Meet SingularCity member Sue Wong, the fashion designer whose stunning dresses recall a bygone era and bring romance and glamour to women everywhere.
Fashion designer Sue Wong smiles as she recalls the luminescent bottle of glass beads she received from her grandmother when she was 3 years old and still living in Mao’s Communist China. “That was my prized possession,” she says. “It was so magical ― the most exciting present I’d ever received. And guess what?” she laughs. “Today, I am the queen of beads!”
Wong is relaxing in the cozy sitting room in the Jimi Hendrix boudoir, one of many eclectic rooms in the 1920s Los Feliz mansion known as The Cedars ― one of three places she calls home. Like the rest of this Italian palazzo meets gilded movie palace, no surface is left unadorned. This particular room inside the 10,000-square-foot mansion is a floor-to-ceiling collage of red, blue and gold colors and textures: Middle Eastern paisleys, big cushions, carved Indian furniture, shimmering tiles and priceless antiques, an intricate flood of sensory overload that, according to legend, inspired former resident Hendrix, to write “Purple Haze.”
Wong, who oversaw the restoration of The Cedars to its former Hollywood glory, is best known for her vintage-influenced cocktail dresses and evening gowns inspired by her muses, whom Wong calls “drop-dead gorgeous glamour queens such as Marlene Dietrich and Jean Harlow.” The Hollywood connection continues today with stars like Anne Hathaway, Jessica Biel, Tyra Banks, Christina Ricci and other “It” girls of the moment. With complex beadwork, feathers, lace and embroidery to enhance ultra-feminine lines, her dresses are reputed to have the power to transform any woman into a goddess.
One spring, during Los Angeles Fashion Week, Wong hosted a brunch at The Cedars for some 300 members of the fashion world, news media and Hollywood glitterati. Her golden-age sensibilities segued into those of a gracious hostess in what essentially became a Sue Wong art installation. She styled everything ― created the 25 flower arrangements; art directed the food, the music; and, of course, designed the fashions worn by runway models who wandered The Cedars like glamorous ghosts from a bygone era.
It’s hard to believe, seeing her now, that when she was five years old, her mother bribed a border guard with her wedding jewelry to get them out of China and into Hong Kong. A year later, Wong and her mother finally arrived in Los Angeles. Neither spoke English, and Wong had yet to see her father, who had come to the United States before she was born.
The family first settled in South Central L.A., then moved to what Wong calls a “squeaky clean” neighborhood in Culver City where her family was among the few Asians in the community. She remembers always drawing and sketching. “I wanted to be a painter or an artist,” she says, “but my parents were struggling and they didn’t want me to struggle too. They wanted me to be a teacher or an accountant ― something safe and predictable.”
With no dolls or toys to play with, Wong says she lived in a dream world inspired by old Hollywood movies from the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s. “The women in those movies were the ultimate in glamour,” Wong says. “My gowns ― the fantasy and romance ― were inspired by those movie goddesses.”
Wong started sewing her own clothes when she was 9 years old, and in high school, she insisted on having a new dress to wear to the weekly Friday night dance at Culver High. “I would stay up past midnight, sewing away,” she says. “Sometimes the hems were just basted by hand, but by golly, I had a new dress every single week.”
Her fashion career began when she was selected to represent Culver High on the “Deb Board” at a May Company department store. Wong worked on window displays, modeled in the tearoom, and coordinated and styled the merchandise. “And, of course, we sold clothes,” Wong says. “We were paid $1.35 an hour.” It might have been comforting to Wong’s father to see his firstborn taking an interest in something more practical than her artwork, but when the California Institute of the Arts offered Wong a scholarship, he put his foot down.
“When my art education was denied to me, I just decided to go at it by myself,” she says. “I didn’t want to become an accountant, for god’s sake.” She enrolled in the Los Angeles Trade Technical College to pursue a degree in fashion design ― something that offered a creative outlet and a better possibility of a paycheck. “My father was very disappointed that being the first born, I wasn’t a boy,” she says. “I wanted to become successful, to prove to him I was worthy. That’s what probably made me choose fashion as opposed to pursuing life as a fine artist.”
It didn’t take long for Wong’s parents to be proud. After she won an internship at fashion design label Arpeja, she dropped out of trade school and went to work beside the head designer, using her boss’s antique red sewing machine as a desk and presenting her with sketches every day.
By the time Wong reached her mid-20s, she had achieved the American dream. “I was 25 years old and making the equivalent of more than a million dollars a year,” she says. She was also married and the mother of two sons. But after six and a half years of marriage, and on the eve of launching her own fashion line, she realized the marriage was over.
“Disastrously, I decided to open my first company in the middle of a divorce, a custody battle and everything else,” she says. “My husband got half of me because I was the breadwinner.”
She says she put everything on the line to open her company but lost it all within a year. “I had nothing,” she says. “I had to reinvent myself at age 30.”
Bankrupt, Wong secured another fashion design job, was able to buy a house and enrolled her boys in a private school. Five years later, she was ready to try again. “I put up my little house, my savings, everything,” she says. “I just believed in myself ― and that’s the business that I have today. People think it was easy for me, but I’ve been to hell and back. My success was hard earned.”
