The only way is up

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 July, 2011, 12:00am


Designer Jason Wu's upward career trajectory - given a major boost in 2009 by US First Lady Michelle Obama when she wore his silk chiffon one-shoulder, floor-length gown at her husband's inauguration - continues at a rocket-propelled pace, with about 140 stores worldwide stocking the Chinese designer's classy clothing.

But the New York resident's personal circumstances contrast sharply with his glittering professional profile. Wu still lives in the 1,200 sq ft one-bedroom Manhattan flat he occupied during his pre-fame days, a place that once doubled as a workshop for the fledgling Jason Wu Studio.

It is not sentimental reasons that are keeping Wu there: slotting house-hunting time into a schedule that sees him regularly criss-crossing the globe is proving difficult. Later this month the Taiwan-born wunderkind, still just 28 years old, will be on the road again, this time in Beijing for shows and meetings, happy to be feted as the only Chinese designer to enjoy a close association with the wife of the US President.

'When you have such monumental success with one thing, the natural reaction is to follow it up, or people will think you're a one-hit wonder,' says Wu. 'I would like to think that we are better than two years ago. Our shows are a real progression; I was a designer with a company but now we are a brand. I have the Chinese work ethic. My family are business people, my father started his own company when he was in his 20s with one employee and I looked up to him. I like the business side of things as well as design, they integrate for me.'

For this year's autumn-winter collection, Wu took inspiration from the fabulous Versailles palace built by Louis XIV, the Sun King, just outside the French capital, Paris. The interest in Versailles was initially sparked when he came across a copy of Robert Polidori's photo book, Parcours Museologique Revisite, which documents the restoration of the extravagant royal home over a 25-year period.

'I loved the idea of a grandiose project under construction, that mixture of the ornate, the precious and the raw,' says Wu. 'I love the idea of taking things apart and putting them back together and restoring something. There is always a bit of creative interpretation as you can't put things back exactly the same way.

'For my collection I took materials and put them back together, in this case with lace: we had 15 different kinds of lace I would take it apart and re-assemble it like a puzzle, so it looks completely different. It is an expensive exercise but a lot of fun.'

Fun is the operative word with Wu, who is still smiling at his good luck, unable to believe that one dress - admittedly a gown that garnered attention because it was worn by the first black First Lady - could make such a difference to a career.

In person, Wu's persona switches from wide-eyed innocent, still getting accustomed to being a celebrity, to serious-minded businessman. The Wu style also reflects that dichotomy: smart shirt and trousers matched with white Converse basketball sneakers.

Critical and commercial success, though it came sooner than anticipated, was, he stresses, the result of hard work and an unwavering determination.

'I have wanted to be a designer since I was 10, so unlike most Asian parents mine were not shocked, they were well prepared for a long time,' he says. 'I made a pact with them whereby if I went to boarding school and did my schooling, I could do whatever I wanted in college.

'It has been a roller coaster ride; I started my company five years ago almost straight out of school. I interned for a while, but I had little experience. I was only 24 and didn't so much walk into the business as leap into it. My first employee was one of my best friends, who was accountant, receptionist and assistant designer. I was production manager, designer and everything else.

'Having that kind of start was quite enlightening for me because it didn't allow easy success, which I think is the best way. Everything today is the result of our hard work. I have a deep bond with my team.'

When not working, Wu can be found 10-pin bowling, sampling new restaurants or slouched in front of the TV. His life-changing moment actually came while watching television, when he discovered that Michelle Obama had chosen his white chiffon frock from the many options available to the wife of the world's most powerful man.

'I celebrated for one whole day and then went back to work on my collection immediately,' he says. 'Since then, people have recognised me on the street. I was waiting for a cab and a truck came past and the guy rolled down his window and said 'Hey you're Jason Wu!' It was a surreal moment.'