NEW YORK -- Vera Wang, arguably the queen of red-carpet dressing, didn't go into the fashion business with stars in her eyes. She knew about its unglamorous side, the hard work and, especially, the risks. And there were plenty of doubts along the way.
But every time one person -- and, she says, it really just takes one -- understands what she's trying to express with a certain drape of a fabric, a particular color or a new silhouette, she's reminded of the reason why she became involved in fashion, and why she's still in it: There's an indefinable payoff that comes when she's helped a woman look and feel her best.
"I didn't come into this like all these teenagers who don't know better. I wasn't a 'young, new designer,' but I was a new designer and had to go through those growing pains. The risks were apparent to me, and I had seen so many of my friends go through ups and downs," Wang said in a recent interview.
Wang, 63, was recently honored for lifetime achievement by the Council of Fashion Designers at its star-studded awards show at Lincoln Center. She accepted the award from her mentor (and former employer) Ralph Lauren.
"To all the women and men I have dressed, thank you for your trust," she said during her acceptance speech.
There's rarely a Hollywood event or an A-list wedding where Wang's name doesn't come up. You probably couldn't go into a shopping mall without seeing it, either.
Her hit parade includes the lavender skirt actress Sharon Stone paired with a Gap shirt at the Oscars in 1998, Chelsea Clinton's crystal-waistband wedding gown in 2010 and the rose-printed gray jacquard chiffon blouse and evening robe worn with gray rose-printed pants that closed her last catwalk show at New York Fashion Week.
She has a lower-priced line at Kohl's and another one at David's Bridal. She's developed a fragrance business and home-goods collection. And she has branded FTD flower bouquets.
In an email to The Associated Press ahead of the CFDA ceremony, Lauren wrote that when "Vera Wang came to work for me over 23 years ago I saw a unique young woman filled with a rare passion for fashion. In all the years since, I have watched her drive, dedication and talent shape an entire world inspired by her own life -- first as a bride, then as a wife and mother, but always as a strong and beautiful woman."
Wang, however, wasn't always sure this would be her path. She studied art history at Sarah Lawrence College and was a competitive figure skater in contention for a spot on the 1968 U.S. Olympic team. Her family wasn't initially supportive of fashion as a career path, and although they had some financial means, they didn't back her at first. So she went to work as an editor at Vogue, and then at Ralph Lauren. She had earned her stripes.
"I first met Vera over 30 years ago when she was working at Vogue, and the only thing that has gone quicker than those three decades is Vera herself," said Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour. "Whether she's designing, ice-skating, fundraising, or flitting from here to her house in L.A. and back again, she is constantly on the move and striving to do more, more, more. She leaves us all in the dust!"
Wang launched her company in 1990 as a bridal brand with a shop at the Carlyle Hotel on Madison Avenue and a sinking feeling in her stomach. She still feels that way sometimes when she's about to take another big leap, she acknowledged, but said each success pushes her to go a little farther.
She says being on top requires a combination of "responsibility, dedication, love and passion." That delicate balance comes through in her artful style.
"I was always taught that anyone should be able to pursue their dream and that the biggest crime is not to try. That made me motivated, and I didn't want to wonder what could have happened."
The perk that comes with it all? "I have a great closet," she said.
Wang has served on the CFDA board, so she knows how thoughtful the process is when selecting a lifetime honoree.
"This is beyond anything I could have expected. I had informed other designers they had gotten the award. ... It was such a shock to get the call" from CFDA President Diane von Furstenberg. "She said, 'Sit down. You're going to like this."'
The hardest part -- other than choosing what to wear -- was pulling together a retrospective of styles for a video tribute that would suit such a perfectionist.
"The ongoing, unmitigating truth is I would have done anything to be in fashion," said Wang. I would have swept floors, which I did at Vogue, swept up hair from a model's haircut, pack up clothes, stay on a Friday night after the store closed to get it ready for the next day, which I did at Ralph (Lauren). Still, I always felt privileged to have this job. How lucky am I to have gotten here?"