Wu in the kitchen of The Surf Lodge. 

Who’s showing in September? Part one of New York’s Big Reveal is set to happen this morning when IMG unveils its schedule that will include some live shows, Jason Wu among them. Wu will stage a fashion show in front of a tiny audience — 30 people max — on the roof at Spring Studios. He’s calling it a “hybrid format,” and said that the point “is that it’s a digital show taking place in person.”

Lowe’s is sponsoring Wu’s show and the designer’s set will be a fairly extensive build. But clearly it won’t be business as usual. Among the points of difference, in addition to the audience and observation of all of the additional COVID-19-mandated requirements, Wu has decided to show his contemporary line Jason Wu, and will create a video for Jason Wu Collection that he’ll show in mid-October, which could shape up as a second, mini New York fashion week. (Michael Kors has committed to showing in October, and some others are considering doing so as well.) Wu views the move as an opportunity to highlight his lesser-known contemporary business, and thinks that right now, it just makes sense. “When everybody’s still at home, a lot of people are still out of the city — what can you realistically see yourself wearing on a daily basis?…We have to be able to imagine ourselves in the clothes in order to be interested in them,” Wu said.

Wu spoke on Thursday. He was at home, and ready to leave for a long weekend in Montauk as soon as our conversation ended.  But home is no longer his work base. He went back into the studio early, in May, a month before any of his design team could join him. “I just needed to be in a creative headspace again,” he said.

It worked. Wu has had a productive lockdown, to say the least. In addition to showing resort 2021 (to retailers only) and continuing work on his spring designer and contemporary collections, he oversaw from afar the opening of his brand’s first store, in Shanghai; launched a lifestyle partnership with 1-800-Flowers and debuted a Kitchen Collection of faucets and a soap dispenser with his longtime partner Brizo. And oh, yes, he’s gone deep into the Instagram food space with @MrWuEats, a diary that chronicles his impressive exploits in the kitchen. He shared one delectable-sounding recipe (alas, it’s likely to go untested on this end.) As for his weekend sojourn, the main event in Montauk was a dinner Wu hosted at The Surf Lodge, for which he planned the menu.

That event offered a taste of his former life, pre-pandemic, when Wu dined out with friends “maybe 300 out of 365 days.” He misses those days sorely and firmly believes they’ll come back. “There’s a lot that going digital can do,” Wu said, “but the human touch is irreplaceable.”

Wu will show his contemporary Jason Wu line on the runway next month. Here, a look from fall. 

Wu will show his contemporary Jason Wu line on the runway next month. Here, a look from fall.  Courtesy Photo

WWD: Jason, a store opening, a faucet launch, a food diary and all of the ordinary fashion tasks at this extraordinary time. You’ve had a very busy summer — and you went back into the studio early.

Jason Wu: I started going back in May by myself. I started needing some time away from home. I just needed to be in a creative headspace again. We shut down really early, the fifth of March.

WWD:  That’s a week earlier than a lot of other people.

J.W.:  We were monitoring the situation. We have a Chinese team, and it just seemed inevitable that we were going to go through the same thing they did. So I made the decision early to let everybody work from home. We messengered dress forms and machinery to people’s homes so that we were all set up remotely. We were able to get ahead of the [frenzy] because the week after, that’s when all the panic ensued. You could feel the panic in the city. Going to the grocery store was scary; there was no produce left at any of the grocery stores.

WWD: Most of the designers I’ve spoken with went back into the studio to work in-person with their teams. You went back at first on your own?

J.W.: May was too early to go back with the team. I just wanted to be in a different space, to be around fabric and materials. Especially in the beginning of March, when everything was so uncertain, it was really hard to stay focused. It seemed like the apocalypse for a second.

WWD: What was the impact on your spring 2020 collection?

J.W.: Spring was already fully shipped, fortunately. Obviously, sell-throughs slowed down during the closure. In the beginning of July, we started to resume shipping pre-fall for both Jason Wu and Jason Wu Collection. We’ve been pretty on track and we’re seeing things coming back, online especially. But in the beginning it was freakish because all of a sudden, the stores are closed with no end in sight. It was the uncertainty of it all.

