updated 27 Mar 2013, 21:37
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Mon, Mar 25, 2013
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Designer Jason Wu is going places

For a man who is small in build, Jason Wu certainly has big dreams and he has taken calculated steps to make sure they are being realised.

In the past year alone, the slim, 1.7m-tall Taiwanese-Canadian designer has already collaborated with Brazilian plastic footwear label Melissa to launch a collection (priced from $100 for a pair of sandals); designed a one-off collection for American mass-market retailer Target (prices start from US$129 or S$160 for a blouse); and released his own contemporary diffusion line called Miss Wu (from US$195 for a silk crepe blouse to US$865 for a leather shift dress).

This September, he has announced, he is slated to launch his own make-up range with beauty giant Lancome.

And need we even mention the ruby red inauguration ball gown he created for Michelle Obama?

Having the global spotlight trained on him with that dress since January may mean extra pressure to do more, but he feels otherwise.

"Inauguration or not, there is always pressure to give something better than the last," says the 30-year-old. "I need to constantly keep moving. You're only as good as your last project, you know?"

And while some critics say his success was largely due to good timing and good luck, Ms Caroline Issa, executive fashion director of London-based fashion glossy Tank Magazine, also believes that Wu possesses the skills set of a savvy businessman.

The Montreal-born editor, who is also a street style darling in the fashion scene, is often photographed during various fashion events wearing the latest pieces from her fellow Canadian's collections.

"Jason has a clear understanding of what women want," she says in an e-mail interview. "But at the same time, he's so confident about his designs and vision that he just does his thing."

"His designs are often super feminine but has a sexy edge that flatters the body. Everytime I wear a Jason Wu outfit, I know I'm going to feel confident and that's a powerful advantage."

So far, so good. Four years ago, before Mrs Obama wore his one-shoulder ivory frock to the inauguration ball for her husband's first term as president, Wu was heading a four-person operation with about US$1 million in sales. Now, two inauguration ball gowns later, the privately owned company has estimated sales of US$15 million and a staff of 40.

While he does not have his own standalone store, his label is stocked at about 180 multi-label boutiques in 20 markets, including Ikram in Chicago, Lane Crawford in Hong Kong and Saks Fifth Avenue in Dubai. In Singapore, a small selection of his main line is carried at Club 21 at the Four Seasons Hotel Shopping Gallery. Prices range from $960 for a top to $5,990 for a dress. Wu explains: "I've always managed my company like a business."

It was a cold winter morning when Life! caught up with fashion's latest It boy last month in his 9,000 sq ft studio in the heart of New York's famed Garment District. He occupies one whole floor in an old building, once owned by legendary American designer Mary McFadden.

Reclining comfortably in his chair, Wu, with close-cropped hair and a smooth complexion, looks relaxed. He wears a crisp white shirt layered under a dark blue cardigan and paired with skinny jeans.

His work space is spotless and is designed with the kind of attention to detail one would expect from a fashion designer who started his career as a doll couturier. From the grey flannel drapes that line the doorways to wallpaper printed with early issues of The New York Observer, every detail in his atelier has a purpose and is well thought out.

Despite the bare concrete floors and industrial windows, the design den feels cosy and full of energy.

"There's always something quite classic about what I do, but tweak it a little bit," he explains, making cross references to his own design aesthetic. "It's all about contrast, like the strong classic jackets in the fall collection to which I added peplum details to soften the look."

He cites another example: The soft ethereal pleats on his evening wear that flow freely and smoothly when the model walks, but is almost architectural and stark when she stands still.

Indeed, Wu's design aesthetic has evolved from pretty and feminine pieces that channel Park Avenue chic to one of edgy innovations that mixes couture techniques and silhouettes with more contemporary elements such as hot pants and graffiti prints.

His recent fall/winter 2013 show presented 43 strong pieces that mix power day-dressing with sensuous evening wear. The classic button-down shirts, topped by elegant coats with fur accents and bold shoulders, were perfectly balanced by the softness that accompanied the beautiful floor-length pleated gowns with sheer chiffon bodices.

