NEW YORK — To make a name for yourself in fashion, especially a household name, there's a lot to learn about timing, trends, egos. Vera Wang has mastered many of those lessons in the 20 years she's led her own namesake company.
Wang made a list for the Associated Press of 20 nuggets of wisdom she's gained in her career, not only as her own boss but reaching back to her time competitive ice-skating (she was a contender for the 1968 Olympic team), as a Vogue editor, and as a designer at Ralph Lauren.
She's still on alert for new tricks and strategies — guess that's tip No. 21.
1. It's not just about what you design, it is who you dress.
Wang tackled the red carpet long before she launched her runway collection. She was, however, already making bridal gowns and competition skating costumes, so it wasn't a huge leap.
"I jumped into celebrity dressing when it was pretty new. There had been a moment of Scaasi with Barbra Streisand and Bob Mackie with Cher, but not in more recent times, so I jumped in with Valentino and Armani, and there was an article in Women's Wear about how I was dressing Sharon Stone," Wang says.
Stone's 1998 Oscar-night combo of a purple skirt by Wang and white button-down shirt was publicity Wang never could have bought. Wang still has a strong awards-show presence, but, she says, it's tougher now. "Now it's the fashion Olympics to get people to wear your stuff. ... The Oscars are killer."
2. Timing is everything.
Even though her preference was for sportswear, the opportunity in fashion in the late '80s-early '90s was eveningwear and bridal because those were big, expensive show-stopping pieces in the spirit of Christian Lacroix. Now, Wang says, in this era of Theory and Topshop, she'd probably do the reverse and start with contemporary, everyday clothes.
3. Luck helps too: It's better to be lucky than smart.
Sometimes the big break comes from something out of your control. Wang points to Jason Wu, designer of Michelle Obama's inaugural gown and many more outfits since then. He's a young talent worthy of all the hype and praise, but there are other still-undiscovered designers who are, too.
"Smart" comes into play when you recognize the lucky break you've been handed and make the most of it, Wang says.
4. Nothing is new in fashion; its about how you reintepret it.
There are only so many ways a garment can be sewn to be functional and flattering, Wang says. The challenge for the designers is to twist it and make it their own.
5. It's not about the money. It's about the money — always.
"We creative people don't like worrying about it, but to be in business today, you have to face the reality of the business climate," Wang declares. "I've redefined my business model constantly."
Wang's current partnerships include more affordable lines at Kohl's and David's Bridal. Business deals that make sense — and maintain integrity — allow her to let the creative juices continue for her primary collection, which is costly, she says.
6. Relevance is relevant.
Right now, in 2010, women want clothes that move seamlessly within their lifestyle — and budget. If you can't mix a collection piece with something from a mass retailer, it'll rarely see the light of day.
"Women don't run around in ballgowns, I'm sorry to say."
7. Everyone deserves true fashion at any price.
No matter how much something costs — high or low — it's an investment on the part of the shopper, and she should be getting something that looks good. Style should be democratic, Wang says.
8. Fragrance is about the most personal thing a person can wear.
"Fragrance makes a statement about who you are," says Wang. You want to be a girlie girl? There's a scent for that. Rebel rocker? There's a scent for that, too. City sophisticate? Check.
"Girls can attain fragrance and incorporate it into their daily lives and not spend a fortune."
(And the messaging incorporated into fragrance ads really helps define your brand to a larger audience, she adds.)
9. A pair of shoes or boots can create attitude in a second.
You aren't wearing the same persona in ballet flats as heels, and clunky Uggs create a different aura altogether, says Wang.
10. Fashion is expressive.
Building on the shoe-attitude theory, use accessories to change your outfit depending on your mood, but keep the core pieces classic. Change proportions, wear fine jewelry with T-shirts or a chunky necklace with a gown, she advises. But then keep those pieces and wear them a new way next year.
"Twenty years ago, fashion was all about rules: You wore a pump to a luncheon and a certain Hermes bag. Now it's about what works for you — be preppy, downtown or Goth, or be all of those on a given day."
11. In design, all people have is their own barometer to guide them.
Yes, there are larger cultural trends that designers need to be aware of, but Wang says if she isn't "feeling" a particular color or silhouette — no matter how popular — it won't work in her collection. If she doesn't believe in something, how can she convince others to?
12. "I have spent my entire career styling, dressing and designing only for women. Never underestimate the client."
Wang says she doesn't give a thought to what men will think of women wearing her clothes. If the woman feels pretty and sexy, she is pretty and sexy. Winning her over is all that matters.
13. Ready-to-wear: always out of my comfort zone.
The runway is Wang's chance to show off who she is and her aesthetic. (Think artful and dramatic.)
She says: "Designing this is a torturous process. It's never easy for me, but that's been good. I always push myself out of my comfort zone. I don't see a reason to do it if I don't."
14. Bridal: conservative, flamboyant — you never know.
The bridal collection has to have much broader appeal and be targeted toward the client's tastes, Wang says. Most brides aren't as influenced by fashion trends as they are the vision of the wedding dress they've always dreamed of. She considers herself more of a costume designer in the spirit of Edith Head than a tastemaker when it comes to bridal.
15. It takes courage to put yourself out there.
Reviews can be hard to read, she says, because the reviewers are ignoring the bravery it takes on a designer's part to churn out collection after collection — on a strict schedule — to an often fickle audience. A filmmaker, for example, often can reshoot something or extend a deadline when something isn't working. A designer doesn't have that luxury.
16. Dressing athletes is a crazy winning — and losing — sport.
Skating was such an important part of her own life that she gets very emotionally wound up with the skaters she has dressed, including Nancy Kerrigan, Michelle Kwan and Evan Lysacek, she explains. She wants the clothing to contribute to a performance instead of hamper it, which could happen if things aren't cut perfectly.
17. You're not always successful.
"I had to learn to dust myself off and try again. That's my real story. I went to Vogue and I was not getting the big jobs and then I went to Ralph Lauren. I didn't feel like there was much more I could do at the time there — and I think that's given me the opportunity to struggle. You have to struggle to appreciate the successes in your life. It's not real otherwise."
18. You are only as good as your team.
No one can do it all, Wang says, herself included. Fashion is not unlike a team sport, where there are a handful of people who get the glory, but it took many to get them where they are.
19. Keep fighting. Don't sit on your laurels.
If you hang back, even just one season or one awards show, someone else is waiting to take your place, she says.
20. Everyone's journey/route is different.
Wang says she tries hard not to compare herself to other designers, businesswomen, wives or mothers. Everyone makes choices based on their own situation and no one else will ever fully understand those decisions, she says, they can only second guess them.
"I've tried to create a life for me that is complete. The truth is, everyone's route is different. It doesn't mean one is better than the other, they're just different"