Sue Wong may not be a name often heard on Hollywood’s red-carpet runways, but if her Spring 2016 collection – revealed last Monday night in Hollywood – is any indication, that’s a fashion faux pas.
To start with, Wong is a real American success story. Born in the countryside of southern China in 1949, Wong came with her mother to Los Angeles at the age of five after her mother bribed a border guard with her wedding jewelry to get to Hong Kong. They joined Wong’s father, who had moved to the U.S. before her birth.
Creating dresses for herself since high school in Culver City, California, Wong defied her traditional father to study at the Los Angeles Trade Technical College. While there, she apprenticed with a company called Arpeja, where she landed a full-time job after graduation.
By the late 1970s, the twentysomething was already making an impact. Said a 1977 profile in People:
Wong is the designing brains behind Arpeja-California’s Young Edwardian line. Two years ago Arpeja was billing $5 million. This year, with Wong at the drawing board, Young Edwardian will bring in $50 million. Says Jack Litt, Arpeja’s board chairman, “Sue Wong literally turned around this market.”
At the time, Wong was married to artist and textile designer Ralph Homann, and was the mother of two sons. An acrimonious divorce and custody battle around age 30 hit her hard, both emotionally and financially (as she was the family’s breadwinner).
In 2014, she told Agenda magazine:
I was divorced, went from owning four houses and being this girl wonder to losing everything. Within a year, I was bankrupt; I had no more houses. I was down to my last $2,000 with two young babies. My younger son Josh was only 1-1/2 years old. And I had to start all over again, and it was a long, hard climb.
As she tells the story, in July 1999, in partnership with three factories in Hong Kong, Wong knocked out 25 designs for dressy gowns, which shipped just before the end of the year.
Building on the success of those, Wong now designs for the retail market – including Nordstrom, Sak’s Fifth Avenue and Neiman-Marcus – and couture, with dresses that blend femininity and a vintage sensibility with an avant-garde edge.
Her younger son, Josh Homann, is COO of Wong’s company, Sue Wong Fashion. Older son Ezra, a Yale graduate, sells original tee-shirt designs through his Etsy shop, Gnome Enterprises, from his studio in Brooklyn.
Wong currently splits her time among a modernist home in Malibu, a retreat on Maui, and The Cedars, a meticulously restored 16-room 1926 mansion. Situated on a hilltop in Los Feliz, its opulent old Hollywood glamour echoes the feel of Wong’s beaded creations.
Wong’s Spring 2016 runway show, titled “Alchemy & Masquerade,” held at the Taglyan Complex in Hollywood on Oct. 5, opened Art Hearts Fashion Week, and acted as the de facto launch for Los Angeles Fashion Week.
The show began with a “Phantom of the Opera”-themed interpretive dance by Prince Mario-Max Schaumburg-Lippe, an actor and TV presenter who’s the adopted son of stepfather H.H. Prince Waldemar Schaumburg-Lippe, a great-grandson of Denmark’s King Frederick VIII.
Wong appears to have taken Prince Mario-Max and his parents under her wing since their recent relocation to Los Angeles, throwing a packed birthday party for Mario-Max’s mother, Princess Antonia, at The Cedars on Sept. 21.
But the real stars of the show were the dresses – beaded, bedecked, form-fitting but feminine and flattering to the female body – all accented by Wong’s signature feathered, flowered and ornament-laden headdresses. A couple were so large and unwieldy that the models had to keep a hold on them.
Wong’s models also looked fresh and pretty, a sharp contrast to the near-zombie, heroin-chic, sullen, androgynous faces too often seen on runways.
Lest you think, though, that Wong is always looking backwards, the show featured some daring ultra-modern pieces that would make Lady Gaga happy. One red number was little more than an assemblage of shiny straps, the lower part of which covered little more than a string bikini would.
In partnership with other designers, the jewelry and headgear for these pieces included black spiked shoulder armor, a towering red-rod mohawk and one construction that echoed the intricate scrollwork on the frames of some of the upholstered chairs at Wong’s home.
While these works of art are beyond the reach of almost all American women, off-the-rack Wong creations can be had for under $400, in sizes 0 to 14.