WWD: How did you handle resort? We at WWD didn’t see it.

J.W.: I didn’t show resort to the press, just to the stores. I did a 360-degree shoot with fabric swatches sent out to all our retailers. We did digital showroom appointments across the board. This pandemic has forced us to work in a much different way, but it wasn’t like it wasn’t already foreseen. Seasonality has been a conversation for years.…I would say the silver lining within all this is it has forced us all to look at things a lot differently. As fashion people, we always like to think we’re very forward, but in some aspect we are also all traditionalists.

WWD: So true. Many things are done a certain way merely because they’ve always been done that way.

J.W.: Sometimes, it’s like the way my grandfather taught me how to ride a bicycle. He pushed me down a slope.

WWD:  Are you serious?

J.W.: Yes. I learned that day. Sometimes you have to be pushed down the slope instead of doing a few weeks on trainers. In fashion, we’ve been on trainers for quite a few years. Remember the see now/buy now model versus some people withholding pictures [until clothes hit the stores], and people showing different seasons at different times? I think through this experience we have become much more connected as a community.

Wu still believes in "the fantasy and dream" of dressing up. Here, a fall look from Jason Wu Collection.

Wu still believes in “the fantasy and dream” of dressing up. Here, a fall look from Jason Wu Collection.  Giovanni Giannoni/WWD

WWD: People are still showing at different times some in October. 

J.W.: Yes, for the first time, during this pandemic, we designers are talking to each other a lot. We do Zooms, we talk about ideas independently, and we’re thinking much more like a community. I speak to Laura [Kim] and Fernando [Garcia], to Phillip Lim, to my friend Alejandra Alonso Rojas. For independent designers in New York, it’s a particularly difficult time. We don’t have the power of [the major groups] like the European houses. So if we don’t come together and think about ways to collaborate and tear down that wall, I’m afraid New York Fashion Week isn’t going to be in a great space. It’s been on a downward trend, to be very frank.

WWD: What you’re talking about communication and collaboration among designers isn’t the CFDA supposed to be a forum for that?

J.W.: The CFDA is only as good as what its members want to do. I can [only] speak for myself here. Sometimes there’s a competitive wall [between] designers. It’s prevented us from wanting to work with each other. I had to face some of those demons. You have to [expose] your vulnerability a little bit when you’re opening up to talk to other people. If we don’t come up with solutions together as a group, we don’t succeed as a whole…I think at this time it’s really important not to be isolated. There was a lot of isolation going on in New York City.

WWD: Finding solutions has been difficult.

J.W.: For two seasons [spring and fall 2019] I didn’t show. I did presentations, because I didn’t feel inspired to show. I was going through a lot of personal fatigue from 10 years of doing shows, and I felt like the energy wasn’t there. I couldn’t be creative. Then when I came back, I felt much better…before the pandemic, I’d already started showing pre-collections [to the press] only once it’s in stores, as add-ons. So I look at spring and fall as each having two parts. That’s something I was already working on, and now everybody is much more on that wavelength — that it’s just too much.

WWD: Everyone has been talking about it for some time.

J.W.: But not doing it. The pandemic has forced us [to focus and act on] what was inevitable. It was the burnout of the fashion system.

WWD: You’re showing Jason Wu rather than Jason Wu Collection. Why?

J.W.: Of course, I still think the fantasy and dream are very important. We’re going to highlight that in October, through a film [for Jason Wu Collection]. But for a show, I want something that feels relevant for when everybody’s still at home and a lot of people are still out of the city — what can you realistically see yourself wearing on a daily basis? I think that’s ultimately what consumers and retailers want to see, too. And it’s a nice change to show something a little less serious. We’re having a pretty serious year already.

Wu opened his first brand store, in Shanghai, in July.

Wu opened his first brand store, in Shanghai, in July.  Courtesy Photo

WWD: You’re doing a live show, which is a bold move. When and where?

J.W.: We’re showing on the rooftop of Spring Studios, on Sunday, the 13th, at night. The official CFDA dates are [Sept.] 14, 15 and 16, but we’ll partake in the CFDA 360 program [Runway360, a digital platform that will bring together the various elements of a collection launch]. I wanted Sunday because it’s traditionally always been my day, and I’m a creature of habit. Sundays are good. Mondays are hard for me.

