Q&A with Wunderkind Designer and Vancouverite Jason Wu
Image by Image: Georgia Esporlas
Jason Wu at The Room in The Bay
Worn by Michelle Obama and January Jones, 29-year-old Designer Jason Wu is Leading the Way for Fashion’s Brat Pack
Jason Wu is a former Vancouverite who is now leading the global fashion brat pack from New York City’s garment district. When the designer visited The Room in Downtown Vancouver’s The Bay, I leapt at the chance to chat with him.
Wu's look has evolved from the epitome of Park Avenue chic to edgy innovation that mixes graceful couture with hot pants and graffiti prints. When Michelle Obama wore a cream, Swarovski crystal-embroidered gown by the 26-year-old designer to the inauguration ball in 2009, Wu became something of legend.
Never one to sit on his haunches, the youthful designer is surprising fans again with his new, budget-friendly capsule collection that launches at Target in February 2012. Hanging out in The Room, Wu is self-deprecating and, on occasion, mischievous as he articulates his design process.
Michelle Obama in cream Jason Wu gown at the presidential inauguration.
Jason Wu Interview
Me: How long have you been here in Vancouver? When are you leaving?
Jason Wu: A few hours. I leave tomorrow.
Me: Are you going to have time to do anything fun? You know, take a walk around town? Have you had a chance to develop an impression of current Vancouver fashion?
JW: Not yet, but I’m having dinner tonight at L’Abattoir. I’m hoping I can go out and take a walk and get a good impression.
Me: We want to claim you as a Vancouverite because you moved here from Taiwan when you were nine before leaving for boarding school. Do you consider yourself a Vancouverite?
JW: Yeah, I am a Vancouverite. When I moved here I didn’t speak a word of English, so I had a tutor and she taught me English through women’s fashion magazines because I was interested in the pretty pictures. That’s how it all began. I learned English here and I learned how to sew here, which is pretty formative.
Me: When was the last time you were in the city?
JW: Almost 15 years ago. I’m really excited to be back.
Jason Wu spring 2012 yellow Citron gown and hot pants. (Images: Jason Wu Studio)
Me: What’s your favourite piece from your spring 2012 collection?
JW: The Citron yellow gown.
Me: I know you’ve studied many different art techniques, from life drawing to sculpture. Talk to me about how that interacts with and influences your fashion design.
JW: It’s a huge influence. I wanted to be an illustrator for years—a fashion illustrator actually—and I also did extensive sculpting work starting when I was little. I kept it up for many, many years. I think I saw in fashion the accumulation of everything I love. There was the sculptural aspect where you create shapes and volume. There’s the pop art element that comes in when I create prints using colour. I also had a fascination with the human body, which came from life drawing; working with the body was quite interesting to me, the different shapes.
Me: You’re a womenswear designer so I take it you were fascinated with the female body specifically?
JW: Yes, the female body specifically. The first thing I drew was a mermaid when I was five or six. It was always the woman’s form. I was destined to become a womenswear designer. I think it shows through my work. There’s a sense of body consciousness and form in everything that I do.
Me: Let’s talk about the inevitable. Tell me about the inaugural gown you created for Michelle Obama in 2009. What did that mean for you personally and as a career milestone?
JW: That was something that was more than memorable, it was quite life changing: not just as a designer but as a person. I was wide-eyed about fashion. I had already moved to New York to do fashion and I was making it. To be the youngest designer to ever design an inaugural gown for the first African American President and First Lady in history was something I never expected. I didn’t even realize it was happening at the time. I thought it was really significant. I came to the West to design. This experience really signified what was possible; it was so modern.
Me: How long did it take you to create the inaugural gown? What was the biggest challenge? Was there anything particularly complex about the construction of the garment?
JW: It took two months. I had a team of four at the time and we were all working on it. I personally flew it to Chicago and I didn’t know if Michelle was going to wear it until the day of [the inauguration].
The challenge designing the dress was the fit. I was given measurements, but it’s always easier when you have a feel for someone after meeting them. So I had to go on pictures and really think—not focus on how important this dress might become or all the things that might come with it. I thought about the woman. It was as simple as that. I focused on getting it done because there are over 5,000 Swarovski crystals on there: tons of little flowers and intricate embroidery. There was a lot of work that went into it and a lot of craft.
Me: What’s your vice of choice when you are super stressed?
JW: A glass of Champagne.
Me: What was the first dress you ever made?
JW: It was a doll dress that I came up with when I was 10. I had begged my mom to buy me a sewing machine and she bought me an old Singer. I didn’t have a lot of experience or a lot of fabric. I just used a doll mannequin and that was my first dress.
Me: Do you remember what kind of fabric?
JW: It was silk shantung. It was a little cocktail dress number.
Me: Are we talking Barbie size? Do you still have it in a box somewhere?
JW: Yes. My mom has everything I’ve ever made in a box somewhere.
Milu the inspiration and dress; Jason Wu for Target capsule collection. (Images: Jason Wu Studios)
Me: Let’s talk about your new capsule collection for Target that launches in February. I read that the inspiration is a cat named Milu?
JW: The Target capsule was an opportunity for me to design in a different way. Having worked with the best materials in the world, I had to rethink how I create under a certain price restraint, but still have it look impeccable and beautiful. I didn't want to try to replicate what I do for a lesser price. I wanted to create something new for these new materials. I think that was a real testament to me as a designer.
Me: Where does the cat Milu come in?
JW: I just thought Milu was funny. It was a nod to the mischievous 1960s, which inspired the collection, and the French films of Jean Luc Goddard. I thought it was smart to have a little character to represent the capsule collection. I always believe in having a sense of humour and a sense of fun because I think that we in fashion can take ourselves so seriously at times. Design is serious work and it’s important to have a little humour.
Jason Wu’s fall/winter 2011 collection is available now at The Room at The Bay. Jason Wu Studio’s spring/summer 2012 collection is available for pre-order and available at The Room next year.