We talk to Jason Wu about the First Lady and how he went from admiring supermodels as a Mandarin-speaking nine-year-old to hiring them for his ad campaigns.
There have been rumors that your first words in English were “Stephanie Seymour”, who now stars in your ad campaign. Is that true?
Not quite, but it might as well be. [Laughs] When I first moved to Canada from Taiwan, my mom bought me a sewing machine. I grew up speaking Mandarin and didn’t know a word of English, so I learned the language by reading my mom’s fashion magazines. I was never the best student in school. I learned by applying what I loved. One day, I was talking to my aunt, who also had a lot of fashion magazines, and I pointed out Stephanie Seymour. She said, “How do you know who Stephanie is?” I’ve worked with so many people that I grew up admiring. Fashion seems to be this impenetrable daunting industry, but for me to be able to get to where I am today speaks to how many opportunities there are for young people in New York.
Even with the lingering recession?
I started during an economic downturn, so I’ve never really experienced a good economy in that regard. It’s always been a little difficult. I started my business when people were running for the hills and not buying anything.
You’ve dressed Michelle Obama for two inauguration ceremonies. How did the second one differ from the first?
It wasn’t something that I quite expected to happen. When I was approached the first time, I wasn’t as familiar with Mrs. Obama. This second time, I felt like it was important for me to keep pretty private about it. I never want to exploit the fact that the First Lady has been so great to wear me on such an important occasion.
What were you doing at the exact moment when you saw Michelle Obama in her inauguration gown for the first time?
For the first inauguration, I was at home. This time, my staff and I were working because I had my show coming up. We were streaming the ceremony live on my computer and no one wanted to talk about it so as not to jinx it. When we saw her, we all let out a little scream. When I first did this four years ago, I had four employees. This year, I had 30 to celebrate with.
In a way, that’s a very clear example of the effect she’s had on the fashion industry.
People say, “Why is it such a big deal that Michelle Obama wore a green dress the other day?” Usually, the President does the talking and the First Lady stands by his side. But it says something about the power of fashion that Michelle has been able to silently communicate things without having to verbally do so. For example, she speaks volumes just through the nationality of the designer she chooses. I don’t think there has been any other woman who has used fashion to that effect.
Well, to some parts of the world, you, who left Taiwan at the age of nine, are now the face of American fashion.
It’s quite cliché in many ways, but a lot of times we talk about achieving the American dream, the fact that you can come here from anywhere in the world, from any walk of life, and succeed. In the real world, you don’t think that ever happens, but my career has changed my mind about that. There was something more grownup about where we are as a society with this second inauguration.
You’re collaborating with Lancôme on a beauty line. Several years ago, you created a nail polish collection for CND.
Beauty is a compliment to clothes. In my teens, I bought the Kevyn Aucoin books and used to just stare at them. They were so inspiring for me. I’ve never been the kind of person to do minimal hair and makeup. Beauty has always been a part of the design process for me. Even when working with Hollywood actresses, I’ll be involved in hair and makeup. I’ve worked with Diane Kruger, Michelle Williams, and Jessica Paré. When it’s done correctly, it can create some magical moments.
Are there any that stand out in your mind?
Diane Kruger at the SAG Awards two years ago. We collaborated together. She wore red lips and was very high-glam and high-contrast. The combination of hair, makeup, and dress suited the event beautifully.
"I’ve been working on being more confident in what I do and on creating real signature pieces. So there’s going to be a lot of signature Wu-ism, that people have come to know me for, taken to another level."
What can you tell us about your Fall/Winter 2013 collection?
I’ve been working on being more confident in what I do and on creating real signature pieces. So there’s going to be a lot of signature Wu-ism, that people have come to know me for, taken to another level. That’s part of brand building – to drive the point home every time you do anything. Naturally, I feel like I’ve grown up.
Alexander Wang recently accepted a job as creative director of Balenciaga. Would you ever consider helming a Parisian house?
I think that is something that certainly has been in the subject lines recently, especially for designers of my generation. I haven’t pursued it, but, if the right opportunity came along, I’d hate to make up my mind before assessing the situation.
What does a day in the life of Jason Wu look like?
I wake up every day at eight and am at work at nine. I pretty much keep the same schedule. I just never know when I’m going to get home. I always joke that I should just install a shower in my office. I believe that the more I take care of myself, the better my work will be. I work out, but, during show time in winter, my workout schedule could be better.
Do things get very hectic before a show?
I like to stay calm and organized. If you were to come backstage before my show starts, you’d see a calm environment that contradicts the stereotypical image of models running around with one shoe on and curlers in their hair.
Photos: Courtesy of GETTY IMAGES and TRUNK ARCHIVE