LIKE A BOSS
Jason Wu is more than a designer of pretty, polite dresses. Next up? A major new role and world domination, please.
right after the Hugo Boss show in New York in February, I go in search of Jason Wu. The 32- year- old Taiwanese-born designer has just made his debut as artistic director for the European mega-brand in a skyscraper overlooking Manhattan, with an industrial set of mirrored blocks intended to reflect the architectural rigour of Boss headquarters in Metzingen, Germany.
This is the brand’s opportunity to transform its status from a billion-dollar menswear behemoth to a womenswear brand ready to play in New York’s big leagues, and everything about this show
When I finally locate Wu backstage, he is caught in a flashbulb frenzy with Gwyneth, Diane and Reese. Wu whispers something into Gwyneth’s ear, and they both fall about laughing. I can’t help thinking how incongruous the designer looks in the presence of so much polished Hollywood glamour: Wu cuts a refined figure, befitting a designer celebrated for exquisitely ladylike tailoring, but he still looks like a fresh-faced teenager.
I have the same feeling that night, during an intimate Boss dinner where Wu holds court, ensconced between Reese and Diane. I shouldn’t find his easy rapport with these women so remarkable. Wu, after all, is both a figurehead for New York’s young designer regeneration and no stranger to the global spotlight. When Michelle Obama danced the night away in Wu’s snow-white gown at her husband’s first inauguration in 2009, his name became indelibly inked in U.S. fashion history. He was 26 at the time and apparently celebrated this momentous occasion by ordering Domino’s Pizza. When, for Obama’s second inauguration four years later, she chose to wear Wu again—a daring “victory-red” gown, as The New Yorker dubbed it—his reputation as her talisman designer was cemented. The First Lady’s choice was hardly random—you can imagine the kind of House of Cards- style screening that went into such a major political decision.
Wu is a young designer whose backstory reads like a case study on how to achieve the American Dream. He must have been asked to trot it out in every interview he has ever done—must be sick to the back teeth of it—but he’s all charm and patience when we meet a few days later in Boss’ shiny New York showroom.
Perched on a suitably austere charcoal sofa, he radiates industriousness. Born in Taipei to successful entrepreneurs who run an import-export business, Wu has “super-supportive” parents who indulged his passion for “pretty things.” He played with dolls from the age of five; later, they became his miniature mannequins on which he learned to design, pattern cut, sew and fit. “In the 1980s, Taiwan was seriously conservative and there were no creative opportunities, so my parents moved me [and my older brother] to Vancouver,” he explains. “They thought a different perspective on life was important.” Cue two serendipitous arrivals in his life: the sewing machine that changed his world when he was nine and then an English tutor who introduced him to fashion magazines. “I was awful with textbooks. Awful. I mean, fail,” he recalls. “[My tutor] brought me fashion magazines, and that’s how I really got into fashion and also picked up the language.” He deadpans, “My first two words [in English] were ‘Stephanie Seymour.’”
Later, Wu attended boarding school in Connecticut, and, as he modestly puts it, “I fell upon this job at a toy company.” Wu called Integrity Toys in New York, submitted his sketches of doll costumes, which included an “electric-blue fishtail gown with a crazy neckline I was particularly proud of,” and got himself an interview. He was 16. He took the train alone, armed with a bunch of dolls wearing his designs. “I showed them my work and said ‘This is what I can deliver,’ and they hired me.” He worked from his dorm room after class and, during spring vacations, visited the company’s factories in China. “It became much more than making dolls’ clothes—I got to work with the engineers, injection moulding, plastics, packaging, everything.” His salary rose to $500 a month, money he would later use to set up his eponymous fashion line in 2006. “It’s very funny and charming to say that I made dolls, but it was actually a full-on product-design job. I just wanted a career,” he says, claiming to have been jealous of friends who worked in Starbucks or Gap “because [he] never got to work in retail.”
While building his industrial-design career with Integrity Toys, Wu studied at Parsons The New School for Design in New York. “It refined what I already knew—it was like a finishing school for me,” he says, having already conquered womenswear, of a fashion, in the doll market. Typically, instead of taking the easy option, he majored in menswear because of his love of tailoring—“All I did were collars, lapels and felting for, like, a year”—and then left, six months shy of graduating, to intern with Narciso Rodriguez.
The irony of coming full circle as artistic director of Hugo Boss, a business founded on h
menswear, and debuting with a collection that takes menswear for women as its DNA, is not lost on Wu. “I don’t think anyone thought of me like that, which is precisely why I wanted to take this job: to challenge myself and people’s perceptions of me,” he says. Certainly, Wu’s public image appears to be carefully crafted. He turned down an opportunity to appear as a guest judge on an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race, the cult drag-queen pageant show, because “it felt off brand.” As he told The New York Times’ T Magazine: “I made a rule not to be on reality shows. But I really wanted to do it.” (Wu has worked extensively with RuPaul, designing six doll versions of the drag queen for Integrity Toys.) A year ago, however, he appeared to want to shrug off that selfimposed image of the maker of “very proper clothes”—see his spring/summer 2013 collection, which included Carolyn Murphy in a provocative Helmut Newton-inspired black leather sheath.
While some questioned Wu’s need to raise eyebrows with leather harnesses, the designer was clearly itching to prove he could do more. It would seem that his new job has given him that outlet. When I ask him to describe the Hugo Boss woman, Wu says, “She is powerful, strong, intelligent and worldly, definitely a no-frills kind of girl; her idea of evening is dressed down in loafers.” And the Jason Wu woman? “More frothy. It’s a different spin—more romantic, embellished, with a real American sportswear slant— but there’s no reason why a woman wouldn’t want both.” I have to ask, which camp does he think Michelle Obama belongs to? “She is exactly how you would expect her to be: down-to-earth, smart and inspiring,” he replies smoothly. Wu is unshakably discreet about working with the First Lady. The only thing I can manage to wring out of him is how anxious he felt when he first met her: “When there are 10 Secret Service agents around you, sure, you get nervous. I was like, ‘What did I do wrong?’”
Ambition vibrates off Wu but not in a pushy, power-loving way. It’s more of a mental and physical energy—just the stuff that is needed to steer the look of everything produced by Boss as well as his successful eponymous label, which has clocked up multi-million-dollar sales and is stocked at over 180 stores around the world. “You need to have people feel your energy,” he says. “It’s just as important for me to give out as it is for me to take. It’s my duty to do that—to inspire, give direction.” Wu flies to Germany every month to inspire the Boss troops and oversee everything from the fragrance, eyewear and fashion campaigns to the fittings of a 400-piece selling collection, as well as dream up inspirational catwalk designs to spur the consumer to buy all of the above. “It’s a big job, and I’m not nearly done,” says Wu, who works around the clock to make it all happen. He still remains loyal to Integrity Toys, acting as a consultant for the company, which keeps an office downstairs from his studio so that he can cast his eye over new designs. “They’re like family to me. After all, who would hire a 16-year-old with no experience?” Yes, Wu is a workaholic with an “obsessive attention to detail disorder,” as he puts it, but it’s the other side of him—the part he rarely allows to surface—that makes him such a force in fashion. I see it during our dinner: the mischievous wit of someone who clearly knows how to have a good time. The man who brought his doll designs to life. ■