That Vera Wang is as witty as she is talented was fully on display when she spoke at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for its The Atelier with Alina Cho series last night. The designer, who is celebrating her namesake brand’s 30th anniversary, spoke of her background as a figure skater and her fashion education at Vogue and Ralph Lauren, as well as past and future projects. (Look out for a possible spirits collaboration.) She was dressed in a black blazer and a long, bias-cut white satin skirt that she accessorized with diamond rings and, even more priceless, her French Légion d’Honneur pin. In a letter celebrating that honor, the designer’s longtime friend Anna Wintour wrote: “No one at Vogue was funnier. Or louder. Or more neurotic. Or more endearing.”
Wang is credited, among other things, with bringing a high-fashion sense to the bridal market, grasping the importance of celebrity dressing early on, and foresight in developing meaningful licensing partnerships, such as with Kohl’s. Behind it all is an incredible work ethic, a passion for construction, a clear point of view, and, most importantly, an editor’s eye. Here, excerpts from Wang’s conversation with Cho.
On her first day at Vogue
When she was in college, Wang worked part-time at the Yves Saint Laurent boutique on Madison Avenue. It was there that she met Vogue’s then fashion director Frances Patiky Stein, who said:
‘When you graduate from college, you should come to Vogue and you can become an editor.’ Now, I didn’t know what an editor was—I don’t know that many people really do know what a fashion editor does—but I had no idea except that my mother read Vogue and Bazaar. The first day I came in, in a Saint Laurent shirtdress, white, with these platform shoes, and I had red nails because I’d been living in Paris and that’s how French girls dressed at that time. Polly Mellen yelled at me. She said, ‘Go home and change. This isn’t how we dress at Vogue when you’re in the studio!’ So I went back and put on jeans and sneakers and a T-shirt. And the rest is history.
On her greatest fashion ally
I worked for great women [at Vogue]. I worked for Grace Mirabella—in her office—which was a very different kind of job because, obviously, she was the editor in chief of Vogue, so you couldn’t afford too many mistakes with her calendar. After that I went on to work for shoots. The person that really helped me was Richard Avedon. He went to bat for me. He said to Polly [Mellen], and he said to S.I. Newhouse, and he said to Grace Mirabella, ‘She should be made a sittings editor.’ The person I think that really pushed me the most was Richard Avedon.
Behind the scenes at Vogue—Part I
The Devil Wears Prada is kind of a sanitized version of what life was like at Vogue; I mean, there were no hours. And I traveled a great deal; I think one year I was only home maybe between September and Easter two weekends—and one of them was Christmas. I traveled all over the world.
Behind the scenes at Vogue—Part II
I was Polly Mellen’s assistant, and we were shooting in front of the Met—in fact, all of the Condé Nast vans were in front of the Met: Glamour, Mademoiselle, Vogue—we were all lined up. I forgot one hat, so Polly Mellen kicked me out of the van, literally, with her foot. I had no money. She said, ‘Get the hat. You have ruined this entire collection, darling. Don’t you understand? You have ruined this!’ And so she kicked me out in the rain and I jumped in the next van, which was a Glamour van, and Patrick Demarchelier was in it, and I said, ‘Could you guys loan me some money to get back to Condé Nast?’ That’s actually a quite famous story among sittings editors. During the Costume Institute [gala], I never go up those stairs without thinking of being kicked out of that van by Polly. I still remember it.
[Anna Wintour] is someone who has been very responsible and believed in me for a very long time. The fact we are contemporaries…. I have to say, in the case of Anna I have great, great respect. I know that I too had dreams of being editor in chief—I don’t know one editor that spent that many years there, 16, 17, 18 years, without praying or hoping [for that]. Now in hindsight I really see that [Anna’s] intelligence, her foresight, and the way she looked at the fashion industry was not necessarily through the mind of someone like me, who was worried about the hem of a dress, or the proportion of a mermaid, or worrying how the hair and makeup are going to look. I think Anna is a leader, and I have to say this very honestly, I’m not sure the entire world is that fascinated by fashion anymore. And I think if anyone has kept fashion going in the last three decades and maintained our interest—not only through the Costume Institute, but [with] everything she does—I’m not sure many people could have sustained that love of high fashion, and low fashion, and appreciate the two.
Behind the Scenes at Vogue—Part III
When Wang left the magazine to work for Ralph Lauren and her office was cleaned out, three years of un-cashed paychecks were discovered in her old desk.
Well, I wasn’t paid that much, for starters, and I was never at Vogue for financial gain. I was at Vogue because I want to be educated. Between Vogue and Ralph, it was like the Harvard B-School of fashion; you can’t really be trained better—particularly in the era that I worked. It was an incredible privilege. We’d have these run-throughs with racks and racks of clothes—which I think is well documented in both of Anna’s films, The Editor’s Eye and The September Issue—and I used to say after a five-hour run-through, ‘I’ve seen more clothes in one day than most people ever see in a lifetime!’ And [clothes] from the greatest to the youngest to the coolest. I mean, it’s an unbelievable education.
We would all go to a show—this I do really want to stress—we would go to a show, not necessarily sit together, all of us…but we would all come out with the same four numbers, which is kind of extraordinary. The editors would convene at the Vogue offices, Palais Bourbon in Paris, and you would look at the slides—in those days, there were slides—and we would pick the same four numbers to photograph, which says something about the training at Vogue.
On celebrity dressing
Unable to afford to stage fashion shows, in the 1990s Wang turned her attention not just to the wedding aisle, but the red carpet.
I was sort of criticized by my friends at Vogue. They said, ‘Why don’t you show?’ I said, ‘I don’t have the money [to show], but I have the money to make one dress [for] one celebrity.’ And if it resonates, if there’s a moment of magic, that stays with a brand forever, it really does.
When [Sharon Stone] was really well-known for Basic Instinct and that famous leg-crossing scene—my legs are crossed not the same way—it had been a very Armani period. Jodie Foster, Annette Bening, some of the greatest stars of that time, and Oscar winners, were wearing Armani suits that were beaded jackets and trousers. I was working with Sharon and I said, ‘Why don’t we bring back a ball gown? You’re this beautiful blonde: blonde skin, blonde hair.’ I said, ‘Let’s do a blonde dress.’ And she loved the idea, and we made her the dress and she wore almost no accessories except for some stud earrings. It was about: she’s a golden girl, gold skin, gold hair, a gold dress—I don’t mean gold like metal, I mean duchesse satin, and they shot her that night from the back at the Oscars, which is very rare when you see the train extending. And I’ve got to be very honest, that is really the moment that defined me in Hollywood. That one evening, that one moment, defined me in Hollywood.
On Hailey Bieber’s reception dress
Wang rarely designs a reception dress, but made an exception in the case of Hailey Bieber.
I love Hailey’s style. Well, I was a dancer and a skater myself, so I’m very in tune to that kind of physicality. [Hailey] has a long neck, she has a very beautiful back. The way she wears clothes is her own particular style. I knew that we weren’t doing the wedding [dress] because I knew who was doing the wedding, but I thought that maybe for the reception dress [I’d make] something [for Hailey] as I saw her, and very much the kind of dress she would wear to party in.
The Atelier with Alina Cho series is supported by the Doris & Stanley Tananbaum Foundation in memory of Doris Tananbaum.
This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Originally Appeared on Vogue