updated 24 Mar 2014, 12:07
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China Daily/Asia News Network
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Wu designs hold world approval
by Mark Graham

The rapid rise of Jason Wu ably demonstrates that not all couturiers are cut from the same cloth, writes Mark Graham.

Designer Jason Wu is nothing if not ambitious. The New York-based wunderkind is expanding his own-name label, launching a second line, performing the role of chief womenswear designer for a major European brand and making appearances on Chinese television as a talent-show judge.

It helps that Wu has youth on his side, a formidable work ethic and a coterie of high-profile fans that includes Oscar-winner Gwyneth Paltrow.

The 31-year-old initially shot to fame when he received an endorsement from American First Lady Michelle Obama. The influential style icon, already a fan of the emerging Chinese designer, reaffirmed that admiration by choosing a Jason Wu gown for the first Barack Obama presidential inauguration ball.

She chose a Wu gown more recently, for the US president's second inauguration ball and is regularly seen in the designer's clothes and accessories, including a vivid-coloured coat she donned when meeting Queen Elizabeth II of Britain.

The Obama endorsements gave Wu free worldwide publicity, not to mention massive prestige, and it is fair to say he has not been slow to capitalise on getting such a lucky break so early in his career.

"Everything changed overnight," he recalls. "It was a huge opportunity, although I did not realise that at the time. All I cared about was that she looked good in the dress, like any designer would. I don't know much about politics and I don't try. It is not my world. That is why I am not a politician.

"I have grown up significantly, and over the past few years, I have spent time trying to live up to expectations and defy expectations that I would be a one-hit wonder."

There is no danger of anyone thinking that stellar start was a flash in the pan. Confirmation of Wu's arrival as a major force on the international stage came with his appointment as womenswear artistic designer for the giant German fashion brand Hugo Boss, with his first full-scale collection due to debut in stores this year.

It means an even more hectic international schedule, with time split between home in New York and business trips to Europe and Asia.

Like most savvy entrepreneurs in the fashion world, Wu has his eyes firmly on China, making regular visits to see clients, checking on stores that carry his garments and, occasionally, making appearances on the CCTV programme Creative Sky, where fashion experts comment on the work of up-and-coming designers.

"I think in China there is an increasing demand for evening wear and dressy clothes, as well as ready-to-wear," he says "There are a lot of places to go now and events and parties of real magnitude. Beijing is one of my favourite places. It is always changing, and at a speed that is hard to believe, and I love the contrasts. There are very historical parts. You don't see that in New York.

"Fashion is about predicting the future what we show on the runway dictates what trickles down into the fashion cycle. It's a big job that we are doing. You always have to be on the lookout. With all that is happening here in China, it would be foolish not to come and look regularly."

Although Wu's rise to international fame came suddenly, he has been in the industry for some time, learning the trade the hard way. As a teenager, Wu designed dresses for toy dolls and action figures for a Japanese company, a job that brought a steady income and involved regular trips to southern China factories, where he learned the nuts and bolts of the production process.

That basic knowledge was finessed through spells spent studying fashion in New York and Paris, giving him an intimate understanding of the way the industry operates. By his early 20s, Wu was a full-fledged designer, with the brazen confidence to launch his own label.

The youthful-looking boss now oversees a staff numbering more than 40 in New York City, liaises with Hugo Boss womenswear designers and executives, and, all the while, thinks up new creations and formulates ambitious expansion plans.

There is a five-year goal to double the number of outlets selling Jason Wu clothes to 400, develop stand-alone stores, launch accessory and beauty lines and expand online sales. The price of owning a dress with a Jason Wu label ranges from US$1,000 (S$1,300) to US$20,000. The new Miss Wu line has more modestly priced pieces that range from just under US$200 to US$800.

"I think that the growth of the company has been quite expansive, we want to develop into an international luxury brand," Wu says. "For a young design firm we have done a lot in a short period of time. That is not to say that we are over-reaching. It never felt forced. It felt like the right time. It is a deep belief of mine to take things as they come.

"My image has always been quite proper. I present myself in a very professional manner. I think people always thought I was a little buttoned up but now, five years later, people are starting to see a different side of me, clothes that are very sexy and provocative. I have done the traditional route and proper route and can now take it a step further."

At some stage, Wu will no doubt receive overtures from one of the major fashion conglomerates keen to have this rising young star in their stable. The business-savvy Wu will know when the time and the price is right.

For now, though, he is living the dream, traveling the world, staying in the best hotels, eating in fine-dining rooms, partying enthusiastically and soaking up inspiration from here, there and everywhere. One collection was inspired by the gardens of Versailles Palace, created by Louis XIV, the Sun King.

Wu himself is rapidly rising to the ranks of fashion royalty, creating a name that has resonance throughout the world. Although the Obama connection is no longer such a major factor, it does no harm to have such a publicity-generating style icon regularly wearing your clothes.

There are other high-profile admirers, too. At the Hugo Boss show in New York, then Oscar winners Gwyneth Paltrow and Reese Witherspoon turned up to give their support, along with actress Diane Kruger.

The influential Suzy Menkes, who writes about fashion for the New York Times, also gushes about Wu's talent. "Jason Wu is the very essence of New York fashion and the incarnation of that elusive American dream," she says.

"He has not only founded his own company but has become a beacon for a new generation of uptown designers, famously dressing Michelle Obama for both presidential inaugural celebrations."

Clearly Wu is enjoying his moment in the spotlight and looks set for a glittering, lucrative and long-lasting career. Despite all the accolades, though, he remains grounded and approachable.

"If it had happened a year before I would not have been ready," he says. "I always think it is like an actor. You have an Oscar-winning movie but after that you need to make other good movies as well. You don't want that Oscar curse where you win it and don't make a movie again. It took two years before the reviews stopped mentioning the inauguration. Now they just talk about my work.

"I am a team player and I always say that I am a creative director, not just a designer. I have to get the best out of everyone and get the best quality of work from people. You have to make it creatively enticing to look at, and also to be able to sell."

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