Jason Wu

A prodigy comes of age

Text by Katherine Bernard

Photography by Nik Hartley

Styling by Sara Gilmour

It’s Sunday afternoon and the Jason Wu team is in a fitting for the Resort collection in the house’s studio in New York’s garment district. Stylist Kate Young sits with Wu next to a shelf of forward-facing python gladiator sandals, lined in rows as editors will be at the Resort appointments in just a few days. The first look reveals buds of leather on sheer rose tulle. They both look at the dress, then ask the fit model, Elisabeth, to walk to the other side of the room. “I love that,” Wu says suddenly. “I just needed some distance.”

This is how Wu works. He starts with what’s right in front of him and then immediately thinks about it in terms of what’s ahead. He is a master of scaling up. After all, he went from designing miniature doll clothes to dressing the First Lady of the United States within the space of a decade. He can simultaneously hold in his mind a broad vision for his company and attend to the micro details of the moment, surveying a vast empire while also appreciating the curve of the door handle you turn to walk into the emperor’s bathroom. At 30, he’s aiming to expand Jason Wu into a lifestyle brand beyond clothing and accessories, and with a new appointment as art director at German fashion house Hugo Boss, as well as a collaboration with Lancôme in the works, it seems he’s ready to go the distance.

By now, many will know the story of the Taiwanese-Canadian designer’s origins: as a teenager in his dormitory at boarding school in Connecticut, Wu began designing couture-quality doll clothes for a company called Integrity Toys. At 17, he pitched them Fashion Royalty, a line of well-dressed plastic waifs that still exists today. Eventually, he used the money from freelancing to fund his first collection in New York, which he made in his apartment. He was 26 when he watched Michelle Obama step out wearing a white chiffon gown at her husband’s first presidential inauguration. “That was the last time I really had a big cry,” he says. Since then, Jason Wu has gone from a designer to watch to an esteemed global brand. Essentially, fashion royalty.

Elisabeth emerges from behind a grey curtain in a denim tunic the colour of the Atlantic in winter, the hems finished like silk. On closer inspection, it is silk, woven like denim and bonded with jacquard. Wu is thrilled about this innovation. “It’s a testament to the things we can make,” he says. Each season he uses a new fabric, or invents one to use. “I love the mix of old-world glamour with tech fabrics,” Wu says. “It creates an ease about the clothes. It’s real American sportswear.”

The next look is on, and Snow Patrol is playing. One designer smirks at the song’s saccharine sentiment. “This is my favourite music!” Wu declares playfully. “It’s the most inspirational!” This is a tiny illustration of his mindset. Talking about critics later, he says: “People can say anything about the work, but they can’t say it isn’t my aesthetic.” Snow Patrol stays on. Next: Grizzly Bear. Keeping things pretty.

Like an evening gown trimmed with black beaded flowers. A fresh one has bloomed (well, it’s been stitched on) since last time the team saw the dress. “That extra petal makes the whole difference,” Wu says. The in-and-out, back-and-forth goes on with a soothing rhythm, broken only by bursts of excitement at seeing a piece on the model for the first time. They’re always talking about a “she” in the room – and it’s not Elisabeth. They are constantly evaluating the Jason Wu woman, feeling for her presence, noting when she surprises them. For instance, in a pair of slouchy shorts. “She’s like a fancy lesbian in LA!” Young says. Contrasting with Wu’s signature ultra-feminine silhouettes, this piece brings a moment of tension.

Of course, Wu continues to maintain the quality of powerful femininity that is the house’s hallmark. “I’ve always admired women who are strong and really have a sense of themselves,” he says, as he holds out a stunning white coat with silver toggles. “For example I just shot my campaign on Christy Turlington, who not only is ageless and beautiful, but she has so much depth and life experience. She has so much to offer to the clothes. You’re looking at a sophisticated and intelligent woman, and what she wears becomes instantly iconic. I think my love of the personality and glamour comes from falling in love with fashion in the ’90s. I think all of this in some way comes from that.”

Nowadays, though, designers are turning out twice as many collections as in the era of the supermodel. As more Resort looks come out for fitting, it’s clear that this is a real, full season. While we flip through the rack, Wu muses that the seasons ought to be renamed as numbers – Season One, Two, Three, Four – because designing for weather is less effective. We all see it: looking at swimwear in the spring that will come out in late fall, lusting after winter coats when it’s snowing outside, only to have them hit stores in August in the gruelling heat. Wu clearly doesn’t struggle to keep pace, but concedes that four seasons is “insanely difficult”. “I think the business side of it and the design side have to balance the art and commerce part,” he says. “To me, it’s more important today than it ever was.”

A surprise comes when Elisabeth walks out in a swimsuit with side cut-outs and a deep keyhole in the front, which the team has dubbed “The Slutty Bathing Suit”. It’s slinky to say the least. But after trying a few cover ups, Wu and Young decide to show the suit as is, with accessories.

Kate: “I think she should be carrying a huge weekend bag.”
Jason: “Yeah. Because all of her clothes must be in there.”

Wu sets an affable tone and there’s a sense of effortless focus in the room. The design process is a well-oiled
operation: each person knows exactly how to streamline the collection towards completion. Wu describes the high-functioning harmony he has cultivated: “It’s about getting everyone on your team to be in sync and be excited about what you do, while also getting everything done on time.”

Wu is officially speaking as an authority. He isn’t a new designer who got lucky, or a youngster with creative potential, learning as he goes. Despite his age, those phases are long behind him. A few weeks after Resort, Wu is placed in charge of reinvigorating Hugo Boss’s womenswear. When we speak on the phone a week later, the designer is in London in the midst of a travel spree, en route to Berlin the next day. In the studio, we’d talked about Wu’s love of hotels and luxuriating in the bath. “No baths on this trip, not yet,” Wu says. “During this trip it’s been all work.” Of course, he has managed to have tea at Claridge’s – “I always love British hotels because there’s something quite traditional and beautiful about them”. The dose of refinement refreshes Wu’s creative palette.

Snatches of work-free time are a huge part of the balancing act for Wu, who still makes room for them amid the new surge of responsibility, even if that just means playing Scrabble over a glass of wine. Usually, it’s a livelier option. “I like going dancing on the weekend. But my favourite night is definitely Thursday night, especially in New York,” he says. “I think Thursday night is more chic.” Wu loves to bring people together to dress up and feel dazzling, as when he hosted the Young Friends of ACRIA party at Glasshouse in Chelsea this past June. It was raining that night, but the stylish showed up in droves. “I was like: ‘Everyone, you’re coming out. You have to get dressed up,’” Wu laughs. “I just love making an occasion to be glamorous!”

Putting on a Jason Wu dress is an occasion in itself. The Resort collection is elegantly edited down to a feeling: sitting under the shade of trees during an exotic escape. In fact, the print from the collection somewhat resembles the silhouette of palm leaves, much as the rounded blue-silk jacket – a classic couture cut – resembles denim. Everything reveals itself as a dreamier, more civilised version of what it seems, which is also a good description of the house of Jason Wu. Here is a 30-year-old designer who has already put his stamp on fashion and established himself as the custodian of couture ideals in American sportswear. “I used to hate when people used to say: ‘You’re so young!’ because I didn’t want them to not take me seriously back then,” Wu says. “But now I love it, because I’m not actually that young anymore. And there’s still so much more I could do and so much more I want to do.” §

  • Jason Wu