There’s a block on Grand Street in New York that has long been on Alexander Wang’s radar. Flair, the furniture store at the corner of Greene Street, is where he bought nearly all the pieces, including a leopard rug from the Sixties, for his new TriBeCa apartment. A few doors east is If Boutique, one of his favorite shops, while he often grabs lunch, preferably the ricotta-and-fig sandwich, at Le Pain Quotidien next door. But most significant of all is the 4,500-square-foot spot at 103 Grand Street, formerly Yohji Yamamoto’s boutique. Of course, as anyone who’s walked by in the past six months and noticed the oversize logos in the windows can attest, it’s now home to Wang’s first flagship, which, finally, is slated to open to the public on Thursday.
“That store was so iconic to the neighborhood,” said Wang, who frequently mines the city way of life for his six-year-old label. “I’ve always loved this space. Being a New York brand, it felt right.”
And it all happened by happy accident. After a year-long search, he nearly signed a lease on the other side of Broadway, on Howard Street, but backed out. “Literally a week later, my brother was walking home on Grand — that was the day they were taping up the Yohji windows,” recalled Wang of the store’s sudden close in January 2010. “He called me right away. The next day, we put in an offer. Two weeks later, we got the space.”
Wang completely gutted the store, and now there’s little left of that Yamamoto imprint, save for the long, lean columns and a single traffic cone with the word “Yohji” hand-scribbled in block letters. As of a few days ago, though, little about the store reads “Alexander Wang” or, for that matter, “complete.” His private opening bash on Tuesday will still go on, he assured, and in the meantime the designer, renderings in hand, gave WWD an exclusive tour.
“I wanted something quite pristine and hard,” said Wang, who worked with architect Robin Kramer of Kramer Design Group and interior decorator and longtime friend Ryan Korban. Underscoring his point are the ultrasleek floors and cash wrap made from white Carrera marble (a New Hampshire import). Walls and pillars are white, while 12 panels of mirrors curve around one side of the store. The pièce de résistance, though, is an imposing 10-foot-high, 14-foot-wide blackened-steel cage at the store’s entrance, which, in many ways, will serve as Wang’s gallery. “We wanted a discovery area, kind of a curated one, where we can showcase our special collaborations — like our upcoming pieces with [Paris jeweler] Betony Vernon — or things for the holidays, Halloween or whatever.” Along with a leather “rug” and the custom rubber-dipped hangers (to prevent slippage), the caged enclosure looks fairly fetishistic. Shoppers can connect their own S&M dots. After all, this is a guy who once used nose-ring piercings as handbag hardware and whose fall 2008 runway show included Keds slicked in black latex.
Other elements will bring some comfort to the minimal space to keep it from being “too sterile and cold,” Wang said. There’s a leather couch (“I just want people to plop down in it”), a big brass coffee table and a plush fox-fur hammock at the center of the store. His offices, for the record, feature plenty of goat-hair-covered furniture, including two Brno chairs by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe the designer had covered in the tuft. “That ironic sexuality and irreverence is important to our brand, you know?” said Wang.
Also important is Wang’s sense of contrasts, which leads to one of his store buzzwords: “interrupted” (“permanence” and “pure” are others). “A lot of the pieces are kind of interrupted,” he explained. “I wanted things to feel a little bit flawed.” Case in point: the display tables, custom-made like everything else in the shop, which are spliced together from marble and black iron, Doctor Moreau-like. “They look like [complete] pieces that are cut in half and then stuck back together,” continued Wang. “There’s always this idea of imperfection in our clothes. I want people to gain a new experience of the brand now.”
In addition, Wang wants the store to serve as a laboratory of sorts. There will be exclusives, starting with a five-piece capsule collection in leather: two jackets, a vest, a dress and a top. “This is a place where we can do really special pieces that stores might not want to take risks on,” said Wang. “We can test-drive here.”
And he’ll be there to see how it all works out. “I want to treat this as an experience where I can really learn more about our customer,” said Wang, adding, with a smile, “I’m a proven salesperson.” While Wang’s internships at Derek Lam and Marc Jacobs have been well documented, not everyone knows the retail side of his CV. As a freshman at Parsons, he worked in the footwear department at Barneys New York, but long before that he got his start at his sister’s now-defunct pottery shop in San Francisco, Artisan You, when he was 12. “Whenever she was away, I’d play runway, trance-y music,” he said. “All the customers would complain — ‘Excuse me, we’re trying to concentrate.’ ”
After that came a sales position when he was in high school at Rabat boutique, also in the Bay Area; even then he was whipping up garments (“little party dresses and draped things”) from scrap fabric. Ever the entrepreneur, Wang would merchandise his pieces into the other designers’ racks and, since he worked on commission, would oh-so-innocently put his product in the window display and plug his own wares. “People would come in, and I’d be like, ‘Oh, have you seen this designer?” recalled Wang, who later applied for a sales position at Marc Jacobs when the designer opened a San Francisco store. He spent the night before his interview with Robert Duffy rehearsing in front of the bathroom mirror; the meeting didn’t go so well and he never heard back. No matter: He ended up interning for the designer during college.
And proving that everything comes full circle, in December Wang tapped his first president, Rodrigo Bazan, the former vice president and general manager for Marc Jacobs in Europe, the Middle East and India; the Italian-Argentine executive is best known for rolling out 35 stores for Jacobs in those markets. “We felt, ‘OK, we’ve established ourselves in the U.S., but for Europe and specifically Asia, we started seeing this growth pattern and we thought, Before we really dive into this, we should have the right person on our team to take us there,” explained Wang, who last year opened offices in Shanghai and Hong Kong. “So once you get there, you don’t have to go back.”
Bazan, for his part, said he was always a fan of Wang. He started out as a client, buying bags for his wife. Bazan’s stamp won’t be seen until later this year, but he noted that chief among his current plans is the expansion of the company’s retail strategy, which includes opening freestanding stores outside of the U.S. Currently, international sales are 50 percent of the business, with a third of that in Asia and another third in Europe.
Other recent hires include chief financial officer Gabriel Saca and chief operating officer Mark Greene, both formerly of Coach, while Wang’s brother and sister-in-law, Dennis and Aimie Wang, continue to serve as chief production officer and chief executive officer, respectively. And now he’s given an executive title and office to another family member: Ying Wang. She owns a manufacturing firm in China and, “With the expansion into Asia, she really knows that market and is helping us there,” Wang said. “She’s sitting in on meetings, seeing how we work, if there are any loopholes that need to be fixed.” Her working title is chairman, but to Wang she’s “Mom.”
In other Alexander Wang news, the designer is introducing a line of leather goods on his runway today. Retailing from $135 to $495, the wallets, coin purses (right), traveling cases and wallet-clutch hybrids feature Wang’s trademark zipper and hardware details as well as fun extras such as clip-on rabbit tails. There’s plenty of Wang’s penchant for the subversive, too: One group, for instance, is inspired by the top of a garment bag when folded in half. And since his popular Brenda handbag has its inspiration in an old toiletry bag of his own, the designer, fittingly, has added a new one to the mix.