Fashion is a tough industry to crack, especially when you are a young designer. In a world dominated by luxury conglomerates like Gucci Group and LVMH, it’s hard to carve a niche of your own, let alone find success doing it. It was for this reason alone that I was intrigued to meet hip New York designer Alexander Wang.
At 29, Wang is one of the youngest and most successful designers in the business, with an empire that’s worth around US$25 million. He was in Hong Kong a few weeks ago to open his first store in the city, and I was able to grab him for a one-on-one before he hosted an awesome party filled with hotdogs, BBQ, popcorn machines and the like. Read on to find out more about New York’s wunderkind and why he is just a little boy at heart.
ALEXANDER WANG can’t stop giggling. He’s just flown in from Beijing and will only be in Hong Kong for 24 hours before heading back to New York to work on his resort collection. His short time in the city includes back-to-back press interviews before hosting a late-night party to celebrate the opening of his first store at Harbour City. Such a jam-packed schedule would exhaust anyone, but it’s all in a day’s work for Wang who seems to be having the time of his life.
“I love coming back to China. There is this certain fascination with Chinese designers who have made it in America and I don’t get this response anywhere in the world. It’s amazing to be welcomed with open arms,” he says laughing, while slurping a Starbucks iced coffee.
Dressed in his uniform of slouchy black sweatshirt and trainers, with his wavy black hair brushing his shoulders, Wang looks like any young kid off the street. In reality, he is New York’s hottest designer who has managed to build a lifestyle empire that is estimated to be worth an equally cool US$25 million as of last year. It’s also garnered him countless of awards including the Vogue Fashion Fund (2008), Swarovski Women’s Wear Designer of the Year (2009) and Swarovski Accessories Designer of the Year (2011). The list is impressive, especially when you realise that he’s achieved everything before his thirtieth birthday.
“In the fashion world five years is long. They are constantly talking about my age so I feel I have to reinvent myself. It’s hard because when I say I like something they spin it into the brand. In the early days, I liked the slouchy, easy look that models loved – then I was pigeonholed into only dressing models. Now I am careful of describing my aesthetic and the collections. It’s been one of my biggest learning experiences,” he says seriously.
His rise to fame reads like a fairytale story. Born and raised in San Francisco, Wang is the son of Taiwanese immigrants who moved to United States looking for a better life. By the time he was a teenager they had already built up a successful plastics manufacturing business, allowing them to send their son to a private school where he rubbed shoulders with wealthy heirs including Vanessa and Victoria Traina, daughters of romance novelist and couture aficionado Danielle Steele.
He says he always knew he wanted to be a fashion designer –he hosted his first fashion show at 15 – but it was later confirmed when he met his new circle of friends.
“I always had a natural inclination to create – drawing on dinner napkins manifested into magazine tears and educating myself about designer and models. This magnified when I met the Trainas.
“The girls had been exposed to high fashion from a young age and I loved their viewpoint. They would receive racks of expensive clothing but then they would cut off a sleeve or a shoe strap, even if the shoes cost US$4,000. It was this kind of disregard and not treating things so precious that I became infatuated with,” he says.
After completing summer fashion courses at Otis in Los Angeles and Central Saint Martin’s in London, Wang eventually moved to New York to study at Parsons School of Design at 18. After a year he had already bagged internships with Marc Jacobs, Derek Lam and Teen Vogue, giving him the confidence to drop out of fashion school altogether to launch his own fashion line.
“Each internship had an impact in different ways. Marc was my first – someone I’ve always looked up to and respected – and at Vogue I found out about stylists, photographers and designers, and how everything worked.
“After that I was impatient. I didn’t feel like I was learning as much as I could have at school and I wanted to try something different. I knew school would always be there and I could go back. The timing was right and the opportunity was there,” he remembers.
