Chic to Chic
Standing in front of a 16-foot Louis XIV mirror in the dressing room of her Benedict Canyon, Calif., home last Feb. 14, Sharon Stone looked blissful. Her close friend, designer Vera Wang, on the other hand, was a wreck. Downstairs, 120 guests were taking their seats after learning that the Valentine’s Day party they had been invited to was in fact Stone’s wedding, to San Francisco Examiner executive editor Phil Bronstein. As the minister and gospel choir moved into place, Wang fretted over the pink chiffon gown she had created for the occasion. “The dress wasn’t fitting,” she recalls. “We were literally sewing it onto Sharon’s body the minute before she was going to come down the aisle. Sharon was cool. She had to calm me down.”
Sangfroid may not be Wang’s forte, but fashion is. Since launching her signature line of wedding gowns in 1990, Wang, 49, has become the most influential bridal designer in the U.S. Her sexy, sophisticated gowns ($2,800 to $8,000 for ready-to-wear, $15,000 and up for couture) revolutionized the industry, while her discretion has helped make her the designer of choice for privacy-seeking celeb vow-takers such as Holly Hunter, Uma Thurman and Mariah Carey. “Vera’s designs are very simple but not boring,” says Hunter. “Her clothes celebrate the person, they never overwhelm.” Agrees Carey: “She really tries to bring out who you are.”
Who Wang is, at the moment, is someone no longer content to be just Queen of the Aisle. After eight years of designing glamorous getups worn by stars like Stone, Hunter, Goldie Hawn, Meg Ryan and Whoopi Goldberg to Hollywood premieres and award ceremonies, Wang staged her first New York show of evening wear last April, to critical raves, and is introducing her designs to new stores around the U.S. Last year she launched a line of shoes; recently she helped Mattel create the first in a trio of collectible Barbies; and now—heads up, Martha Stewart—she is writing her own wedding guide and planning a line of home products, including dishes and linens. Wang, whose company employs 200 and brings in more than $20 million annually, is even mulling the idea of a television show “about issues women face at every stage of their lives. We’re not watching paint dry here,” Wang quips. “There’s an energy in this little company that’s extraordinary.”
It comes mostly from Wang herself. The fast-talking New York City native is a dervish who obsesses over her business (“Every night she comes home and tells me she’s failing,” says her husband, real estate entrepreneur Arthur Becker) and sketches constantly, while traveling, watching TV, even while chatting with dinner guests. “She’ll draw thousands of figures an inch and a half high,” says Becker, 47, with a laugh. “I have nightmares they’re going to jump off the pad and tie me up.”
While Sharon Stone, who has known Wang since 1990, calls her compulsively creative, Wang attributes part of her manic drive to rising fame. “I feel pressure, which I don’t think I felt as much in earlier years,” she says. “As you become more high profile, you have more to lose.”
In fact, Wang has always been an overachiever—a trait she picked up from her parents, Cheng Ching Wang, 79, and Florence Wu Wang, 80, who built a multimillion-dollar oil and pharmaceuticals company after emigrating from China to the U.S. in the 1940s. Settling on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, they made sure that Vera and her brother Kenneth, now 47 and president of the family business, had every opportunity. Says Wang: “They fully embraced the American philosophy ‘This is the land of opportunity. Let’s go for it.’ ”
Wang went for it. After her parents gave her figure skates for Christmas when she was 7, she dedicated herself to the sport, getting up at 6 a.m. to practice before school. “She was very willing to work hard,” says her former coach, Sony a Dunfield. “She had a passion and a hunger for skating.”
That perseverance took her to the U.S. national championships in 1968 and ’69, when she placed fifth in the junior pairs competition with partner James Stuart. But Stuart opted for a solo career, and Wang, who had enrolled as a premed major at Sarah Lawrence College in 1968, found classes left her little time to train. Giving up her Olympic dreams, she says, “was the major disappointment of my life.” The trauma of that decision contributed to what Wang now calls a complete breakdown in her sophomore year. Dropping out of school, she moved to Paris to live with French Olympic skater Patrick Pera, whom she had met four years earlier, and to study art history and languages at the Sorbonne.
The pair’s high-profile romance landed them on the cover of Paris Match, but after a year, Wang returned to Sarah Lawrence to finish her degree in art history—and find a new career. Given her experience choosing outfits for skating competitions and the hours she had spent shopping the couture houses of Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent with her stylish mom, a former UN translator, fashion seemed a natural choice. “I thought it would incorporate a lot of the things I loved,” says Wang.
Her first job, at Vogue, involved “everything from Xeroxing messenger slips to packing and unpacking for photo shoots.” By age 25, she was named a senior fashion editor. “Vera had all the ingredients of a star,” says Allure magazine creative director Polly Allen Mellen, one of Wang’s bosses at Vogue. “You could tell that immediately.”
Not that Wang’s life was all work. Many nights she’d dance till dawn at Studio 54, then hop a cab to the office. It was such “a wild, wild period of fashion and music,” she says, that when she first met future husband Becker at a tennis tournament in 1980, Wang resisted getting too serious. “At that point I was like, ‘No way! I have a career, I have places to go, people to see,’ ” she says. When her path crossed Becker’s again seven years later, though, Wang reconsidered. “Either she’d gotten smarter or I’d gotten more interesting,” Becker deadpans.
But planning their June 1989 nuptials was an eye-opener. Wang, who had by then left Vogue to take a job as design director for Ralph Lauren, deemed the wedding dresses available either too fussy or too young. “There was one basic look at the time: froufrou,” says Wang, who eventually had an elaborate $10,000 beaded dress custom-made. “I didn’t really like it, but it was all even I knew about bridal at the time.”
Juggling marriage and her long days at Ralph Lauren wasn’t easy either. And when, six months after the wedding, Wang, then 40, began taking fertility drugs, she reluctantly resigned. “It was a difficult decision, but I couldn’t try to get pregnant and carry the workload,” she says. “We were determined to be parents.”
To ease her misgivings about leaving the fast track, her father suggested she open a boutique to help other brides avoid the frustrations she had encountered and, over the next few years, loaned her $4 million to get the business running. Her shop, in Manhattan’s upscale Carlyle Hotel, initially carried only other designers’ gowns, but Wang’s own work gradually took over. “The customer embraced Vera’s designs,” recalls Vera Wang Ltd. president Chet Hazzard, who signed on with the company at its start. “She balanced fashion edginess with traditional elegance.”
Today her expanding empire keeps Wang on an exhaustingly tight schedule. (“I’ll go to a black tie affair without even running a comb through my hair,” she says.) More worrisomely, it limits her time with Becker and their daughters, Cecilia, 7, and Josephine, 4, whom the couple adopted after calling a halt to fertility treatments in 1991. “We weren’t stuck on giving birth,” Wang says. “We just wanted a family.”
When they do find time together, Wang and Becker play golf or simply hole up with their daughters in the family’s 12-room, 6-bedroom Park Avenue apartment (Wang’s brother and sister-in-law live in the building next door, and her parents live just down the block) or at their rambling 9-bedroom Southhampton, N.Y., beach house. “We’ll sit with lunches on trays, McDonald’s preferably, and watch TV,” says Wang. “It’s the best.”
Next to shopping, that is. An admitted “clothes horse,” Wang’s closets are crammed with designs by Jil Sander, Prada, Ann Demeulemeester and Gaultier. “I think I’ve spent a serious fortune on clothes in my life,” she admits. “I probably could have owned more paintings and sculpture had I not bought all the clothing.” Not that she’s apologizing. Says Wang simply: “It’s my passion.”
Sue Miller in New York City