It’s hard to know exactly when a young designer has crossed the line from being a sensation to becoming a major force. But for the last half of the 2000s-a decade that proposed a wide variety of talented fresh-faced prospective heirs apparent to the fashion world-one name was mentioned with startling frequency. Alexander Wang, born in San Francisco, moved to New York City in 2002 to attend fashion school at Parsons, but he quickly became the -ultimate example of how far a lot of talent and a little experimentalism can go.
Wang began his eponymous label in 2004 at the age of 19, and his business is still a family affair. (His brother, Dennis, serves as chief financial advisor; his sister-in-law, Aimie, is the chief principal officer; and his mother is also involved.) People quickly fell not only for Wang’s luxury refinement and clean silhouettes but, more importantly, for his ability to bring a youthful sensibility so playfully and flippantly into his pieces-as if an Alexander Wang girl could shop high-end and still get out of bed looking good in the clothes she had on the night before. He’s a master of the casual, the radical, and the more relaxed (and that’s what he can do with cashmere alone). Anna Wintour was one early supporter, and after Wang won the coveted Council of Fashion Designers of America/Vogue Fashion Fund Award in 2008, Diane von Furstenberg became his mentor. In New York circles, there is a sense that Wang, now 26, is at the nucleus of a cluster of hot, pretty girls like Dree Hemingway, Erin Wasson, and Alice Dellal, who all wear his clothes and remain perpetually in his orbit. As Wang prepared for his fall/winter 2010 show, he took a break to reconnect with von Furstenberg, a designer who knows a little something about rising fast and staying on top.
DIANE VON FURSTENBERG: Hi, darling. The first thing we should talk about is our first conversation years ago. Remember?
ALEXANDER WANG: Yeah.
VON FURSTENBERG: I called you. I saw somebody wearing this amazing outdoor sweater with a manifesto on it. I asked the woman wearing it-she was an editor at Vogue-who had made it, and she said, “Alex Wang.” That’s when I asked you if you’d be willing to design some sweaters for me.
WANG: [laughs] Yes, I remember our first meeting.
VON FURSTENBERG: And then you rejected me.
WANG: [laughs] I knew you were going to say that!
VON FURSTENBERG: People don’t reject me, so I remember that.
WANG: I never got a chance to really explain what happened. It was the season that I actually started the line and that sweater you saw was the first prototype we ever made-it’s the reverse intarsia with the girl’s face on the back. At that point, our production was just getting set up-we weren’t even sure where we were going to produce yet. I had just left school, too. So I knew that if I took on other projects. . . .
VON FURSTENBERG: How old were you then?
what I love most about my social life now is that it’s exactly the same as it was before: hole-in-the-wall restaurants, bad movies, and a lot of sitting around with friends doing absolutely nothing.Alexander Wang
WANG: I was 20.
VON FURSTENBERG: For the purpose of the story, I want the readers to know that you told me, “No, I’m not interested in doing anything for you.” I said, “Okay . . . ” And that was the first time I remember encountering the name Alex Wang-a rejection. Then when did we meet again?
WANG: The next time we met was probably through the CFDA.
VON FURSTENBERG: I visited your showroom.
WANG: [pauses] Yes. And I was hoping you wouldn’t remember what happened.
VON FURSTENBERG: I think it makes the story better! I walked in and it was a complete revelation. The showroom was completely clean and clear. The clothes were simple. There wasn’t very much, but every piece was strong-it had a point of view, a reason to be. There was a feeling of walking into a showroom that had such clarity and strength. I was impressed with that. Of course, everyone knows you as this cool guy who the girls like to hang out with [Wang laughs], but what is so impressive is how mature you actually are even though you like to party. How clear, how hardworking, how intelligent, and how very human. . . . And then after you won the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Award, I became your mentor. It’s been an absolute pleasure to watch you grow. Tell me what changed in your life after you won that award.
WANG: It’s been an amazing journey-one I never thought in a million years I’d be experiencing this soon. We’ve been in business since the end of 2004, so it’s all been really recent-about five years. Me, my brother, and my sister-in-law started this really without much guidance or experience. I was in fashion school, my brother has a law background, and my sister-in-law had worked in production, but none of us had a proper fashion business education. So being where we are today and thinking of all the people we’ve met and all the things we’ve been able to achieve has been a mind-blowing experience. It’s hard sometimes to take a step back and realize what’s happened because you’re always trying to move forward. You’re always looking at the next palette.
VON FURSTENBERG: What has been the biggest difficulty so far?
WANG: I think predicting what’s going to come next. But, in part, that’s what I love about fashion. Anything can happen. The next day, everything can change, so it really keeps you on your toes. You always need to be paying attention.
VON FURSTENBERG: Where do you find inspiration for a collection?
WANG: It can be anything. I’m not like most designers, who have to set sail on an exotic getaway to get inspired. Most of the time, it’s on my walk to work, or sitting in the subway and seeing something random or out of context.
VON FURSTENBERG: What is your biggest fear?
WANG: I think everyone shares a fear of failure-that you’re only as good as your most recent collection. That’s definitely a fear, but it’s a fear that fuels me, that makes me want to work harder, that makes me take on more challenges. For people to say, “You can’t do this or that,” or, “You can’t work with this person because they are on a different level than you,” it makes me want to push myself even harder to try.
