Anniversaries — the often-shocking markers of passing time. It seems only a moment ago that fashion became enamored of Alexander Wang — his street-smart clothes, all edge and attitude yet tinged with subversive optimism, and the designer himself, he of the buoyant runway sprint and party-loving persuasion. Yet it’s been 10 years since Wang’s arrival, a milestone he noted with a collection that, not coincidentally, struck a reflective note. “Sometimes I feel like the innovation moves faster than what we’re prepared to absorb. Maybe…the rejection of innovation is what feels modern,” he said of the diverse lineup, the practicality of which didn’t at all cut into its cool factor. In a conversation with WWD, Wang talked about his decade of fashion prominence and fame.
Ten years in business. What does the milestone mean to you?
I can’t believe 10 years have gone by. I remember, just like yesterday. I was in my dorm room having this idea, talking about it over the phone with my mom, flying back to San Francisco and having my sister-in-law [Aimie Wang, chief executive officer at the company] being like, “I’m in between jobs. Why don’t I help you?”…It’s really been from the first day, working together and doing everything ourselves to now, today, having whole teams and people that we work with, and collaborations. It’s really been much less about me and much more about the brand as an organization and people all working together to create something together. I feel like that’s really been the biggest difference today.
This story first appeared in the September 23, 2015 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
You’re very young to have a 10th anniversary. The perception is that you were an instant success.
Really, not a lot of people paid so much attention to what we were doing until we had our first presentation show. So we had a couple of seasons under our belt to kind of say OK, we’ll figure out what a line sheet was, how to get our deliveries on track, find the right showroom. So there were obstacles.
Can you articulate the single biggest lesson of the past 10 years?
Never feel like you’ve figured it out completely. Every single time I feel like, OK we’ve got that under our belt or it’s going to be exactly like that, something always changes, someone always cancels, someone pulls out. Whether it’s in sales, in press, building a store, whatever it may be, you always have to be prepared for change and for something to go wrong.
The single biggest surprise?
My agility to move on. Whenever I feel like the worst thing has happened and something didn’t go as I thought it would go, I always feel [bad], like, you know. But the next day, the show’s got to move on. I feel like I really surprise myself on being able to move on when things don’t go the way that you perceive.
When you started you often talked about your customer being the off-duty model.
In the beginning, you’re 21….You throw out words; you don’t know how to speak to journalists or press or editors or buyers and so you just say things, and sometimes they’re very outrageous…. Today, it’s less dictated by what her profession is or his profession, the age range, where they’re from. It’s much more about the sensibility of not having to be confined by a stereotype or one thing…everyone wants to be a little bit of everything. I think fashion allows you today to really be a part of a lot of different things.
As a designer you may want to address that totality, but you have to have a point of view. How do you reconcile the two?
I like to think of my girl as someone who really has a less precious way of approaching fashion. She enjoys it, she loves it, but she really takes things and places them out of context. She doesn’t poke fun at fashion but she likes to have fun with it.
Who are your fashion icons?
If you ask me who’s really kind of been someone that I’ve looked up to I’d probably point to Ralph [Lauren]. He’s built the biggest lifestyle brand in the world. The way that he creates an environment, an experience, a lifestyle. You know, when you see an image it doesn’t even have to have his name on it and people know that it’s a Ralph Lauren image…I think when you have that much conviction in what you stand for and the people around you can answer things for you before you’ve already made the decision, that means you know you’ve made your point.
You’re considered a master of social media. Talk about your strategy.
If I was just talking to my friend, what kind of images would I want to send, what kind of tone would I want the conversation to have? We launched [on] Instagram right before the H&M collaboration was announced. I’ve always loved when people text me the address of a party an hour or two hours before; you kind of feel like everyone’s waiting around for that address and you find it and you want to go. I was like, why don’t we launch this announcement with Instagram? I said, you guys announce a party, we’ll announce a party on our end and then people will arrive and realize it’s the same venue and that will be the announcement.
Talk about H&M, and about collaborations in general, about what you take from high-low.
Another person that I love and admire is Karl Lagerfeld. The fact that he’s someone that can speak to a lot of different audiences and have a lot of different conversations is something that I find very intriguing. The same reason why I wanted to work at Balenciaga when the opportunity came in is the same reason why I wanted to do H&M when the opportunity arose.
That’s very interesting, the same reasons, the same attraction.
Same reasons, same attractions to a certain extent — of course, different resources, different infrastructure….H&M was something that, OK, I said, well, one day if I was to do something that was really for the masses what would I do? And I felt it was very important to do something different….I’ve always loved performance wear and activewear. It’s a completely different ball game in terms of materials; it’s much more advanced and technical. So I said H&M would be the perfect place to really have that infrastructure.
Speaking of performance wear, you designed a look for Madonna’s current tour.
