LIKE A BOSS

Ja­son Wu is more than a de­signer of pretty, po­lite dresses. Next up? A ma­jor new role and world dom­i­na­tion, please.

Elle (Canada) - - Style -

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

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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. ■

“I want things per­fect,” says de­signer Ja­son Wu.

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