In short, it was a decidedly more grown-up collection that shows how much he has come into his own. And he is fast gaining fans from industry insiders.

"Jason knows his customer well and his designs tick so many boxes," says Ms Hollie Rogers, fashion director of luxury shopping portal Net-A-Porter which also stocks the Jason Wu line, via e-mail. "His collections are always so sophisticated and feminine but with an edge."

As a child, the younger of two sons always knew he wanted to do something creative. His elder brother Kevin, now 33, works in an organic food and beauty product manufacturing and distribution company.

"I never had a Tonka truck," Wu reminisces, referring to the popular American toy company known for its signature toy trucks and construction equipment. "I had Barbie dolls."

"It was quite unusual for a boy in a pretty conservative Asian background at that time, don't you think?" he says, chuckling.

His family, however, has always been very supportive of his interest in fashion and design, he adds. But it was not until his parents, entrepreneurs in the import-export business, moved the family from Taipei to Vancouver, that the gears for his career were set in motion. He was nine then.

He could not speak a lick of English, so his mother hired him a tutor who was a former fashion design student, who brought fashion magazines as study material. A bargain was then struck: Wu would study the Bible in exchange for drawing lessons.

He spent most of his free time designing clothes for American high-end doll company Integrity Toys. Then, at 16, he created the Jason Wu Doll line. It retailed for US$250 each at New York's iconic toy store, FAO Schwarz. The line still exists, but Wu only occasionally comes out with a new doll.

In 2006, the former fashion design student of Parsons The New School For Design started his own label with money from his family and the earnings he had saved from designing dolls.

Wu, who left Parsons in 2004 to intern for American designer Narciso Rodriguez for two seasons, revels in a quiet satisfaction over his success.

"I am proud and humbled at the same time. I went from designing dolls to having the two dresses I made for Mrs Obama exhibited in The Smithsonian's National Museum of American History."

On the First Lady becoming a regular client, Wu remains tight-lipped, but reveals that she is the embodiment of whom he designs for.

"Mrs Obama is confident, stylish and knows her body. She's very aware of herself and wears what she likes. I think it really shows her character."

He adds that working closely with the First Lady's office has given him a better understanding of what looks good on, and for, Mrs Obama. "We have a good synergy with what we're doing - of course what she's doing is more important," he says, laughing.

The working relationship has led to Wu being labelled the next Oleg Cassini, the late France-born American designer who was a favourite of former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, widow of President John F. Kennedy, who died in 1994.

It is a comparison that he welcomes with open arms. He says: "In fashion, you have to choose your route and go with it. In a way, I'm typecasting myself and it's been good for business. You need to be identifiable for a certain type of thing. So I believe it's necessary and purposeful even."

But being in the spotlight does have its downsides, and fame, according to Wu, who is dating 32-year-old American finance officer Gustavo Rangel, is a double-edged sword.

He laments: "They want you to open stores and do four collections a year. You're expected to achieve what other designers before you took 20 years to accomplish."

While he models his company after that of Ralph Lauren's fashion and lifestyle empire ("I want to have perfumes, furniture, the whole works with my name on it"), he is taking everything one step at a time.

Currently, he is concentrating on the September debut of his make-up line with Lancome.

"Beauty has always been an important aspect for all my shows. It's never just a plain look but each season has a specific Jason Wu look. So to me, it's super easy to translate that into make-up palettes."

There are no details yet about what the collection will look like or how many pieces there will be, but he reveals it will focus a lot on colours - something he has always loved playing with, especially on the runway models for his shows.

As for when he will be opening his own standalone store, Wu says it will happen in the next five years. Despite his many accomplishments and success, he believes there is still much to be done in terms of establishing his brand.

"I just do what I do quietly and hopefully I do a very good job. I'm happy that people recognise my work. It's really nice and reassuring but, at the same time, I don't think I have 'made it' yet," he says.

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