The Inauguration of Jason Wu

Michelle Obama selects Wu's gown for the inaugural balls.

Jason Wu in his West 37th Street studio on Wednesday.

NEW YORK — For designer Jason Wu, Michelle Obama’s choice of gown for the inaugural balls was almost as much of a surprise as it was for the entire world watching.

This story first appeared in the January 22, 2009 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“I had no idea,” a beaming Wu told WWD, sitting in his West 37th Street studio the morning after. “I really didn’t know until the second everybody else found out. I was waiting on pins and needles. Of course, I knew there was a small chance this could happen.”

It was a momentous occasion for the 26-year-old designer, who grew his collection out of a doll business in 2006. Almost instantly after the First Lady emerged at the Neighborhood Inaugural Ball, his home and cell phones started ringing and e-mails crowded his in-box.

“It was very emotional,” he said, describing the moment he saw Obama in his dress. “I had been working on this for three months. At least the secret was out now. It was the ultimate validation for me as a designer.”

It’s not the first time Obama wore Wu. She also donned one of his dresses for an interview with Barbara Walters last November. Since Tuesday night, though, Wu’s name has been catapulted into the fashion mainstream, splashed across the front pages of newspapers and Internet news outlets, television shows and even the yellow-cab video segments. On Wednesday morning, the graduate of Parsons The New School for Design and former Narciso Rodriguez intern patiently sat through several interviews, from NBC’s the “Today” show and “Access Hollywood” to ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

“I have given myself one day to indulge in this great thing, and tomorrow I really have to get back to the [fall] collection,” he said.

Since launching his business, Wu has built a distribution network of more than 30 retailers, including Bergdorf Goodman; Net-a-porter.com; Jeffrey in New York and Atlanta; Nordstrom; Neiman Marcus; Halls in Kansas City, Mo.; Louis of Boston, and, most importantly, Ikram in Chicago, which has been the conduit for every one of the First Lady’s inaugural outfits.

Wu started working on the inaugural dress with lkram in November but admitted he didn’t know the occasion he was designing it for.

“I knew it had to be formal, and my only memo was that it had to sparkle,” he recalled. “I thought, I can do it, I can do sparkle.”

“I think the dress had to be classic, but it had to say ‘new,’” Wu added. “She has beautiful shoulders, so I wanted to show that off. White is such a bold color, but it can also be so soft. It was about achieving that balance between the bold statement and also the feminine colors. I wanted to explore both of those, and I thought white was the best way to convey that idea.”

The off-the-shoulder white dress was embellished with more white organza flowers and Swarovski crystals than he cares to remember. According to Wu, Obama did not buy the dress — he made it with the knowledge that were she to pick it for the big event, he would be donating it to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., where it will eventually be displayed next to other inaugural gowns. The designer couldn’t price the one-of-a-kind dress. For spring, a Jason Wu evening gown typically retails from $2,990 to $4,700.

(The same rules seem to apply to Obama’s bling on inauguration night, which was by Los Angeles jeweler Loree Rodkin.

She created shoulder-dusting earrings, incorporating 48 carats of rose-cut and briolette diamonds along with a single 20-carat rose-cut diamond ring and a stack of 20 micropavé diamond bangles. Rodkin donated the gems to the Smithsonian. Jewelry experts estimated the value of the jewelry to exceed $250,000 at retail.)

While designing the dress, Wu deliberately didn’t think about the historic dimension it could have. “I think I just got lost in the moment,” he said. “If I had thought about what this means, it would have hindered my creativity. I think I needed to just do it. I wasn’t given that much detail.”

If anything, he seems humbled by the moment and the impact it could have on his sales, which, as with most young designers, are small. And Wu recognizes that past designers of the First Lady’s inaugural dresses — such as Michael Faircloth for Laura Bush and Sarah Phillips for Hillary Clinton — haven’t exactly gone on to worldwide fame.

“I have been fortunate enough to have grown my business and hired new people,” Wu said. “I wanted to pay my dues. It’s not going to become a 30-people operation overnight, but this will help. This will give a huge boost to the brand, though. It will take the brand out of being known in the fashion industry to more of a global presence, and that is invaluable.

“We are about to ship spring this week,” Wu added. “I firmly believe stores have to sell more than the clothes — they have to sell a lifestyle. This will help them make it that much easier. It was immediate media. Your average consumer will walk in and recognize this, which is invaluable.”

Beyond the worldwide recognition, Obama seemed like a dream client for the designer. “She is approachable. She can wear designer, she can wear J. Crew,” Wu said. “Women relate to her. It’s about her and how she wears the clothes, and how that could be translated to women across the world.”

And though the designer’s doll collection is available at FAO Schwarz, Wu has no plans to create a plastic version of Michelle. “I don’t think I could top last night,” he said.

The only thing that could top Tuesday’s experience for Wu would be to meet the First Lady in person. Perhaps in the front row at his show at Exit Art on Feb.13? “I think she is too busy to come to my show,” Wu said. “There are world matters to worry about — although, it would be great.”