How to Listen Like
How to listen like Vera Wang
July 6, 2021
July 6, 2021
It is better to fail doing what you believe in than to succeed listening to other people. That’s the piece of advice Vera Wang received from the late Amy Spindler, Style Editor, of The New York Times at a time when she was feeling extremely depressed about her business. Wang said, “That is my ultimate mantra.”
That advice has served Wang well throughout her career in fashion. She is best known as the designer of iconic wedding dresses that have made their way down the aisle on everyone from everyday women to glamorous celebrities. Most recently, Ariana Grande kicked off this year’s wedding season with her nuptials in Wang’s dress.
Wang was born and raised in New York City and is the daughter of Chinese immigrants. She graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in 1971. Wang gave the commencement address in 2013 and shared how reinvention has played a large part in her career. About getting into wedding gown design she said, “… living my life creatively, but also listening to my heart, had led to an unexpected outcome and yet another reinvention; one that would challenge me more than anything I could ever have foreseen.”
Reinvention is a theme throughout Wang’s life as she continues to not listen to others and listen to her own heart.
So let’s start with a fun fact about Vera Wang. She used to be a competitive figure skater! She discovered her love of skating at age six during a father-daughter trip to a Central Park pond. She skated professionally throughout her teen years. Wang competed at the 1968 U.S. Figure Skating Championships but unfortunately failed in her dream to make the U.S. Olympics team.
Back to that theme of reinvention, Wang used the opportunity of her lost Olympic dreams to pivot towards a fashion career instead. She said she had a nervous breakdown and did a semester studying in Paris. It was there that she realized she had a passion for fashion. Wang believes that skating, “… teaches you discipline. It gives you the joy of self-expression. There’s speed; there’s movement; and when you fall down, you pick yourself up and try again. It’s a good metaphor for life.”
Wang continues to use her figure skating knowledge to create costumes for Olympic skaters. She has designed costumes for Nathan Chen, Nancy Kerrigan, Evan Lysacek, and Michelle Kwan. She has a strong understanding of not sacrificing functionality or style. Wang said, “I know that my own years of training on ice and off, made me painfully aware of the need for comfort, ease, and stretch.”
Figure skaters often send their music to Wang for her to listen to and be inspired for designing their costumes. The costume has to complement the music and Wang said, "I have to have the music for a skating costume and that's not the way I normally work."
Wang was immediately hired at Vogue magazine after graduating from college. She quickly became one of the magazine’s youngest ever fashion editors. Wang’s role at Vogue was mostly as a "sittings" editor and entailed overseeing the editorial fashion spreads. Wang would go on to spend 17 years at Vogue magazine until losing out to Anna Wintour for the position of editor-in-chief. She left Vogue in 1987 to join Ralph Lauren where she worked for two years.
In her beginning years at Vogue, the thing Wang probably listened to the most was the sound of the copy machine! She advises other aspiring fashion designers, “Go work for somebody and get paid to learn. It's tempting to think you can go off and do your own thing, but there is so much to learn in ways you'd never know. All I did my first year at Vogue was Xerox …I ended up being exposed to more clothing at Vogue than most people see in a lifetime. There couldn't have been a better education for me.”
"Success isn't about the end result, it's about what you learn along the way," said Wang. And she learned a lot at Vogue by working with many fashion legends including Grace Mirabella and Richard Avedon. Wang recalled, "I was never at Vogue for financial gain. I was at Vogue because I want to be educated." By listening and learning to more than just the copy machine, Wang rose through the Vogue ranks and set herself up for success for her next big reinvention.
When Wang wed her longtime boyfriend she was frustrated with the slim selection of existing bridal wear and struggled to find a dress she liked. Wang remembered, “I couldn’t find anything I wanted. I was 39, which [today] doesn’t seem that old for weddings but when I got married in 1989, it was. I just felt sort of ridiculous running around bridal departments and things like that.” So she sketched her own design and commissioned a dressmaker to tailor the elaborate gown at a cost of $10,000.
Her father saw a business opportunity and encouraged her to leave her job at Ralph Lauren and again reinvent herself by starting her own bridal wear company. Wang opened her flagship bridal boutique in the Carlyle Hotel in New York City. Today, there are Vera Wang bridal boutiques in London, Tokyo, and Sydney. Wang is the sole owner of her business and Forbes reported in 2020 that Wang’s net worth was around $270 million.
Wang oversees her namesake brand and has expanded into ready-to-wear, jewelry, eyewear, shoes, fragrance, and homeware. She employs over 200 people and juggles it all by listening ‘for whoever is screaming the loudest.’ She says, “… I go to whoever’s screaming the loudest. When you run a company, it’s like a family. So whichever baby is screaming the loudest, you run to that child … because if someone is screaming really loudly, something’s wrong or something needs to be fixed. That’s sort of how I operate. Prioritizing is not always possible because, very often, there are 10 things that are equally important. It’s just, how do you manage to address as much as you can in a positive way.”
The theme of listening to your own heart is guidance that Wang is passing along to today’s brides. She was asked for her advice for brides-to-be during these hard times of the pandemic and said, “I have to say that what I think changed in the last 30 - 20 years, there are very few rules now, and I’m encouraging individuality. This is your day and you should be who you want to be, if you want to get married on a beach, or in a yacht or in a church, you should be able to have the freedom and the personal creativity and confidence to wear something that makes you feel happy.”
Wang continues to reinvent herself. Last year, she went viral in her Instagram photo posing in a bright orange sports bra and tiny white denim shorts. Some critics pushed back at her age-defying look at 70. But Wang’s never been one to listen to others, and with that mantra, she’s become quite a success.
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