Together with his sister-in-law Aimie he set out to launch a collection of five unisex sweaters which he describes as interchangeable “boyfriend cardigans,” in 2007. Urban legend has it that Diane Von Furstenberg spotted one of her employees wearing one and subsequently tried to court Wang herself. He refused and went on to build an empire on an aesthetic that would later become the uniform of “it” girls and his bevy of muses including Alice Dellal, Erin Wasson, Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen and Dree Hemingway. Coined the “off-duty model” style – think distressed boyfriend jeans, shrunken vests and cosy cardigans – Wang was soon credited for defining the way a new generation of women dressed.
Not one to rest on his laurels, his business quickly expanded to include accessories such as shoes and bags as well as a second line, T by Alexander Wang, which is known for its sleek laid-back basics.
“The idea of a lifestyle brand was always there from the beginning but how it would manifest into different categories had to feel organic. When we launched T people thought it was a diffusion line but it wasn’t. Jerseys played a big part in the styling of our early collections but when it came to runway shows I couldn’t just send out a bunch of T-shirts. I wanted to create a home for it so we expanded on this idea of T-shirt dressing that could be leather, knitwear and denim, but that didn’t compete with ready-to-wear,” he says.
Men’s wear followed in 2011 and this year he added Objects to his portfolio, which is a line of design products such as ashtrays and lighters that are exclusive to his retail boutiques. And all the while building his lifestyle empire – Wang cites Ralph Lauren as inspiration – he has also refined his ready-to-wear line, offering even more options for his customer.
“It’s an ongoing dialogue and process for me. I look at what did last season and how we can contribute to that message. Our woman has gotten mature and so have I. I am always pushing myself in terms of fabrication, fit and design, especially quality. All those aspects contribute to how the brand has matured,” he says.
His new maturity is exemplified by his spring/summer collection which is inspired by active sports such as NASCAR, BMX and motocross. He plays with laser-cut mesh bombers, brightly coloured polo shirts and nylon cargo pants, which are infused with couture detailing. Floral prints, which are relatively new to his oeuvre, are made edgy and modern. Customers are obviously lapping it up – Wang plans to open 14 more stores in Asia this year alone (he recently launched an e-commerce business here as well).
“The opportunities are endless if you keep an open mind. Lifestyle is how you eat, what you listen to, it’s everything around you. I enjoy the fact that I can create a product and then translate it into an environment down to what music is playing in the stores.
“Designers shouldn’t be shamed into only dealing with the creative side of the business. This generation says you have to sacrifice one or the other, but you need to understand the other parts of your world,” he says.
Like many Chinese businesses out there, his company remains family run with his sister-in-law Aimee as CEO and brother Dennis as chief principal officer. Because of this Wang wants to retain control of the business as well as the creative side of the brand. But one can’t help but wonder if he ever dreams of selling and perhaps becoming a designer for another big fashion house?
“When I was younger it was much more attractive to me but having had creative freedom and being able to make collections that you 100 per cent want to do, I would never change that. We built this from our own two hands and it’s more rewarding when you know you have accomplished it all on your own.
“To be honest I want to be remembered as someone who loved what he does and whose work had a real connection with people. I don’t really care to design something that ends up in a museum that people look at. As for the future, whoever takes my place, it’s up to them,” he says.
Published in the SCMP on 25th May 2012
And the quotes that didn’t make it into the story…
On the difference between designing for men and women:
I approach both differently. Men’s is more simplistic, it’s doesn’t change every season like women’s. It’s more about a uniform. I really want to make things I love because at the end of the day when I find something I love, I buy four. I think men are more loyal. Women always want something different and are fascinated by newness.”
On not finishing fashion school:
“You never know what it is that you are missing out on until it’s gone. For me it’s always been an advantage from day one. Not knowing who to turn to, or ask for certain things – you make up your own rules and dictate what you want to do and make it work.”
On designing for a big brand:
“I don’t know. The grass is always greener on the other side. They can hire models, fly them to locations and have great shows. But then you have someone evaluate your work all the time and tell you what to do. I am not prepared for that myself.”
On whether his Chinese heritage influences how he works:
“For me it’s a hard question. I don’t know what it means 100 per cent to be Chinese. My parents are Chinese but during my childhood I didn’t think about whether I was doing something because I was Chinese. It was just me.”