Vera Wang is known for her work in wedding fashion and balancing modern designs with traditional elegance. However, she didn’t start off in the wedding sector of the fashion industry, and it’s not the only sector of fashion she contributes to today. From the early 1970s to the present day, a lot has changed in fashion, but Vera Wang managed to stay on top of the game. This article explains how fashion designer Vera Wang got her start and outlines what she has done in her successful career.
Vera Wang’s Background
Vera Wang was born in New York City on June 27, 1949. Her parents were wealthy immigrants who grew up in Shanghai, China. Her mother, Florence Wu, worked as a translator for the United Nations, while her father, Cheng Ching Wang, owned a pharmaceutical company. The two emigrated to the United States in the mid-1940s and had Vera Wang soon after. Vera Wang lived a very privileged life growing up. She resided on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, attended fashion shows in Paris with her mother, went to elite schools, and was a competitive figure skater. Although she lived a luxurious life, Vera Wang says her parents never allowed her to be spoiled. “You worked. You worked. You worked. That’s an immigrant mentality.” She also attributes her work ethic to her Asian heritage; “I think that for me the work ethic, the desire to succeed, the devotion, dedication to whatever craft I'm trying to pursue has been something that's incredibly, markedly Asian. And for me, that's stayed with me my whole life.”
Vera Wang began figure skating when she was 8 years old. Her goal was to make it to the Olympics, so she trained almost as much as she studied. She was winning regional championships by age 12 and was featured in Sports Illustrated’s Faces in the Crowd, a segment highlighting up-and-coming high school athletes, in 1968. In high school, she trained with her pairs partner, James Stuart. The pair competed at the 1968 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Unfortunately, they placed fifth in the junior pairs competition and failed to make the U.S. Olympics team. After failing to make the team, Vera Wang made the decision to stop figure skating.
Her high school was Chapin School, an all-girls day school in New York, which she graduated from in 1967. For college, she attended Sarah Lawrence College also in New York. While in college, she worked as a salesgirl at a Yves Saint Laurent store for two summers to earn pocket money and also studied abroad at the University of Paris during her sophomore year. She graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in 1971 with a degree in art history.
After graduating with her undergraduate degree, Vera Wang wanted to go to school for fashion because her dream job was to be a fashion designer. But, her dad refused because he thought she had no chance of making it as a designer. He said he wouldn’t pay for the schooling and told her, “If you really love fashion, prove it to me. Go get a job.” Vera Wang recalls this time in her life by saying, “like any good Chinese daughter, I did.”
Vera Wang got a job at Vogue Magazine as a temporary assistant in 1971. Like a lot of fresh college graduates, Vera Wang had to start at the bottom. On her first day, she showed up wearing a Yves Saint Laurent dress, high-heeled pumps, and long red fingernails. Her boss–famous fashion editor Polly Allen Mellen–said to her, “Vera, we are going to be working in the fashion closet and, believe me, we'll be on our hands and knees. So I think you should go home and change.” Fast forward a year, Vera Wang worked her way up to eventually become Senior Fashion Editor of the magazine. At the age of 23, Vera Wang became the youngest editor of Vogue Magazine. In 1987, the coveted editor-in-chief position was up for grabs. Vera Wang lost the position to Anna Wintour, who is still Vogue’s editor-in-chief today. After losing the position, Vera Wang left Vogue after working there for a total of 17 years. During her time at Vogue, she got to interact with the world’s leading designers, learn a lot about the fashion industry, and make valuable connections.
Through her connections at Vogue, Vera Wang got a job at Ralph Lauren as a design director. While working at Ralph Lauren, she was shopping for a wedding dress as she was in the process of getting married to her boyfriend, Arthur Becker. At the time, she was 39 and struggling to find a wedding dress that suited her. She went everywhere from department stores to Chanel couture and found nothing. She eventually commissioned a dressmaker to tailor a gown she designed. As previously mentioned, Vera Wang’s father owned a pharmaceutical company, so he knew a lot about business. He saw the lack of wedding dresses for older brides as a business opportunity. Not only was inventory low, but there were also few fabrics at that time. It was also a low-risk venture since there are always people getting married, which meant a steady stream of customers that didn’t repeat. Her father encouraged her to leave her job at Ralph Lauren and start her own company in the wedding fashion business. Vera Wang followed the advice of her father and left her job of 2 years at Ralph Lauren.
Vera Wang Bridal House
Vera Wang’s father gifted her $4 million to launch her business. Using the $4 million, she rented out a two-story showroom and a boutique on Madison Avenue in New York City. Thus, Vera Wang Bridal House was founded in September 1990. Although she had a large start-up fund, it wasn’t easy for Vera Wang right off the bat. She recalls that when she left her job at Ralph Lauren, a lot of doors that had originally been open to her were slammed shut. She didn’t have access to fabric manufacturers anymore and couldn’t attend parties like she used to because she was “now so small.”
