Taiwanese-born Jason Wu – who famously dressed Michelle Obama – has become the beacon for a new generation of uptown designers.
JASON Wu is the very essence of New York fashion and the incarnation of that elusive American dream.
At age 30, the Taiwanese-born designer, who showed his summer 2014 collection during the recent New York Fashion Week, has not only founded his own company but become a beacon for a new generation of uptown designers, famously dressing Michelle Obama for both presidential inaugural celebrations.
Now, Wu has become trans-Atlantic, with his recent appointment as women’s wear creative director of Hugo Boss, the billion-dollar German fashion behemoth.
At the same time, he is enlarging his own company’s reach with a beauty collaboration for Lancôme that he says will “solidify the Jason Wu image” and show that his creations are “a whole world that comes with handbags and shoes.
It all started with dolls, as his “cool parents” back in the 1980s in Taipei let him play with Barbies while his brother chose Nintendo and Transformers. By the time his mother, encouraging her son’s artistic streak, had moved the family to Vancouver, Canada, doll designs were in his head and heart. So, his collaboration with Integrity Toys on the Fashion Royalty doll collection, which continues to this day, became the template for his fashion imagination.
Wu recently spoke about his career, his ambitions – and those living dolls.
There is quite an “Asian wave” breaking over New York fashion. Do you think of yourself as an Asian designer – or an international one?
I am an Asian designer. I was born in Taiwan. That is who I am. But I am a designer, just like any designer of any race. Growing up in the 1980s in Taiwan, the arts were not considered a career. For a lot of us in my age group, families began seeing the real value in this field that was previously not considered acceptable. The other half is just chance – that we all happen to be in America right now.
What was the significance of your time in Canada, where you went at the age of nine? Did that leave a mark?
A lot happened in Vancouver. It was my first Western experience. I learned English, which is my second language. I became very acquainted with Western culture. I had my first sewing machine when I was nine. I trained in fashion illustration when I was in school. It was a quiet place to grow up. It was great that my parents kept me out of the bustling fashion industry until I was ready.
By the time I moved to New York when I was 18 and had gone to Parsons (The New School of Design), I had a better sense of culture and what the world was like. And my mother was very supportive. She wanted me to be happy. But she really thought I was going to be an out-of-work artist!
What about your discovery of the Valley of the Dolls? You have worked with Integrity Toys since you were 16 years old. How did it all start?
It was always about making the doll over. I liked the idea of transformation. I repainted their faces, redid make-up and hair. It was a great concern for my family. But not for my parents though, they were so cool – they just bought me dolls. One of the first from my mum was a Bob Mackie doll and then a Dior doll. Then, high school came and I went to boarding school. And years later, I find an opportunity to freelance with Integrity Toys – that is when the whole thing came back in.
Dolls were how I learned how to do dress patterns. We made luxurious, expensive dolls and it became a serious business how I was putting things together. I understood the anatomy of how a dress worked from dolls. But what I learned from the experience was so much more than being a designer. I learned the ability to work with other people.
How did you make the step, seven years ago, from dressing dolls with their idealised perfection to creating collections for real, live people?
I suppose I naively started business without knowing what it was. I had 10 years of work experience. There was a rude awakening on the business side, but I was ready for it. I knew about manufacturing. I was so used to trademarking names for toys. I knew how to deal with intellectual property: a new toy, register and patent it.
The first thing I did was register my name. It is one of the finest things I have ever done. They don’t teach you how to do that in fashion school!
How did you feel when Michelle Obama wore your red gown to the 2013 inaugural ball, choosing you for that honour a second time?
I was rather new when she wore my first dress. It was so different from all other inaugurations, there was never a history-making moment like that – everything aligned from the political point of view to the fashion point of view. She is a first lady who looks great and embraces fashion as part of her message.
When she first wore my dress, the world took notice. It is easy to have a first fairy-tale moment. Her choice four years later was a real testament about how our relationship has lasted and how she has matured into her role – a certain consistency that was almost unexpected. It was such an honour for me to have that kind of reassurance.
Why have you chosen to become women’s fashion director at Hugo Boss – and for how long?
I have never worked for another person. It’s a big commitment. I had previous interviews with other European companies, but perhaps, they were not the right fit. Now, I am working with a company with a very storied past. The idea is that I am not replacing someone. I saw my potential as artistic director, which is very different from designer. I have to create a world that is believable and also relevant in 7,000 sales points around the world. I have signed up for “multi” years.
Where does your own company stand now?
I do four collections a year. I jumped into doing that early in my career. I am serious about the fashion business, but the truth is, my brand is seven years old and we are hanging next to the best of what fashion has to offer in department stores. I always held myself to that same standard. Consumers paying premium price for garments don’t care how old a company is. European companies are so different. I have created my history – all seven years of it. This job is all-encompassing, working on everything from clothing to the (advertising) campaign, to celebrity placement, to sunglasses, to fragrance.
What about your new beauty collaboration with Lancôme?
I have been wanting to do beauty for years and to pair with an international beauty company. It will solidify the image of Jason Wu as an international brand. All my shows have a distinctive hair and make-up look. It feels so natural for me, the woman who wears my clothes would have my make-up as part of her beauty regime.
So, at age 30, how would you like to find yourself 10 years from now?
Hopefully, I will be able to take more vacations and have a house on an exotic island. Before that comes more work. But I don’t feel like it’s work. I’m professional. It’s what I do. – IHT