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