Besides her successful clothing line, Wong has discovered the lucrative world of licensing the Sue Wong name. Her licensing agent and good friend, Jane Putch, set up deals for Wong with The Walt Disney Company and ACME Studios, with another “top secret” product line about to be announced.
Putch says, “When we first met to talk about a brand licensing program, I told her it would require a lot of consumer-facing interaction ― interviews, TV and press. I don’t think it has been easy for her at first to do that. She’s always wanted her privacy and is actually a shy individual ― like many truly creative people are.”
Putch says Wong understood and went out and did what she had to do. “She can turn it on when she has to,” Putch says. “When she walks into the room, heads turn. She has star quality. She’s done it with focus, intelligence and creative abandon ― like everything she does.
”Wong’s younger son, Josh Homann, is the COO of her company. He started at the bottom and worked his way up. As a child, he says he saw his mom as a bohemian hipster who wore colorful head scarves and stood out in a crowd. “She always took us to eat different kinds of food and to hear different kinds of music. We traveled a lot too, and if she couldn’t take us, she always brought us something back.”
He says a recent ancestral pilgrimage to China with his mother was an eye-opening experience for him and his older brother, Ezra, a painter who lives in New York City. (Ezra earned an MFA in painting from Yale ― thanks to Wong’s encouragement and financial support.) “You hear your parent’s stories, but it’s different when you see it yourself,” Josh says. “The water buffalo in the fields, the villagers butchering chickens … It gave me some perspective on how she grew up and why she’s so driven to succeed.”
Since Wong designs about 1,500 garments a year, making every moment count isn’t a choice it’s a necessity. She’s involved in every aspect of her business, from the designs, to sales, to making deals with Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale’s and Neiman Marcus, to PR, to putting on events ― all on an average of four to five hours of sleep a night. “I’ve always had an insurmountable amount of energy,” she says. “I don’t know where it comes from, but I was born with it. I do it all. I’m like one of those guanyins (mythical Buddhist beings) with a thousand arms.”
She says she designs every environment that she lives or works in ― even her showrooms in Los Angeles and in New York ― and each is different and unique. “Beauty and its pursuit have always been important to me,” she says. “Whenever I go anywhere, that’s the first thing I take care of.”
She says of her three homes that The Cedars represents the female body, her ultramodern home in Malibu is the mind and her tropical hideaway in Maui is the spirit. Her atelier, a place where she spends a lot of her time, features a desk she designed herself and, on the wall behind it, one of many modern-art pieces in her collection: an Andy Warhol green-faced Mao. “I always wanted a Warhol behind my desk, and I always wanted a Mao, and here he is.”
Single since her divorce, Wong still believes she will meet the love of her life. “I have definitely not given up,” she says. “I have total confidence. The right man hasn’t appeared yet. But he will.” She acknowledges that the challenges of running a business haven’t helped. “You have to be ready for it, and maybe I haven’t been,” she says. “Maybe I’ve been hiding out in my work all this time.”
Yet when the right man does appear, Wong says she’s not likely to remarry. “The idealist and romantic within me used to think that you marry somebody and you’re supposed to be with them forever,” she says. “And the realist in me says no, sometimes people grow in different directions. When you reach a fork in the road, you go one way and the other person goes the other. It’s really all about what you can learn from your experiences with each other.”
She says she’s very careful about whom she dates and wants to attract an equal, someone who has developed along the same lines as she, someone who is a “conscious man.” She says if there’s an imbalance in terms of spiritual awareness, it creates toxicity in the atmosphere. “I refuse to be with any other unconscious men,” she says with a mock shudder. “They’re too much work. I want someone who has a spiritual path, who is aware, intellectually alive ― spiritually alive― and no wimps need to apply!”
Until such a conscious man appears, Wong is fine living her singular life. “We have to heal and save ourselves,” she says about the damsel-in-distress myth. “You don’t really want to be like a half-empty glass and hold your glass out to a man and say, ‘Come fill my cup.’ I’d rather have a full cup so I can offer something to someone ― not be needy and say, ‘Come fill my cup.’
“I want my own equal or I’m not interested,” Wong says. “I have a wonderful life, wonderful friends. So unless it’s really the right person, why waste your time? There is no void in my life because I’m single. I make every moment of every day count. The journey is not about finding a man, it’s about finding the center inside yourself and what your path is all about.”
For those who are still struggling to realize their dream against expectations from society to surrender to a more conventional path, Wong says, “Break the mold.”
“One of my favorite teachers is Joseph Campbell,” she says. “He was a mythologist and the only one to really make sense of the whole spectrum of human experience for me. I found him to be one of the greatest teachers of the 20th century, along with Carl Jung. He basically taught this one line: Follow your bliss.
“I’m following mine,” she says. “If I would have listened to my parents, I’d be married to a Chinese doctor and living in Alhambra or Monterey Park along with the rest of the clan. I was not going to be limited like that. I want the whole universe to be open to me. I want this kind of life ― not that one. I’m following my bliss, I’m living my dream.”
Words: Copyright © Kim Calvert/2014 Singular Communications, LLC.
Photos: Copyright ©2014 Todd Young/Young Studios.