My lunch date walks into the lobby of the Tribeca Grand hotel in New York, shrugging off his heavy black coat as iced air off the Hudson river gives way to the sleepy fug of lobby warmth. In black jeans and charcoal grey crewneck, tucking his phone and white earbuds into a pocket, bouncing boyishly on his sneakers, you might at first peg him as, say, a Silicon Valley whiz-kid rather than a top-flight fashion designer. But then he gets nearer, and the grey crewneck reveals itself to be the finest double-ply cashmere, and his hair is in a perfectly-imperfect man-bun, and the twentysomethings at the next table recognise him and swivel in their seats to get a better look, and there is no mistaking who it is: Alexander Wang, the 21st century’s fashion superhero.
Alexander Wang is a name that means everything to the younger generation, and almost nothing to their parents – which, of course, is exactly why the kids love it. A few days after my lunch with Wang, the New York Times ran a feature on the Wang sample sale, profiling the shoppers who arrived at 5am for a below-zero four-hour wait to buy discounted handbags and clothes. Mostly, they were 25 and under. It is no coincidence that Wang’s jeans-and-monochrome look is closer to Mark Zuckerberg than to Karl Lagerfeld, because he comes from the generation for whom technology is at the heart of everything they do. When he revealed he was working on last year’s out-of-the-box-hit high street collaboration, Wang x H&M, the news did not come in office hours via a press release: instead, it was launched on Instagram, at midnight on a Saturday.
Wang orders hot water with lemon, and a small cheese plate. I suspect he orders the cheese because we’re in a restaurant at lunchtime – he looks faintly surprised when it is put in front of him, and barely touches it. I appreciate the gesture, which seems intended to make the encounter feel more relaxed. But then that’s how Wang and his brand roll: inclusive, informal. The word he uses most often is conversation: “Fashion is so much more about conversations now than trends.” “There’s not one message that matters, it’s about all the one-on-one conversations a brand has with its audience.” “As a brand we talk to our audience about all kinds of things – music, what we’re doing on the weekend, the people who interest us. And sometimes those conversations lead towards fashion and product, and sometimes they are just conversations.”
Wang is adept at multi-channel conversations. Last year, he presided over successful fashion collections at not one, not two, but three entirely different price points, with entirely separate customers. In 2012, just five years after launching his own label and at the tender age of 28, he was made creative director of Balenciaga, whose founder, Cristobal Balenciaga, was revered by no less than Christian Dior as “the master of us all”. The most recent Balenciaga financial results showed double-digit growth. Last year, the Wang x H&M range created renewed buzz around the slightly tired designer-high street collaboration concept; 70% of stock was sold within one hour of going on sale. Meanwhile his own brand, Alexander Wang, continued to grow at a rate of 20% every year; it now has 20 stores globally.
When I ask Wang how it felt to be designing for the H&M customer and the Balenciaga client at the same time, he beams. “I know, right? You couldn’t get two more opposites. But I love that. I’ve always been interested in doing things in different ways, I’ve always been interested in doing things on a big scale – whether that’s an elevated price point or a huge reach. Balenciaga is a challenge because it has to be exclusive and precise, and H&M was a challenge because it had to be democratic and accessible, but still exciting.”
The last time it was the-done-thing for young designers to helm historic labels while also designing their own labels was the era of John Galliano at Dior and Alexander McQueen at Givenchy. The mental stress of this dual identity was blamed, by some, for the breakdowns that followed. If Wang, who turned 31 on Boxing Day, seems to take the double life in his stride, perhaps coming of age in the era of the internet and superbrands has given him – and contemporaries such as 30-year-old JW Anderson, similarly now designing the LVMH-owned Loewe as well as his own label – a more supple idea of identity. They see brands and personalities and personal brands coexist in a fluid kind of Venn diagram that would baffle an older generation. Wang has a sophisticated understanding about how his vision is only one element of what happens on a catwalk, and how audience interpretation plays a part. Of his very first collection for Balenciaga, for instance, where the remodelling of classic shapes in the latest technical fabrics was read by critics as Wang’s promise to modernise the house, he says, “People think they know what you’re about, and they kind of make their minds up in advance. My guess is that collection would have been interpreted very differently if someone from the in-house design team had been taking the bow. The audience had pre-existing expectations, and they read me into what they saw.”
Six months after his first Balenciaga show, this notion of how a collection can have diverse interpretations was clearly still on his mind: his own-name New York fashion week show in September 2013 split the audience into two, apparently at random, with different soundtracks for each of the opposite ends of the vast show space at Pier 94. On one side the music had the explicit words filtered out. “I’m really interested in how audience perception of a show will vary depending on so many things – their mood, the traffic, whether they ate or are hungry. So I wanted to play with one of those elements, which was the music, and see what came out,” Wang says.
