WANG’S BA­LEN­CI­AGA

How the golden boy of Amer­i­can cool took on the sto­ried Paris de­sign house – and tri­umphed. By Molly Young. Pho­to­graphs by Melvin Skol­sky.

Harper’s Bazaar (Malaysia) - - Contents -

The mai­son’s tal­ented new creative di­rec­tor sur­passes all de­sign ex­pec­ta­tions

While Alexan­der Wang may be fa­mous for run­ning full speed through life, on his first day at Ba­len­ci­aga he chose to tread lightly. “Ev­ery­one was ner­vous about who I would be, and whether they would main­tain their po­si­tions,” says the 29-year-old Amer­i­can wun­derkind who was named creative di­rec­tor of the ven­er­a­ble fash­ion house last De­cem­ber. “There’s the per­cep­tion that when you go to a house, ev­ery­one gets cleared out and you start over. For me, it was im­por­tant to go there and build re­la­tion­ships first and fore­most.” And so, on a grey win­ter’s day, Wang ar­rived in Paris, shook the cold slush from his tou­sled mop, and pro­ceeded to meet with nearly ev­ery­one at the com­pany, from the CEO to fit mod­els to pat­tern­mak­ers.

“I was so ex­cited and so scared at the same time that I just dove in,” he re­veals over break­fast at the Tribeca Grand Ho­tel in New York. Dressed in a floppy black sweat­shirt with his glossy hair pulled back into a messy top knot, Wang is al­most su­per­nat­u­rally beau­ti­ful in per­son, with a smile that rarely leaves his face. “When you’re the new kid in the build­ing, I think it’s im­por­tant to make your­self avail­able,” he con­tin­ues, “and I was ex­cited to find out what peo­ple’s ex­pec­ta­tions of me were.” In­stead of en­ter­ing like a cor­po­rate raider, the de­signer stepped in un­der the guise of a ded­i­cated pupil: To learn, and only then to lead.

Wang’s ap­point­ment was an un­ex­pected choice for a house founded in 1919 by Cristóbal Ba­len­ci­aga, a man hailed by Ce­cil Beaton as “fash­ion’s Pi­casso.” Then of course came Wang’s pre­de­ces­sor Ni­co­las Gh­esquière, whose block­buster 15-year run boosted the label’s cool­ness, cred­i­bil­ity, and prof­itabil­ity – the ul­ti­mate tri­fecta and a hard act to fol­low. “I knew that there was go­ing to be a lot of cri­tique and spec­u­la­tion, and I needed to re­move my­self from that,” says Wang, who’s best known for cre­at­ing cool down­town col­lec­tions that fly off the shelves. (Con­sider this: In the seven years

since he launched his name­sake line, Wang has opened more than 15 stores, sold his wares to some 700 retailers world­wide, and col­lab­o­rated with Gap, Uniqlo, and Samsung.) So in­stead of wor­ry­ing about what the world was say­ing, he delved into Ba­len­ci­aga’s his­tory.

It was, by ne­ces­sity, a quick ed­u­ca­tion, With only eight weeks to pro­duce his first col­lec­tion, Wang combed through the fa­bled ar­chive and found him­self solv­ing a foren­sic puz­zle, ex­am­in­ing pieces and dis­cern­ing how they were made. “It was about un­der­stand­ing the DNA and the men­tal­ity of the house,” he says. “I wanted to sep­a­rate what’s been done al­ready and the di­rec­tion I want to ex­plore go­ing for­ward.”

What struck Wang about Cristóbal’s work was how it sug­gested in­tri­cacy with­out re­quir­ing it: The 1967 Bride dress culled from two lengths of silk gazar, or the ki­monosleeved coat cut from three panels. “Cristóbal was about find­ing pu­rity in a sil­hou­ette or seam.” To cre­ate his own take on the legacy, Wang asked him­self: “Who am I speak­ing to? Who is the girl I’m de­sign­ing for?” Un­like the edgy 20-some­thing who epit­o­mises Wang’s own line, the Ba­len­ci­aga woman is de­cid­edly grown-up and ap­pre­cia­tive of im­pec­ca­ble tai­lor­ing and in­no­va­tion. With Ba­len­ci­aga, Wang sent his off-duty model to grad school, trans­form­ing her into, say, a CFO. One could al­most think of the Wang girl and the Ba­len­ci­aga woman as the same per­son, just at dif­fer­ent ca­reer stages.

Per­haps no one em­bod­ies this WangBa­len­ci­aga con­tin­uum bet­ter than his muse, Vanessa Traina, with whom he grew up in San Fran­cisco. “Vanessa takes ex­treme lux­ury and down­plays it,” Wang de­scribes. “She’d go into her mum’s closet, take a fur, and cut off the sleeves. She doesn’t wa­ver be­tween trends.” Traina is sim­i­larly en­am­oured with Wang. “Alex is staunchly loyal and grounded,” she says. In­deed, amid fash­ion’s prickly ri­val­ries, Wang is a rar­ity: A cheer­ful sprite who bounds down the run­way like a golden re­triever.

But keep­ing that aura while helm­ing the leg­endary house – and de­sign­ing his own line – took some thought. “I knew I wasn’t mov­ing full-time to Paris,” shares Wang, who re­mains New York-based but trav­els to France once a month. “I’ll do 100 fit­tings a week. I have sep­a­rate iPhones for sep­a­rate ideas.” He typ­i­cally doesn’t leave work un­til 11pm. “Peo­ple thought I wouldn’t be able to do two things at once, but for me that was the most ex­cit­ing part.”

Not sur­pris­ingly, Wang’s Ba­len­ci­aga de­but was noth­ing short of mas­ter­ful. Held in the house’s grand salon, the in­ti­mate “pro­logue” show­cased a sculp­tural col­lec­tion of co­coon coats, molded pe­plums, and de­murely rounded hems. Much like Cristóbal’s work, the pieces looked aus­tere from afar but were fab­u­lously lux­u­ri­ous up close: Wooland-mo­hair sweaters that re­sem­bled mar­ble; and pants of velvet-em­broi­dered guipure. While the shapes were very much in keep­ing with the house DNA, there

“Peo­ple thought I wouldn’t be able to do two things at once, but for me that was the most ex­cit­ing part,” Wang says.

was a new ac­ces­si­bil­ity and friend­li­ness that made the clothes in­cred­i­bly wear­able.

For Wang, this was key. “The thing that first made me want to work in fash­ion was the idea of cre­at­ing things that peo­ple could con­nect to and have a re­la­tion­ship with,” he muses. Cristóbal had a sim­i­lar agenda. “He went into de­sign with the at­ti­tude: I want my women to feel com­fort­able, free, and at ease. It was al­ways about the girl and the woman – about dress­ing for the self.”

Eas­ing into his­tory. Alexan­der Wang, Ba­len­ci­aga’s creative di­rec­tor

Dra­matic poise. Clothes and ac­ces­sories, all from Ba­len­ci­aga

Air of el­e­gance. Clothes and ac­ces­sories, all from Ba­len­ci­aga

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