Vera Wang on being Chinese, the pandemic and the future of fashion

Vera Wang speaks about fashion philosophy, China trends and anti-Asian hate on Talking Post with Yonden Lhatoo.
PHOTO: Instagram/@verawanggang

Despite the pandemic – and even as the Chinese-American fashion designer describes the virus’s effects on the industry as “earthshaking” – Vera Wang is busier than ever.

Wang, who was unable to travel overseas, was still able to sign deals including a bridal line with Spanish wedding dress company Pronovias and lent her name to a prosecco named the Vera Wang Party.

She also worked with vodka maker Chopin to create her own limited-edition tipple – “the first vodka-fashion collaboration ever to launch in the United States”.

“I’ve had to stay grounded and focused and be here; so in a word ‘work’,” Wang answers with a laugh when asked about her recent focus in an interview for the Post’s new video series, Talking Post with Yonden Lhatoo.

This year, the renowned designer has spent time dressing celebrities for the red carpet and brides – most recently Bill Gates’ daughter Jennifer, who married her long-time boyfriend, Nayel Nassar, on Oct 16.

Vera Wang says her business partnerships give her freedom to focus on high-end collections. PHOTO: South China Morning Post 

Wang has also entered the Chinese market – her wedding dress business in China is aimed at well-heeled brides and, in 2018, she partnered with jeweller Chow Tai Fook on a line of engagement and bridal jewellery.

Her company partners with large retailers, like Chow Tai Fook, to generate the profits that support her high-end collections – without which, she says, “I can’t ever stretch, not only my own creativity but the businesses that we’re in, because they depend on me to bring that sort of newness and that kind of thought and constant creativity”.

Wang was born in New York, her parents having immigrated from Shanghai in the mid-1940s. PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Couture garments can appear strange to high-street consumers – think clouds of gauze or a train of shimmering silk, or large appliqués applied seemingly at random – but these radical looks are a way for designers to be noticed.

“So much of it is experimental, so much of it is brand building, there is so much competition globally, there is so much out there,” Wang explains.

“To distinguish yourself, you only have a minute or a second to catch someone’s eye and I think that’s what motivates a lot of designers, particularly young designers today. They are trying to stand out and make an impression in a very, very crowded marketplace.”

Fashion trends reflect the way people live, she says. “If you look through generations of fashion, if you study the history of it, it reflects lifestyle.

A Vera Wang bridal advertising campaign from the ’90s. PHOTO: Vera Wang 

“The Vietnam war and camouflage [or] the crazy rich ’80s in America and all that nouveau riche over-the-top spending – the clothing reflected it. With young people today and their love of everything – sports, music and culture – everything’s changed and that’s reflected in how they want to look.”

The future of fashion, Wang believes, is dependent on not just people’s lifestyles but fabric development. Even 20 years ago, she was predicting that fashion would evolve when fabrics were created that can’t be sewn but would need to be glued or bonded.

“Technology is going to change fashion,” Wang says, adding that future developments might include “moulded clothing, clothing that protects people from the sun and the climate and other things”.

The global preoccupation with health and wellness will also have an impact, she predicts. “I saw that 25 years ago and, as people get fitter and live a different lifestyle, the clothing will transform.”

Wang (right) with her mother and brother. PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Wang was born in New York after her parents immigrated from Shanghai in the mid-1940s. Her father, Wang Chengqing, owned a medicine company and her mother, Florence Wu Chifang, was a translator for the United Nations.

Growing up in a privileged home meant Wang could see fashion up close – a business that she describes as, in the 1960s, “elitist”.

“When I was 18 or 19, you could not buy French clothes in the United States. There was no distribution, you had to go to Paris. I was lucky enough to go and I could see Saint Laurent, Dior or Valentino,” she says.

“I could visit those palaces of luxury with my mother, but it was not available to everyone. Fashion at the upper end was a very elitist business, [then] the world changed and that’s a good thing. People now have access to so much more – visually, culturally, intellectually, financially.”

Growing up, Wang was a passionate ice skater. PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Despite her early exposure to fashion, Wang’s first love was figure skating and she had hopes of making the US Olympic team. She was devastated to not qualify and it was then she switched career paths, joining Vogue and working as an editor for 17 years.

When she was getting married, at the age of 40, Wang found there were few wedding dress choices for her. She became a household name after starting her own line, and has dressed celebrities such as Ivanka Trump , Alicia Keys, Mariah Carey and Chelsea Clinton for their weddings – and even fictional characters like Charlotte in Sex and the City . A black evening gown by Wang was key to a storyline in an episode of The West Wing .

Nevertheless, Wang, 72, says the fashion world is not just about design, it’s about money – and a lot of it. “Financing fashion is not an easy game,” she says. “It’s not for the faint of heart. It’s extremely expensive. You have to get to places where you can sell enormous quantities of goods, distribute it and manufacture it.”

President Bill Clinton walks Chelsea down the aisle
Former President Bill Clinton walks Chelsea down the aisle. PHOTO: PeopleStylewatch

Financing fashion is not really taught in design schools, she says, which can be a problem. “When I speak to students, they usually think of the design component, a sleeve, a dress, a skirt,” she says.

There would be big changes if the next generation were properly schooled in the business side, too – from how to partner with people to loans.

“I think what would also change is how they view design as well, it would have an impact,” she says.

As anti-Asian hate began to spread in the US during the pandemic, Wang joined a throng of celebrities to denounce racism.

“As a Chinese-American woman, and more significantly, a human being, I feel compelled to speak up and out about the mounting hatred of Asians in American communities,” she wrote on Instagram.

“The moment is now to express the mistreatment and cruelty that has long existed. And complacency, ignorance and fear should no longer be justifiable excuses for racism or hatred. Immediate action is required and silence is not an option.”

Wang on her wedding day. PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Wang says, as a second-generation Chinese-American woman, her upbringing might have been American but her heritage is Chinese.

“My heritage is one of hard work, respect for elders, achievement, humility, the things I’m very proud I have. I am sort of a combination of both cultures and I have respect for both.”

She says she was a little shocked to see the bigotry and aggression over the last six or so years, and that ethnic communities sought support from each other.

“A lot of these, perhaps, acts of aggression are maybe a lack of understanding of who all the different people are, all the different cultures that make up America,” she says.

“I think the more communication [and] more understanding [there is, then] the more care, and love and respect there will be.”

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This article was first published in South China Morning Post.