Right after the Hugo Boss show in New York in February, I go in search of Jason Wu. The 31-year-old Taiwanese-born designer has just made his debut as artistic director for the European mega-brand in a skyscraper overlooking Manhattan, with a striking industrial set of mirrored blocks and green foliage intended to reflect the architectural rigour of the Boss headquarters in Metzingen, Germany.
Everything about this show is pitched to impress. On every level, you sense the importance of the occasion for a brand intent on transforming its status from a billion-pound menswear behemoth into a womenswear brand that wants to play in New York’s big league. You only have to look at the money-is-no-object front row: Gwyneth Paltrow, Reese Witherspoon, Diane Kruger and Benedict Cumberbatch (the subject of frenzied tweets and Instagrams as he chats with his neighbour, Anna Wintour). Then there’s the casting of the world’s most sought-after models, including Edie Campbell in a rich black skirt suit and purposeful flat black loafers, and Stella Tennant, who radiates cool as she closes the show in a svelte black tuxedo. Backstage, it’s a Who’s Who of the industry’s top talent: show producer Alex de Betak scurries around barking orders into his headset; hair and make-up dream team Guido Palau and Pat McGrath have turned the ‘girls’ into sleek-haired, minimally made-up women; and the forensic eye of fashion stylist Joe McKenna has assisted Wu in defining the Hugo Boss woman of today: urban, elegant, and with a (fe)masculine vibe that plays meticulous tailoring off against delicately pretty dresses.
When I do finally locate Wu backstage, he is caught in a flashbulb frenzy with Gwyneth, Diane and Reese. Unable to get near him, thanks to the rugby ruck of photographers, I watch as he whispers something into Gwyneth’s ear and they both fall about laughing. I can’t help thinking how incongruous he looks in the presence of so much polished Hollywood glamour: he may cut a refined figure, befitting a designer celebrated for exquisitely ladylike tailoring, but he still looks like a fresh-faced teenager.
It is the same that night, in a private room at Omar’s La Ranita, where Wu is holding court at an intimate dinner for friends of the house. ‘Intimate dinner’ in fashion parlance can often mean canapés for 500, but this really is an intimate sit-down dinner for 30. Wu is in his element, ensconced between friends Reese and Diane. I shouldn’t find his easy intimacy with these women so remarkable. After all, this is how the industry in New York operates: the business transaction between fashion and celebrity is spectacularly up-close and personal. For instance, it feels quite normal to go for a smoke outside in the snow with Mr Cumberbatch; I try not to melt as he gallantly removes his coat and places it around my shoulders to keep me warm, muttering to myself: ‘Only in New York.’
There is no reason on earth why Wu, of all people, should feel remotely intimidated by anyone or anything. He is a figurehead for New York’s young designer regeneration and, famously, no stranger to the global spotlight. When Michelle Obama danced the night away in Wu’s snow-white gown at her husband’s first inauguration in 2009, his name became indelibly inked in US fashion history. He was 26 at the time, a mere upstart, who apparently celebrated this momentous occasion by ordering Domino’s Pizza. When, for Obama’s second inauguration four years later, she chose to wear Wu again – a daring ‘victory red’ gown, as The New Yorker dubbed it – his reputation as her talisman designer was cemented.
Her choice was hardly random; you can imagine the kind of House Of Cards-style screening that went into such a major political decision. Jason Wu is a young designer whose backstory reads like a case study on how to achieve The American Dream. He must have been asked to trot it out in every interview he’s ever done, must be sick to the back teeth of it – but he’s all charm and patience when we meet a few days later in Boss’ shiny New York showroom. Perched on a suitably austere charcoal sofa, wearing a sharp, equally on-brand suit, he radiates industriousness. Does he ever have any downtime, I wonder? ‘I just went to Hawaii for 10 days, the first vacation I have taken in my entire career,’ he announces. It is hardly a surprise. His life has been nothing if not goal-orientated.
Born in Taipei, Taiwan, to successful entrepreneurs who run an import-export business, his ‘super-supportive’ parents indulged his passion for ‘pretty things’. He played with dolls from the age of five; later, they became his miniature mannequins on which he learnt to design, pattern cut, sew and fit.
‘In the 1980s, Taiwan was seriously conservative and there were no creative opportunities, so my parents moved me [and my older brother] to Vancouver, Canada. They thought a different perspective on life was important,’ recites Wu. Cue two serendipitous arrivals in his life: aged nine, the sewing machine that changed his world, then an English tutor who fed him fashion magazines. ‘Muriel Kauffman mentored me. I was awful with text books. Awful. I mean, fail. So she brought me fashion magazines and that’s how I really got into fashion and also picked up the language.’ He deadpans: ‘I would probably say my first two words [in English] were, “Stephanie Seymour”.’
