Interview with Vera Wang.
running a creative enterprise
The harvest: via hbr
After working as an editor at Vogue and an accessories designer at Ralph Lauren, Wang opened a New York bridal shop and debuted her own line of gowns at age 40. Three decades later her eponymous brand is now a global business spanning fashion, beauty, jewelry, and homewares. An Interview with Vera Wang.
Why, at age 40, did you decide to strike out on your own as a fashion designer?
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.
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 honoured 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 visualisation—to do a major collection.
How do you walk the line between being unique and having commercial appeal?
My collection is elevated. We have sewers who could sew for any house in Europe. I’ve trained them over decades. I demand nothing less than great construction. People always say, “Vera’s never very commercial in her ready-to-wear lines,” but what they don’t understand is that
my journey as an artist and as a designer is my journey.
It’s about pushing myself to be better, technically and every other way you can imagine, until I won’t do it anymore. My upper end and the work we do for the red carpet in Hollywood is supposed to inspire and be somewhat influential—certainly, I hope, in the American market. But then I have the other side of it: I do a line for Kohl’s, which, depending on the quarter, is the biggest or second-biggest retailer in America. I’m one of its marquee brands, and that’s a substantial business. Within that, we try to suggest a certain modernity in lifestyle wear. There’s always an attitude—either athletic or seductive—even in the big-volume mass-market line, suggested in both choice of prints and silhouettes and fabric. We try to bring that philosophy to the brand.
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 prioritise 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.