The Many Aisles of Vera Wang
Spanning all the way from couture to Kohl's, the iconic bridal brand marks its 20-year anniversary
The special occasion Vera Wang is most often identified with is a wedding, but this year is different: the most special special occasion for her is an anniversary ... as in the 20th anniversary of the designer's debut in fashion.
Those two decades have taken Wang from her creations going down the aisle of a wedding chapel to the aisles of major retailers across the country. From that specialized beginning in high-end wedding gowns, she has moved into a broad range of apparel and home fashions across several distribution channels and price levels.
In doing so, she has managed to pull off the rare feat of selling products all the way from couture to Kohl's, something few other brand names have achieved.
For Wang--who has champion figure skater, Vogue editor and Ralph Lauren accessories designer on her resume--the multitier strategy is not as difficult as some make it.
"The consumer doesn't care about channels," Wang told HFN in an interview when she entered the home textiles category two years ago. "It's a different time, it's not like when Halston went to Penney," she said, referring to one of the first designer brands to go downscale, a move that backfired for that designer in the 1970s.
Wang wasn't the first fashion brand to move into the broader, popular-price channel, but her Simply Vera Vera Wang label at Kohl's has set the bar for success for others.
"When Kohl's came along, I felt it could be something wonderful," she said in the interview. "I decided I wanted to go down-market, not to the bottom, but to a level where people could afford it.
"And just because it's less expensive doesn't mean it can't be designed well."
Her entry into home came in the category most closely associated with bridal: tabletop. She launched her now iconic Vera Wang program with Wedgwood in 2002 and it has since become a cornerstone of many retailers' bridal registry business.
"The union of Vera Wang and Wedgwood is just as strong today as when we first came together eight years ago," said Michael Craig, group vice president, Americas, for WWRD, parent company of Wedgwood.
"Vera is a global icon and her success in the home, fragrance and fashion world help convey her relevance to new brides and guests."
While tableware remains at the heart of Wedgwood's Vera Wang program, Craig said the company has more recently emphasized gift products. "During this recessionary period, we've seen a shift in the consumer toward quality gift giving." So its focus has moved toward items like photo frames, serveware, vases and bowls. "We see that people are returning to the thought behind the gift."
Grosgrain and Vera Lace have been the two strongest patterns in the line, but Craig pointed to the April introductions--Duchesse Platinum and Duchesse Encore--as collections with a more contemporary feel.
"Vera is very important to our business."
The Wedgwood program is clearly the most natural tie-in to Vera Wang's bridal fashion, but she hasn't been afraid to go further a field. When she launched mattresses in January of 2006, some questioned the connection to her core bridal business, but Wang said in a recent interview--while conceding she was "kind of a bed fanatic"--that the majority of mattress purchases are made by newly married couples.
Serta couldn't be happier with the program. "The reality is that the Vera Wang business was up 10 percent last year and it's up 15 to 16 percent since the beginning of this year," said Maria Balistreri, vice president of brand management and sales development for Serta.
She credits Wang's hands-on approach and her high visibility in fashion for those numbers. "She is a working designer, not a spokesperson or endorser. This is the difference.
"She has shows all through the year," said Balistreri. "Bridal shows, ready-to-wear shows. Her awareness has grown since we signed the first contract and her name continues to be strong."
Balistreri said one of the ways Serta has dealt with the tough economy has been to lower the opening price point of the line from $1,000 to $799. But she added that the best selling product in the line has been the bridal bed, the top-of-the-line at the $1,499 to $1,599 price point. "And this year we're seeing price points move up."
One of the newer Vera Wang licenses is for luggage, from Hartmann. Peter Cameron, who is chairman of the company, first got involved with the brand when he ran Waterford Wedgwood. "I've been involved with her for some time and the power of Vera is phenomenal. She's got a strong following and she's got an immediately recognizable esthetic."
Cameron, who now also runs Lenox and competes with the brand in tabletop, said he brought it to Hartmann to give the company entry into the bridal registry business. "Vera's the quintessential bridal grown designer, and the idea of luggage with feminine appeal had never really happened before. I'm very enthusiastic about this."
The Hartmann line, which includes mobile travelers, duffels and totes, debuts later this summer.
Another new licensee is Nest Fragrances, which has just launched a line of candles. "Vera Wang is the most important luxury brand in the bridal market," said Laura Slatkin, chief executive officer for the company, "and because this new collection is an affordable way for brides to experience Vera Wang, the collection has a very strong appeal."
Slatkin said the home fragrance business has held up better than some others during the recession. "People are staying home more, and enhancing the environment there has been a strong focus in the recent year."
The Nest line features five candles, including one with a keepsake jewelry box and another with an ice bucket.
While she continues to expand her fashion offerings, Wang talks about additional home licensees, including furniture, fabrics and floor coverings.
No doubt she still believes what she told HFN in that earlier interview: "It's a great time to be home."