Wednesday, December 9, 2009

An old Alexander Wang interview

Alexander Wang on, erm, Alexander Wang.

Tuesday night saw Selfridges, the legendary London department store, hit yet another fashion high. After last week’s ‘meet and greet’ with Jeremy Scott, the iconic store stepped things up a gear with the latest instalment of Colin McDowell’s renowned ‘In Conversation’ series. The designer in question was Alexander Wang - the young Chinese/American who seems unable to put a foot wrong.

Indeed, in these times of economic crisis his business is something of an enigma, with sales skyrocketing. His accessories have become the most coveted ‘must haves’ around, and more importantly, genuinely affordable. At just 25 years old the boy is something of a fashion prodigy, already heading up a team of 40 staff at his NY studio. And it’s growing. Wang’s fashion empire consists of much more than merely his Women’s line. Versatility (a recurring sound bite throughout the interview) is fundamental to the success of his label. And versatile he is, with a GAP collaboration already firmly under his belt, a newly unveiled Men’s collection and the T diffusion line all proving to be massively successful, the question prevails; what next for Alexander Wang? Over to you Colin…

CM: Those of you who read poetry when you were a child probably know of the quote by American poet Longfellow: ‘Youth is lovely, age is lonely’. Well, I don’t feel particularly lonely, especially not tonight, with all these people around me. Though I am very conscious that we have lovely youth here (points to Alexander). (To Alexander) This afternoon, I went through all of the people I have interviewed and you are the youngest, you are definitely the youngest! I'm very thrilled because you are the hottest star at the moment and everyone is the room is quite as excited about you as they are in America. He’s just so young, it’s incredible. (Audience laughs). You are in fact twenty-five, is that right?
AW: Yes. Twenty-five.

Rest of the interview

CM: Twenty-five! OK, I'm going to ask a few dumb questions as there may be some people in the audience who don't know very much about you and how you have come to this point.
AW: Right.

CM: You where born in San Francisco, yes?
AW: Yes, born and raised in San Francisco and I went to boarding school, you know, probably from 5th grade to 9th grade. In between, I actually spent a semester in London at St Martins.

CM: Oh. Did you? At St Martins?
AW: Yes.

CM: Oh. Right!
AW: Yeah, it was a summer semester before I realized I wanted to move to New York, you know, and start my life there. I was still figuring out where I wanted to plant myself. So, I spent a summer here (London) and moved back and then I went to high school in San Francisco. I decided I should probably start in New York, and moved there when I was 18.

CM: Was there any problem with your family? First of all, going so far way, and the East / West Coast thing, you know? Why didn’t you study here, or were you determined that New York was the only place?
AW: My family has always been very supportive of whatever I felt I was destined to be. You know, really early on before I went to London, I used to go and travel. It might sound a little extreme, but I used to travel around Europe with my friends and we would take the train around and go research schools, go to different destinations, you know. My mum and my dad have always been very supportive of that. I’ve grown up in a very supportive environment. They kind of just believed in me and sent me off to where ever I felt.

CM: I would like to say that Alex is traveling to day with this brother Dennis, who I think probably keeps an eye on him, and makes sure he goes to bed early and brushes his teeth and all the rest of it. Was there any…erm, was there any family background in fashion at all or was it something completely new?
AW: Not that I can remember at all.

CM: Right.
AW: None of my immediate family… My mum and my dad moved to America with my brother and sister when they where in their teens.

CM: But you were born…
AW: I was born in America and I am the youngest in my entire extended family. My family background, you know, is really more in manufacturing and not fashion; more in the business side of things, you know. I never really had a family relative, or family friend even, who I felt that I could really turn to and ask certain questions, so…

CM: So you had to do it? Well, you learnt it by yourself?
AW: I learnt it. You know, it was very much kind of, subconsciously, whilst growing up - seeing, going shopping with my mum, watching my cousins go through dance and ballet, and the costumes or whatever. It was so constantly around me that you are influenced by it. Then you put two and two together, you start reading magazines, start learning about the designers, read about the industry, then you learn about the schools, you know. It was very much... kind of like, at a certain age, I was like, this is what I want to do, and I went full throttle into it.

CM: Where did your parents come from? Were they from Hong Kong originally or, er... mainland China?
AW: Mainland China.

CM: Right, mainland China. Of course.
AW: My mum, her parents are from, erm... (speaks broken Mandarin), and my father is from… Actually, I don’t know how to pronounce it. (laughs)

CM: You don’t know how to pronounce it!? (laughs) That was going to be my next question: Do you speak Chinese?
AW: Well, I speak Mandarin. I definitely grew up with the language spoken…

CM: In the home?
AW: Yep, in the home. And then, when I was in fourth grade, I spent a year in Shanghai, and that’s when my mum moved back to Asia. So, all throughout my childhood I have been visiting Asia probably three or four times, so I’m very kind of familiar with the landscape and how it’s also evolved and grown, and the culture…

CM: Yes, the culture… Sure. Actually, you started traveling very young. You mentioned the fact you came here, and the traveling around Europe…
AW: I did, yeah.

