As a girl, Vera Wang was hell-bent on getting into fashion, despite the protests of a wealthy father loath to shell out tuition for design school when his clever girl possessed the wits and work ethic to make a fine lawyer. Wang pseudo-rebelled by following Sarah Lawrence College with a stint as a Condé Nast rover, which she parlayed into a now well-known career path: Vogue’s accessories department to Ralph Lauren’s accessories design staff and, finally, to her own bridal fashion house.
But for Wang, working chic magic with champagne charmeuse and Swarovski crystals was always a means to an end. After several attempts that went nowhere, she has developed a thriving ready-to-wear collection with a moody-broody attitude that brings artsy lyricism to the American landscape. Yet just as her line was striking the high-end market’s fancy, it also caught the attention of mass-oriented operations eager to lure budget-conscious customers with serious fashion. Wisconsin-based Kohl’s won the wooing contest, enlisting Wang to produce a far-flung assortment of goods—clothes, accessories, fine jewelry, bedding and more—under the label Simply Vera Vera Wang. Early in September the merch started hitting the chain’s 1,000 doors, bringing new intrigue to the high-low motif.
Although other major designers have preceded Wang through the populist threshold, she was first to ink an ongoing deal while helming a traditionally distributed designer collection. (Target’s Isaac Mizrahi sells his tony wares privately and at Bergdorf Goodman and select high-end boutiques.) And though most have done variations on familiar sportswear, Wang’s work for Kohl’s rings decidedly more provocative in its romantic-artiste aesthetic, delivered with reverse sticker shock—the priciest piece of clothing is a tweed coat for $138. Whether the mix of painterly ombrés, edgy tunics and that short-sleeve coat with leggings, cozy cardigans and slouchy T’s will play in the heartland remains to be seen. Either way, Simply Vera Vera Wang has influence written all over it. A flop will likely discourage other designers from too-passionate courting of the everywoman set. Conversely, a hit will send them flocking to the masses like floozies to sailors on shore leave.