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The Ideal Marriage : In Just Four Years, Designer Vera Wang--Who Never Tires of Working in White--Has Developed a Signature Style and a Glamorous Clientele

February 18, 1994|CARLA HALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The bride-to-be, a not particularly blushing late twentysomething, went to bridal designer Vera Wang with a traditional request in a wedding dress: a train.

"I said, 'How long is the aisle you're getting married on?' " Wang recounted. "She said, 'Well, it's not.' I said, 'Then you're going to look like a parked car. Where are you going in it?' "

Wang acts more like a friend you'd curl up and gossip with than an imperious wedding planner. (She promised the bride a little sweep to give the feel of a train.) But she still sees dresses in the context of a client's real life, not the Cinderella story that was read to her at age 6.

"I don't ask them, 'What is your fantasy dress?' I ask them, 'How are you getting married?' "

Wang is the Giorgio Armani of the bridal world, designing in crepe silks, swathing brides' arms and backs in a sheer stretch netting that has become her signature. Her dresses are a combination of modern and classic--some are sleek narrow sheaths, others have traditional full skirts, but all are devoid of usual lace and overwrought trimmings. The only recurring adornments are bows--"they're tailored," she said.

"It's very hard to be minimal when you're a bride," said Wang, 44, herself a spare vision in black Armani jacket, black leggings and clogs. "You want this to be pomp and circumstance. I see these girls who are very minimal and suddenly they have this metamorphosis--they become the bride. They keep wanting to add on. I have to hold them back sometimes.

"To me, the most beautiful woman is a woman who wears her clothes. . . . They don't announce her. Trumpets don't come out blaring, 'Here's the dress!' I'd like them to say, 'Here's the bride.' "

Ensconced in a pink suite at the Hotel Bel-Air amid a cheerful confusion of her 3-year-old daughter (the 5-month-old baby stayed home in New York), nanny and investment banker-husband, Arthur Becker, Wang talked animatedly and irreverently about the wedding fashion business. Becker poured coffee. "Service I usually don't provide," he cracked.

Wang was 40 when she made her own hellish pilgrimage in 1989 as a customer through East Coast bridal shops. "I didn't find anything that appealed to me. "It just astonished me that in New York--which has everything including indoor rock climbing--there wasn't a bridal store that reflected different styles and different tastes." Finally, she took her own design to a seamstress.

Wang, who grew up on Manhattan's Upper East Side and graduated from Sarah Lawrence College, had always wanted to be a designer. But her father, the prosperous owner of a trading company, dismissed her initial requests for help in getting started.

"He said, 'You want to go to law school, I'm interested. You want to go to business school, I'll talk to you about it. Design school, are you out of your mind?' " Wang recalled, waving off the rejection with jocular insight. "Very Chinese. Please. Being Chinese American, I've got all these cultures staring me down. He said, 'You think you're so talented, see if you even like the fashion business. Go get a job.' "

So she did, working as a senior fashion editor for Vogue and then as accessories design director for Ralph Lauren, whom she calls her mentor. Around 1990, after she had quit Lauren to focus on becoming pregnant (her children are adopted), her father suggested that she was ready for her own business.

At first, she sold only other designers' clothes in her lush little boutique in the Carlyle Hotel on Madison Avenue. Four years later, her business has grown to include her own bridal collection--now selling at I. Magnin in Beverly Hills and San Diego--a budding evening line and couture dresses.

Her concoctions have attracted glossy magazines (her back-buttoned dress with bows and netting graced a recent cover of Town & Country) and a glamorous clientele. She's working on a dress for the spring wedding of Nancy Davis, daughter of L.A. society moguls Marvin and Barbara Davis. Other credits include Mariah Carey's billowy dress for her recent wedding and Sharon Stone's simple, champagne-colored satin halter dress for last year's Oscars.

A former competitive figure skater, Wang also designed Nancy Kerrigan's costumes for the Olympics, past and present. Kerrigan will be "completely covered in rhinestones" for the '94 Games, the designer said. "The entire back and sleeves are sheer net and heat-pressed with stones, (a process) only one company in the world can do."

On the ice or in a chapel, Wang's designs are "sensual but not overtly sexy," she said.

*

Brides in their early 20s, seeking comfort as well as a bit of adventure, gravitate toward her narrow dresses and minis (two inches above the knee). "They want to explore," Wang said.

But although they may come ready for a dressing-room adventure, game to try minis and rum-pink gowns, clients are considerably tamer when it's time to buy.

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