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Fashioning a Brand

Delta Sky Magazine April 2012

Taiwanese-born designer Jason Wu became a fast phenom when he created First Lady Michelle Obama's inaugural gown, and he's followed up with critically acclaimed collections and a sellout debut at Target. Next up: expanding his brand into a lifestyle empire.

Photographs for Sky by Kai Z Feng.

Jason Wu is doing a fashion model pout. The designer best known for creating first lady Michelle Obama’s white chiffon inaugural gown poses for our camera with grace and self-awareness: Chin down. Elbow out. Jacket smoothed. Hand in pocket. Expression stony.

The room, crowded with photo assistants and PR types, is silent.

“Could we try a natural smile?” the art director cautiously proposes, after first running it by Wu’s ever-present publicist.

“Smile?” Wu balks in mock protest. “I’m a designer. I can’t smile!” With that, he cracks an honest-to-goodness grin.

Wu has plenty to smile about these days. His recent capsule collection for Target was an overwhelming hit. It launched on Super Bowl Sunday and was virtually sold out by game time, when his Target commercial aired. Meanwhile, fashion critics praised Wu’s fall 2012 designer collection—a nod to his Chinese roots with a bit of 1940s Hollywood glamour thrown in. Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus are among the luxury retailers to snap up Jason Wu shoes and handbags, a brand extension that will be expanded by fall.

This month, Wu’s first candle, in collaboration with NEST Fragrances, will launch at many of those same high-end stores. Jason Wu Orchid Rain—a mix of white orchid, nashi pear, pomegranate and goji berry—burns in the ultramodern entryway of Wu’s sweeping showroom in Manhattan’s garment district. Wu breathes it in. “This is what I smell like, in a $48 candle.” He notes that the candle is his first foray into home accessories, suggesting it won’t be his last.

       
Fashion designer Jason Wu.        

At 29, Wu is poised to become a powerhouse brand of first-name magnitude—like Tommy, Ralph or Calvin. He already has a dress at the Smithsonian, an award from the prestigious Council of Fashion Designers of America and a customer base that includes the first lady and movie stars such as Natalie Portman and Michelle Williams. But his fans also include the young dreamers who devour fashion blogs while wearing $30 dresses.

In the past two years, Wu has designed sunglasses, digital cameras, nail polish and eye shadow, wedding gowns and bathroom faucets—each project representing what he considers a new challenge, a way to stretch his already considerable capabilities.

“A lot of my peers don’t think about collaborating the way I do,” Wu says. “My approach is to imagine my world. The Jason Wu woman isn’t just floating around in a beautiful dress. I like to know where she’s going, what she likes. I’m not just in the fashion business. I’m in the lifestyle business. I believe in making good product.”

 

Wu was a 26-year-old relative unknown from Taiwan, just three years into manufacturing his own line, when he skyrocketed to international fame in the span of one evening. On January 20, 2009, Wu became the youngest designer ever to outfit a first lady for the inaugural balls. “When I moved to America, I knew I wanted to be a designer,” he says. “I never imagined one of my dresses would end up in the Smithsonian.”

Obama had worn a Jason Wu dress before her husband was elected president, and Wu was one of several designers asked to submit an inaugural design. He found out it was chosen along with the rest of the world, when the first lady appeared on television dancing on the president’s arm.

Wu draws parallels between himself and his muse.

“She came into this whole thing surprised by it all, and I’ve been completely surprised, too,” Wu says.

Surprised, perhaps. But not unprepared.

“My mother recognized my talent before I did,” says Wu, whose formative years are already the stuff of legend. He sketched dresses in the windows of a bridal shop in Taipei when he was just 5. His mother moved him when he was 9 to Vancouver, Canada, where he learned English—and fashion—through magazines. While attending boarding school in Connecticut, Wu submitted sketches to Integrity Toys and was hired to make doll costumes, a job he continued while attending Parsons The New School for Design in New York. He used his doll earnings to open his fashion house. He remains creative director at Integrity Toys today.

