In less than half-a-decade, Jason Wu has gone from being part of a group of promising young designers to being the most promising young designer around. Sure, it has something to do with Michelle Obama wearing his design to the inauguration ball, but it’s also about Wu’s ability to create upscale-yet-modern clothes for wealthy clients, and at the same time work on out-of-the-box, accessible collaborations with brands like nail polish purveyors CND.
At just 28-years-old, the boy wonder has already accomplished more than many designers do in a lifetime. We recently caught up with Wu at his studio, where he sketched a look from his 2012 Resort collection just for Fashionista, and also talked a little more about his daily rituals.
So, you’ve recently launched e-commerce, a Twitter account, and you’ve had a blog for a while….
You know, it’s a fun platform because we do so much that people don’t see and now with the blog and Twitter I think people can really see more of what we do. There’s so many little things. The number one most asked question is, “So how are the clothes made? Is there a machine?” Because to most people outside of fashion, it’s just a person controlling a machine. But really there’s a person controlling the fabric, doing everything by hand.
So how would you go about doing one simple dress with no embellishments? What’s the process after you’ve sketched it?
Well I do a million little sketches in my pad, which I carry around with me everywhere. I sketch out a million variations, select one, drape it on the form, look at fabrics, keeping in mind which one I’ll actually use–muslin, usually–and then put it on the fit model. If it’s good, we’ll correct the pattern and proceed to making the final sample. But if it isn’t, a dress can take up to four fittings. It’s a lengthy process at best.
How do you do fabric sourcing? Do you go to the big fairs?
We don’t. We work directly with fabric mills and friends in Italy, over 50 per season from specialized lace and wool mills, the best of the best. So basically everything in the collection has been customized in one way or another, whether it’s a customized color or pattern; the prints are always made from scratch. And then adding embellishments and all those things. There’s a lot of back and forth with a lot of different people. Now, we’re at the point where the inspiration needs to be echoed throughout the collection, and that’s not just how the models are styled, that’s from the fabrication to the print to the texture of the fabric. All these things matter. So we can’t buy off the rack, so to speak.
What was your inspiration for Resort?
Well, Resort was really inspired by all these colorful houses in Puerto Rico. I went there for New Year’s and a couple times last year. It’s so fun, one of my favorite vacation spots, and on the drive you always see houses in these crazy colors: pink, blue, coral, peach, all with white molding. They almost look like they came out of a set. But they’re actually the most traditional houses, in Old San Juan you can see a lot of it. There’s a pink church with white molding! I thought it was really beautiful and charming, it felt really happy.
I feel like a lot of designers cull a lot of inspiration from travel and it’s very important. How much do you get to travel?
I get to travel a lot, it’s for work but I always mix in a little play. That’s why I love my job, I get to go to so many places. In the last month I’ve been to Chicago, Taiwan, to Dallas. I have to go to Atlanta soon, and Brazil and China, both Beijing and Shanghai, and this is all within the next two months. I make a point to see an exhibit or check out a local artist or go sightseeing. Oh and I was just in London, too! It’s a lot, but I’ve really gotten very good at flying.
What do you do for your skin when you’re traveling?
I always carry these face masks with me from MyFaceWorks, they’re really great because they’re in a little package and I can just put them on right off the plane. I actually use very simple skincare–Neutrogena, and exfoliating facewash from Bliss. Simple but effective. I think skin is a foundation.
So you’re traveling a lot; I’m assuming some for work–sales appointments, meeting clients–and some of it for sourcing.
Yeah, business meetings, I often go to Paris because I have to work with embroideries. Different opportunities, different business meetings. I think it’s really great that I get to go to so many different places and have an excuse to travel and really be able to see the rest of what these places have to offer, and be able to meet so many interesting people on my trips and through my work. They introduce me to such great things so yes, it’s been very fruitful to gather inspiration from all these trips.
What’s it like to make an in-store appearance and meet your customers?
