For a guy who is only 30 years old, Jason Wu (who looks even younger in person) has already figured out an amazing number of things. Besides being able to observe any garment and deconstruct how it was made, he knows who he is – “I’m a fashion nerd,” he happily admits over a drink at the Lambs Club in the center. – New York City one evening at the start of April – and who it isn’t: “I’m not in fashion. I don’t have the grunge side in me. The Taiwanese native (he grew up in Vancouver) goes on to say: “You won’t see me in a dive bar. It’s not me. I’ve been through my crazy hair phase and my phase I’m not Asian. For a while, I had blue eyes and blonde hair.” Wu, who by his own admission always made his bed in a boarding school (one in Connecticut, one in Massachusetts) and perfected himself as a boy by making clothes for dolls, became a young man of a disconcerting clairvoyance for which a sense of control is crucial.
If fashion designers, like politicians, can be divided into liberals and conservatives, Wu would certainly place himself on the right side of the spectrum. He makes no apologies for not being reforming – “In my shows there has always been consistency and neatness” – and disapproves of the instant access that the internet has brought, letting people think they know more about fashion than they really do. He says aggressively, “There are two seasons Prada’ is not a benchmark.” For example, he invokes Madame Grès to explain how he drapes the folds of his dresses with a show of hands.
This ultra-concentrated and decidedly high-end sensibility – “If you’re looking for a great white t-shirt, don’t come to me” – influenced Wu’s aesthetic since, fresh out of Parsons design school, he showed her first collection of extremely feminine and meticulously crafted clothes in 2006. The company was and is funded by money from Wu’s current position as Creative Director of Integrity Toys, which makes dolls. His parents, who run a company producing and exporting industrial food and feed products, also provided financial assistance as well as business advice. (His mother, he points out, never missed a show.)
What was different about Wu from the start was that he didn’t seem to be experimenting on the consumer’s back; instead, he came up with a fully formed conception of who wanted his creations – “a certain type of power woman,” as he describes it, “a strong, confident woman with a certain ‘rigor.’“ Unlike other young designers, he kept his process and his influences to himself: Norman Norell, Charles James, Yves Saint Laurent, sending clothes on the catwalks expressing an anti-minimalist vision (“I still have a feather or pearls or polka dots of some sort”) marked by an almost strangely early brilliance and polish. Besides his main clientele of stylish and wealthy women, there is a neon-lit group he calls “the Wu Girls”, including Emma Stone, Jaime King, Julianne Moore, Michelle Williams and Rachel Weisz – and her partner in this portrait, the lovely Diane Kruger.
Yet only a few years ago Wu was a name known mainly to industry insiders and high-end retailers who took him to Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus, Saks, Browns in London. That all changed, of course, when Michelle Obama showed up for the cameras at the neighborhood’s inaugural ball in 2009 wearing a crystal-studded fairytale from a dress he created. The impact on its visibility has been enormous; the story of her sitting in front of her television with a few close friends in her downtown apartment on the opening night, unaware that it was the dress that had been chosen, added to the integrated drama of a young immigrant whose aspirations and work leads to unsuspected success.
Within minutes, deals – for everything from product promotions to reality shows – poured in. It might have turned someone else’s head, but what’s remarkable about Wu, I find the more time I spend with him is how he lacks the selfishness that the we associate with motivated and creative types.
These days, with a second custom inaugural dress for Michelle Obama, circa 2013, to her credit as well as many new partnerships and licensing deals (a makeup collection collaboration with Lancôme is slated for September), Wu still keeps keep an eye on the road ahead. One afternoon in March, I meet him in his large showroom (10,000 square feet), without any frenzy despite a team of 30 people, which houses his last season of clothing as well as his enticing collection of shoes and bags. As Wu sifts through a display of his fall creations, I’m struck by the demanding work that goes into everything he creates, whether it’s a pleated red and black chiffon dress with beaded trims, an ostrich feather belt, collared trench coat with fox pockets or perfectly cut white wool stovepipe pants. Many halter and ruffle dresses are lined with corsetry, in the style of high fashion of yesteryear, and there is a general sense of luxury inside out. In recent years, his polished, just that side of the prissy approach has loosened up and even he admits “some flamboyance – not Liberace, but sexy” to his fall collection. He says he dreams of working in a pastry shop and admits sometimes wavering under pressure and expectations.
Maybe, but I have every confidence that Wu will continue, in his reserved and exquisitely attentive way, to make clothes for a particular type of fashion connoisseur.
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