WWD: You have an interesting sponsor.   

J.W.: Lowe’s is sponsoring my show. We’re building an interesting outdoor environment. It will be a pretty large-scale build, but a very small audience, while paying attention to social-distancing rules for models and everything. We’ve already taken a lot of precautions, and laid out individual dressing rooms and all of that.

 WWD: Who’s the audience, and how many models?

J.W.: We’re looking at regulations to see how many models. I imagine 20 to 25, with a fair share of distance will be OK. And 25 to 30 audience members.

WWD: Are you prepared to field all of the invitation requests and to tell people, “You can’t come, you can’t come, you can’t come?”

J.W.: I expect a lot of people to just want to come digitally. The 25 are going to be friends and family. Due to corporate regulations, a lot of people may not be allowed to come. And the point of the show is that it’s a digital show taking place in person. I think that hybrid format is interesting.

WWD: If the point is a digital show, why is it important to have even a small live audience?

J.W.: I still love the idea of human interaction, and the energy of a live event. Even with much less of a live audience, a show can still be a special experience.

WWD: How are you working with Lowe’s?

J.W.: How do I imagine what’s available at Lowe’s and then make it in an elevated way? I always say that great taste and doing something in a beautiful way are not always a matter of price. If you look at my Instagram grid, it could be a Jason Wu dress or a celebrity wearing a Collection dress, or a faucet. If they don’t all belong together and speak to the brand codes, then I shouldn’t be doing it. So the idea is to reimagine, to be brave and think outside of the box. We’re still in the middle stages of designing, but I think it’s going to be imaginative, fun and elevated. [Lowe’s supplies] building materials that are very important for a show — like, I need a lot of wood. So how do we bring our story to life through a partner that has all of the materials needed? Again, many years ago I would have gotten scoffed at. People would’ve gone, “Ugh, he’s doing this.” But you know what?

WWD: Times have changed.

J.W.: There’s an opportunity here for brand exposure, an opportunity for us to further dive into the living space, which has been very successful for us for the last eight, nine years. And I’m very interested in exploring further the lifestyle side of the Jason Wu brand. That’s evident in our launches this year — that none of my launches have been fashion.

WWD: Speaking of which — Brizo. You just launched a kitchen faucet collection.

J.W.: Yes. It’s following an extremely successful bathroom faucet collection that’s been ongoing for the last eight years. I don’t come from traditional fashion. I was in the toy industry first. I’ve always thought lifestyle, and the environment around the Jason Wu customer is important. We launched sofas last year with Interior Define, a direct-to-consumer brand. The sales have been more than impressive, during COVID-19 especially.

The Jason Wu for Brizo Kitchen Collection debuted earlier this month. 

The Jason Wu for Brizo Kitchen Collection debuted earlier this month. 

WWD: And just recently, 1-800-Flowers.

J.W.: 1-800-Flowers launched in May. Florals are a recurring theme in my career. I grew up with flowers around me. My dad loved to garden.

WWD: How did Emily Thompson, the floral designer who works on your gorgeous show sets, feel when you partnered with 1-800 Flowers?

J.W.: 1-800-Flowers has supplied all the raw materials for the shows. People would probably never walk into a show and imagine that we partnered with 1-800 Flowers. But in fact, it’s one of the largest purveyors of flowers in the world. Through them we’re able to get amazing materials. In my collaboration with Emily Thompson, we’ve curated incredible runway shows that fulfill a fantasy. [With the 1-800-Flowers partnership], I’m able to reach a greater audience.

WWD: Today, many designers are open to collaborations. Do you think with fashion, particularly American fashion, so challenged, that collaborations will become the backbone of the business?

J.W.: I don’t think collaborations alone, but long-term partnerships, yes. Our business model has never been about short term. We do some short-term collaborations for the sake of creativity, but we’re really about building businesses. We’ve worked with Brizo for over a decade. I’ve worked with Melissa Shoes for almost a decade. Interior Define and 1-800-Flowers are ongoing. Everything we do is about building a business together, not a short-term flash.

