Next month, Vera Wang will receive the Goeffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement award at the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) Awards. It will be the latest of many prestigious accolades the famed designer — best known for her stunning red carpet gowns and her reputation as a wedding gown guru — has received in the more than two decades since her name became an iconic brand.
As her career reaches yet another summit, EW asked Wang to look back at a some of her fashion firsts.
My first red carpet moment: “Sharon Stone was my first — I know, it’s like I’m talking about a boyfriend,” jokes Wang of Stone’s 1993 Academy Awards look. “She’d just come to the scene in Basic Instinct and it was a nude, duchess, satin halter ball gown — not nude, more like blonde, like her hair.” The dress, Wang says, was unique for a time when red carpet style had become casual. “Nobody had really been into dressing up for the Oscars anymore. [Sharon] really brought back that sense of glamor to the Oscars and now, obviously, it’s become the fashion Olympics.” (If we’re using sports metaphors, Wang can be considered a gold medalist.) And while the designer can list with ease all the women who have claimed the title of best dressed in her creations, for her that’s not the most rewarding part. “It’s not just dressing the star, it’s making an impression on the psyche when people are watching. Those are all moments I treasure — not only because of the clothing but because the collaborative effort, that we all work together make these looks.”
My first skating costume to hit the ice: She might be best known for dressing women for the red carpet these days, but Wang, who was an ice skater for 17 years, has also dressed her share of famous faces for the ice — including five-time world champion Michelle Kwan and Olympic gold medalist Evan Lysacek. Her first foray into designing for figure skaters? Olympian Nancy Kerrigan, who donned a whimsical white number in 1992. “I certainly think it brought a new identity and a sleekness to skating that had probably been missing for a very long time, if you really address skating fashion, per se,” she says. “Nancy was a very elegant, sort of Grace Kelly…. a very classical skater.”
And though her costumes have been seen on the ice at several Olympics, “I had to be talked into [doing] all three skaters. I always felt like I would fail them or wasn’t sure I could handle it,” she says, adding that her own experience as a skater made her aware of the unique challenges in designing light-weight costumes that could stand up to the intensity of the performances. Ultimately, though, Wang is glad that she jumped into the unknown. “I like to joke that even though I didn’t make it on to the [Olympic] team…. I’m proud that my clothing did. It was a way of giving back to the sport I loved.”
My first celeb wedding dress: From Alicia Keys to Chelsea Clinton and Jennifer Lopez, Wang has dressed plenty of famous women for their walk down the aisle. (“It’s a wild mix,” she admits.) But it all began with a Kennedy. “It was Max Kennedy — one of Bobby Kennedy’s sons — he married a lovely girl named Victoria [Strauss]. We worked on that dress and I’d only been in business, I think, two months,” she recalls. “It was my Kennedy wedding….We really, really worked hard on that dress. The whole hem was hand-rolled organza flowers. And all I remember is that — I didn’t go to the wedding — but I heard that as soon as she got out of the church, in true Kennedy fashion, they were playing touch football and the whole hem got grass stains all over it.”
That first experience, however, was the start of what would become the mainstay of Wang’s business, not to mention the cornerstone of her fashion legacy. Over the years, Wang says she’s picked up one important lesson: “I like to think every [wedding dress] has been unique in that I’ve tried to be a costumer as well as a designer to the star. It isn’t me inflicting a “Vera Wang look” on them, it’s me collaborating with them — like making a film in a weird way.”
Read about Vera Wang’s film and TV inspirations in this week’s issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands now.