WWD’s executive editor Bridget Foley interviewed Alexander Wang on his roles as creative director of Alexander Wang, and creative director of Balenciaga.
WWD: Talk about the changes in your life since you’ve taken the creative director of Balenciaga role.
Alexander Wang: It’s almost been a year now since last November, when I signed my contract. It’s definitely been a whirlwind — I can’t believe how much a year has really changed. Essentially it’s double the amount of work. But it’s been so enriching and such a challenge that I’ve really enjoyed. I really took it on as a way to see myself incorporate into a different business structure, something that might challenge me in the way that my own company may be able to grow into in a few years or a decade, etc. It’s definitely been an amazing ride.
This story first appeared in the October 30, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
WWD: How do you distinguish creatively between the two brands?
A.W.: At Alexander Wang, it’s a completely personal project. I started it from scratch and it was really a personal desire to find my own voice. At Balenciaga, there’s a heritage, there’s a DNA and a framework that is always in my mind whenever I’m working — during fittings, through meetings and through store discussions. So there are two completely different worlds, and I think it really helps that they’re in two different cities. It really sets the tone to tell two different stories.
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WWD: The travel must get hectic.
A.W.: You know, it’s actually gotten a lot easier for me. Somehow I’ve gotten used to the jet lag.
WWD: You talked about the DNA and the heritage. Is that framework always good, or does it become an albatross? Do you become obsessed with what the codes of the house should be?
A.W.: For me it’s actually something that’s completely new because I’ve never had to work in that way before. In New York and at my own brand, it’s always searching to find what those codes are, and finding that consistency and the characteristics that really make up my own brand. But going into Balenciaga, of course it was a completely new challenge that I’m not used to, but in a way, it really gave me discipline, gave me a way of creating codes and to dig for certain things and find things and make them more au currant, and make them more recognizable to speak to a much larger audience. So it’s definitely not a hindrance — it’s something that I quite enjoy discovering.
WWD: For those who don’t know you, talk about your background.
A.W.: I was born and raised in California — San Francisco; I went to boarding school, and then moved to New York when I was 18. I really always was fascinated by fashion. It was actually something that was a personal fascination because neither my family nor my friends that I had at the time were ever involved or really tuned in to what was going on in the fashion industry. So when I moved to New York, it was the biggest deal. I went to Parsons. I left after my second year, after a couple of internships. I felt that I wasn’t being challenged, and I wanted to find something that was much more hands-on. I felt that I was learning a lot more at my internships, and I felt that I would take a break and discover a different opportunity. And I launched my own line, which I never thought would take off the way that it did.
WWD: Why did Alexander Wang connect so passionately and specifically with a particular customer?
A.W.: In the beginning, there was no one around me that could say, “Do it this way” or “You should talk to this person.” It was really based on instinct and gut, and the reason that I wanted to launch my own line is because I felt like there was an audience and there were people I related to who couldn’t find certain things. It was a very organic start-up, and we made a lot of mistakes and there were a lot of obstacles, but it was definitely a learning process that I wouldn’t be here today if I didn’t go through. But again, it all comes down to connecting with who I felt was my customer and my audience.
WWD: Who is that?
A.W.: Essentially, the idea of the Alexander Wang brand really lies in this unprecious outlook of looking at items or things that you want to wear — it’s a bit ironic, and there’s humor and there’s wit and experimentation, but it lies in the reference of everyday items. Things that people love to wear on an everyday basis. It’s a T-shirt, it’s a jean, it’s a sweatshirt, but really exploited and made into these very fantastical things and objects and finding beauty in them.
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WWD: You went into the contemporary arena. What does contemporary mean to you? It seems that it’s becoming a dirty word among people that have become very successful in contemporary. People don’t want to be identified as contemporary.
