SPOTLIGHT: VERA WANG – THE TRAILBLAZER
Vera Wang’s impact on American fashion cannot be understated. A former figure skater and Vogue editor, she revolutionized and modernized bridalwear when she opened her first boutique in 1990—and she has since brought her unerring good taste to everything from eyewear to tableware, bedding to jewelry, even to vodka. She has also been prolific in the world of perfume: her beloved fragrances—nearly 30 of which have launched since the first, Vera Wang, debuted in 2002—transcend the Big Day to become lifetime signature scents. Here, the iconic designer, who was recently awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Biden, reflects on her surpassingly successful career, and shares why she believes that perfume is the ultimate accessory.
What did your experience as a skater and early career as an editor bring to your sensibility as a designer?
Skating gave me a physical ability that’s quite rare in the fashion world. And before I ever went into fashion, I was already involved in fashion, because skating is probably the only sport in which your performance involves how you look, how you dress, what the choreography is, and what the music is. That’s not so different from putting together a fashion show.
As a fashion editor, I was exposed to more fashion in one run through at Vogue than most people see in a lifetime. You’re sitting there for eight hours, and there’s clothing from all over the world. It’s tried on, discussed, evaluated. Is it good enough for the magazine? Is it something that’s going to create a story? Is there a trend? Fashion, for me, is so much about line. It’s about the body. Lyricism, sensuality. I’m so connected to my own body because of my history. Every designer brings something from their life to their work. I brought 22 years of using my body for expression, and using my mind.
What do you think it was about your early wedding dress designs that struck such a chord with people?
I was the girl who was never getting married. I got engaged at the ripe old age of 38 and three quarters. We didn’t even have time to arrange a wedding, we were both so busy working. And when I went wedding dress shopping… well, you can imagine. I didn’t intend to wear a traditional wedding gown, which, at that time, was basically a uniform, with all kinds of frilly things and leg of mutton sleeves. I just couldn’t relate to any of it, and most of the other women getting engaged were 15 years younger than me. So I ended up designing something and having it made. That’s how it all started. I realized there was an opportunity to bring an editorial eye, and a real fashion sensibility, to bridal.
You recently received a National Medal of Arts from President Biden. How did it feel to be recognized with such an honor?
The United States has been so prolific in its contribution to all the arts and humanities, and to sports, it’s incredible. And when you think of getting a medal from the President, for the arts, it’s a bit surreal, I thought of all the other people that should have gotten it instead of me. So many American fashion designers have made such great contributions to making American style so influential. I’ll cite two of my friends: Calvin Klein, and Ralph Lauren, my ex-boss. They exported American culture to the world. What’s even more ridiculous is that I was the first one to get an award for fashion, because I presume fashion had never been considered an art.
But have you ever tried to dress a woman’s body, a real, live woman? Have you ever tried to change her life or envision her in a different way? If that’s not an art form, I don’t know what is. I am really proud that I was awarded this medal for that reason, because my whole life has been devoted to, hopefully, making women feel comfortable and not intimidated by fashion.
How has your Chinese American heritage enriched your life and work?
I grew up having to be a blend of cultures. Chinese families have a very distinct culture. It’s based on respect for elders, on discipline, hard work, tenacity, humility, and being grateful for opportunities. You don’t forget that kind of upbringing. And you do bring that along with you, throughout your life. I felt very grateful to have gotten the job at Vogue. And grateful to have gotten a job at Ralph. And grateful for having had the opportunity to create my own company, and to have had people understand what I was trying to do.
What do you love most about fragrance?
First of all, it conjures up memories. There’s a sensuality of fragrance that you feel, and you experience, but so do people around you. It’s a way to communicate. It’s about mood and individuality, and self-expression. In a way, fragrance is the ultimate accessory. And I think that it’s sexy. I remember whenever I used to work really late, and when I had a dinner date or something, I would just put on a bit of fragrance. Some women do lipstick, but for me it was always fragrance. I would just put a bit behind my ears, and I would transition from a frantic workday to feeling feminine, and ready to go out.
What role does it play in your daily life?
It’s an every day, every way type of thing for me. I always put something on in the morning. And when I’m going out at night, I always remember to spritz myself, because it puts me in a different place. That’s what’s so amazing about fragrance. It can do that for you, just like music can.
