Wang’s parents grew up in Taiwan and then moved to Northern California, where they had relatives, in the seventies. His mother started washing dishes at a restaurant there, became a flight attendant, moved on to work at a bank, then started a manufacturing company. After Wang was born, they expanded the business to Shanghai.
“It was a very natural progression, seeing his interests develop,” says Dennis. “At the age of 2, Alex was already drawing dresses—actually quite fluid-looking, and not what one would normally expect from a toddler. I remember when he was in the fourth or fifth grade, [he] began telling our mom what she should wear for the day, going into her closet and helping her pick out her shoes and outfits. It was actually quite amusing to see this little kid with the innate sense of fashion.”
Mother and son were quite close. “My mom has always been an entrepreneur, and she takes a lot of risks, and that’s something that she’s definitely instilled in me,” Wang says.
They also used to go shopping together; much to Wang’s horror, she’d buy the shoes and not take the boxes. Wang was much more attuned to the mystical meaning of the brand: As a kid, he used to stencil Nike swooshes in puffy paint on his tank tops, and once he made a papier-mâché shoe modeled on one of his mother’s, complete with the Versace label he’d transplanted.
When he moved with his parents to China in the fourth grade, he found it stultifying. (“No freeways … one mall, and it wasn’t even really a mall.”) So they enrolled him in the Stevenson boarding school in Pebble Beach, a preppy redoubt of the California ruling class. It wasn’t a good fit. “I would live vicariously through magazines,” he says. Stevenson required him to take a sport, “so I took tennis, so I could sit at the country club and read my magazine,” he says. After freshman year, “I decided I was kind of over it.”
Wang has sometimes been mistaken for a woman. “I laugh it off,” he says. “I’m not super, you know, macho.”
Dennis and Aimie were living in San Francisco, and Wang moved into an apartment in the building the family owned in Ghirardelli Square, on the edge of North Beach. Wang had taught himself to sew, to “just take things apart and put them back together,” he says. He made Aimie dresses to go out on the town. One was “this really risqué leather dress, a piece of leather; the sides were completely cut open, and it had all these tassels and strings.” It caused a local sensation when she wore it to a trunk show. “Everyone was kind of like, ‘Oh my God, who is that girl, what is she wearing, and what is she doing at this event?’ ”
Wang enrolled in the small, private Drew School. “It was like the reject private school of San Francisco,” he says. There he became close friends with two of novelist and notable local couture patron Danielle Steele’s daughters, Vanessa and Victoria Traina. The daughters’ idea of rebellion was to wear high heels to class instead of flip-flops. “We just felt out of place,” says Vanessa, who’s a stylist today. Alex has always had cool girlfriends. (One of his other favorite movies is Mean Girls.) “After school or during lunch, we’d go shopping,” Vanessa remembers. “We’d find vintage things he’d cut up or whatever.”
In the summers, he took courses in fashion in London and Paris. After graduating, in 2002, he enrolled at Parsons and took a job in the women’s-shoe department at Barneys. “I mean, at the time, it was like, I wanna make money. I wanted the discount, I wanted to be able to buy things I want in the store,” he says. “But also at the same time it was really about a learning experience of seeing the customer, the consumer, and what they respond to, what they look for, how they shop the floor.” Out shopping with his gaggle of friends, he got to know Humberto Leon, who’d just started a shop with his friend Carol Lim called Opening Ceremony, and they remain friends today.
It was around this time that he started the sweaters with the cool girls “just doing things, you know, smoking, posing, whatever, just being in a mood,” he says. The fashion press noted them. He and Aimie, who was between jobs, took the sweaters to a trade show for up-and-coming designers, “and within the first day we find like 50 or 60 stores,” he says. (Retailers quickly disabused him of the idea that they were unisex.)