A.W.: We specifically felt when we started that we didn’t want to be classified by a price point. We actually turned down a lot of orders in the beginning with very important stores because we felt that, specifically in the American market, when you’re a certain price point, you automatically get placed on a certain floor, or with certain other designers that might not have any connection to what your aesthetic is or who the customer may be. Buyers would look for a very specific item within that price point, and they felt that’s what they needed for that floor. It was very important in the beginning that we felt that we had a balance of design and integrity and point of view that stood for our own ethics. Then, as the brand grew, we were recognized for that, and we could be placed in the right stores and alongside the right adjacencies.
WWD: How did you negotiate that starting out? When you’re dealing with stores that you would like to be in and you need — it’s a two-way street — you need business.
A.W.: The first season, me and my sister-in-law, who’s my chief executive officer, went to a trade show, and we had no idea how to write an order. We had a good amount of attention from a piece in Women’s Wear Daily, and we were kind of overwhelmed by the situation. Then we signed on with a showroom that slightly guided us, but it was really the sense of, “OK, does this store have the right approach? Do they really understand the product that we hope to achieve?” One of our biggest accounts at the beginning was Barneys. And then we started rolling with that and it was definitely difficult, but we had to really fight for what we believed in.
WWD: You mentioned your sister-in-law. Talk about the structure of the company. I know you said you wanted to talk about your involvement in the business side of it and how it’s structured and you’ve been involved in that from the beginning.
A.W.: My mom was always an entrepreneur and really taught me —maybe not directly, but indirectly taught me about fighting for what you believe in.
WWD: Let me interrupt for a second — I think you’re perceived as a Chinese-American designer, but you were born on the West Coast, so talk about your time in Shanghai.
A.W.: I was born and raised in California. We’re of Chinese descent. I spent one year going to American school in Shanghai. That’s kind of the extent of my exposure to living in Asia. When I used to go back it was to visit my family, and now when I go back it’s to do business. But in terms of having a heritage that connects to where the business is going today, I don’t really see a direct correlation. At the end of the day, people want beautiful product that they love and can wear. It doesn’t matter if you can speak the language or can’t speak the language.
WWD: Can you speak the language?
A.W.: I can speak the language, but it’s very entry level. When I go to Asia, I do interviews in English.
WWD: Back to the structure of Alexander Wang.
A.W.: I was always very intrigued by the entire process, not just creating and finding the reference or thinking about the show, but what stores we should sell to, what magazines we should work with, who we should dress. When we should ship certain items, what those delivery windows would cost, what the price point should be. I think to understand that entire process is necessary today, when the market is so competitive. You really have to understand what kind of product and where you’re making it, what your resources are and the technical constructions. To be able to deliver that and make it work. I think every piece is a puzzle that creates the entire picture. It’s always been very important to me, and even as our company gets larger and larger, I always want to still feel that I need to be very involved and in tune with that process and how it organically evolves.
WWD: Talk about how you have the main collection and T, the different areas.
A.W.: We have our main collection, which is Alexander Wang. Then we have Core, which is part of main, but we have them also during pre-collections, which is more based on tailoring and our bestsellers, which we offer every season. Then there’s T, which in the beginning a lot of people thought of as a diffusion line, but in reality it’s a collection that sits with the main collection but is more of a component that is focused on jersey, there’s some knits, we started introducing some leather. It’s not a toned-down or watered-down version of what we show on the runway. It’s the same customer, so we try to put it together with the main collection in stores. We show it during the same time, we work off the same color card. And then we have accessories — shoes and bags; men’s T; men’s ready-to-wear, and now we have a collection of objects. When we started doing retail, I thought it was important to create exclusive items for our own stores and online. It’s based on this idea of everyday items, whether it’s a lighter, an ashtray, yoga mat, boxing gloves, but with our own sensibility.
WWD: Is it a random thing, that you just think, “Oh, boxing gloves”?
A.W.: We try to have some fun with it. There are very entry price point items, such as lighter covers. But then we try to do a fantasy item or something that relates to the show. The last fall show was about boxing, so we did these black matte boxing gloves that had this snake chain.
WWD: Are they seasonal items?
A.W.: Some are seasonal items; some become seasonless if they react really well on the sales floor and then we bring them back in a new metal finish or a new material. It’s been a really interesting exercise, and we’re having a lot of fun with it. It’s probably one of the meetings that I look forward to the most.
