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For Alexander Wang, the Real Reviews Are the Sell-Throughs

The designer spoke about his work at Balenciaga, his uneasy relationship with the word "cool" and creating a luxury retail environment for shoppers.
Ryan Korban, Kristina O'Neill and Alexander Wang. Photo:

Ryan Korban, Kristina O'Neill and Alexander Wang. Photo:

"I won’t lie, I read some [runway reviews]," Alexander Wang admitted before an audience of about 200 at the Museum of Modern Art on Tuesday evening, where he was joined by WSJ. Magazine Editor in Chief Kristina O'Neill and interior designer Ryan Korban in a conversation hosted by the Wall Street Journal. "But I’ve told my team now, 'Just don’t send me anything.' I feel like I want to be able to focus. I feel like the real reviews are the sell-throughs, to be honest."

Wang spoke at length about his experiences at Balenciaga, acknowledging that his work has been especially scrutinized because his name was already well-known in industry circles before he joined the house. "I always think about how it would have been different or how my collections would have been perceived had I not had a name, or if I was on the design team and the journalists didn’t know what to expect from me," he said. "I don’t know if I have an answer to that but every collection, I always have to feel like there has to be an element that ties back to Cristobal [Balenciaga]. His name is the one on the door and that is the one that I should honor."

Wang said he received no instructions from Kering CEO François-Henri Pinault about how to approach the job when he started. "Mr. Pinault — the great thing is that really when he believes in someone, he lets them drive the vehicle," said Wang. "He really didn’t give me any kind of directive, he just said 'I know you can do the job.' And that was it." Wang said that at Balenciaga he feels part of a larger team working to continue the legacy of the brand. "There was a pre-existing history before me and there will be one after me," he observed.

The word most often used to describe Wang's work is "cool," but Wang has an uneasy relationship with the label. "I like to not think about that word," he said. "I know it's the easy go-to word, but I like to try think about it in other types of contexts or strip it away a little more and say, 'Okay, what is it about the clothes or the environment or the ambiance that makes people think that?'" He used the fur hammock in his Soho flagship as an example of taking something comfortable and common and pushing it into a different context in an ironic, subversive way.

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Alexander Wang, Ryan Korban and Kristina O'Neill. Photo:

Alexander Wang, Ryan Korban and Kristina O'Neill. Photo:

"It's daunting," said Korban, who met Wang while the pair were studying at Parsons and collaborated on the design of both Wang's flagship on Grand St. and a Balenciaga store a few blocks up on Mercer St. "It's something you do have to think about because a large part of his following is built off [the idea of "cool"]... I may joke about it, but you can’t really undermine that part of it because it's a huge part of his brand." 

Speaking about retail, Wang says the store experience informs everything he does, and he doesn't think he's perfected it yet. "Even from the initial conception of thinking about a collection or thinking about a direction or an idea of what we're designing, I always think about what it's going to look like on a rack," he said. "The message it's going to convey, what's the hanger appeal, do we have the right e-commerce boxes to package them up or send them out." He and his team plan out how many times a sales associate should approach someone in the store and how to make the checkout process efficient.

"When I look at what luxury spaces have to offer and luxury brands and what I want to bring to it and how I look at it, I always like to take the pretentious aspect out of it," Wang said. "I don’t think we’ve perfected it yet but we're learning."

Maybe it was because he was sharing the stage with his long-time friend and collaborator, but at the end of the night Wang got emotional when an audience member asked what makes him happy. "Knowing that I can share the success with my friends and my family is something that really makes me feel like I have something worth celebrating." The audience gave him a round of applause and Korban joked, "How can I follow that?"