Obama frequently wears Jason Wu—as recently as a White House state dinner in late February. A couple of weeks earlier, she appeared in Florida in a $39.99 Jason Wu for Target floral print dress.

Wu wouldn’t say how the first lady, who has managed to sneak out of the White House for a Target run or two, got ahold of the sold-out piece. He’s coy about their relationship, but clear that she is a source of inspiration—beyond fashion: “She has impeccable taste. But more than that, there’s a certain comfort she has with herself. You have to know who you are.”

 

       
Wu sketches a look for his line of 2013 resortwear in his Manhattan office.        

Wu is the rare creative who also enjoys the business side of fashion. He credits his father, who manufactures animal protein in Taiwan: “He’s very scientific.”

Wu now employs 26 people, including a chief financial officer. But whether the question relates to a peplum hem or profitability, they defer to Wu. “I happen to like selling clothes as much as creating them,” he says. “It isn’t relevant unless it sells.”

Wu is known for timeless, ladylike fashions with sumptuous touches—and few sweeping gestures. “Wearable clothes can be beautiful,” he says.

He has spent as many as 100 hours hand-sewing a single dress. He rejoices in the details: a beautiful binding, lace trim, horn buttons. “Fashion design is very much an art form. It always does start at the high end of dressing. It’s a little bit of fantasy, but it creates inspiration.”

And in Wu’s experience, the runway is not just for show. “There is always going to be that luxury customer out there,” he says. “I have clients who buy $10,000 dresses and clients who buy $60 dresses. It’s not so much about the money. Design is a mentality.”

When he agreed to do a collection for Target, Wu refused to let it be a cheap version of his designer looks. “I’m used to lavish material, couture techniques,” he says. “I had to challenge myself to transform my vision in other platforms.” Wu ruled out synthetic leather and other “obvious cheap alternatives.” Instead, he used canvas, cotton and raffia for his Target line. “I wanted it to be authentic.”

Wu benefited from a full-throttle Target marketing blitz, including a New York launch party attended by Blake Lively, Jaime King and other young celebrities. There were also print ads in major magazines and a national television commercial. Wu didn’t just appear in the commercial; he served as creative director. “I wanted to show my range as a designer,” he says. His co-star was a mischievous animated cat, inspired by his own two cats, Jinxy and Peaches. They’re gray, but Wu made his TV cat black, to better match his aesthetic.

 

       
Sketch by Wu.        

Wu has been cooperative yet quiet and private during his Sky photo shoot. But with just one shot left, he invites everyone into the inner sanctum, his personal two-room office. The larger of the two is wallpapered in yellowed pages of The New York Observer. Its centerpiece is the organic wood table where Wu sewed petals onto Obama’s inaugural gown. Stacks of white shoeboxes line one wall. This space has already been featured in several publications, including Elle Decor.

Through the dramatic meeting room is a smaller alcove furnished with floor-to-ceiling white bookcases and a blank white wall on which Wu has pinned fabric samples and medallions.

He sits at his simple black lacquer desk, picks up a pen and begins to sketch for the camera. When the shot is captured, he has the beginning of a look for resort 2013. (He’s feeling slim jeans, white sweaters and soft jackets.)

These days, there’s no time to doodle. He says that’s been the biggest adjustment since becoming instantly famous. “My schedule is now planned out a year ahead,” Wu says. He knows with whom he is having lunch three months from now. He knows when he will be in Paris. He is preparing for another launch in January that he says will be “big.”

But the whirlwind doesn’t appear to impede his artistic inclinations. “I can always find time to sketch,” he says. That might be late at night, on the weekend or in the middle of a photo shoot. You could call him a workaholic, in the sense that he works a lot—as much as necessary (and in fact, he conjures up the term himself). But the word carries a certain negativity that bothers Wu.

“I don’t feel stressed,” he says. “I’m organized. I’m inspired. I like what I do.”

Spill It: Tell Us What You Think!

Chevonese
This is such a great piece. I love the angles taken in this feature and, of course, Jason Wu is certainly talented and amazing. I love reading driven stories like these!
4/2/2012 3:53:23 PM

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