Long live the dress! With a generation of teens growing up in Frye boots and jeans, it was given up for dead. But the dress is back on young bods again, thanks in no small part to a 28-year-old Chinese-born Los Angeles designer named Sue Wong.
Wong is the designing brains behind Arpeja-California’s Young Edwardian line. Two years ago Arpeja was billing $5 million. This year, with Wong at the drawing board, Young Edwardian will bring in $50 million. Says Jack Litt, Arpeja’s board chairman, “Sue Wong literally turned around this market.”
For such an influential figure in the fashion world, Sue Wong’s name is virtually unknown outside California. It does not appear on the Young Edwardian label, although one of her models alone, a sun dress with an appliquéd flower, accounted for $2 million in sales. Even Wong’s earnings—just under $250,000 a year with bonuses—have made no ripples outside the industry. That’s fine by Sue. “Money buys freedom and free time,” she says. “I have neither, so I don’t feel rich.”
Sue’s secret is her ingenious mix of prints and trims, borders and appliqués. All of her designs sell for $50 or less. “I think snob fashion is terrible,” she says. “I’d never wear an Yves Saint Laurent. My clothes are for middle America, for the all-American girl who wants to feel pretty and feminine and not spend her life’s savings.”
Invariably she sees her dresses everywhere. On a recent trip to the hairdresser, she spotted nine under the dryers. At lunch there were five more. “Sure, it’s kind of fun to see them,” she confesses, “but most of the time I see copies, and they’re so bad. There are more of them walking around than originals.”
Sue Wong was born in Kwangtung Province but left at age 5 with her mother to join her father, who was already in Los Angeles. Sue was the class artist in high school, went on to L.A. Trade Tech and, after winning two awards, joined Arpeja as a sketch artist.
She struck out briefly on her own in 1970, setting up a boutique with a girlfriend. “I wanted to escape the horrors of the garment business and find my own personal style,” she explains. But the going was rough, and five years later she was back with Arpeja, this time as head designer for Young Edwardian. “I do five lines a year,” she says, “each with over 100 dresses. The work load is heavy but the designing part comes easy.”
Arpeja chairman Litt does everything he can to keep his designer happy. When Sue, who is married to artist and textile designer Ralph Homann, became pregnant twice within two years, Litt moved the firm’s sample room, including fabrics, trim and models, to Sue’s Laurel Canyon home. A company-leased Mercedes speeds her about town, and Litt cheerfully sends her to Europe and the Orient for two months each year in search of inspiration and materials. (Sue feels a Grecian-Egyptian mood creeping up on her for next spring and summer.) Yet she looks forward someday to “leaving fashion altogether and going into interior design. I’d like to buy up old houses and redo them.” Meanwhile Ralph, 31, stays home with the babies and acts as househusband. “He’s very good at it,” Wong says. “Better than I would be.” She continues her anonymous triumphs in the studio. Doesn’t it bother her that most of her competitors think Sue Wong is the name of an old movie? “I don’t care,” she snaps. “I think most of the people in the garment business are hustlers and whores.”