WWD: Two things you’ve brought up: your own retail and shows. Let’s go to retail first. How many stores do you have? You’ve grown so quickly in a short amount of time. What are the plans for the near future, and how many can you handle?
A.W.: We have 16 stores as of a month ago, we just opened our most recent flagship in Tokyo Aoyama. We’re in about 700 wholesale doors, 450 are ready-to-wear and shoes, and we’re actually 40 percent domestic and 60 percent international business, with the strength mainly in Europe and Asia. We’ve grown a lot over the last year, specifically in Europe, and we are looking at other locations. No matter how big the company gets and in terms of strategy, I always like to keep the process very organic, and I think that’s one of our strengths, that we are able to react quickly without so many levels of approval. If we find a great location, we love it, and we get it and we make it ours. That’s really what happened with our first New York flagship store.
WWD: What makes a great location to you? What do you look for?
A.W.: There are many factors, depending on the city and the concept of what we’re thinking. Is it in an area that we can relate to in terms of energy, in terms of adjacencies, in terms of who might be the customer that might go there if they’re not going there now? Foot traffic is important, but it’s not the most important thing, depending again on the region and the environment. Also, just the space. Is it characteristic of something that I envision? It’s been really different for every space that we look into, but it’s kind of an instinctual thing.
WWD: Your shows have become in a short time one of the must-see shows of the New York season. Is it both for the fashion and the entertainment value? You have a big production factor. Is it important to you to entertain along with delivering the fashion?
A.W.: Definitely. Especially today when there are so many shows to go to and editors get very tired after seeing show after show after show. It’s important to give them a new experience and to evolve that. When you start thinking about the collection, at the beginning when it’s very abstract — it’s the music, it’s the casting, it’s the location. It’s: What is the show? What is the concept that goes into it? Whether it’s the glow-in-the-dark finale or this season where we separated the show into two sections and one was censored and one wasn’t. It’s about having fun.
WWD: Talk about that with the messages and the censoring.
A.W.: The spring collection — there were a lot of ideas, but one of the main ones was censorship. We wanted to take the audience and split them into two sections to give them completely different experiences. So the soundtrack was censored on one side and not on the other to kind of give a different perception to how they might perceive the clothes when they were coming down the runway. Music does play a big part in our shows. I think a lot of people didn’t realize that there were two different soundtracks, they were probably just thinking, Oh, why is there another audience on the other side of the room? But that made it all more fun.
WWD: But you design in the context of a whole event? You don’t design a collection and then figure out how to stage it?
A.W.: Depending on the collection. Sometimes it comes very immediate. For the glow-in-the-dark collection, I knew from the beginning that I wanted glow in the dark.
WWD: Where does that come from? That was so much fun when those lights went down.
A.W.: It’s kind of in our culture, rave culture, glow in the dark. I was looking at dragonflies, and we wanted to do glow-in-the-dark embroidery and glow-in-the-dark fabric and knitwear and developing fabrics that would glow in the dark. It was kind of in the universe, and we wanted to take it and give a little twist to the finale.
WWD: Let’s talk about growth. What is your financing situation?
A.W.: In terms of?
WWD: Do you have investors? Are you looking for investors?
A.W.: We are personally, family-owned right now. Me, my brother, my sister-in-law and my mom. We’ve been really happy with our growth, and I think, we’re not saying that there won’t ever be a time where we might not consider it, but for right now it’s been a really good exercise in practicing what we believe and being able to have that creative freedom.
WWD: Do you have idols in this business?
A.W.: Definitely. They’re very random, very different from one another, but Ralph Lauren is definitely someone that I admire, Margiela, Alaïa, all for different reasons. I think there is something so specific and inherent to each and every one of them. They all have a very strong point of view and their own way of how they want to create their business.
WWD: Do you think about how big Alexander Wang brand can get? You mentioned Ralph. Could you see developing into that level of a lifestyle brand?
