence. Then, 15 years ago, she went into business for herself as a bridal designer.

“I brought color to bridal,” Miss Wang says. “There was one whole season of blush. If you think about the bareness, the illusion [fabric], the corsets that I did in bridal, they were trends in ready-to-wear, too.”

She moved into the eveningwear, fragrance and tabletop categories. This is her second year doing ready-to-wear. “Ready-to-wear is what I’ve wanted to do since the beginning. … I’m not a girl who spends my life in a ball gown,” Miss Wang says. “Clothing is as much about lifestyle as art,” she adds.

But most things in her collection, including fall’s teal and bronze brocade tank with a beaded band around the empire waist and a jade satin gown with ruching at the bust and back and two gold-beaded belts, are still more for well-heeled women. She hopes to soon introduce a lower price point, but, she explains, that won’t happen until she can ensure those clothes will be of the quality to which she wants to be linked.

As a busy working mother, Miss Wang herself needs clothes that fit — fit her lifestyle, fit her small frame and fit her needs.

“Couture — I love it, but by definition it almost means ‘important to own, important to wear.’ … I prefer work by someone like Miuccia Prada, which is so beautifully made and has rich details, but you can throw her pieces into your wardrobe.”

Miss Wang also is a fan of Marni, Jil Sander and Yohji Yamamoto, and she mixes and matches pieces from their collections with her own. She also owns a bit of Louis Vuitton. “No one wears only me. Not even me.”

She also commits a cardinal sin of the uber-chic, high-fashion world she lives in: Miss Wang wears leggings. And she wears them almost every day. “When Gap stopped making them I didn’t know what I was going to do. Now I wear Danskin, but I would like to get them in colors other than black.

“[Leggings] are a no-brainer for me. They’re like jeans, they become nothing. The fashion is on top, whatever is happening up there is what people will notice. It could be an undersized sweater, an oversized T, a deconstructed jacket.”

“She’s connected with the moment very well,” observes Sally Singer, Vogue’s fashion news director. “Women’s fashion right now isn’t about conveying power and promotion and fabulosity, it’s about lifestyle clothes, clothes you wear to work, wear them out and pick up your kids in them. … It’s now about a seamless transition between professional life and family life. Vera lives that life.”

It also helps that Miss Wang likes to shop and likes to look good, Miss Singer notes. Her good taste has helped her successfully sell jewelry, tabletop and clothing because she has the look that so many people want, she says.

“They’re not collections based on an abstract definition of pretty, it’s all what a sophisticated consumer would find charming,” Miss Singer says.

Miss Wang, however, says it’s her 11-year-old and 14-year-old daughters who keep her in check about what’s hip and happening. Her younger daughter has almost yuppie tastes, while the 14-year-old is “a frenzied fashionista” whose favorite label is Marc by Marc Jacobs.

The funny thing is that Miss Wang and her daughters all have looks that have been in and out over the course of Miss Wang’s career. “There’s nothing ‘new’ in fashion. I’ve lived through bell-bottoms five times,” she deadpans.

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