Jason Wu reflects on his first 10 years
“Jason has been such an extraordinary partner. I’ve worn his designs on so many historic occasions: inaugural balls, Barack’s final speech as president, and my last moments as first lady in January. Under the intense scrutiny of the brightest spotlight imaginable, I felt confident, beautiful, and comfortable in my own skin when wearing his clothes. But I’m drawn to Jason not just because of his remarkable talent, but also because of his warmth of spirit, kind heart, and inspiring personal story. When we talk about the American Dream, we’re talking about people like him.” —MICHELLE OBAMA
Fashion’s obsession with the Next Big Thing is so prevalent it’s become a cliché, but Jason Wu has managed to capture and command the attention of critics and customers by remaining entirely himself. His design approach has always, since launching his namesake line ten years ago, been a distillation of his core values: refinement and luxury, with a taste for grown-up glamour, more attuned to the wants and needs of the preternaturally chic women he dresses than any buzzword or trend.
Back in 2007, the then-24-year-old designer, born in Taiwan and raised in Canada and the U.S., was navigating the challenges of a fledgling brand. The accolades that immediately poured in haven’t stopped since—from being honored with the CFDA Swarovski Womenswear Designer of the Year award in 2010 to dressing First Lady Michelle Obama on not one, but two historic inauguration nights.
In February, Wu celebrated his label’s anniversary with a show and a dinner held at the St. Regis hotel. It was, in many ways, classic Wu—an uptown setting, a sea of suits and lace and velvet with a hint of contemporary sex appeal. What’s changed is the size of his empire: Wu has branched out from his signature line into fragrance, accessories, and eyewear, as well as adding a lower-priced sibling line, Grey Jason Wu, to his stable of projects and taking the reins at an international design house. (In 2013, he was named the artistic director of Boss womenswear.)
But to talk about Wu is to talk about the women who love him. An early fan was Diane Kruger, the actress who took home the Best Actress award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival for her performance in the German-language film In the Fade. It wasn’t the first time she’d worn Wu at Cannes—that was back in 2009, when she was there to premiere Inglourious Basterds, an occasion which brought her and the young designer together for the first time. The friends recently reconnected, on the record, while Kruger was on location in Winnipeg, and Wu on a retail trip to Seattle.
DIANE KRUGER: I want to say we met eight years ago, right?
JASON WU: Yeah, it was the first time I’d ever dressed anyone for Cannes. I got a request, “Diane Kruger wants to wear this look.” And I was like, “Okay. I’ll just deliver it myself.”
KRUGER: You were so cute. You were so young, and you looked like a kid when you walked in with this huge gown. I was like, “Is this a joke? That can’t be the designer.” [laughs] Congratulations on ten years. How do you feel about reaching that milestone?
WU: I feel like an old lady in the industry. [laughs] No, I actually feel like I’ve just started. It took me about ten years to get to know myself. I started this whole thing right out of school without really knowing much about the industry. I stupidly thought it was all going to be a kind of fairy tale. Then, it was. And I kind of learned everything along the way.
KRUGER: Were there moments when you thought you might have to fold?
WU: Every day for the first three years. [laughs] Every day something would come up where I’d ask myself, “What am I going to do?” But those were also some of the best times—you have to be really resourceful when you don’t have anything.
KRUGER: Were there moments that stick out to you as having been particularly memorable or career defining?
WU: My first ever photo shoot, the second year I’d been in business, was with Bruce Weber, and Kate Moss, Daria Werbowy, and Lara Stone. That felt like a bit of a moment. I was such a fish out of water, and I had food poisoning the day before [both laugh], so I was in pretty bad shape. I’ve literally never gotten food poisoning since.
KRUGER: That sounds awful.
WU: It wouldn’t be me without a little misadventure.
KRUGER: Fashion is so different from when I was a model way back when. Do you feel like the industry has changed a lot over ten years?
