Jason Wu is now officially a fashion powerhouse. He had already built up a reputation on the US fashion landscape, but since his appointment as creative director of womenswear at German fashion giant Hugo Boss, the 30-year-old designer has moved up to a whole new level. Sitting alongside his partner Gustavo Rangel in a downtown Manhattan restaurant, the designer looks young, even boyish, and his large eyes have something of the Bambi about them – which is apt, as his version of the American dream could have been written by Disney. Move to America, tick; dress the First Lady, tick; take over the world, tick. Success looks like something that just happened to Jason Wu, but really, Jason Wu is what happened to success. Before I met him, people who know him well told me that he was smart. I took it to mean street-smart and ambitious, but it is soon apparent that he is also smart in the way he works and manages his image. Smartness is in his DNA – as a designer, his clothes communicate a sobriety and sharpness that is appreciated by his many fans.
Just how smart he is becomes clearer as we talk over dinner. Wu sees fashion first and foremost as a business – his strategic brain would put him top of the class at West Point – yet he remains acutely aware of fashion’s cultural power and its ability to tell stories. He is articulate and charming with it, unusually open, even earnest – a demeanour that might explain how everyone from powerful fashion editors to his celebrity and Hollywood followers is enamoured with him. When he does talk fashion, he mentions, rather surprisingly, Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Lacroix as influences. Young designers usually mention Nicolas Ghesquière and Miucca Prada, or Tom Ford, Calvin Klein and Norma Kamali, references that have a generational dimension to them, the sorts of fashion figures who dominated the conversation when a budding designer was at his most impressionable.
Wu’s admission that he has an old soul is endearing. “The now, the trendiest and coolest, have never been my cup of tea,” he says. “I love the idea of going to the same restaurants. I love a classic.” It explains his fashion aesthetic, which mixes a cultured imagination with a practical approach that insists on wearability. Wu dresses a certain kind of correct and expensive woman, one who is “well put together”, not a try-hard fashionista with a wacky headdress shaped like a watermelon. For a young designer it is often far easier to shout and scream with ideas – it is what we expect, and so forgive – but what is nearly always missing is some solidity beneath the fury and the froth. Wu, on the other hand is rock hard: his designs are elegant almost to the point of being safe, ladylike but for no ordinary lady. Yet you also suspect that, like an iceberg, much lies below the surface; that he keeps himself hidden, only showing what needs to be shown for the job in hand.
A few weeks after our dinner in New York, I catch up with him by phone. This time he is at the Hugo Boss headquarters in Metzingen, Germany. I’ve heard that he is a hard worker, so I tell him about a conversation I had many years ago with a well-known fashion writer. She called me late one evening and during the course of our conversation asked me where I was. “I’m still at work, it’s been such a hectic day,” I replied. Horrified, she chastised me, “If you ever want to make a name for yourself in fashion you can’t afford to be seen to be actually working. If you do have to make an effort, make sure no one ever knows.” Wu listens to my story, but clearly he has considered and dismissed such ideas long ago. “Fashion is a lot of work,” he says. “The word we most like to use is effortless, yet it takes effort to look that effortless and I am of a generation for which a certain level of professionalism is a given.”
Born in Taiwan to parents cool enough to let him play with dolls rather than Nintendo, he grew up in Vancouver and completed his education at the Parsons The New School for Design in New York. In 2008, with his brand only a year old, he shot to fame when Michelle Obama chose to wear one of his dresses at her husband’s presidential inauguration ball. Unfazed, he simply went back to work, building on it to cement his business and his brand’s position. (He was rewarded four years later when the First Lady stayed loyal to him for her second inauguration dress.) The move to Hugo Boss seems like a logical next level of his multitasking career.
Wu’s tendency to be prolific, and the sheer number of collaborations he has worked on – candles for Nest, faucets for Brizo, a line of furniture for Canvas, cosmetics with Lancôme – have seen him dubbed the “James Franco of fashion” by T magazine. But the boy can’t help it – he just likes to keep busy. So at Hugo Boss, Wu is in charge of every single creative decision on womenswear and accessories. It is a skill set he honed while building his own brand, where he handled the business side, did the marketing and PR, and turned out four collections a year. At Boss he knows what he has to do: it’s just that now he is doing it for a company that had sales of nearly €1.2bn in the first six months of 2014.
“The fashion business is a business,” he says. “The clue is in the name. The relationship between art and commerce is closer than ever before, and that’s not just true for fashion – it’s the same for art and film, too. You no longer have 10 years to play around with your aesthetic and figure out the business later. Everything you do is under the spotlight; everything you do is on YouTube or Instagram. So the way we have to deliberate and create, and send out the message for the brand, has to be really well thought-out.” Wu is as restless as the age he is designing for, but isn’t he exhausted by it all? He tells me how earlier that day, while at a meeting about leather choices for the 2015 collection with his production team at Boss, he was simultaneously in touch with Patrick Li, the New York-based art director working on his own brand’s image campaign. “I’m noticing a crease on the pant on Adriana Lima’s leg and I wanted him to retouch it, and he says, ‘Which crease are you talking about?’ so I screen capture the crease, email it to him and while we’re on the phone he’s reviewing it. In today’s world, it’s just that fast.”
This no-nonsense, laser-focused approach to fashion is just what Boss needs. The brand, so successful with its menswear, has always had trouble finding a coherent vision for women, but Wu’s debut show proved he may just have an answer. It closed with Stella Tennant in a perfect black tuxedo suit, worn with a sheer black top and flats. It was simple, powerful and on message, exactly what his target market would want to wear. A powerful, sexy woman who can walk the walk. The march of Wu continues, and it looks like once again he knows exactly where he’s heading. §
All clothes and shoes by Hugo BossVideography: Martin SenyszakStyling assistant: Sarah Akinowa