Looking at my generation of American designers, a lot of people ask the question, who will be the adults of this group? It’s really only been 15 to 20 years, and it takes a lot longer than that. For the generation before me it took way longer. It’s just that in today’s digital age, everybody expects everyone to grow so much faster.

WWD: The attention span has shortened. Now a new designer’s time in the limelight is brief and then it’s who’s next, who’s next, who’s next? Once you’re no longer the newest kid with the newest thing, how do you maintain?

J.W.: Business first, that’s how we maintain. Business first, customers first. I care about a business model that works. I’m no longer the new kid on the block; I haven’t been for a very long time. I’m not going to be a p.r. darling all the time, and that’s OK. We all have to grow up. I’m not looking to be the newest, but I am looking to be here for a very long time.

WWD: That goal — to stay around for a very long time — isn’t easily achieved, particularly in American fashion.

J.W.: It’s so hard. But if you look at the pillars of American fashion, the big guys — the Michaels, the Calvins, the Ralphs — those companies have always been very diversified in their portfolio price range and products. American fashion brands such as Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger are here to stay. They are American institutions. To build my own version of that — in every era, you have to build it in a completely different way. The road map that I’m using is still being written. We started on the lifestyle approach many years ago. I launched a holiday capsule with Kohl’s last Christmas. I was the first person to work with Stitch Fix, I was the first person to work with [plus-size company] Eloquii before it sold to Walmart.

WWD: Would you like to find another plus-size situation?

J.W.: Yes, we’re launching something in the fall coming up. And I have two more launches this year, things I’ve been working on for two years. So I guess in a way, I’ve had a lot going on.

WWD: You’ve had plenty going on — including the store in Shanghai that opened last month. It was supposed to open last December, right?

J.W.: Yes. We’re at Shanghai IFC. By pure chance the tenant that was in the space couldn’t vacate until June. We had to push the opening to July 15, which in retrospect was very lucky, because if we’d opened in December/January it would’ve been dead in the water for three or four months.

WWD: China is back shopping now, right?

J.W.: China is fully back, so actually it was a totally normal thing. The only difficult part [to opening in July] is that I wasn’t able to be there physically.

WWD: In the story WWD’s Rosemary Feitelberg wrote on the opening, you noted that the store has a high percentage of exclusives, and that the Chinese luxury consumer is much younger than the Western luxury consumer. Will that impact how you design Jason Wu Collection?

J.W.: We have a lot of exclusive items in both Jason Wu and Jason Wu Collection, developed just for the Chinese market. There’s definitely a much larger portion of Jason Wu that caters to the 20-somethings and to 30-somethings. We have our merchandising team there and we are cognizant of the age group.

WWD: Are you putting a younger spin on Collection?

J.W.: Thinking about a wider range of age groups is important for both Jason Wu and Jason Wu Collection. And we have a huge celebrity contingency in China that loves a feather creation or five, you know? Actually, my entire press collection is in China now because we don’t have any events here, and there are events in China. Beautiful clothes deserve to be worn, and a lot of Chinese actresses are wearing our clothes.

WWD: What’s the geographic breakdown of your business?

J.W.: We’re mostly Americas. We stopped doing market in Europe altogether three years ago, with the exception of our ongoing relationship with Net-a-porter, which has been long-lasting and amazing for the last decade. But from brick-and-mortar stores, we pulled back. It was very difficult to compete with European brands on price point and brand presence when you’re a mid-sized brand. My idea was, we have this amount of resources. Do you want to spread it thin everywhere or do you want to double down? So we invested more into [American] retail, like having our own shop at Saks Fifth Avenue here, having our own dedicated associates at Bergdorf’s and Saks and Bloomingdale’s.

WWD: That’s Europe. What about China and the rest of Asia?

J.W.: Shanghai is our first Asia store. Period. We pulled back from all international markets the last three years, all wholesale.

WWD: Has the company focus on China heightened since Green Harbor Investment, based in Beijing, acquired a controlling stake last year?  