It’s really interesting, the clients are really into the clothes. Last time I went to Nordstrom to do a trunk show, one woman bought 41 pieces. We have some dedicated clients out there. And almost every time I do a personal appearance in a store I get a group of fashion students. A little insight on what the industry is about because I feel not that long ago, I was a student myself.
If there was one thing you could tell someone that is trying to break into the fashion industry, what would it be?
I think it’s perseverance and hard work. Fashion, like any other industry, is difficult. There’s so much talent out there and so little space, to really survive in an industry you have to work really hard. It’s not all about the glamor and the red carpet, it’s really about the hours of hard work and the dedication you put into your craft and in the end you just have to make really good clothes that women want to wear. You can’t forget that.
What’s a typical day for you?
Well there is never really one typical day for me, which is the fun part about my job! I wake up, get a shot of espresso, come here (to the studio), check on every department–PR, design, sales–to see what everyone is up to, have some group meetings. I’m very big on group meetings, keeping everyone united as we grow is very important. Then catch up on my emails, which I really do from the second I wake up. The downfalls of having too much technology these days!
There’s really no way to shut it off these days.
I found myself talking to one of our embroiderers in India at 2am the other day. It’s really 24 hours. In the morning I generally catch up with Paris and Italy, and get ready and come to work then [catch up with] everybody here. It depends on what the goal of the day is. If it’s a big fitting day then we round up as many samples as we can. Some days are about brainstorming and I’m gathering ideas all over the place and researching and going to libraries. And all that’s peppered in with so many everyday things, fixing something in the office or it’s time to gather new inspiration for two season after or playing with different leathers for new accessories. All of those things. My day doesn’t really end until 8pm.
And then you end up going out for work events, right?
Yep, I’ve had to go out every single day in the last three weeks.
It’s been really crazy!
Yeah! The way I’ve been able to keep in touch with a lot of industry friends or those outside the industry is after work, it’s always through dinner. I get home around 10:30, 11. Catch up on TV and go to bed, although I do work some more before I go to bed.
I remember when you opened this studio and I saw your office wall papered with Observer newspapers–the space is just so beautifully decorated. The fabrics are so lush, even for summer if it’s a burlap fabric it’s still so rich. Because you do a big collection, how do you keep that all working together without being the same?
It goes to always being out there, always looking for new inspirations, new textures, new colors, new techniques. The continuous exploration that I do every season keeps my mind fresh. And also my team is always bringing something interesting to the table. I think it’s really important to keep really creative people around you, no matter what work they’re in, to really inspire and motivate you. To us it’s a big art project all day! Always finishing, editing, and then on to the next one. Working in fashion, sometimes more is just more, you know? Sometimes having too much of a break between seasons causes you to have less ideas. This was a good question actually. What I love about doing 4 seasons in a year is that each really feeds off the last. Pre-Fall and Resort are laboratories. Resort is always the start of my new year, get to travel and see tons of new things. And towards the end of every collection you always have these sudden moments of genius or bright ideas. But for the sake of every cohesive collection you’ve got to edit. It’s important so that the point is razor sharp. Therefore, there are a lot of ideas you don’t use and you want to keep exploring them, so then comes the catalyst of the next collection. So you never really come to a stop, which is good because I feel really inspired right now, and I’m not grasping for straws. I have a lot of ideas and am fortunate to be able to use them.
Well that brings me to my next question: Mrs. O. When she wore your dress the industry was already really keen on you but then all of a sudden everyone knew who you were. How have you dealt with that? Has it affected the way you design?