There are friends of mine who have their scent. And there are friends of mine who like to explore. I think fragrance has evolved. The new generations are a bit more adventurous, and they like to find new things. There’s more flexibility. But it’s also their lifestyle and seasonality, the occasion. Lots of girls like lighter in summer. Many other things start to enter into their choices of scents, I think, from what I have experienced with all the women around me.
What differentiates a bridal fragrance from any other scent?
The enormity of the event. It takes on so much emotion on your wedding day. It takes on a very different symbolism. God knows, I’ve attended enough weddings, and done enough weddings. I don’t know how many thousand I’ve done in 34 years, but I do know that scent plays such a significant role because it’s something that you’ll remember, probably, forever. It immediately conjures up where you were, what you were doing, how you felt. And hopefully, those are wonderful memories.
What is your process when you’re working with perfumes and fragrance?
It’s always different. I’ve done a lot of fragrances. When the first Vera Wang fragrance came out it was a stronger fragrance than what was popular at the time. But I had been brought up and raised in the French fragrance tradition, so I felt that it was more authentic for me to do a fragrance that was a bit stronger. I remember working on it was such an education. It was smelling different trials, testing, having the coffee beans there, spraying it all over your body, your wrist, your finger, your elbow, your arm, your neck. It was a labor of love.
And every perfumer works differently. Of course, I had my own story that was from my past, and from my youth, and from my education. But starting with that first fragrance, I began to learn about top notes, dry downs. I’m always learning. And certainly, fashion changes in fragrance as well. Sometimes women don’t want musky or heavy, they want something very light or they want unisex. Things evolve. That’s what makes it so challenging, but it also gives you a chance to be creative.
Among your Vera Wang fragrances, what’s your favorite?
It’s like asking which is your favorite child! I really did love my first one. And Princess came out of a personal story. I was driving my daughters around West Palm Beach, and they had all their friends with them. I had about five girls in the back seat. I think they must have been eight to 10 years of age. And I’m thinking, at the same time, of a new fragrance concept. And I said, “What do you think about ‘Princess?'” And they started screaming in the car. Because obviously, they all wanted to be Disney princesses. They all wanted to wear crowns. And so we got Vera Wang Princess. It was never meant to be about royalty, per se. It was such a bigger concept. There is no limitation to what the word “Princess” can be. Rock Princess, the next one, was inspired by the movie Almost Famous, and the love of music in this country, young people, garage bands, flannel shirts, guys on skateboards, suburbia. And every single Princess that followed… from Princess Night, about going clubbing, to Preppy Princess, which was about girls in kilt skirts and blazers, like Gossip Girl… was different but touched on something in popular culture.
And now we have Rock Princess 2023.
Yes, a relaunch of Rock. It’s a very different time now. Guys aren’t all running around in flannel shirts on skateboards. There are cell phones, there’s Coachella. I felt it’s got to be much more about the influence of rappers, the star power of the Beyonces and Rihannas of this world. It’s really about being cool, being glamorous, the love of makeup and nails and glitz, and all these things that did not exist 20 years ago. I said, “If we’re going to bring Rock back, it’s got to be a different Rock.”
What are your plans for future scents?
We have another scent in the pipeline. It is not part of the Princess family, and I think it’s incredibly exciting. It has a different price point. It’s higher, with more essential oils. It’s got its place, I think, with the brand, because we really span from accessible to haute couture. So I think that it’s the right time for this to happen. I can’t say any more yet… but it’s coming.
How do you support the Fragrance Foundation’s DEI initiative, #FragranceForwardTFF?
First of all, I think that Linda Levy has done an insane job. I have to give her kudos. She has been nothing but supportive of me, and a very good advisor, as she is to all, in this business. Anything that we can do as a brand, anything I can do as a designer, and a woman, and someone has been lucky enough to work in the fragrance industry—we’re going to do whatever we can to be supportive of Linda and the Fragrance Foundation’s work. Linda is just unstoppable. I say that in the most complimentary way. It was not just a position for her, it’s a calling. And I think every fragrance firm would agree. She has gained enormous respect from the entire industry, because she is someone who believes so passionately in this industry and what can be done to make it better. It’s refreshing. And it’s encouraging, and it’s exciting.