Vera Wang does not subscribe to the idea that inspiration requires seclusion. She has just returned from sourcing trips in Paris and Bologna and is hard at work designing her spring collection. The margins of her personal space are simply defined by concept boards pinned with fabric swatches, magazine tear sheets, and vintage photographs. Bolts of Italian wool, beading from India, and purple duchesse satin commissioned from a mill outside Shanghai are stacked against narrow corridor walls. Shelves are buried under shoe samples and fabric swatches—evidence of her growing empire, which reaches beyond wedding dresses to china, chopsticks, lingerie, candles, and even hotels. Her desk is cluttered with milky white feng shui crystals, a figurine of a Chinese courtesan, and a copy of the book Talking Fashion. Each time she leans against a surface, stray threads cling to her cashmere pullover. Removing an offending strand, she mutters: "Hazard of the trade."
Since 1990, when her bridal atelier opened on Madison Avenue, Wang has created stunning silhouettes worn by everyone from Charlize Theron to championship skater Michelle Kwan. Her upcoming couture collections are inspired by such esoterica as Flemish paintings or African textiles that once belonged to Henri Matisse. Whenever Wang travels she picks up ideas that inform her work—a see-through bag sold by beach vendors on Sardinia's Costa Smeralda, koa wood paddles discovered in a craft shop on the North Shore of Oahu. "It's important to reference where you've been," Wang says. "But I'm never literal."
Wang was indoctrinated into the jet-set life early on. In the late 1950's, her father, Cheng Ching Wang, an oil and pharmaceuticals tycoon, sent her off from New York, where she was born, to Paris with her mother for fashion shows in the ateliers of Christian Dior, Givenchy, and Balenciaga. Her memories revolve around side trips to Versailles and pain au chocolat at Café Angelina rather than encounters with the masters of postwar style. However, these private viewings clearly left an impression. Wang preserves many of her mother's designer dresses from that era in her own archives. "We always went over on the Mauretania or the Queen Mary," Wang recalls. "What a fantasyland—I had free run of the ship. Back then, travel wasn't about speed, it was about the process." And once they landed?"We stayed at the Plaza Athénée or George V." Years later, Wang returned to France to study art history at the Sorbonne; until recently, she kept an apartment on the Left Bank.
While business still draws her back to France, she also makes regular trips across the Pacific. This year, the 56-year-old designer acquired a house in Shanghai, where her father plans to retire. (Her parents emigrated from China in the late 1940's.) "My take on Shanghai is modern, forward-thinking," she says. "I saw incredible steel-and-glass buildings going up and came back with a muted palette of gray and blue [for her Resort 2006 collection], unlike John Galliano, who did the red and gold thing."
For Wang, Hawaii has become more than a convenient halfway point between China and the United States—it's her preferred stopover. Nineteen years ago, on a golf trip to the Big Island, Arthur Becker proposed to Wang in Kukuihaele, a small plantation town on the Hamakua Coast. Her latest reason for returning: the Vera Wang Suite at the Halekulani hotel, in Honolulu. "Vera Wang has stayed in some of the world's most exotic locations," explains Peter Shaindlin, COO of Halekulani Corporation. "Her sensibility is international, and she has exquisite taste you can trust absolutely." Given a free hand to interpret Hawaiiana, she infused this one-bedroom honeymoon suite in the Diamond Head wing with a pre-dawn palette of lavender, persimmon, and celadon. The delicate shading was a fundamental departure from the hotel's white-on-white purity. "The Halekulani didn't want me to compete with the view," she says. Even so, it was important for her to incorporate geographic relevance: "I wanted to create a space with some sense of the local culture—a transpaciﬁc melding without being Kon-Tiki."
The result is a highly personal union of Asian and Hawaiian decorative references. Double teak doors open to a muted foyer dominated by an antique statue of Kuan Yin, the goddess of mercy, who also happens to be a fertility deity. On the opposite wall, Wang positioned two ebony-stained outrigger canoe paddles. A Buddhist prayer bell sits on a Qing dynasty desk, hemp rugs cover wenge wood ﬂoors, Thai porcelain lines a display shelf, a Japanese half screen dresses up a corner. The suite is also a showcase for all things Vera Wang: crystal, china, sterling barware, linen throw pillows custom-embroidered with wedding-dress-trim scraps. The bathroom is stocked with Vera Wang soaps, candles, and perfumes. Not surprisingly, her book on weddings is prominently displayed; her favorite movies (My Big Fat Greek Wedding, The King and I, Casablanca) are ready to be viewed on the plasma-screen television. (Beginning in December, guests will be able to purchase mementos from the new Vera Wang lifestyle boutique downstairs.)
Meanwhile, in New York, Wang is already musing about her next trip. Unlike friend and architect Richard Meier, who recently trekked through a South American rain forest, she's looking for something relatively tame. "Snakes get to me," she shudders. "Where do I want to go?The Mall of America. I love the idea of an indoor roller coaster."
SHANE MITCHELL is a Travel + Leisure contributing editor.