Alexander Wang Gets Candid about 'See Now, Buy Now,' Leaving Balenciaga and Building an Authentic Brand

Plus: the special gift that allows him work hard and play hard.
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Photo: Robin Marchant/Getty Images

Photo: Robin Marchant/Getty Images

You can't deny that Alexander Wang's brand message is incredibly clear and consistent. He loves a good dance party; his ultimate muse is the "model off duty," whether it's Anna Ewers or Lexi Boling; he's unapologetically obsessed with pop culture; his collections are as cool as they are commercially viable; and he's always game to try something new or have a little fun. But don't let the fact that Wang is known for his energetic, easygoing personality fool you: The 32-year-old has spent the last decade building a privately owned eponymous label that's reached nearly unprecedented levels of success, thanks to his laser focus, business acumen and insatiable curiosity that keeps him from ever turning down a learning opportunity — like the one that took him to Paris for three years to take creative lead at one of the world's most well-known fashion houses.

On Thursday night, Wang sat down for a rare, candid chat with Alina Cho at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as the fifth (and youngest by two decades) guest in her conversation series "The Atelier." Over the course of an hour, Wang charmed the crowd with down-to-earth musings and anecdotes — including one about that time he sat across from Beyoncé and Madonna at the Met Gala — but also shared his views on a number of the industry's hottest topics of conversation. He touched on everything from the fashion calendar conundrum to the never-ending game of designer musical chairs to the future of retail, while shedding some light on what's next for his thriving lifestyle brand.

Read on for the highlights of Wang and Cho's discussion, which you can watch in full over on the Met's website.

On the importance of having a singular brand vision

Since his debut spring 2007 collection, Wang's brand has been built on the idea of affordable luxury: Unpretentious, wearable pieces that were not defined by a price point or category, and that included T-shirts, streetwear, eveningwear and sportswear all under one cohesive vision. This concept wasn't quite in line with what many of his industry peers were doing — but that's perhaps why it resonated with so many people. "It was what it was and it's what I believed in — that's always been my motto," he said. In fact, everything from his first collection is still available in some form today.

With this well-honed brand philosophy in place — as well as a penchant for creating memorable experiences through events, collaborations and social media takeovers — Wang has been able to help his customers feel like they're buying into a brand culture or lifestyle, rather than simply purchasing a product. "Fashion is a business, whether you believe it or not; at the end of the day you have to sell clothes, and you have to create an idea and a connection with your consumer," he explained. "It's storytelling, but with commerce. I have a very balanced way of implementing creative ideas to business, and having very 'business' decision making when it comes to creative approaches. I try to cross-pollinate those when it comes to my day to day."

On why he really left Balenciaga

In 2012, Wang was named the creative director of Balenciaga, and in 2015, he announced he was stepping down. "I never turn down an opportunity [...] I live life without regrets," he said, adding that the skepticism many industry bigwigs felt regarding his hire only fueled his desire to prove them wrong. However, it quickly became apparent that taking on such an enormous responsibility at somebody else's company took too much energy away from growing his own.

"Year one was great; it was a complete change of lifestyle and pace than what I'm used to in New York," Wang recalled. "It was very intriguing: going to Paris, staying in hotels, a lot of quiet time to reflect. Year two was crazy because I was doing that and H&M and my own line. By year three, I was really like: 'Where does my focus need to be?' My brand, it's who I am — I own it with my family. I'm not going to put in all this love and effort into something that's not my baby." 

On the future of the fashion calendar

Wang's team is responsible for designing 10 collections a year, and like many other New York-based brands, he's thought long and hard about how to streamline the fashion calendar and retail delivery schedules. "We explored every option: Are we going to change our fashion show? Are we going to do capsule collections every month?" he said. "Buyers spend 70 percent of their budget on pre-collections; 80 percent of our business is wholesale, so we do depend a lot on buyers and what they want. We thought, let's make our pre-collections bigger, commit to a certain amount of looks that will walk down the spring runway, and don't release the images so we don't ruin the surprise before September." So, while buyers and select editors will already be familiar with a handful of the looks that walk down the spring runway, consumers who fall in love with a piece after seeing it for the first time will only have to wait until November to buy it — several months sooner than usual.

As for the direction he sees retail going in, Wang has some big ideas: "We know that the future is not in wholesale, it's probably not in retail [...] digital is a huge component, you read about Amazon and their $400-billion platform. If there's a way people can combine what they're doing with a creative director or a design-driven company — all they don't have right now is a designer. If you could marry the two infrastructures, I think that would make for a very interesting business."

On why building an authentic connection with customers is crucial

"My point in doing all of this is to build a connection with people I 'get' on a certain level and that get me; there's no point in trying to convince people who just don't get you," Wang said of why the opinions of his customers — rather than the critics or general haters — are most important to him. "I want the people who buy my product, who understand my story and who want to be a part of that story... those are the ones I care about. 

On his ultimate party philosophy 

Wang is famous for his ragers: He's thrown a carnival and a frat party on the West Side Highway, a secret rave at Coachella, a concert at a gas station and constructed a pop-up strip club at Pier 94. Hell, he even staged an ad campaign on a party bus. "My friends are begging me to go to sleep," he said of his "work hard, play hard" philosophy. "I have a very special gift, which is that I don't get hungover." 

This fun-loving attitude is undoubtedly a key reason why so many people are drawn to him — and why he's a breath of fresh air in a typically stuffy industry. "You know, as much as I love fashion, the two things about people in fashion sometimes is there's too much ego or too much shade," he said. "I'm not perfect, but I like to have fun. If I'm going to throw a party, I want people to have fun, not sit around and drink champagne and be like, 'Hiiiii.' You've already seen me three times today, let's dance!"


On his aspirations for his lifestyle brand

Wang frequently name-checks Ralph Lauren when speaking about companies he admires. "He really paved the way — he's created a lifestyle that doesn't need a logo to solidify it," Wang explained. "He sells very democratically, which I respect; he's created these incredible experiences when you walk into his stores, and its consistent." So, down the line, what would Wang's answer to Lauren's Polo Bar look like? "What we need is a good place where you can go eat after the club that's not a diner or Chinatown; it's dark, so you can feel sexy still. We'll see how that goes."

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