CM: So, you were a man of the world quite young, really?
AW: I don’t know. I think just the idea of believing in something and not having any fear of going out there and, you know, figuring it out and meeting people... It was never something that really feared me. It never kept me from doing something. I guess I was very ambitious and liked getting my hands dirty, you know, and learning about what was out there.

CM: Sure. Well, you’ve got to. Really, one has to start younger and younger in many ways now. So, you knew you wanted to do design, and it was specifically fashion you wanted to do?
AW: Yeah.

CM: Right. So you started studying in San Francisco?
AW: Well, I was going through a basic school program, you know, high school.

CM: But you didn’t go to a college?
AW: I did, I went. When I turned 18, I went to New York.

CM: Straight away?
AW: Yes, and I went straight to Parsons. Actually, even before I started my first day of school I had an internship at Marc Jacobs.

CM: Wow!
AW: You know, this opportunity came along and, of course, at the time it was drop all and go to the internship and learn as much as I could. I did it for a semester and it was one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had. Especially having come from San Francisco and being dropped into the middle of Fashion Week - and at one of the biggest houses in New York!

CM: And one of the most creative!
AW: Yes, of course! One of the most creative and most exciting place to be. Yeah, I started my internship there and then I started school. I was on the four-year program, and I completed two of the years, then decided I was going to take a… Sorry. (stops to turn off his phone) Not very professional of me! (he laughs as does the audience)… I’m sorry!

CM: Tell them you’re busy!!!
AW: I decided I was going to take a leave of absence. I felt that I was learning a lot more at my internships than I was at school, and so I took the summer off and put together a small knitwear collection. I joined forces with my sister-in-law and my brother and we came together. I was still living in NY, but my brother and sister-in-law were living in San Francisco. We had conversations over the phone, you know, over the internet and they would do their thing over there and I would do my thing. When we got the collection together we literally knew nothing about line sheets or where to take the collection. We just packed the samples into a suitcase and drove down the West Coast and went to LA. We kind of just walked into stores and presented our collection. And that was really our first, I guess, our first step into what we do now.

CM: Very exciting.
AW: Yeah, it was. There was no one else involved, and I think it worked to our benefit in a way, because there was no one ever there to tell us how to do things, like: ‘This is the process, this is the procedure.’ Everything was very organic and kind of what we felt was right. You know, learning first hand how to ship packages, deliveries, how to produce the merchandise…

CM: So, really Alex, what you are saying is that you didn’t really need to go to college. You had it all figured out?
AW: Well, no. I think everybody, especially today, has a different way of learning. I think school is great and it’s very beneficial for a certain amount of people. I think the way of learning is changing. For me, it was about getting my hands dirty, learning first-hand, watching people do what they do. Because, the thing is, at school, you don’t learn so much about dealing with the outside world, so I felt it was the right thing for me to leave.

CM: So, you went to St Martins. Was Parsons very different to St Martins?
AW: Yes and no. It was very condensed. It was all about perfecting your book.

CM: How long was the course?
AW: It was a summer semester, so a full three months. It was all about being creative, building your book, you know, taking one idea and exhausting that idea. And, you know, at the time it was very exciting to come over here and see what London was all about. Then I go to New York, and thought: ‘I have this amazing book now but what do I do with it?’ (laughs) So, I wanted to go somewhere I felt I could really learn beyond that and see how to take it to the next stage, the next level.

CM: I’m getting the feeling very strongly, and I’m sure the audience is as well, that you really have taken charge of your life, your business life and your creative life, very early. Did you make any mistakes?
AW: Oh yeah, definitely, I mean, who doesn’t make mistakes? Luckily, a lot of the mistakes we made earlier on…

CM: Before they were too public?
AW: Yeah, before they were too public. At the beginning, you're thinking: "Oh my God, I’m making all these mistakes and I need to do everything right, because we have already built the business, we’ve already started selling the merchandise..." But now looking back, it's lucky we made those mistakes back then! We are still making mistakes, but everybody does. And you know, you learn from them, and move on and grow into something stronger.

CM: You’re being quite modest. I’m sure some of you know that this year Alex was chosen as Emerging Designer Of The Year by the CFDA, which is the greatest fashion accolade you can get in America.
AW: Yeah… Very exciting!