The aftermath was chaos. I did more press those next two days that I ever had in my entire career. More mainstream press–Good Morning America, The Today Show, the Washington Correspondents Dinner–and I was really out of my element. It brought my name to a new demographic, a global demographic, and also exposed me to so many things outside of fashion that I otherwise wouldn’t have known. It was that moment that was so fantastic and great, but it did happen to two weeks before my fall show so my mind was still on the collection, which I had already done so I was hoping the reception would be good. And it was good. The experience added to the growth of our business. The last two years I’ve tried to stay very grounded and dedicated to growing my brand, not to fall into the pitfalls of big moments. I gave myself 24 hours to celebrate because I needed to plan my next act. And that’s why we’ve really been able to be successful and go from a young designer to a larger brand in two years. It’s something I continue to do, I never feel done or like I’m too good to learn something. It’s very important, because in an industry with so much flash, whenever there’s any doubt I go back to why I got into fashion in the first place. I literally just love the craft of it. I love making clothes.
That’s the thing you’ll look back on in 20 years and say “Oh my God, I can’t believe that happened.”
I look back now and say I can’t believe I did that. It was the craziest thing. And cemented in history–being the first designer under 30 to be in the Smithsonian. And the first Asian American designer to do an inauguration dress, and the first African American President. So many firsts. And I never thought when I moved to the US that I would ever become a part of American history, it’s really the American Dream, so incredible. I definitely appreciate it and realize how significant it was but I also make sure that I work harder and prove I’m worth the recognition.
How old were you when you moved here?
I moved here 10 years ago exactly, so I was 18. My parents are from Taiwan.
What made you decide to move here?
My mother was really really supportive. She knew I was really artistically inclined when I was about five or six and into art and I forced her to let me take a sculpting class. I was seven. And in Taiwan at the time it was much more conservative, most parents wanted their kids to go into business. She was a very adventurous woman and moved us to Vancouver so I could learn English and have an opportunity to explore this side of me that I otherwise might not have been able to; art was not regarded as a prestigious career, more of a pastime. And I learned English because she would give me a stack of fashion magazines that she had and I sort of picked it up and thought, “Oh this is interesting, what is it all about?”
So she’s a fashion person? I saw that picture of her in the New York Times.
I mean my mom taught me what YSL meant, haha, she always had her hair done and was very chic. She’s very stylish and design-conscious and appreciates beautiful things. She never deterred me, which I really appreciate, and without parents like mine I would never be sitting here today, I’d be at a desk job filling out paperwork.
What about being acquired? There’s always talk of that, especially for a brand like yours.
In the short term, the company is something I’d like to hold on to.
Were you the star sketch student in school?
I was always the artsy one. I originally wanted to be a fashion illustrator.
I’d love to see you sketch, I’m really excited. [He starts sketching.]
I never erase. Fashion illustration is pretty because it’s not perfect. Its beauty is in the imperfections.
When you’re doing fabrics, do you know what you want before you create them? I know you do your own prints. I start four or five months before, so some seasons I’ll overlap them. You have to have a fundamental idea to start with, the base of your ideas. The map.
How many sketches do you do for one collection?
So many. But I don’t color them all, some are tiny, like in my Moleskine. I date them and keep them. I go through about a book a month.
Your sketches will make an incredible exhibit 30 years from now. Do you think you’re one of those people who is in fashion because you couldn’t imagine doing anything else?
I could not imagine doing anything else. I feel like there would be nothing else that would make me this happy. I do know that many years down the line I would love to have a restaurant, that would be another creative thing.
Are you into food?
I’m SO into food.
What’s your favorite new restaurant?
Umm…. Well, I’m in New York but I travel so much so I’m not very local. There’s this really good place in Chicago, it’s almost a molecular gastronomy type thing. Graham Elliot. They have truffled popcorn and deconstructed Caesar salad. A square of iceberg and right below it is a cheese Twinkie, they call it; it’s toast filled with cheese. and anchovies with dressing on top… like a Tiramisu salad. Here, I love Colicchio And Sons. I had their braised pork shoulder the other day.
And finally–I can’t help asking, since I just got married. Do you do a lot of bridal?
No, really just for my friends. It was really interesting to do that bridal collection (for Net-a Porter), like with tops and bottoms. But no, mostly just my friends who were getting married.
Look out for our review of Jason Wu’s 2012 Resort collection later on this week.