American fashion designer, Vera Wang has kept a good profile of herself since she got into the fashion world.
Wang launched a New York wedding business and debuted her own line of dresses at the age of 40 after working as an editor at Vogue and an accessory designer at Ralph Lauren. After three decades, her name-brand company now sells jewelry, home goods, fashion, and beauty products on a global scale.
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HBR: Why, at age 40, did you decide to strike out on your own as a fashion designer?
Wang: Is that old? Perhaps I would have preferred to start off at 20 or 30, but I don’t think I would have been anywhere near equipped to know what it takes to be in business. Even at 40, I wasn’t entirely sure I should be doing it. It wasn’t an era for start-ups. I’d always felt I should learn and earn, and I’d already had two incredible careers working for others—at Condé Nast and then Ralph Lauren—the best in the industry. Still, I didn’t feel very qualified or secure. I never thought I deserved to found a company. I’d been on the artistic side—pictures and styling and Vogue and responsible for the design of 18 lines of accessories at Ralph. To think I could start, and run, and sustain a business? I knew how hard it was. My father was the reason I did it. When I got engaged, at 39, I was a little beyond the age of most brides and on a quest for a dress. I looked everywhere, from department stores to Chanel couture. My father identified that as an opportunity. He didn’t work in the garment industry, but he was a businessman, and he saw that bridal came with lower risks: It had low inventory, few fabrics at that time, and, since people will always want to get married, a steady stream of customers, though they don’t usually repeat. I didn’t know anything about dress design. I didn’t feel ready. And when I left Ralph, a lot of doors that had been open to me slammed shut, whether it was a fabric manufacturer or a party I wanted to go to, because I was now so small. Harsh. But my DNA was to find something I felt passionate about, to make a difference, and to work, so that’s what I did.
Was Ralph Lauren a mentor to you?
It started with the interview: I’m sitting with him in his office—he already has an empire by then—and the first question he asks me is: “What don’t you like about my clothes?” It was like an asteroid coming at me. I said, “Do you want me to answer with what you wish to hear? Or do you want me to tell you the truth?” And he said, “The truth.” So I was honest, and I thought, I’m not getting this job. But I did. Ralph also has complete conviction about who he is and what his brand stands for. He is not swayed left and right by what goes on. We’d sometimes be in a design meeting, and he’d say, “Do not tell me what everyone else is doing. I don’t want to see. I don’t want to know.” Ralph sold his vision of America to the world, and his teams believed in him. If anyone didn’t, the door was right there. I think when you work with someone who has that kind of vision, unless you’re deaf, dumb, and blind, you’ve got to pick up something. Fashion by its very definition implies change. Fashionable is what’s new. But you have to move on within your own space, and that’s where the challenge is. If you’re going to jump from a turquoise bikini with feathers to a Savile Row tweed suit to a ball gown with flowers all over it to being 90% see-through, then you can never build a brand, because who are you? It’s much harder to stay in your lane.
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What advice do you give young designers?
It’s wonderful to be passionate and have a dream. But start by working for somebody you respect—or anybody, really—and get paid to learn. There is a learning curve—not only in what you know, but in how you behave. And if you don’t educate yourself first, you really can’t break rules. You have to learn what came before so that you know (a) you’re not really that inventive, and (b) which rules you want to break. Then keep your head down, don’t get involved in politics, be respectful, be grateful that you have the job, do your job, and most of all, be available. If you don’t have enough to do, that’s the problem. There were no hours for me at Vogue or at Ralph. Sunday night? No problem. You want to talk to me about retail on Saturday afternoon when I’m with my friends and family? I’m good to go, because I’m grateful that you are asking my opinion and that I can learn from smart, successful people. I was that kind of employee. I cared about my job. I felt honored to be there. My goal was to prove to my employers that I was the best I could be.
Where do you look for creative inspiration?
Sometimes it’s a movie. Sometimes it’s a piece of art. Sometimes it’s nothing: I just start, and I say, “Where is this going?” The movie Kill Bill was an inspiration for one of my collections. That led me to Japanese culture, which I didn’t know a lot about. But I tried to keep thinking of touch points, like the big corded rope belts that sumo wrestlers wear to hold up their pants, or how a kimono is about wrapping and wrapping, layer over layer. I take these codes and make them my own. Recently I’ve been obsessed by Versailles. Louis XIV was the original fashion rock star—a man who loved clothing and forced his courtiers to dress up. He used clothing as power and control. So then I think, How am I going to make Louis XIV look young and hip and fun and for this generation? I do research, but not like the kind I had time to do 30 years ago, because fashion’s moving so fast. I probably never get more than five weeks of real active working time—from inspiration to visualization—to do a major collection.