I met her a couple of years ago. I think I was at the Met and I was very fanatic and asked to take a picture with her, and it was a moment, and I remembered it forever, and I was like, OK, I guess that was my Madonna moment….She came to our Met after party this last year. We got to talk a little bit more and then from there, she asked me to be in the video and then from there, she was like, “I have the tour coming out. Would you be open to working on something?”
Were you at all intimidated being in the video? You didn’t look it.
It was literally the day or two days before when they called and said, “Do you want to be in the video?” And we just went in and they were filming at the Boom Boom Room, and it was very organic…
No time for nerves.
No, no time for nerves, no time for like, “What do you want me to do?” She was like, “OK, I just want you to say, ‘Bitch, I’m Madonna,’ and do it your own way.” Then I did and I was like, “Bitch, I’m Madonna,” and she’s like, “OK, no, no, no, no.” She’s like, “Go in there, and I want you to seem like you’re having the best time.”…It took a couple of tries but then after a while I had a couple of Champagnes and then I was like, “OK, I’m ready for my ‘Bitch, I’m Madonna’ moment.”
What was it like designing for Madonna?
She’s very educated in terms of fit, in terms of material, what works for her body. The most important thing for her is the performance comes first and foremost, so she has to be able to dance and move and feel comfortable in it. So she knows exactly what she wants. But, yes, it was a huge privilege for us, and an honor.
Let’s circle back to the anniversary. Tell me about the anniversary initiatives.
When we started sitting down with the team and we were talking 10 years, “OK, what does this mean to us…what do we want to do?” It really was about turning it back to the people who have supported us, whether it was our customers, the people who we have collaborated with, inspired us, came to our shows, worked with us on our campaigns….We did a call out to our followers on social media to vote on their favorite pieces from previous collections.
You reissued those pieces?
[For] our own stores and e-comm[erce].
What else for the anniversary?
We’ve worked with charities before, but it’s never been our own initiative. We thought dosomething.org was the perfect match. It gives a lot of different people of different backgrounds the opportunity to make social change…We created a T-shirt and a hoodie…We started reaching out to people that we worked with, people who have inspired me, people who we think have made a big impact as well. [We] did a beautiful campaign with Steven Klein and Pascal [Dangin]. We shot Kanye [West], we shot Kim [Kardashian], we shot Taraji [P. Henson], we shot Kristen Wiig, Kate Moss, Rod Stewart, Pamela Anderson.
This wasn’t your first shoot with Steven. Tell me about the jeans campaign. It was famously naughty.
I knew I wanted to work with Anna [Ewers] and I have to say, she’d never done a nude campaign or nude editorial before. She said, “You know, if I was to do it, I’d do it with you and Steven because I feel the most comfortable.” So I said, “OK, let’s do it.” It was a closed set — me, her, Steven. And Steven was like, “Go over and direct her.” And it was like, “What do you want to do?” And we were placing her arm and pulling down the jeans and…
And before she knew it…
Her hands were covering her crotch and it was really organic.
Do you set out to be provocative and how difficult is it to provoke at a time when everything goes?
I think everyone has seen everything, but where it’s coming from, who’s saying it and in what context — you leave it up to that person. Nudity has been done before in campaigns and it felt right and [was] what we wanted to do, and capturing the energy in that room and doing it with Anna and where she was in her career and where we were in terms of launching the denim.
Your show has in a very short time become one of the must-see shows, not just in New York, but also through the entire season. Do you have the idea for the clothes first and then come up with the set? Or do you envision a presentation and design around it?
For me, 99 percent of the time it’s the clothes and the collection first…They’re always so used to me [being] last-minute, [so it’s] like, “Let’s start earlier, prepare a little bit better.” [But] it really has to start with clothes for me.
You’re known to throw a memorable party at showtime. Tell me about your parties.
I remember our first after party. It was like, “Let’s invite everyone who had been a part of the collection,” and we didn’t invite any press. It was the best time. I think we went to some club and everyone just got crazy and I said, “This is what an after party should be.”…As we started doing parties, and I had gone to a lot of other fashion parties and you’ve already seen the same people three or four times in one day, there’s only so much conversation you can have over a glass of Champagne. It was like, let’s make it somewhere where people can disappear…Let’s make that one thing where people can dance and have a good time.
To finish, Alexander Wang’s three tips for a fabulous party.
Got to have good music…[You’ve] got to create a mystery in the party. People have to come and not feel like I’ve walked [around the] room and I’ve seen everyone and everything and I can leave now. It’s like, what’s the mystery? Can they wander around? Are there places they can discover within the party? Do they know what’s going to happen throughout the night? They want to prolong that curiosity. Number three, the people. You can have a good party in most cases if you have the right people and music and mystery.