WU: Our schedule is almost as crazy as your acting schedule. We have to travel everywhere, be everywhere all the time. The role of a designer has really shifted. We can’t just be in the studio and design. We also have to be our own spokespeople. We have to interact with the customers. That’s really important, and that’s why I’m in Seattle today and I’m in Chicago tomorrow. We also have to be content providers, creative directors. That’s the expectation. I’ve always enjoyed doing a variety of things, so it doesn’t feel forced for me. But it’s a rapidly changing environment, which is why I say I’m just getting started. You kind of have to rethink everything you thought you knew.
KRUGER: Have you had to change the way you make your clothes available?
WU: A lot. The luxury market has been so saturated that it’s lost its original meaning. I’ve always said that the price of something doesn’t determine if it’s luxurious. There’s got to be some sort of rarity. So this year I am just doing two collections for Jason Wu. That way, I’m doing a more developed, bigger collection instead of four separate collections. I think it’s going to be really nice because it comes with two seasonal messages, which is the way we used to do it.
KRUGER: Do you enjoy that part, meeting your customers and seeing what they need or what they want?
WU: I do. Because of social media, everybody knows everything all the time, but no one is really reading anything anymore. I have to say, meeting people and being able to tell them my story and why I do what I do—that has become much more impactful than, you know, posting 100 pictures at a time.
KRUGER: I feel the same way. Maybe if you wouldn’t have dressed me for Cannes, we wouldn’t be friends—but I really got a sense of who you are. How was that with the First Lady? Obviously, you dressed her for the inaugural ball in 2009, and she wore you again on her way out, so I’m assuming you and she had established some sort of relationship or friendship.
WU: I showed up there with the dress, too. [laughs] I flew with it to Chicago over Thanksgiving. It was like protecting a child. It’s funny about the delivery thing. With your Cannes dress this year, I wouldn’t even check it on the plane. I carried it all the way from New York.
KRUGER: You’ve been part of the most important moments in my career. Inglourious Basterds was a big moment for me, and then this year in Cannes was very special for me, and your coming—not just making the dress, but being there and sharing that moment—is kind of amazing.
WU: I was so proud of you!
KRUGER: Where do you find inspiration for your shows today?
WU: I’m kind of like a blender. I collect a lot of things, and then it all gets mixed up and becomes a collection. In the last few years, my experiences while traveling have become a very important source of inspiration. In New York, as interesting as it is, I’m stuck in my triangle of work, home, and the few restaurants that I go to all the time. Two days ago I was in Greece and I brought back a new perspective.
KRUGER: This is a big year for you, too, because you’re launching your first perfume—which I’ve seen, and it’s gorgeous.
WU: I’ve been talking about doing a fragrance for years because smell is one of the most important things. But I don’t think I could have done it any earlier. You really have to know yourself to make a fragrance that encapsulates what you’re about. It represents all of you in one object. The way you look, the way you smell, the way you feel. So I’m really excited about that. Eyewear as well.
KRUGER: You gave me a prototype of one of your sunglasses when we went away over New Year’s, and I was so amazed by your attention to detail. It was such a beautiful object. Even the case was beautiful. You have a knack for really seeing things through.
WU: I’m always like, “Diane, what do you think?” I annoyingly ask your opinion on everything.
KRUGER: [laughs] What do you think the next ten years, or even just the next year, will bring you?
WU: For the Jason Wu brand, it’s about expanding, period. I opened my first shop within Saks last year and am looking to build a freestanding store soon. I’m at the point where I can approach more lifestyle projects as well. You and I have talked about this as well—to actually go a little bit outside of my comfort zone, to approach media in a different way. To think about how to express myself in other creative ways. I would like to do something for the home. I’m obsessed with home things. I could do something with my passion for cooking.
KRUGER: Who, in the last 10 years, has been invaluable as a mentor?
WU: My parents. They’re my biggest advisors. My mom is my biggest critic. When I was starting out, I used to get really mad at her when she criticized me. I was like, “You’re my mother. You’re not supposed to say anything bad about me.” A lot of people thought I did it very early on because I was ambitious, and I am, but without my mother, that never would have happened. I never would have had the opportunity to do any of the things that I’ve done. I wouldn’t be here were it not for her support. She’s been the biggest influence on my life, my biggest inspiration, and she continues to be.