Vera Wang has dressed the most famous brides on the planet: Alicia Keys, Victoria Beckham, and Chelsea Clinton, for starters. She launched her ready-to-wear collection in 2002, about ten years after her bridal business got off the ground—still, she is, and probably always will be, best known as a maker of glorious wedding gowns. But sit down with the designer, who will be honored with the CFDA's Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award next week, and it's not all chiffon and tulle. Wang is quick to reveal her dark side: the Fall 2011 collection inspired by Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill movies, the black leather pants handmade for her in a second-floor shop on Lexington Avenue that she wore to work at Vogue back in the early seventies.
"Anyone who knew me my first twenty years in fashion couldn't believe it," Wang says. "Calvin [Klein] liked to tease me about it. He said, 'What? You're doing wedding gowns? You're like the most goth girl I know.'" Wang has the closet to prove it: full of Rick Owens and Riccardo Tisci-era Givenchy and enough black leggings for every day of the year.
Wang's fashion training began early. Her mother taught her to love Yves Saint Laurent, and she was a salesgirl at the designer's Madison Avenue Rive Gauche boutique during college, "doing the windows and folding crepe de chine blouses and whatever." Saint Laurent has been Wang's greatest influence, but the list of talents in her pantheon is long. It includes Kenzo Takada, Rei and Yohji, Jil Sander and Helmut Lang "for their modernity," and here in New York: Geoffrey Beene, Calvin Klein, and Ralph Lauren (where she worked after Vogue). Among the newer names, she rattles off Junya Watanabe and Hedi Slimane. "I love what he did with Dior Homme, I love what I believe he's trying to do now at Saint Laurent, bringing a youthful dimension to a very grand vocabulary."
As for her own vocabulary, Wang says, "I get very involved in draping and problem-solving. If you examine our clothing and look at it carefully, it's very technical." Wang's as concerned with what's happening on the millimeter level as she is with the full-length 360. That's a must in this era of 24/7 celebrity coverage, which Wang knows a fair bit about, having dressed everyone from Sharon Stone to Charlize Theron for the Oscars. But it's always been so. When Barneys was moving uptown from Seventh Avenue around the time she was launching bridal, Gene Pressman asked her to do a capsule collection for evening. "They were very architectural," she says of the eight dresses she delivered, "I used illusion, which was stretch."
Since then, her empire has grown to include fragrances, flatware, fine papers, bedding, accessories, and even a cosmetics collaboration with Kohl's. But fashion will always come first. "This award is a validation of my whole life, because fashion really has been my entire adult life," Wang says. Here, she calls out the highlights.