“A lot of who I am as a person is funnelled into what the brand stands for, and I am who I am 110% of the time. But there are elements of any personalitiy that can be reflected in different ways.” The Alexander Wang brand is inextricably linked to sportswear – mesh T-shirts, tracksuit bottoms, sweatshirts – but Wang himself doesn’t do any sport, or even go to the gym. “A lot of people find that surprising, but to me the point is that sportswear has a functionality to it. It’s what you see people wearing in the street, carrying in their bags. It has a very direct connection to our lives and that’s what I love about it – it’s not so much about being sporty as about being active and functional and easy.”
He laughs when I ask him where his interest in fashion began. “There’s no, like, my mum was a seamstress, or my dad was a tailor, or anything like that.” (That kind of backstory wouldn’t fit, anyway. Way too analogue.) Wang was born in California, to Taiwanese immigrants who had built a successful plastics business since arriving in San Francisco a decade earlier. By the time he was a teenager, his mother was travelling frequently to China, and Wang was dispatched to an expensive boarding school in America. His first encounters with haute couture came through his classmate Vanessa Traina Snow, daughter of novelist Danielle Steel, who would come to school in castoffs from her mother’s fairytale couture wardrobe. “I never really played sports after school like the other kids did. So instead I discovered fashion and magazines, and I kind of filtered everything through that. Even then, I knew fashion wasn’t just about designers. I loved Japanese street style magazines, and I was a big fanatic over models. I can still remember how excited I was when MTV did a show, A Day In The Life Of Gisele, or something.” Traina Snow is still a key part of Wang’s fashion life, a stylist/consultant who travels with him to Paris when he is on Balenciaga duty.
Wang produced his first collection of sweaters while studying design at Parsons in New York; soon, he quit Parsons to work on his business full-time. His sister-in-law, then between jobs, helped with the business side. In the early days of this venture, Diane von Furstenberg spotted one of his knits on a Vogue staffer, tracked Wang down and called up to offer him a job on her design team. Wang politely declined, much to the surprise of von Furstenberg, a formidable woman who tends to get her own way. “I was really flattered when she called, but I’d dropped out of school to start this line, I’d made a commitment to my family who had supported me in it, and I wasn’t ready to give up.”
His stubbornness paid off: within three years he was showing at New York fashion week. He attributes this success to the fact that “even back then, when I was young and still figuring out who I was, I got that this had to be a lifestyle brand. There was a real clarity and an honesty about that. The first lookbook we shot was this girl in this raw Soho loft, just hanging out, everything was like, wardrobe items reconfigured, everyday items reappropriated, because that was how I lived, how my friends lived. We were going out a lot, and sleeping wherever, and wearing clothes for days and then throwing them in the wash and things were a bit destroyed. So the way those clothes looked was very authentic to what I was doing at the time. I had always looked up to Marc Jacobs and Tom Ford, because I loved how they created a whole world around them which was authentic to who they were. So that’s what I wanted to do.”
These days, his life is more complicated. For a start, he splits his time between New York and Paris, where he lives “polar opposite” lives. “Here I have a close group of friends I went to college with, I’m up late, I’m out a lot. Whereas in Paris it’s literally the office, a quiet dinner, home. On the weekend I maybe take a walk, and that’s it.”
The Alexander Wang label, too, is becoming more international: they have opened 15 stores in Asia in the last two years, and this year will open a London flagship in an old post office in Mayfair, around the corner from Dover Street Market and Victoria Beckham.
The challenge for a name like Alexander Wang is how to make a down-to-earth, informal brand feel “elevated”. (This is marketing speak for: how to make shoppers feel the name is worth a high price tag.) “Design integrity, quality, that’s number one. But the visual environment is also very important, so we pay a lot of attention to display and store design. There is still a grit to the brand but it’s been refined, in a natural kind of a way, because now I’m 31, not 21, so there are things I didn’t like before that I like now; things I liked before and now want a better version of. A lot of it is quite subtle. It’s about using the best photographers, stylists and models, to elevate the image you are creating.”
The company is still privately owned – “My sister-in-law is CEO, my mum has a backroom role as a board member” – which means, Wang says, he can stay true to himself. “I’m really lucky to have this liberty, to do what I think is right for the brand in the long term.” He demurs from naming a business model he’d like to follow – “Because if it’s been done before, what’s the point of doing it again?” – but names Ralph Lauren as “a brand I really respect and admire, that touches different audiences, from mass to elite, yet has an integrity to it that never feels compromised.” Wang throws this out quite casually, as a benchmark. Note that in January, Forbes magazine estimated Ralph Lauren’s wealth at close to bn, making him the 155th richest person in the world.
But then, Wang is a natural entrepreneur: a risk-taker and a strategic thinker. The part of the job that makes him happiest, he says, is “being able to execute something that I feel passionate about, turning something that comes from an abstract part of my brain, into reality.” Fashion, he says, is a way to communicate, to have conversations about who we are, how we want to live. “Sometimes people ask me what I think I’ll be doing in 10 years’ time. Like, am I going to switch careers, sort of thing. And I feel like that’s an impossible question now, because my job is so many different things. It’s like, the possibilities within what I’m doing now are already endless.”
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