WALL STREET JOURNAL | CHRISTINA BINKLEY
Quick: Who is Vera Wang?
Hoping to alter the obvious answer—"bridal gown designer"—Ms. Wang is about to rebrand herself, moving deeper into ready-to-wear clothing. In an effort to earn greater regard—and profits—from the mainstream fashion audience, she will place her famous name on her midpriced line of ready-to-wear, which is now called "Lavender" and will be called "Vera Wang."
She is also broadening her reach in mass fashion with new lines of teen clothing and menswear. The moves, announced today and Thursday, include a line of rental tuxedos for Men's Wearhouse and a clothing brand called Princess, which will be sold at Kohl's.
The initiatives, part of a strategy to unleash growth in new ventures, will move Ms. Wang further beyond wedding-related goods than ever before. They also will leave her with a tiered pyramid of brands—and, if all goes well, a much larger stream of revenue from ready-to-wear.
At the top will be her small but expensive luxury bridal and ready-to-wear lines. The fashion line she shows on New York Fashion Week's runways will now be called Vera Wang Collection—or just "Collection," as Ms. Wang's team is already referring to it. (The move evokes Calvin Klein, which shows the Calvin Klein "Collection" line on New York's runways, in addition to the company's underwear, fragrances and other products.)
The new Vera Wang line of ready-to-wear will fall in the middle, along with her long-established licensed products, from fragrance to eyewear. Plans for the ready-to-wear line include clothing, accessories, handbags and jewelry, says Mario Grauso, president of the closely held Vera Wang Group. At the bottom tier are lower-priced clothes and jewelry for Kohl's, David's Bridal and Zale Corp.
It's from the middle section that the company's growth is expected to come, with new Vera Wang dresses costing just a few hundred dollars. That will make them accessible to far more people than the current runway line, where dresses cost $1,300 and up. "In the years to come, that middle brand will be what we will develop," says Mr. Grauso. "The middle is huge."
The new emphasis on ready-to-wear also offers a peek into the mind of the woman who dressed both Chelsea Clinton and Kim Kardashian for their weddings. Despite the princessy gowns for which she is known, Ms. Wang's real passions in design are edgier—the urban daywear she wears herself.
"When I design ready-to-wear, that's about me. That's about how I live," she says. "I'm really a luxury T-shirt, sweater kind of girl," she says, but, she acknowledges, "People don't think of me that way."
But the strategy is rife with risks. Ms. Wang has worked for years to build a luxury brand and must avoid diluting it or confusing customers. And though Ms. Wang may be the world's best-known bridal designer, with successes in high-profile gowns (such as the strapless cobalt-blue confection Michelle Obama wore to the Kennedy Center last week), her track record with ready-to-wear is spottier. Her nonbridal clothes have often struggled to find mass appeal. Lavender was temporarily shuttered during the financial downturn, and has been producing only shoes for several seasons.
"She started with a bridal collection and then extended into other areas, but most of it relates back to bridal," says Robert Burke, a fashion-industry consultant who has in the past advised Ms. Wang. She has had a string of successes with ancillary bridal products—from a line of budget-priced bridal jewelry to mattresses—an endeavor that came out of research showing one thing many newlywed couples buy is a mattress.
"We don't do horribly," said Mr. Grauso, when asked about Lavender's performance—hardly the voice of confidence. But he and Ms. Wang think Vera Wang will do better than Lavender did with a stronger fashion market, now that the financial crash is over, and with a collection of products more clearly branded as Vera Wang.
Mr. Grauso is dispassionate about the small, luxury-priced "Collection" line, which appeals to an artistically minded clientele and has never made profits. "There's much less of a customer for Collection," concedes Ms. Wang. "The cost is enormous. I don't make money doing it. I lose a lot."
"How many women are really interested in clothes off the runway that are a little challenging and weird-looking?" posits Mr. Grauso, a longtime fashion executive who isn't fearful of challenging clothes himself. As he spoke, he was wearing a pair of Rick Owens blue jeans with a crotch at midthigh and a hem above his ankle.
Ms. Wang's bottom-tier efforts have had greater success. In August, when Kohl's Corp. reported its profits rose 17% in the quarter, the store chain attributed the rise in part to the success of Simply Vera, Ms. Wang's line of lower-priced fashions.
The new Princess line for Kohl's is set to capitalize on that, with girlish clothes designed to appeal to teens and young women in the twenties. A person familiar with the plans says the new line is expected to bring the Vera Wang Group revenue from the various Kohl's deals to $500 million annually within two to three years, with Vera Wang Group's total revenue expected to be more than $1 billion.
The new Kohl's line is expected to be on store floors in July 2012, initially with clothes, which will be followed quickly by handbags, and shoes. "This is going to be girly," says Mr. Grauso.
Men's Wearhouse will start taking reservations for the tuxedos in January, for weddings beginning in April, says spokesman Doug Ewert. A high-quality super 130s wool fabric and trendy trim fit—two button jackets, side vents and flat-front pants—give the black or gray tuxedoes a "Mad Men" look. They'll be among the retailer's most modern looks, Mr. Ewert says. The deal also allies the three biggest bridal fashion purveyors in North America: Vera Wang, Men's Wearhouse (which says it rents one out of every three tuxedoes in North America) and David's Bridal, which cross-markets with Men's Wearhouse and sells Vera Wang White brand gowns.
Ms. Wang says she doesn't feel any pangs of regret at putting her luxury name on a midpriced product. "I brought Mario on to do this," she says.
Before joining her, Mr. Grauso worked as president of Puig Fashion Group, where he had the unlovely job of firing designer Olivier Theyskens from Nina Ricci. That move was considered wise for the brand's financial success but was received with fury by fans of Mr. Theyskens' ethereal, haunting designs. Yet Mr. Theyskens has gone on to success designing the midpriced Theyskens Theory line, and Nina Ricci has found its footing under designer Peter Copping.
Ms. Wang's luxury-priced lines are like icing, says Mr. Grauso—in need of something to support them. "Icing," he says, "is only good if there's a cake."