Seasonal Styling with Sue Wong
by alexandra calamari
“There’s not enough glamour in the world these days,” Sue Wong says, sighing ever so slightly. “There’s not enough glamour, there’s not enough fantasy, and I would really like to see a return to that.” For designer Sue Wong, glamour and fantasy are just part of her everyday routine, whether she’s designing intricately beaded vintage-inspired gowns in her Mid-Wilshire showroom, or hosting fashionable soirees at her palatial 1920s Los Feliz estate.
While most designers out of Los Angeles tend to embrace California’s casual surf culture, Wong has built her business doing exactly the opposite, harkening back to the days when a woman wouldn’t be caught dead walking out the door styled from top-to-bottom. “Women don’t know how to be women anymore and men don’t know how to be men like they did in the old days, where you knew if you were with somebody like Humphrey Bogart, that was a man,” Wong says. “Lauren Bacall was his muse and she was sexy. She was modern and strong, but she was still feminine and very much a lady.”
To that end, Wong always draws inspiration from bygone eras. “I always do sort of a Victorian style and style from the ‘20s, there’s always that ubiquitous flapper on my line, a lot of netting and tulle, a lot of jet beading, some feathers are still important, laser-cut panels on flippy little skirts,” she explains. What’s more, Wong’s designs manage to pay tribute to the glamorous era she loves, without becoming costumey or dated. Instead, her looks are transcendent—a combination of modern cuts with vintage finishes that bring out the Bacall in every woman. “I have these women come in and they think they can’t really wear my clothes but they go into the dressing room and they come out, and they are just amazingly transformed. …It really empowers women because it makes them feel beautiful, it makes them feel like enchanted goddesses.”
Wong’s design aesthetic is clear not only in her work, but also in her home, a magnificently restored estate that she has dubbed The Cedars. The abode, which has a storied history—commissioned in 1921 by French director Maurice Tourneur, it subsequently played host to a slew of music and film legends including Norma Talmadge, Howard Hughes, Marilyn Monroe, Jimi Hendrix, and Johnny Depp—is an architectural masterpiece. Wong took great pains to restore original accents like the MGM golden lions atop several mantles, frescoed ceilings, and even the bathroom where Hendrix supposedly wrote “Purple Haze.” “It’s really funny because people come in and say, ‘Gosh, did you buy this already like this?’ and I say, ‘No it was an empty house, it was really lonely and forlorn and really in a state of disrepair!’” Wong says. “The frescoes were faded and covered in grime, the gold leaf had turned black, it took almost three years to restore it to its original splendor. I think that the house finally found its appropriate mistress in me.”
Wong completed the space with vintage pieces collected from Paris and curtains and upholstery she designed herself. The final result is so authentic it’s almost unsettling, as if you’ve accidentally stumbled into a museum where it’s forbidden to touch anything. But Wong is anything but closed off—she frequently opens her home to friends and the fashion set for grand events that take a cue from those hosted by Jay Gatsby. As a hostess, she handles the music, décor, and even the floral arrangements herself. “I think flowers are really important to bringing a whole atmosphere and ambiance,” Wong asserts. After buying “whatever looks fresh and whatever looks pretty,” Wong meticulously organizes her purchases, systematically separating them by color and leaves before going about assembling her art. She laughs, recalling the 18 arrangements for her last event honoring Master Romio Shrestha. “It’s really like a doctor doing surgery, ‘Okay, hand me the chrysanthemum, no, I need the white Casablanca, no I need the heliconia, no I need the elephant heart,’ that sort of thing.”
For the holidays, Wong will have her usual twin Christmas trees and stresses the importance of decorating your home for season. “I don’t like the colorful [Christmas lights], I like the little twinkling white lights” she muses. “If you decorate some trees on the outside or towards the entrance, I think that just really gives it some sparkle and some glamour and magic.” She continues to rely on fragrance, filling her place with fresh pine, conifer, and holly, and recommends spiced cranberry scented candles. “I always love to do some kind of really beautiful centerpiece for the tables and candles and that sort of thing. If people have any holiday dishes and stemware, that’s the time to bring them out. Just really customizing little touches like custom-made homemade placemats and napkins with a holiday theme, that can really make a big difference.”
Of course when you’re talking with one of Los Angeles’ most distinguished designers, the best way to decorate for the holidays is to decorate yourself. Her holiday collection features an array of jewel-toned dresses with black jet beaded tulle overlays. “There’s that sort of veil of black that’s overlaid on top of a bright color, which kind of tones it down and makes it even more rich and more mysterious looking,” she says. But Wong prides herself in the whole package, insisting there’s more to any outfit than just the dress. To accessorize, Wong suggests drawing inspiration from the bombshells of the ‘20s and ‘30s. “I think red lips are really making a comeback, and a little Veronica Lake sort of peek-a-boo hairstyle with that red lipstick is always a good look. Mascara and long lashes are really a hallmark of glamour, you know—feathery eye-lashes.” Wong recommends finishing the look with chandelier earrings, textured hosiery, and of course, high-heels.
When you look at Wong’s collection and the care she’s taken with The Cedars, it’s difficult to believe that she’s a self-taught, self-made success, and only began designing on a whim in 1985. Now, as we approach the New Year, we can still thank Wong for crafting unique clothing, but to her, designing eveningwear has become something more. “It’s about glamour, it’s about fantasy, it’s about beauty, it’s about femininity, it’s about honoring the goddess in every single woman,” Wong says. “It’s magical, it really is, so that’s what I like to really do.”
Fashion shoot: December 2013 issue of Los Angeles Confidential magazine.