Sustainability, size-inclusivity and being inspired by “South Park” were among key topics discussed Thursday in a conversation between Jason Wu and Gary Wassner, chief executive officer of Hilldun Corp.
The chat took place at a conference titled “Vortex: Paradox, Promise, Possibility,” sponsored by Initiatives in Art and Culture at the Museum of the City of New York.
Gary Wassner: How have things changed in fashion over the past 10 years?
Jason Wu: Things have completely changed since I’ve been working in fashion the past 10 years. Our perception of what’s acceptable in fashion and what’s not acceptable has really changed. As designers, we’re more open-minded. We’re embracing different markets and different price points. I just recently did a plus-size collection with Eloquii that ranged from $95 to $200. It wasn’t about doing what I do for less.…It was elevating the plus market.
G.W.: Talk about the changing face of luxury.
J.W.: When I began, we were exclusively luxury. Everything was over $1,200. Since then I launched another price point. It used to be called Grey Jason Wu, now it’s all combined as Jason Wu. Things go from $250 to $10,000. It’s more of a range. It’s not about being pigeon-holed in one category. If you bring the luxury aesthetic to a wider price range, it feels really more modern.
G.W.: Can you give everybody a description of your DNA and what your brand is?
J.W.: My brand is inherently very feminine. I was heavily obsessed by the feminine form since I was young. I was obsessed with the Forties and Fifties and the silhouette. There’s a very refined look. I try to take those values and make it supermodern. Something modern women can be empowered in, to look glamorous, without being fussy.
G.W.: You’ve had experience designing dolls.
J.W.: When I was 16, I took a part-time job working at a toy company. I was going to boarding school in Connecticut and I took a train into New York by myself. I went to visit this company called Integrity Toys. Long story short, it became a career. Next year will be my 20th year working with them. They’re super high-fashion dolls. They’re not like Barbie dolls. I feel like dolls have a great way of documenting fashion….If you look at the Egyptian times to the Forties, Fifties to the Seventies. The dolls of those eras represent the fashion and the aesthetics of those times.
G.W.: You said to me a number of years ago, “I’m not the cool kid on the block. I’m not meant to be the cool kid of the block.” To me that was worth everything. What do you mean by that?
J.W.: When I started in my 20s, I was always an old soul. My favorite designers are Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Lacroix. It’s been a lifelong obsession. I think my aesthetic has always been very clear. When I started in 2007, I felt like all my peers were street and young, and I wasn’t. There was a little internal battle, who should I be? Over the last 10 years, what’s brought me the most success is when I’m the most true to myself. I like unique, I like feminine, I like sophisticated. I don’t care about the trends. I can give you an embroidered dress. That’s what I’m good at. That’s what I do. What I want is clothes that still look great in 60 years, 100 years. When I go to the Met, I look at the archives, Schiaparelli, the Diors, the Balenciagas. You look at those pieces, they still look beautiful. That’s what I’ve really wanted in my career. It’s really taken 10 years to really own it…it comes with age.
G.W.: What’s happening with luxury today? Balenciaga, Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior are hiring designers known for street. Isn’t it a bit odd?
J.W.: It’s not my personal aesthetic, but I do think it’s interesting that it’s a mixed pot of aesthetics and there’s not a clear definition of what is luxury and what isn’t. Supreme is a very good example, winning the CFDA [Menswear Designer of the Year in 2018.] In a way that’s modern. I think it’s a very busy market today and it’s a market that one needs to be loud [in] to be successful. I prefer to be a little quieter.
G.W.: What about when Michelle Obama wore your dress to the inaugural balls?
J.W.: That was not that quiet. I was quiet about it. With social media, bigger companies are inclined to make big, bold moves in order to drive continued interest in the brand.…The role of creative director has changed greatly.…Designers don’t spend 10 years at a label, it’s looking more like five years.
G.W.: What was it like to be the creative director of a mega company like Hugo Boss?
J.W.: It was great. It was kind of a reverse education. I started without having any experience in fashion. Having to work at a company that was $3 billion and 2,000 stores globally. It taught me how to amplify the vision. How do you take a concept…my last project can be seen now with their holiday campaign with the Jeremyville collaboration. I remember running to the illustrator and saying, that’s a great idea for a holiday campaign and we just made it happen. Now it’s in 2,000 stores.
G.W.: What are the challenges in your business and your peers’ businesses?
J.W.: One of the biggest challenges right now for American fashion, you’re competing with everyone, you’re not just competing with people in your floor or in your price range. People are shopping everywhere, every kind of fashion, and every price range. It’s important for us designers to be much more open-minded and think more outside of the box. I don’t think the traditional, very narrow set of rules of how you have to be a designer necessarily applies. My eyes have really opened since I had that perspective the last three years. I’ve changed a lot. My new way of working is being comfortable with the uncomfortable. Some things that make me uncomfortable have turned out to be really great projects. I’m not afraid. I take meetings…I just want to learn. I want to know different price points, I want to know different countries, different regions, different areas of design. I’m working on a furniture thing next year….Defining the Jason Wu world a little bit more in a real way. What does her living space look like? Expanding beauty. I’m launching my second fragrance next year.
G.W.: You’re expanding in so many categories. Where do you get your inspiration from these days?
J.W.: It’s different every time. It could be an exhibit or an episode of “South Park.” For me, I don’t think my inspiration comes from one area….I always call designers blenders. We take a bunch of random ingredients and make it into a concoction we call a collection.
G.W.: What’s your preference for shopping? Online or in a store?
J.W.: I love a store. I think there’s magic in being able to touch and feel the materials, but at the same time, I love the convenience of online. I’m a little bit of both. I think in-store is very important. It just has to be that more special for people to want to go shop. When you go into a store you don’t want to see an empty white box with some racks. There has to be an experience, a visual, a feeling. In whatever way that means. All retailers are trying to look for interesting ways to elevate the retail experience. We’re working on our first stand-alone store next year in Shanghai. I wanted to make it feel like it’s her apartment. How do I translate that to a very intimate experience?
G.W.: With size diversity, you’ve added sizes in the collection and you have the deal with Eloquii. Do you ever think the time will come when Jason Wu will be all size-inclusive?
J.W.: It depends on demand. It’s definitely supply and demand. To be all size-inclusive in luxury, there aren’t as many platforms for that. There are challenges for a store to be able to buy deeply in every size.…For me, if there’s a market need and business opportunity, we’ll certainly do it.
Audience Question: What is sustainability for the House of Wu?
J.W.: We are not a green fashion house, to be honest. We do try to make clothes that are not disposable at any price point. Perhaps it’s not great for me to say that as a fashion designer and I’m trying to sell you more clothes. Sometimes we have too much. Sometimes it’s good to have a little less and a little more quality. You hear about these corporations of dumping, millions of dollars of clothing goes to waste. You just consume less. That’s ultimately really what the answer is.