CM: But before we go to that point... You started really with knitwear. So then, how did the rest develop? I mean, people now kill for your handbags and your shoes; they have taken the whole fashion world by storm. You started with knitwear, so bring us up to date.
AW: So… We started with knitwear, and the reason we started with it, I have to admit, is because I thought there was a niche for it in the market, and I thought there was a place for me to express a certain idea through knitwear. AND… it stretches and you don’t really have to worry about, erm, tailoring (laughs)!!! So, that would be a good place to start. And we grew the knitwear. Well, the first season we sold it ourselves and then the second season we took it to a trade show. The response was phenomenal. My sister-in-law is amazing and she fought for that front booth right where every buyer walks in, so as everyone entered the trade show they all kind of walked past us. We picked up 80 stores in the first day; Barney’s, Bendel’s, you know... We were overwhelmed with the response and we didn’t know how to respond to it all. It was a long way from having to sell ourselves and begging stores to look at our line. We actually met a showroom that day that took us on and actually represented the line for another consecutive two seasons, which grew our knitwear. We had sweater coats and sweater dresses, and he wanted to make us a new knitwear full collection. I felt it was a good place to start, stores were picking up, we had a really good roster, but people weren’t really getting the idea of what the brand was, who it represented. It was merchandise to other lines, it was like this collection line, but there are some cute hoodies, or sweater dresses or skirts mixed in. I thought for us to really get the point across, I wanted to launch the full collection, you know, you can have the whole range. So, we joined a different showroom and they launched us in 2007 with the Alexander Wang full collection. I feel like that was really when our line really took off and people got it. They understood who we were speaking to, what stores we were selling to, and the idea and lifestyle. From 2007 – 2009, those last two years have been phenomenal. From our first season, of just me, my brother and sister-in-law, to now... We are about 40 people in the company and have just moved to downtown NY. We have an amazing team we work with, everything is in-house now; sales, press, merchandising, shipping, atelier, pattern makers, an accessories team, a team I work with on the T Line, and of course, ready-to-wear. And we just launched men’s, and sunglasses, so yeah…

CM: You’ve launched men’s as well? I didn’t know that.
AW: Yes, we launched men’s. Men’s is launched under our T category. You know, our first season launching the full RTW line was all about this kind of mixture of a whole range, T-shirts to jackets to pants. As the collection moved on and evolved, I felt it was necessary to evolve the point of view and the direction. I felt people were still buying our T-shirts, and it’s a necessity item in every person’s wardrobe. So, we made a little home for it, and it started. That T was based on everything worn as a T-shirt, the ease of a T-shirt. You layer it, you build your foundation around it, you sleep in it, you wake up the next day and throw your pieces over it. It’s shown the same market days as our full collection. It hangs in the same section in almost all stores as our main collection, so it’s the same language but a different aspect of it. We launched men’s because we had a few pieces in our collection that crossed lines, the sizes were so that you could buy it in the men’s section or the women’s. We stopped it to be able to evolve the women’s collection. We launched the men’s this year under the T category. I felt it was the perfect place to say something for men. You know, it’s not reinventing the wheel or changing the face of fashion, but I felt it was for the guy who is going to be talking to the Alexander Wang girl. That’s what he wants to wear, it’s the guy she is attracted to. It’s not an exact replica of how she dresses but it’s what he finds sexy. There is a shared sensibility but it’s not like its matching couples. It's not meant to be a full RTW collection or a fashion line, it's meant to be for me. I wanted to be able to speak to a guy who knows nothing about fashion, who can walk into a store and appreciate the fabric, the cut... And, for someone who has followed the women’s collection and can get equally excited about the womenswear and now get something for themselves.

CM: Fabric is very important to you, yes?
AW: Yes, especially because of our price point. It's always been important that our clothes are accessible and wearable, you know. From how we do our runway shows, to how it’s translated to the sales floor, that everything is attainable to a degree. When you are working in a tight price range, fabric is very much more limited. It's how you get creative with the fabric, the finishes, and how you can develop things to make them feel luxurious, and high quality, how you make it, how you construct certain garments out of the fabric. So yes, definitely.

CM: Let’s think a little bit about the creative process. It’s probably changed as you’ve built. Obviously, now you have a studio of people working with you and for you, which you’re probably didn’t have before. How do you start? Do you draw?
AW: I draw. I draw. Yeah, I draw and I draw. It usually starts at everything we have done so far and it’s usually about evolving what we’ve done. I never like to stay comfortable in one place. I feel kind of like, "OK, what was the message we presented this season and how do we evolve it? Where does she need to go next, but not dropping everything she has attained but carrying it over?" I very much believe in pieces that are timeless and that you can carry on with throughout. There’s a consistency about how you filter that energy and sensibility into something that feels new. So usually, inspiration, it’s hard to pin-point where it comes and when it doesn’t, but usually you start the process through fabrics, through the feeling of silhouettes. For Fall, we did something that was restricted and tight, and structured, and body-conscious. For Spring, we carried a little bit of that over, but it was much more loose and classic and it wasn’t so much about a certain type of time period, whether it was the 80’s or the 90’s. I just wanted it to feel like super classic American sportswear with a new idea. Of course, it’s not something no one has ever heard before, but it was how we address it and how we make it appropriate to our audience and who is buying our clothes.

CM: This is what I think fashion is about now, the individual’s point of view and you have a very strong point of view!

(excerpted from PonyStep)

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