Thursday, March 24, 2005


Fashion lovers will be treated to a display of opulent, romantic dresses by Sue Wong during a meet-and-greet session at Neiman Marcus on Tuesday.

Wong's Way

Designer charms fashion world
with her glamorous details

It's 6 p.m. in L.A., and Sue Wong is still hard at work in her studio. You'd think a late interview is the last task on her to-do list, but no, she's just getting comfortable. L.A. Fashion Week loomed at the time, and there were models to cast and music to choose for her March 17 show, before getting on a plane and heading to Neiman Marcus for an appearance and fashion show at the Ala Moana store Tuesday.


Sue Wong

Meet designer Sue Wong, who will be showing dresses from her spring collection:

Where: Neiman Marcus Galleria, Level Two
Time: 1 to 3 p.m. Tuesday
Admission: Free
Call: 951-8887

Wong insists on doing it all, so that working until 2 a.m. is not unusual for the designer.

"Sometimes I wonder if other designers do it this way," she muses.

"No, I think they have help," I suggest, hoping she'll go easier on herself.

Not that it's necessary. Wong has lots of help, too, but she's also a woman making up for lost time since early business missteps made her overdue for her time in the limelight.

There'll be time to rest when she gets to Hawaii. She'll be in Honolulu on Tuesday for a 1 to 3 p.m. appearance at Neiman Marcus. After that, she'll hop on a plane to Maui, where she has a home in lush Kipahulu, purchased four years ago, before the real estate market started percolating. That's where she goes to recharge.

She said she does no work while she's on Maui, but soaks up the area's natural beauty. "It's sort of like my spiritual center," she said.

But when it's time to get serious, she works. She's well aware of the importance of guarding her name and reputation, which is why, "I like to have my hands in everything."

That starts with design but also includes art direction, advertising, brochures, styling and staging the fashion shows.

"My work is my ultimate statement, so I feel like I have to take that responsibility," she said.

So strong is that statement, that looking at a Sue Wong dress once will leave the viewer with a lasting impression of glamour and romance.

She's known for intricately embellished cocktail and evening dresses with varying degrees of sass, from soft pastel creations with the sweetest rosebud designs to theatrical bugle-beaded or glass-beaded numbers that evoke the Roaring Twenties, the sizzle of 1930s Shanghai and geometry of Art Deco grandeur.

No minimalism for this lady. You can blame that on her austere childhood in rural Communist China, where she was born in 1949.


"Coming from a deprived childhood, I developed a sense of fantasy that really propelled me to pursue that sort of ultra-feminine, romantic fantasy when I grew up," she said. "We really had nothing. We invented our own dolls and dressed our dolls with scraps of fabric from clothes our mother made. We drew our own paper dolls."

Ironically, her garments are now manufactured in Guangzhou, not far from her childhood neighborhood, plus Shantou and Shanghai, as is all of the labor-intensive handwork that go into her creations.

Wong's father had escaped to the United States before she was born, but the family reunited in Los Angeles in 1955, where Sue continued to pursue her love of fashion.

By her late teens in the 1960s and early '70s, she was running her own boutiques in Venice, Calif., and Hollywood, where she reworked vintage designs of the '20s and '30s for a more contemporary audience, displaying her creations gallery style. Her patrons included stars such as Goldie Hawn, Victoria Principal and Bianca Jagger.

As a student she had won a scholarship from Arpeja, a junior fashion company, and her solo success led the company to invite her to become its head designer. In three years the company's sales grew to $51 million from $3 million.


YOU MIGHT THINK that the woman behind such beautiful, desirable creations is a softy, but Wong turns out to be one tough cookie.

"I got to be a really strong person because life makes you that way, depending on the experiences you have," she said.

In spite of her early start, she said she was hampered by divorce, business naiveté in trying to restart a business in her own name in 1979, and having "lost everything" within a year.

Imagining she might be one of those legendary fire horse women, whose birth sign portends great success or calamity, I ask about her astrological sign, and she replies with a laugh, "I'm a bull in the East and a bull in the West."

"It's taken me 20 years to catch up," she says, but now she's back with the ferocity of a teenager whose future seems limitless.

"I'm at the top of my game. I have 36 years of experience, I know my craft inside and out. I can have 20 designs done spontaneously. It's easy for me," she said.

She believes success may have come sooner for her if she had gone to New York, where she was wooed by bigger companies. But her sense of style and purpose would not be contained or diluted.

Her confidence comes through the phone line as a woman who's found her groove and is empowered by that knowledge. She's looking forward to more licensing arrangements coming her way, so that women will be able to accessorize their Sue Wong dresses with Sue Wong shoes, purses, makeup and romantic scents to match.

"I like doing it all," she said.


Also at Neiman marcus

» "Tune In: Accessories": View the latest in spring shoes, handbags, designer jewelry, sunglasses and hats, today through Saturday throughout Level One.

» "Bridal Event": Specialists will be on hand to offer advice on cake design, photography, champagne and wine, flowers and special occasion makeup, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday in Home Decor, Level Three.

» Cynthia Steffe appearance: Meet the designer behind the youthful brand incorporating playful bead, embroidery and crochet details. March 30.

» Ellen Tracy: Models will show missy and petites looks in Designer Sportswear, Level Two, from March 31 to April 2.

» Manolo Blahnik trunk show: This is the one shoe fiends have looked forward to, with styles to suit those who like 'em high or low. In the Shoe Salon, from March 31 to April 2.

» "Face to Face" with Laura Mercier: International makeup artist Benjamin Marshall will show how to wear the spring colors, March 31 to April 2. Reserve a spot by calling 948-7377. The boss herself may be the one giving you a makeover when she stops by on April 1.

» Eileen Fisher: Maryanne Morella will present a seminar showing how to mix and match pieces from the Fisher collection, April 9 in Designer Sportswear -- Level Two.

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