J.W.: China is a great market but it has to be a flagship-operated business and not a wholesale model. Again, instead of being in smaller presences where it’s really difficult to represent the brand on one rack in a traditional multibrand store, it’s much better for us to land with our own stores to be able to have the proper presence…[Overall] we’d rather double down on markets where we feel like we can succeed. America, obviously, was first, because that’s my country of origin as an American designer. And in China, because we have a joint-venture partner and because of my Chinese heritage, it’s a market that I understand inherently. But we decided to go in properly. So we pulled away from all wholesale.

WWD: U.S. wholesale isn’t exactly a pretty picture. Are you worried about that?

J.W.: There’s definitely a challenge with foot traffic, but we continue to work with the stores. I’ve done a lot of Zoom meetings, client meetings with Saks, Neiman’s and Bergdorf’s. Those events make the difference, you know, to make myself available. It’s a much more personalized approach in making sales. We have to get down to work as designers; we can’t sit in a glass tower. At least for me it doesn’t work that way. When there’s challenging times, I have to make sure that I’m my own best salesperson.

WWD: Where are you with e-commerce?

J.W.: We’re relaunching e-commerce early next year in a more robust platform. We partner with Farfetch. It’s definitely a very healthy part of our business, and we plan on growing it in a much more robust way next year.

WWD: Back to your busy quarantine, something else you have going on: your food diary on Instagram.

J.W.: I started my food journal, MrWuEats. It’s kind of saved my life during the pandemic because I’m used to being out every single night. Last year I think I was out to dinner maybe 300 out of 365 days.

WWD: That’s a lot.

J.W.: And all of a sudden, I’m home. I always loved cooking, but now I was able to spend four hours a night doing it, and that became really therapeutic for me. That’s another venue I’m interested in, and it’s kind of simpatico that the kitchen faucet collection came out at this time.

WWD: Still, do you miss going out?

J.W.: Today, after I speak to you, I’m driving out to The Surf Lodge [in Montauk]. I’m hosting a dinner for 25 people tomorrow night, and I’ve designed the menu.

Wu's menu for dinner at The Surf Lodge. 

Wu’s menu for dinner at The Surf Lodge.  Greg Kessler/KesslerStudio/WWD

WWD: What’s your favorite kind of cooking?

J.W.: Asian, Chinese food, because that’s my heritage. So there’s always a little Asian twist. I’ve made over 100 new recipes since June. I wrote them all down in a notebook. I’ll manage to get it out to everybody one day.

WWD: How important is it to draw on and celebrate your Chinese heritage?

J.W.: My generation [of Chinese] — I’m 37 — in my teens, growing up in the States and Canada, and a large part of my 20s, I wanted to blend in with Americans.

WWD: Really?

J.W.: I wanted to blend in with the West. But in my 30s, I’ve changed. I’ve embraced my Chinese roots so much more. There was a new sense of self in my 30s that I didn’t have in my teens and 20s. I think that’s a generational thing. A lot of people who were born in Asia and educated in the West are now re-embracing their heritage. In the generation after me, I can see my godkids embracing Chinese. You have schools like Avenues teaching Chinese to American kids now. So there’s definitely a cultural shift to what it means to be Chinese. Consumers in China used to be only interested in large European brands. Now, they also want brands with an Asian name attached to it. We are no longer just the manufacturers. We are also the designers and the creators.

 WWD: How old were you when you moved from Taiwan to Canada? [Wu’s parents returned to Taiwan to live when he went to boarding school.]

J.W.: Ten. I didn’t learn English until I was 10. So I speak with my Chinese team in Chinese. And the cooking — none of my cousins or my brother is interested in cooking. So I went back to Taiwan for two weeks two years ago to learn all my mother’s recipes, the family recipes, fearing they would not be passed on to my generation.

WWD: Are you serious?

J.W.: Yes. Since my grandmother passed three years ago, it’s like this embracing of my heritage. I think a lot of people in my generation are feeling the same way.

WWD: Tell me about that cooking apprenticeship.

J.W.: I have always had a very close relationship with my mother. She bought me my first sewing machine when I was 10, and really fostered my creative ambitions — even at a time when it was unusual in the Chinese to allow boys to pursue creative, “feminine” things. Learning her recipes, passed down from my grandmother, has allowed us to be even closer, sort of a passing down of the baton of family tradition. It is special.