VON FURSTENBERG: Who are the three people you admire the most?
WANG: Number one is my mother. She’s definitely been the one person in my life who pushed and supported me-
VON FURSTENBERG: I love her, I love her.
WANG: And I’m not saying this just to flatter anyone, but you have been a big part of my growth and even just life in general. The little random lunches that we’ve had or the casual meetings have meant so much to me as a designer and as a person. And for number three, I’d probably have to say Anna -[Wintour]. She’s been a very big supporter. You guys are like my three fairy godmothers.
VON FURSTENBERG: Yes, three mothers, three strong women. You’re not only loved in the fashion world, but you also have a very strong group of friends around you. What do you like to do on your off time? Who do you like hanging out with?
It’s hard sometimes to take a step back and realize what’s happened because you’re always trying to move forward. You’re always looking at the next palette.Alexander Wang
WANG: The funny thing is there’s this impression that everyone in fashion is so glamorous and that they live these tall-tale lives. For me, what I love most about my social life now is that it’s exactly the same as it was before: hole-in-the-wall restaurants, bad movies, and a lot of sitting around with friends doing absolutely nothing. All my closest friends are the ones I made while in college or who knew me growing up. They keep me grounded, and I adore that about them.
VON FURSTENBERG: Do you find that a lot of work in fashion involves a social element?
WANG: That is for sure. Fashion today is not like it was five or 10 years ago. It’s not just about designing clothes. Especially because my name is on the label, I have a certain responsibility insofar as how the brand is perceived-the lifestyle. Having said that, the social element comes quite naturally for me. I am a very social person. I like meeting and talking to people. I don’t think of it as a “job.”
VON FURSTENBERG: What usually attracts you to people?
WANG: Energy. I know within five minutes if I want to “get to know” someone. Most of the time, it’s people who inspire me that attract me. But I’m not talking about just their style or physical appearance-in fact, most of the time, it’s their persona or their outlook that I admire.
VON FURSTENBERG: What is your biggest upcoming project? I guess that would be your store.
WANG: Yeah, we’re planning to open a flagship sometime in the future. And I’m working on something on the West Coast, which is a really big project, which will be coming out next fall. I can’t divulge it right now. I think it’s going to be a really big surprise for everyone because it’s never been done before. The company that I’m collaborating with has never done something of this magnitude before. So, it’s pretty significant. Otherwise, I’m just growing, moving along, learning more and more, you know. . . .
VON FURSTENBERG: We won’t tell anyone where on the West Coast because that makes it very easy to guess. Who is your favorite movie star? Who do you find most beautiful or who is the one you love to dress?
WANG: Everyone always asks me who my muse is, or who’s the girl I have in mind, which is such a hard question for me to answer because I feel like it’s a sensibility that varies for each individual, you know?
VON FURSTENBERG: All right. I know, I know, I know. I always answer that way, too. But, come on, just say one person you love who is no longer alive then.
WANG: Oh, gosh. It’s so hard to pinpoint one person!
VON FURSTENBERG: Are you more for Marlene Dietrich or Marilyn Monroe?
WANG: Probably Marlene Dietrich.
VON FURSTENBERG: Me too.
WANG: I like someone with a little bit more danger and mystery.
VON FURSTENBERG: Okay, now for some really big questions. What is your favorite color?
WANG: It probably won’t be that much of a surprise, but it’s black.
VON FURSTENBERG: What’s your favorite movie?
WANG: I’d probably have to say Clueless .
VON FURSTENBERG: Your favorite song right now?
WANG: My favorite singer right now is M.I.A.
VON FURSTENBERG: Okay, and fitting this publication, if you had met Andy Warhol, what would you have asked him?
WANG: What was Diane like? [both laugh] Actually, I don’t know. He’d probably have a lot to tell me, more than I’d even have to ask.
VON FURSTENBERG: No, you’d need to. He didn’t talk very much. Would you have asked him to do your portrait?
WANG: Yeah! Just to see how he would kinda interpret my energy.
VON FURSTENBERG: Let’s talk about your energy since that is something very special about you. If your energy were bottled, what drink would it be?
WANG: I guess a Red Bull. A lot of my friends make fun of me, saying that I’m battery-powered.
VON FURSTENBERG: And if you were a city?
WANG: New York. Definitely.
VON FURSTENBERG: And if you were a fruit?
WANG: If I were a fruit? [laughs]
VON FURSTENBERG: Okay, a dish. I should say “a dish”!
WANG: Hmm, that’s hard. Something with chili-a lot of spice.
VON FURSTENBERG: Makes sense to me. And if you could interview anyone, who would you pick?
WANG: I’d love to interview Kate Moss because she doesn’t usually do interviews.
VON FURSTENBERG: Finally, if you had one wish, what would it be?
WANG: I’m really living in a dream right now, so my wish is that I’m able to keep doing what I’m doing.
VON FURSTENBERG: Okay, darling, we’re done. Good luck. I’m so happy for you.
WANG: Thank you so much, Diane. Thank you!