Y ou can’t keep Alexander Wang away from a dance party. He’ll get down almost anywhere, from the grubby Williamsburg Sugarland gay dance garage to the old Sunday-night Hiro party at the Maritime Hotel to traveling German raves that are text-invitation-only to his model pal Agyness Deyn’s party house at the Coachella music festival (where Wang dispatched a model-terrifying desert insect on the wall with a deadly high-kick). He’ll drive to Philly for a good dance party or fly to Barcelona or hit the “underwear” party in ramshackle Cherry Grove. On the seventh floor of Barneys on Fashion’s Night Out this past fall, Mark Lee, the store’s newly installed CEO, who hadn’t met Wang before, says he couldn’t get close enough to introduce himself. “He was dancing like a madman,” Lee says, “like it was the Mudd Club in 1979. He was at the dead center of a mosh pit of fans. It was the night before his show, and he was covered in sweat.”
The next night, Wang ended his show with a dancer’s spin at the top of the runway, hands clasped over his head, grinning and almost falling over, before heading to his own always-major after-party. This time, he installed a mini San Gennaro festival by the West Side Highway, with a bouncy castle, games of chance and skill, and a cranked-up carousel. There he, of course, danced.
In many ways, dance party is his brand: He’s built an approximately $25 million business on cool but benign day-into-night clothes for lithe, pragmatic downtown girls who all appear to work in galleries or PR or in fashion somehow themselves—anything vaguely “creative.” Wang synthesized the street-style-blog-derived notion of looking like a “model off duty,” a louche fantasy of effortlessly sexy living if ever there was one. After all, what exactly does a model do when she’s off duty? The Wang girl is, therefore, always ready to go out, dance with careful abandon, drink in hand, accessorized with a cigarette and a handsomely scruffy boy, swaying her hair around, pushing it behind her ears. Mimetic youth is what sells his lower-priced T line of tanks, tees, and sweatpants to Upper East Side moms who probably won’t make it to Coachella this year.
Wang’s clothes have been described as both androgynous and “humorously slutty.” Not unlike Wang, a flirty, pretty, beaming 27-year-old who talks quickly and holds himself lightly, as if to belie the weightiness of the expectations upon him. He’s still young enough to have his high-school friends say he hasn’t changed—two of them, Victoria and Vanessa Traina, who styled his early looks, still see him almost every week. His closest friend, Ryan Korban (who doubles as his interior designer), he met at Parsons before dropping out after his sophomore year.
That was in 2004. He and his sister-in-law put together what he thought would be a unisex line of cashmere sweaters with pictures of his cool-girl friends woven on the backs. By the fall of 2008, he had won the Council of Fashion Designers of America/Vogue Fashion Fund Award, which includes $200,000 and membership in an elite club. CFDA president Diane Von Furstenberg and Anna Wintour became his, in his words, “fairy godmothers.” Von Furstenberg would call him at ten o’clock at night and ask how he was, if he was sleeping, taking care of himself.
Wintour launched the fund to invigorate American fashion with fresh talent, and, she e-mails to say, Wang “embodies absolutely everything that it takes to be a winner” of the award. “He is like Proenza Schouler or Rag & Bone inasmuch as he has big aspirations for what he thinks his brand can achieve, and he knows he can do it because he has this ability to connect with the way his generation wants to dress.” (Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez of Proenza were the first winners in 2004.) The Fashion Fund works both as a Hollywood-style star-making system and also as a business-development workshop. It began in the boom, when many in the city’s industry were worried that New York lacked enough new designers to sop up all that consumer confidence. Wang, however, won as the downturn was beginning. “He came on the scene just at the right time,” says Julie Gilhart, who until last fall was the women’s fashion director at Barneys. “Designer prices were rocketing upward, and luxury customers were not afraid to buy less-expensive things as long as those things had style, quality, and, in Alex’s case, image. This all adds up to a very fast-tracking, successful business.”
“A designer, you’re designing a lifestyle, you’re designing a brand, you’re not just designing clothes,” Wang says, one arm of his loose-fitting T-shirt pushed up, in sneakers and black cords, BlackBerry at the ready on the white marble-top table in his showroom. He’s preparing for his February 12 show—there are stacks of model face cards on the other white marble tables lined up, cafeteria style, in the room—while renovations at both his first store, on Grand Street in Soho, and his new $2 million Tribeca loft are running behind schedule (his sublet ran out, and he’s been living in a hotel). “I never say that I’m an artist. I like to create things that lead to a bigger picture.”