VERA WANG WAS NOT AIM EASY-TO please bride. For one thing, she was in the clothing biz (a former Vogue fashion editor and Ralph Lauren design director) and knew a thing or two about style. And because she waited until she was 40 to get married, she wanted to do it up right for her June 1989 wedding to Manhattan stockbroker Arthur Becker. She refused to settle for off-the-rack when it came to dressing the bridal party. "Everything I saw was too commercial for my taste," says Wang, who finally had her $10,000 duchesse satin gown, along with bridesmaids dresses and the ring bearer's suit, custom-made by three separate dressmakers.

Last September, Wang turned her newfound expertise into a business, opening the Vera Wang Bridal House, Ltd. on New York City's chic Madison Avenue. The shop has become the fashion mecca of the marrying crowd, including Max Kennedy (Ethel's son, who is betrothed to one Victoria Strauss) and Daria Hines (Gregory's daughter). "I was in such a panic about finding the appropriate wedding dress that I was delighted to find Vera," says Giorgio Inc. co-founder Gale Hayman, who married Dr. William Haseltine in February. Even Hollywood stars John Travolta and Kelly Preston made a pilgrimage to Madison Avenue after their engagement last January.

Folks also flock to Wang for advice. "Vera understands giving the bride attention," says Bride's magazine Editor-in-Chief Barbara Tober. "She has to be everything—a counselor, psychiatrist, surrogate mother." Says Wang: "They don't all want my opinion, but I think they trust my choice of dresses."

So they should. Her 500 samples boast the latest sophisticated trends: rich appliqués, hints of color, short hemlines and no trains. The average dress price is $3,000, but if a bride doesn't like what she sees, Wang will design on command—for $10,000 or more.

If she's a perfectionist, well, it runs in the family. Vera and her brother, Kenneth, 40, were brought up with strong parental role models: Florence Wu, a United Nations translator, and Cheng Ching, an oil and pharmaceutical tycoon who gave his daughter's business a financial push. Even when she was growing up comfortably on Manhattan's Upper East Side, Vera was an overachiever. For her seventh Christmas, her parents bought her a pair of ice skates. Wang became a competitive skater, coming in fifth in the 1969 Junior United States pair championships with partner James Stuart. "Skating," she says, "is the closest you come to flying."

But the prospect of landing in an ice show left her cold, so, after graduating from Sarah Lawrence in 1971, she pursued a career in fashion. "The only thing that I loved as much as skating were clothes," she says. "I buy clothes that I don't ever intend to wear, just to collect them."

At 21, she got a job at Vogue, but what she really wanted to be was a designer. That didn't happen for 16 more years, when Ralph Lauren hired her to supervise design and production for his women's accessories.

In the meantime she met future husband Becker at a tennis match. They played the dating game for four years before tying the knot in a Chinese-Jewish wedding for 400 at New York City's tony Pierre hotel. "Life with Vera is a state of perpetual motion," Becker says. "It's sometimes hard to keep up with her."

Now the two have someone else to keep up with, 8-month-old adopted daughter Cecelia. Parenthood agrees so well with the couple that they plan a December move from their eight-room Upper East Side digs to a 20-room apartment closer to Vera's store so they'll have room (or "plenty more babies," Wang says. "I'm hoping for three."

While she waits, she has begun a book on wedding fashion. "What I'd really like to be," she says, "is the Ralph Lauren of the bridal world."

ELIZABETH M. SPORKIN
VERONICA BURNS in New York City

  • Contributors:
  • Veronica Burns.