A.W.: To even achieve a fraction of his success would be incredible. Again, the process has always been very organic. I never thought eight years ago in 2007 starting my first collection and selling, I remember the first time it shipped. I was going to every store and looking at the racks and just staring at the clothes in the store because I was so amazed that something we created was actually being sold. I think it’s important to never feel jaded in this business because it’s something I got into because of the excitement, the passion, and I hope that always stays there and to always be on to the next one and want to work harder and find the next challenge.
WWD: I think one of the most remarkable examples of never being jaded in this business is Michael Kors, who spoke last night. He was just amazing. Things have certainly gone very well for him. Do you think about that? Is an initial public offering even, do you think about that down the road, or is that just so far away?
A.W.: I think it’s far away right now. We are still definitely in our beginning stages of building the blocks and finding what our path may be.
WWD: What inspires you?
A.W.: Everything inspires me. Walking through my front door and walking on the street inspires me. The consumers inspire me. I love going on Twitter just to kind of read what people want or “Oh my gosh, I want this shoe back in a different color.” Really it’s about having a dialogue with our audience.
WWD: We’ve got to wrap up, but I’ve got to ask you that because you have certainly used social media in a very interesting way for events. You’ve had that huge take-what-you-can thing. Talk about that a little bit. We talked about that yesterday a bit, about people who are of the generation and not of the generation and the differences in approach.
A.W.: To be honest, social media actually really scared me in the beginning. I was very shy to it just because I felt that it was very easy to share too much information, especially with the private life. It also became this kind of bragging war of brands to show who was wearing what. I really wanted to take social media and put it more to this idea of having a dialogue, an interesting conversation with our audience. It might not necessarily involve fashion directly. Two seasons ago we worked with a comedian named Bon Qui Qui who had a following on YouTube. We made a fashion video that was all about humor and comedy. Last season, I wanted to do something that was viral and also street-related. We promoted this onetime event that was undisclosed what it was going to be about…
WWD: It was promoted as a secret. You had to come to find out.
A.W.: You had to come to find out. Everyone was invited. It became this guessing game of “Oh, is it a concert? Is it a sample sale? Is it a fashion show?” We had no idea what the turnout would be. The first day we were kind of amazed. There were people walking on the street with signs, sample sale signs, and we were poking fun a little bit. Once they were let in, we told them that it was going to be a fashion free-for-all. There were no rules. There were no shopping bags. There was no limit.
WWD: Tell people where it was.
A.W.: It was in the Meatpacking District. We rented two studios. They were let into one room and they were briefed, and once the doors opened, it was anything goes.
WWD: It was take whatever you want.
A.W.: Take whatever you want. We filmed it and made a fun little video out of it. It was actually also inspiring because Darren Stein was the director of “Jawbreaker.” There was a scene at the end of the movie with the prom and Rose McGowan, and I was really inspired by that scene, so I said, “Let’s base it on that.”
WWD: Where did you intern?
A.W.: Where did I intern? I interned at Teen Vogue, Vogue, Marc Jacobs and Derek Lam.
WWD: Did you consider the editorial path at one point?
A.W.: I did. When I was in school and I was quite uncertain after I got to Parsons and I was quite uncertain about courses I was taking, I just thought why not, let’s do an internship in editorial and find out about the other side, whether it was editors, stylists, photographers, and how the whole process works. I did it for a year.
WWD: One simple question: How do you combine two jobs?
A.W.: First of all, I have an amazing team of people that I work with, both at Wang and Balenciaga, who are incredibly dedicated and hardworking, who I have the privilege of working with. A lot of organization, discipline, and I think it’s really forcing me to think very clearly in terms of what I want. Time passes so fast. Every day and every single meeting, it’s like decisions, decisions, decisions. You just have to know what you want and go with it. Sometimes they’re wrong, but you have to be willing to take the risk to move forward.
WWD: You mentioned you left Parsons because you felt you weren’t being challenged enough. What challenges you now?
A.W.: The business challenges me. I think the whole process of creating something and putting it out there into the world and getting a reaction is what challenges me. The reality of fashion challenges me. It’s also what I find inspiring as well.