Is it hard to stay innovative?
Well, I’ve been creatively blocked and tried to fight my way out of it. My last ready-to-wear collection was brutal. I bought these plaid fabrics, and I know everyone else who works well in plaid: Ralph Lauren, Vivienne Westwood, Michael Kors, John Galliano, Rei Kawakubo, Commes des Garçons. How do I take plaid and make it my own? I came up with Celtic and based my whole collection on the capes that they wore when they went into battle, usually fastened with a brooch. The words we put on some of the clothes were in a Celtic font. But it’s demanding. You get a bolt of fabric, and what do you construct with it in five weeks with your team on board?
You were known as a bridal designer for so long. How did the rest of the business evolve?
I actually started my bridal line only two weeks earlier than my couture evening-wear line, if you can believe it. No one’s ever written that. When I opened my store, it was not even my bridal gowns. I purchased from everybody in the world—London, Paris. I was the editor, as I was at Vogue, and I brought in all different kinds of clothes and designers. But then I put in one dress of mine to see if it would sell. And then two. And then three. And then five. And eventually it became completely me. I was free to do fashion for weddings: minis, blazers, all kinds of things that weren’t typically bridal at that time. Two weeks later, we started to do these bespoke evening cocktail dresses. By word of mouth, women would come in to have them made. We still do some one-of-a-kind, but then I also had to learn how to reproduce. It’s not enough to design. Can you get a scale on the garment? It’s been a 30-year journey. I can’t say it’s been easy. But I’ve grown from the challenges, and I keep learning. The day I stop learning is probably the day I’ll just stop.
How do you identify and train young design talent?
It’s not an easy thing. Each design school—Parsons, FIT, SCAD, RISD, Chambre Syndicale in France, Bunka in Tokyo—is different and has its own philosophy on how to encourage talent. By the time designers come to me, they’ve been filtered through that. But I’m certainly looking for someone who is fully dedicated. If you think there are regular hours, you’re in the wrong business. And that’s not just for me; I speak for the entire industry, including France, Italy, Japan, Russia, England. I also look for an affinity and understanding of what I do, my brand, my sense of style. It’s important for every company that employees feel that way. If you’re coming to me with a totally different aesthetic, you’re probably better off getting a job elsewhere. Even if you’re all in the same army, you may not make it. If you’re not, it’s sort of like D-Day.
You’re both the creative and the business head of your company. How do you balance your time between the two?
It’s nearly impossible. I prioritize like mad. I say, “This is coming first, so everybody get out of my way, and then the next, and the next, and the next.” But I’m up against designers who only design. They’re hired guns, and the bottom line isn’t their job. They don’t worry about leases and insurance and paychecks. When you’re an owner, you never forget. There are people whose livelihoods depend on you. So every decision I make, I consider whether it’s about my ego or the reality of the business. This is the civil war in my brain every minute I’m awake. That said, I think it’s equally difficult to be the creator but not have a say in the running of the business. The industry is difficult. There’s a lot of competition. And it’s fast. Tom Ford once said that the thing that made him most afraid about the future was that there wasn’t enough time. So it’s going to be interesting to see who can survive. When you’re public, there’s that added pressure of shareholders, but it’s hard to grow in a massive way without them. Really, fashion is no different from any other industry today. My father once told me, “Look, I know you want to be creative. But business is creative.” And he’s right. To do well, you have to think creatively.
You were a figure skater in your youth. What lessons did you take from the sport into your career?
It’s a wonderful sport for young women. It teaches you discipline. It gives you the joy of self-expression. There’s speed; there’s movement; and when you fall down, you pick yourself up and try again. It’s a good metaphor for life.
How has your multicultural life—Chinese heritage, American upbringing, significant time in Europe—influenced your career?
My parents were immigrants, and they never allowed me to be spoiled. You worked. You worked. You worked. That’s an immigrant mentality. And when I’m in China now, I feel Chinese. I’m proud of everything positive about my heritage, which is the desire to work and better oneself. My education in fashion also started with my mother, who dressed to impress. I remember when Yves Saint Laurent opened right on my block—on Madison and 71st—and I worked there as a salesgirl for two summers when I was in college to earn pocket money. But France is where I learned to appreciate beauty. The French live for their food, their wine, their lives. They enjoy their time. It’s a very different culture from America, where you’re always in a rush, rush, rush and trying to get more done, get more done, get more done. I remember a French boyfriend asked me, “Do you want to have a good and long life? Or do you want to rush around and die early?” And—do you know?—I actually stopped and thought about it.