 WWD: Three lessons — cooking or otherwise — you learned from your mother during that experience back home? 

J.W.: Be humble, generous and kind. Never stop being a student. Don’t be afraid to take the road less traveled.

Instagram-ready delights. 

Instagram-ready delights.  Greg Kessler/KesslerStudio/WWD

WWD: Your mother sounds amazing, and I love “passing the baton.”

J.W.: I’ve come to appreciate my Chinese heritage a lot more. When I grew up, there was no Asian representation in the media, in fashion and beauty campaigns and such. We were used to seeing all Western faces. Today is a different picture. Kids are growing up with different examples of standards of beauty. There’s a tremendous amount of pride among the Chinese, and I can attest to that as somebody who straddles the middle.

WWD: Change has been slow.

J.W.:  In the Nineties, our representation — fashion shows barely had one Asian model, now we have Chinese supermodels. I remember one of my first shows, it was Liu Wen’s first season and she barely spoke English. We’re still friends after 10 years and now, she’s a bona fide star. Xiao Wen and Shu Pei, too. But this was only a development as of 10 years ago. [Before that], there wasn’t a group of Asian supermodels.

WWD: How has the current cultural focus on social justice impacted you?

J.W.: I’ve worked with GMHC, Gay Men’s Health Crisis, which was started by Larry Kramer in 1982. [Wu is a board member.] We launched a campaign called Distance Yourself From Hate in June. I designed a protective mask and Fabien Baron did the logo, and it’s available on distanceyourselffromhate.org. We’ve done amazing videos. We have participants from Diane Kruger to Alan Cumming to Mj Rodriguez to people that work at GMHC to Dominique Ansel, the chef, people of different industries. We all come together on what the words “distance yourself from hate” mean. We’ve sold out twice already. We’re on our third shipment; we have new colors. The outpouring of support has been amazing.

In the Eighties, gay men were a marginalized group, with AIDS being coined “the gay disease.” We’re at another juncture right now with COVID being called “the Chinese disease.” And for the first time living in the West, in March/April, I was feeling very insecure on the street.

WWD: Really?

J.W.: In May I was walking with a couple [of Asian] friends to get groceries. We were all wearing masks and gloves, and not everyone was wearing masks. This woman stops and takes a picture of us. I’ve never felt like such a zoo animal.

WWD: Did you ask her why she was taking your picture?

J.W.: No. I prefer not to. I walk away from things like that. I just was not interested in engaging. But I’d never felt like that before.

WWD:  What’s your reaction when you hear “the China virus?”

J.W.: It’s incredibly racist and offensive. I think this blame game has to stop. Using hate to antagonize and further spread people apart on a global issue is incredibly wrong. Listen, I’m not an expert on politics. But I do think that the world is this ecosystem where we all affect each other for the better and for the worse. It’s so easy to point a finger at Asia, at China, for this disease, but yet we enjoy all the great products, such as an iPhone coming from China. To me it’s like you can’t just have your cake and eat it, too.

WWD: On a lighter note, who will be at your dinner tomorrow night?

J.W.: I don’t know the final guest list yet. It’s my friend George Sotelo, who owns Thorsun, and Jayma [Cardoso], owner of The Surf Lodge. They’re working together on their concept store called Concept Playa, and they carry Jason Wu there. It’s just a fun little thing we decided to do last week.

WWD: Outside, I assume?

J.W.: It’s outside, yes, a small, intimate, fun thing that’s last-minute. I think the days of planning six months ahead are kind of over. We have to go with the flow.

WWD: You said you typically eat out 300 nights a year. How much do you miss that kind of social interaction?

J.W.: I miss friends and parties. The largest party I’ve been to was a 10-person birthday party last month and it was amazing. There’s a lot that going digital can do, but the human touch is irreplaceable. I miss it.

WWD: Do you think it will come back?

J.W.:  It will for sure come back. We’ve come back from diseases and pandemics before and we will again. It’s just a matter of time. Human interaction is magical. No amount of digital conferencing can change that.

 

 

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