Later, he was transplanted to the US, to a boarding school in Connecticut. ‘And I fell upon this job at a toy company,’ is how he describes his extraordinary resourcefulness now. He called Integrity Toys in New York, submitted his sketches of costumes for dolls, which included an ‘electric blue fishtail gown with a crazy neckline I was particularly proud of ’, and got himself an interview. He was 16. He took the train alone, armed with a bunch of dolls wearing his designs. ‘I showed them my work and said: “This is what I can deliver,” and they hired me.’ He worked from his dorm room after class and, during spring vacations, he visited the company’s factories in China. ‘It became much more than making dolls’ clothes – I got to work with the engineers, injection moulding, plastics, packaging, everything.’ His salary rose to $500 a month, money he would later use to set up his own fashion company. ‘It’s very funny and charming to say that I made dolls, but it was actually a full-on product design job. I just wanted a career, I really wanted one,’ he says, claiming to have been jealous of friends who worked in Starbucks or Gap, ‘because I never got to work in retail.’
While building his industrial design career with Integrity Toys, he studied at Parsons The New School for Design in New York, where his design heroes were Charles James and Yves Saint Laurent. ‘It refined what I already knew – it was like a finishing school for me,’ he says, having already conquered womenswear, of a fashion, in the doll market. Typically, instead of taking the easy option, he majored in menswear because of his love of tailoring – ‘All I did were collars, lapels and felting for, like, a year’ – then left, six months shy of graduating, to intern with Narciso Rodriguez.
‘You’re not daunted by anything, are you?’ I ask.
‘No, I’ll try anything, but the goal was always to do womenswear.’ The irony of coming full circle as artistic director of Hugo Boss, a business founded on menswear, and debuting with a collection that takes menswear for women as its DNA, is not lost on him. ‘I don’t think anyone thought of me like that, which is precisely why I wanted to take this job – to challenge myself and people’s perception of me.’
What is people’s perception of him? He strikes me as New York fashion’s golden boy, having launched his eponymous label in 2006 and become renowned for polite, ultra-feminine creations. Certainly, his public image appears to have been a carefully crafted one. He turned down the opportunity to appear as a guest judge on an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race, the cult US drag-queen pageant show, because ‘it felt off brand’. As he told The New York Times’ T Magazine: ‘I made a rule not to be on reality shows. But I really wanted to do it.’ (Wu has worked extensively with RuPaul, designing six doll versions of the drag queen for Integrity Toys.)
A year ago, however, he appeared to want to shrug off that self-imposed image of the maker of ‘very proper clothes’ – see his spring/summer 2013 collection, which included Carolyn Murphy in a provocative, Helmut Newton-inspired black leather sheath. While some questioned his need to raise eyebrows with leather harnesses, Wu was clearly itching to prove he could do more than well-behaved clothes. It would seem his new job has given him that outlet – when I ask him to describe the Hugo Boss woman, he says: ‘She is powerful, strong, intelligent and worldly, definitely a no-frills kind of girl; her idea of evening is dressed down in loafers.’ And the Jason Wu woman? ‘More frothy. It’s a different spin, more romantic, embellished, with a real American sportswear slant, but there’s no reason why a woman wouldn’t want both.’
I have to ask, which camp does he think Michelle Obama belongs to? ‘She is exactly how you would expect her to be: down-to-earth, smart and inspiring,’ he says smoothly. Wu is unshakeably discreet about working with the First Lady – the only thing I can manage to winkle out of him is how anxious he felt when he first met her: ‘When there are 10 Secret Service agents around you, sure, you get nervous, I was like, “What did I do wrong?” At the end of the day, it’s the First Lady.’ Will she wear Boss, I wonder? ‘Who knows? She wears many international designers… we shall see.’
Wu is so carefully eloquent and media savvy, I wonder if he is one of those people with the ability to appear relaxed and in control at all times? ‘I’m not relaxed, but I am calm. I am… well, I’m not difficult, I am particular. I want things perfect. It is never done before it’s done. And it can always be better. If you are completely content with it, then there is nowhere to go. You always keep the bar higher, that is my motto.’
Ambition vibrates off Jason Wu, but not in a pushy, power-loving way. It’s more of a mental and physical energy – just the stuff that is needed to steer the look of everything produced by Boss, as well as his successful eponymous label, which has clocked up multimillion-dollar sales and is stocked at over 180 stores around the world. ‘You need to have people feel your energy,’ he says, ‘It’s just as important for me to give out as it is for me to take. It’s my duty to do that, to inspire, give direction.’ Wu flies to Germany every month to inspire the Boss troops and oversee everything from the fragrance, eyewear and fashion campaigns to the fittings of a 400-piece selling collection, as well as dream up inspirational catwalk designs to spur the consumer to buy all of the above. ‘It’s a big job and I’m not nearly done,’ says Wu, who works around the clock to make it all happen. He still remains loyal to Integrity Toys, acting as a consultant for the company, which keeps an office downstairs from his studio so that he can cast his eye over new designs. ‘They are like family to me. After all, who would hire a 16-year-old with no experience?’
Yes, Jason Wu is a workaholic with an ‘obsessive attention to detail disorder’, as he puts it, but it’s the other side of him – the part he rarely allows to surface – that makes him the force that he is in fashion. I saw it at dinner the other night: the mischievous wit of some- one who clearly knows how to have a good time. The man who brought his doll’s designs to life.
For the latest in fashion, beauty and culture, sign up to receive ELLE's daily newsletter.