Viva la evolution
Alexander Wang has flown into town for just 24 hours before heading back to New York to work on his resort collection. His short stay includes back-to-back press calls before hosting a late-night party to mark the opening of his first Hong Kong store, at Harbour City. Such a packed schedule would exhaust most people, but Wang seems to be having the time of his life.
'I love coming back to China. There is this certain fascination with Chinese designers who have made it in America and I don't get this response anywhere else in the world. It's amazing to be welcomed with open arms,' he says.
Dressed in his uniform of slouchy black sweatshirt and trainers, with wavy black hair brushing his shoulders, Wang looks like any youngster off the street. In reality, the 28-year-old is one of New York's hottest designers, who has built a lifestyle empire estimated to be worth US$25 million.
'In the fashion world, five years is a long time. People are always talking about my age, so I feel I have to constantly reinvent myself,' says Wang. 'It's hard because when I say I like something they spin it into the brand. In the early days, I liked the slouchy, easy look that models loved - then I was pigeon-holed into only dressing models. Now I am careful of describing my aesthetic and the collections. It's been one of my biggest learning experiences.'
Born and raised in San Francisco, Wang is the son of Taiwanese immigrants. By the time he was a teenager his parents had built up a successful plastics manufacturing business, allowing them to send their son to a private school, where he rubbed shoulders with wealthy heirs including Vanessa and Victoria Traina, daughters of romance novelist and couture aficionado Danielle Steel. He hosted his first fashion show at 15.
'I always had a natural inclination to create. This magnified when I met the Trainas,' he says. 'The girls were exposed to high fashion from a young age and I loved their viewpoint. They would receive racks of expensive clothing; but then they would cut off a sleeve or a shoe strap, even if the shoes cost US$4,000. I became infatuated with this kind of disregard.'
After completing summer fashion courses at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles and Central Saint Martins in London, Wang eventually moved to New York to study at Parsons The New School for Design, at 18. After a year he had already bagged internships with Marc Jacobs, Derek Lam and Teen Vogue, giving him the confidence to drop out of fashion school and launch his own line.
'Each internship had an impact in different ways. Marc was my first - someone I've always looked up to and respected - and at Vogue I found out about stylists, photographers and designers, and how everything worked.
'After that, I was impatient. I didn't feel like I was learning as much as I could have at school and I wanted to try something different. I knew school would always be there and I could go back.'
In 2007, together with his sister-in-law, Aimie, he set out to launch a collection of five unisex sweaters, which he describes as interchangeable 'boyfriend cardigans'. Rumour has it that Diane Von Furstenberg spotted one of her employees wearing one and subsequently tried to court Wang for her business. He refused, and went on to build an empire on an aesthetic that would later become the uniform of It girls and his bevy of muses, including Alice Dellal, Erin Wasson, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen and Dree Hemingway. Coining the 'off-duty model' style - think distressed boyfriend jeans, shrunken vests and cosy cardigans - Wang was soon credited for defining the style of a new generation of women.
His business quickly expanded to include accessories such as shoes and bags, as well as a second line, T by Alexander Wang, which is known for its sleek, laid-back basics.
'When we launched T, people thought it was a diffusion line, but it wasn't. Jerseys played a big part in the styling of our early collections, but when it came to runway shows I couldn't just send out a bunch of T-shirts,' he says.
Menswear followed in 2011 and this year he added the Objects collection to his portfolio - a line of design products exclusive to his retail boutiques. And while building his lifestyle empire - inspired, he says, by Ralph Lauren - Wang has also refined his ready-to-wear line.
'I am always pushing myself in terms of fabrication, fit and design, especially quality. All of those aspects contribute to how the brand has matured,' he says.
This evolution is exemplified by his spring-summer 2012 collection, which is inspired by active sports such as Nascar, BMX and motocross. He plays with laser-cut mesh bombers, brightly coloured polo shirts and nylon cargo pants, all infused with couture detailing. Floral prints, which are relatively new to his oeuvre, are made edgy and modern. Customers are buying it - Wang plans to open 14 more stores in Asia this year alone.
'The opportunities are endless if you keep an open mind. Lifestyle is how you eat, what you listen to, it's everything around you. I enjoy the fact that I can create a product and then translate it into an environment, down to what music is playing in the stores.'
Like many Chinese businesses out there, Wang's company remains family run, with his sister-in-law Aimie as CEO and brother, Dennis, as chief principal officer.
But Wang is adamant that he retains control of the business as well as the creative side of the brand.
'Designers shouldn't be shamed into dealing only with the creative side of the business,' he says. 'This generation says you have to sacrifice one or the other, but you need to understand the other parts of your world.'
Does he ever dream of becoming a designer for another big fashion house? 'When I was younger, it was much more attractive to me, but now, having had creative freedom and being able to make collections that I 100 per cent want to do - I would never change that. We built this with our own hands, and it's so much more rewarding when you know you have accomplished it on your own.
'I want to be remembered as someone who loved what he did and whose work had a real connection with people. I don't really care about designing something that ends up in a museum for people to look at. As for the future, whoever takes my place, it's up to them,' he says.