How has your New Year gone so far? Jason Wu has already created a second inauguration dress, announced plans to launch a makeup line and designed a new ready-to-wear collection. In many ways, the 30-year-old is the unintentional embodiment of the self-help world’s most famous book, “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” He taught himself English through American fashion magazines, started a women’s wear company with his own savings during a recession and wound up dressing the First Lady. In the run-up to his New York Fashion Week show, we chat about Michelle Obama and how he went from admiring supermodels in Vogue as a Mandarin-speaking 9-year-old to hiring them for his ad campaigns.
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Last month there was a rumor circulating on Twitter that your first words in English were Stephanie Seymour, who now stars in your ad campaign. Is that true?
Not quite but it might as well be. [Laughs.] When I first moved to Canada from Taiwan, my mom bought me a sewing machine. I didn’t speak a lick of English. I grew up speaking Mandarin. So I learned the language by reading my mom’s fashion magazines. I was never the best A student in school. I learned by applying what I loved. One day I was talking to my aunt, who also had a lot of fashion magazines, and I pointed out Stephanie Seymour. She was like, ‘How do you know who Stephanie is?’ I’ve worked with so many people I grew up admiring. Fashion seems to be this impenetrable daunting industry. But for me to be able to get to where I am today speaks to how many opportunities there are for young people in New York.
Even with the lingering recession?
It’s funny because I started during an economic downturn. I’ve never really experienced a good economy in that regard. It’s always been a little difficult. I started my business when people were running for the hills and not buying anything.
You've dressed Michelle Obama for two inaugurations. How did the second one differ from the first?
It wasn't something that I quite expected to happen. I can't say that I know so much about politics. And when I was approached the first time, I wasn't as familiar with Mrs. Obama. I felt like I was part of a moment. But with this second time, it felt more subtle. I felt like it was important for me to keep pretty private about it. I never wanted to sort of exploit the fact that the First Lady has been so great to wear me on such an important occasion.
What were you doing in the exact moment when you first saw Michelle Obama in her second inauguration gown?
For the last inauguration, I was at home. But this time my staff and I were working because I have my show coming up. We were live streaming it on my computers and no one wanted to talk about it so as not to jinx it. But when we saw her, we just all let out this scream. When I first did this four years ago, I had four employees. But this year, I had 30 to celebrate with.
In a way, that’s a very clear example of the effect she’s had on the fashion industry.
People say, "Why is it such a big deal that that Michelle Obama wore a green dress the other day." Usually it’s the President talking with the First Lady standing by his side not really saying so much. But it says something about the power of fashion that Michelle has been able to silently communicate things without having to verbally do it. For example, she speaks volumes just through the nationality of the designer she chooses or whatever country the dress came from. I don’t think there has been any other woman who has used fashion to that affect.
Well to some parts of the world, you, who left Taiwan at the age of 9, are now the face of American fashion.
It’s quite cliché in many ways, but a lot of times we talk about achieving the American dream, that you can come here from anywhere in the world from any walk of life and succeed. And in the real world you don’t think that ever happens. But my career has changed my mind about that. There was something more grownup about where we are as a society with this second inauguration.
You’re collaborating with Lancôme on a beauty line. Several years before that, you created a nail polish collection for CND.
Beauty is a compliment to the clothes. In my teens I bought the Kevyn Aucoin books and used to just stare at them. They were so inspiring for me.
I’ve never been the person to do minimal hair and makeup. Beauty has always been a part of the design process for me. Even in my working with Hollywood actresses, I’ll work with the hair and makeup. I’ve worked with Diane Kruger, Michelle Williams, Jessica Paré. When it’s done correctly, it can create some magical moments.
Are there any that stand out in your mind?
Diane Kruger at the SAG Awards two years ago. We collaborated together. She wore red lips and was very high glam and high contrast. The combination of the hair and makeup and dress suited the event beautifully.
What can you tell us about your upcoming autumn/winter collection?
I’ve been working on being more confident in what I do and to create real signatures. So there’s going to be a lot of signature Wuism that people have come to know me for, taken to another level. That’s the whole part of brand building, to drive the point home every time you do anything. Naturally, I feel like I’ve grown up some.
Alexander Wang recently accepted a job as creative director of Balenciaga. Would youever consider helming a Parisian house?
I think that’s something that certain has been in the subject lines recently, especially for designers of my generation. I haven’t pursued it. But if the right opportunity came along, I’d hate to make up my mind before assessing the situation. I guess it’s something I’ll have to see as I cross that bridge.
3 of Jason Wu’s habits
1) “I wake up every day at 8am and am at work at 9. I pretty much keep the same schedule. I just never know when I’m going to get home. I always joke that I should just install a shower here in my office.”
2) “The more I take care of myself, the better my work will be. I work out, but during show time in winter, my workout schedule could be better.”
3) “I like to stay calm and organized. If you were to come backstage to my show before it starts, you’d see a calm environment that contradicts the stereotypical idea of fashion week backstage with the models running around with one show on and curlers in their hair.” — Kenya Hunt,