At first, her bridal house wasn’t really her bridal house. She was buying and selling clothes from all over the world by designers such as Guy Laroche, Arnold Scaasi, Carolina Herrera, and Christian Dior. With these big-name designers in her boutique, she was able to cater to celebrities and socialites. She then tried adding a few of her own dresses into her boutique to see if they would sell and they did. This led her to continue making dresses, as well as other bridal wear such as minis, blazers, and even evening cocktail dresses. Customers started asking for custom-made pieces, and Vera Wang also learned how to reproduce. At that point, her bridal house truly became Vera Wang’s bridal house.
Growing Her Bridal House
What really helped Vera Wang at the beginning of her fashion design career was her connections and word-of-mouth. Although some of her connections failed her, her 17 years at Vogue didn’t. Vogue devoted a full 6-page spread to her bridal house soon after its launch, which led brides to flock to Vera Wang. Her customers helped spread the word about her bridal house and contributed to the company’s growth.
Collections and Runway Shows
Throughout the years, she has released new collections and held runway shows. On September 10, 2019, she unveiled her Spring/Summer 2020 collection at New York Fashion Week. This show was a celebration of the 30th anniversary of her brand. The collection was positively reviewed to be a “notable collection by one of the few New York designers with a truly distinctive fashion DNA” by Godfrey Deeny and as “Beautiful, seriously designed clothes, presented with gutsy panache” by Bridget Foley. In total, Vera Wang has debuted over 60 bridal collections.
Vera Wang was also able to expand worldwide and now has bridal boutiques in London, Tokyo, Sydney, and Seoul. Her most recent expansion was in February 2022 when she opened a boutique in the historical Wenhua block of Nanjing City in China.
Vera Wang’s Other Ventures
In 2001, she released her own book titled Vera Wang on Weddings, where she shares her thoughts, ideas, and visions of weddings. She has also expanded her brand to include fragrances, jewelry, eyewear, shoes, and homeware collections. Her notable licensing deals are with Kohl’s, David’s Bridal, and Zales. She has Simply Vera (Kohl’s), White by Vera Wang (David’s Bridal), and the Vera Wang LOVE Collection (Zales). She’s also worked with Men’s Wearhouse on tuxedo styles and created a limited edition line of vodka with Chopin.
Dressing Public Figures
She has made wedding gowns for Ariana Grande, Alicia Keys, Mariah Carey, Victoria Beckham, Khloe Kardashian, Kim Kardashian, and many more. Her evening wear has also been worn at film premieres, award ceremonies, and important events like the 65th Emmy Awards (Sofia Vergara), 2012 Academy Awards (Viola Davis), and Michelle Obama (2015 White House state dinner). Some other notable people who have worn Vera Wang include Halle Berry, Goldie Hawn, Charlize Theron, and Meg Ryan. Her reach has even made it into movies and television shows. Characters Blair Waldorf from Gossip Girl, Victoria Grayson from Revenge, and Charlotte York and Carrie Bradshaw from Sex and the City wore Vera Wang gowns in their respective shows.
As an homage to her figure skating career, Vera Wang also designed costumes for figure skaters. The first figure skater to wear Vera Wang was Nancy Kerrigan at the 1992 and 1994 Winter Olympics. When other figure skaters saw the hand-beaded ensemble Nancy Kerrigan wore at the 1994 Winter Olympics, they asked Vera Wang to create costumes for them too. Michelle Kwan (1998 and 2002), Evan Lysacek (2010), and Nathan Chen (2018) have worn Vera Wang's creations at the Olympics. Because of her work in designing costumes, she was inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 2009.
Vera Wang’s Success
Vera Wang won her first award of Honoree of the Year in 1993 from the Chinese American Planning Council. The following year, she won the Girl Scout Council’s Woman of Distinction Award and was elected as a member of the prestigious Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA). The CFDA awarded her with the Womenswear Designer of the Year award in 2005. Vera Wang has won other awards throughout her career but is known for ranking 34th on Forbes’ list of America’s Richest Self-Made Women 2018 because that year, her revenue reached $630 million. She is still the sole owner of her business and directly employs more than 200 people. The retail value of her brand’s goods is estimated to be upwards of $1 billion per year.
Life Lessons to Learn from Vera Wang
Through her life and career, Vera Wang shows that one can change direction and work towards new goals no matter their age or situation. When she didn’t make the U.S. Olympics figure skating team, she decided to focus on school and eventually get a job where she wanted to move up to the highest position. When she didn’t land the editor-in-chief job at Vogue, she moved to a new job at Ralph Lauren and then left after two years to start her own company. Although she was making these job changes, Vera Wang was unsure herself if starting her own company was a good idea. She thought, “maybe it’s just too late for me,” as she was already 40 years old when she founded her bridal house. Today, she says, “I am more than my age, I hope. I hope that women can not feel the boundaries. That they can have a career at 72.” She has been able to keep going in the industry for a total of 52 years so far and doesn’t show any sign of stopping anytime soon. She says, “The day I stop learning is probably the day I’ll just stop.” A good lesson for all people, not just entrepreneurs, to learn.