Wunderkind Wu

Updated: 2011-09-30 09:21

By Mark Graham (China Daily)

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After Michelle Obama hit, Taiwan-born fashion designer has the world in his sights

Wunderkind Wu
Designer Jason Wu says hard work, commitment and innovation are the most important elements in ensuring long-term success. Mark Graham / for China Daily

Designer Jason Wu has already dressed the wife of the most powerful man on earth - creating the stunning, inauguration-gown ball for US First Lady Michelle Obama - and for his current collection he has sought inspiration from a formidable ruler from yesteryear, the French king Louis XIV.

The Taiwan-born, US-educated Wu has barely had a minute to spare since designing that gown, the one that propelled him from a little-known, upcoming talent into a major world-fashion name. The Jason Wu brand is now firmly established, with a presence in more than 140 stores worldwide, including high-end outlets in China.

In between designing the Jason Wu autumn-winter collection, due in the shops around now, the New York City-based celebrity has been whizzing around the globe, including regular promotional trips to Hong Kong and Beijing and a guest slot on the CCTV design-talent television show Creative Sky.

The past year has also seen Wu, 28, spend time in the French capital of Paris which has provided the main inspiration for his new collection. A restoration project to bring Versailles, the palace of the Sun King, Louis XIV, back to its former glory, documented in the photo book, Parcours Museologique Revisite, captured his imagination.

"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.

"We had 15 different kinds of lace I would take it apart and reassemble it like a puzzle so it looks completely different. It is an expensive exercise, but a lot of fun."

Wunderkind Wu
Wu has become elevated to the ranks of fashion royalty himself, with a name that has become a byword for sophisticated style. He continues to get a helpful promotional ride from Michelle Obama: the president's wife was pictured wearing a Wu coat when meeting Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace and a favorite purple dress while posing for the cover of American Vogue.

Publicity such as this has helped build the brand, but the shrewd and business-savvy Wu knows that hard work, commitment and innovation remain the most important elements in ensuring long-term success. The wunderkind is certainly one of the youngest designers anywhere to have established a label that has international recognition.

"We are in 140 stores worldwide and continue to grow, we want to expand further in European markets and Asia," says Wu. "It has been a roller coaster, I started my company five years ago almost straight out of school. I had interned for a while but really I had little experience. I was only 24 and had a lot of passion, and a lot of interest, but little experience.

"I didn't so much walk into the business as leap into it. I started my first collection in my living room and I then moved into a studio. My first employee was one of my best friends, who was accountant, receptionist and assistant designer. I was production manager and designer and everything else.

"Having that kind of start was really quite enlightening for me because it didn't allow me easy success, which I think is the best way. You don't appreciate it fully if you don't go through that; everything today is the result of our hard work. I have a deep bond with my team."

Wu's boyish looks, and preference for dressing in basketball sneakers, give him the appearance of a college kid. But looks can be deceptive: beneath the casual-looking facade are keen entrepreneurial instincts and a fast-working business brain.

Says Wu: "I very much have the Chinese work ethic, my family are all 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.

"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. 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."

Wu is quick to credit the 20 people working at Jason Wu Studios, who have to follow a punishing schedule. Fashion houses such as this produce a minimum of two collections a year - spring-summer, autumn-winter - in addition to beach-style garments and accessories such as bags, shoes and spectacles.

For now, Wu is primarily concentrating on the clothing, building up the brand so it has real international cachet. If all goes according to plan, Wu may be on course to become the first Asian designer whose name is instantly recognizable worldwide, even beyond the fashion world, a feat achieved by only a select few such as Giorgio Armani, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Yves Saint Laurent and the first-ever superstar designer, Coco Chanel.

The new 150-piece autumn-winter collection, which has received positive reviews from fashion observers, takes Jason Wu a step closer to being a name that has international resonance.

"I think the world is our oyster, there are an infinite amount of things that we can do," he says. "We will be launching e-commerce this year, it has not been right for us before. We want to develop into a lifestyle brand.

"I get the best of both worlds, as I am from both a Chinese and Western background, it gives my sensibility a broader range. I think there is a huge future for us on the Chinese mainland; we have already been in Taiwan done a lot of work there."

A busy schedule leaves little time for relaxation, apart from the odd trip to go bowling, or to try out new restaurants. In fact Wu still lives in the same modest, pre-fame apartment in New York, mainly because there has been no time to make an accommodation upgrade. Since that Obama Moment, it has pretty much been work, work, work: lunch tends to be a sandwich, or bowl of noodles, eaten while working, dinner is late in the evening.

"I celebrated for one whole day and then went back to work on my collection immediately," he says. "When you have such a monumental success with one thing then the natural reaction is to follow it up, or people will think you are a one-hit wonder. I would like to think that we are much better than two years ago. Our shows are a real progression, we have grown into a fashion brand. I was a designer with a company but now we are a brand."