Text by Sven Schumann, founder of The Talks.
He may have launched his debut collection in 2006, but it wasn’t until 2008—when Michelle Obama wore his now-famous one-shoulder white gown to the inaugural ball—that the then 25-year-old Jason Wu instantly became a household name. “That was pretty much the biggest surprise of my life,” says the Taipei-born designer, who spent his childhood in Vancouver before immigrating to the United States. “I moved to America to become a designer,” he says. “I started in my living room, so the fact that that happened was all very symbolic.” This season, his modern interpretation of ladylike dressing was inspired by the restoration of Versailles. Wu calls it “baroque meets sportswear.” The predominantly black-and-white collection showcases 15 different kinds of lace embroidered on everything from jackets to blouses to cashmere sweatshirts. The collection was yet another bold showing that was meant to let the fashion world know that Wu is here to stay. “I don’t want people to remember me for one dress,” he says. “I want them to remember me as a designer for my entire career.”
When did you figure out that you wanted to be a fashion designer?
“I was around 13 years old. I had just moved to Canada [Vancouver] and I was really into fine arts, like sculpting and drawing. I had learned English when I was nine, and I didn’t really know what fashion was. My mom gave me this stack of fashion magazines to practise my English, and I became infatuated.”
Before you entered the fashion world, you designed clothes for dolls. How did you get into that?
“My mom bought me my first sewing machine when I was nine. Our neighbours ran an upholstery business, so we used to get their little scraps of fabric. I was only interested in playing with dolls and pretty things, so I tried making dresses for the dolls; that’s how I learned how to make clothes. In high school, I got a freelance job as a designer at a toy company.”
When did you decide that you were going to start your own line?
“I left school after three-and-a-half years to pursue my own collection. I didn’t have much experience; I was driven by a desire to be a designer and that’s all it took, so I started in my living room. In the beginning, I did everything on my own.”
Image courtesy of IMAXTree.com
How would you describe the Jason Wu style?
“My vision has always been a polished, sophisticated one. I love taking the idea of American sportswear and mixing it with couture techniques; it merges two very different elements together. For example, for this collection, I did a sweatshirt made of cashmere with lace embroidered sleeves. It’s all about taking what’s normal and making it super-special.”
Tell me about your fall/winter collection.
“I’m known for using a lot of colours, but for fall I really wanted to use a restrained palette. I wanted to surprise people by using black and white, with pops of colours like burgundy and purple. For my mood, I felt like the ultimate way to make a colour statement was to use no colours.”
Who are the women who inspire your collections?
“There are many. Diane Kruger is one of my muses. We collaborate so often. I feel like she is somebody who not only is a talented actress but also has great taste. It’s like in the great tradition of designers and actresses— you know, Givenchy and Audrey Hepburn.”
How did you get involved with Michelle Obama?
“Ikram Goldman, who owns Ikram in Chicago, introduced me to her and I started making her clothes. At the time, she wasn’t very well known. When they asked me to submit a sketch for the inauguration in 2008, I had already made many dresses for her but she hadn’t worn any of them. What the Michelle Obama inauguration ballgown did for me was expose my name to the whole world outside of the fashion industry. It sort of changed my life overnight.”
How did you deal with this moment?
“I didn’t want to be a onehit wonder; I wanted to be somebody who would be relevant 40 or 50 years from now.”
So what’s next for the Jason Wu brand?
“Well, not a diffusion line— that isn’t something I’m interested in doing. But accessories [launched for spring/summer 2011] are a natural extension to outfit the girl from head to toe. I went to Italy numerous times to study the craft. But the vision stays true to my clothes: It’s a sophisticated, timeless, polished image.”
For the latest in fashion, beauty and culture, sign up to receive ELLE's daily newsletter.