Women of Wang

Photo: Frederike Helwig

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.”

Walking the Walk
From left, Fall 2009, Spring 2010, Spring 2011.
Photo: FirstView

It’s possible to think that maybe he’s danced all this into being, these three pristine floors of smart-looking, BlackBerry-toting, black-clad girls, the mostly black clothes and shoes and bags hung on black metal racks along the walls, the Condé Nast mutual-appreciation pact, the several CFDA Awards now, the endless smitten nattering of the fashion blogs about him, the unseen factories in China that let him sell a designer product at lower prices. (Of course, this is all relative: When Anna Wintour was interviewed by 60 Minutes, she stopped by Wang’s showroom, where he showed her a $1,200 dress, which she declared “very reasonable.”)

He seems to know his customer—who she is, what she’ll pay, and, most important, who she wants to feel like she is. Or he is: Last spring, Wang launched a men’s T line, and he’s planning a men’s ready-to-wear line. This brings a whole other set of issues for a man who knows his girl so well. “A lot of people were like, ‘Oh, your aesthetic is quite androgynous, it would be so easy to transition into men’s,’ ” he says. But “I didn’t want my men’s line, or at least the ready-to-wear line, to be the same thing cut bigger, boxier, made for men. I thought that our man is someone that our girl is attracted to, she’s not attracted to someone that’s wearing the same exact clothes as her. So in that sense it’s almost a little bit more fantasy for me.”

To complicate things perhaps a bit, he admits that, with his unscruffy mien, he’s sometimes been mistaken for a woman. “That’s something I can’t help. Yeah, sometimes it’s embarrassing, but I laugh it off, and me and my friends will crack up about it,” he says. “I obviously have a small frame. I’m not super, you know, macho.”

Still, on February 10th, he won GQ’s Best New Menswear Designer Award (when he was presented the $50,000 check, he declared: “I feel like you guys have… popped my cherry!”). This is the sort of thing that happens to Wang. There’s a karmic frictionlessness about him.

His biggest problem is that he needs to be taken seriously while also being himself. His favorite movie is Clueless, but he’s not a Jane Austen fan. He’s not really into art. Like many of his generation, he’s never really had to hide being gay or, for that matter, elaborately sublimate it. “Yeah, there was no resistance; I didn’t have to do things under the counter or behind closed doors,” he says.

“Under a layer of doing things in a light way, he’s very serious,” says fashion-imagery vet Fabien Baron, who, along with Wang’s runway stylist, Karl Templer, created Wang’s first print ad campaign, which just came out. Baron and Templer, who is credited with giving Wang’s look a somewhat kinkier Parisian edge, also team up to run Interview magazine, where the ads will appear exclusively (as well as on billboards).

Wang is charming and genuine but wants what he wants. Von Furstenberg first noticed his sweaters when he was just out of Parsons and approached him. He flat-out told her, “No, I’m not interested in doing anything for you.” Or take a look at the Sundance Channel mini-documentary about his show a year ago, when he decides at the last minute to tear up the carpeting (it looked “really cheap—very department store, very fashion show … Sometimes what you think might be nice isn’t”) and declares that a velvet-and-chiffon dress should be restitched overnight, sending the woman who was his head of atelier at the time into an on-camera mini-meltdown in the elevator.

“I can’t even believe how much I have on my mind right now. It’s insane, I must have a million thoughts running through my mind,” Wang says. “But at the same time my life’s gotten so used to working like that, and training myself to deal with this many things, that if I didn’t have that—if that was all taken away from me, I wouldn’t even know what to do.”

M aybe his success, or at least his belief in his destiny, was just written in the stars. He says that when his mother found herself pregnant again at 40, she went to a fortune-teller to ask her what to do. She told her, Wang says, that “this is definitely something that you should go through with.” “She kind of basically laid it out that I was going to be the ‘one’ that was going to be very successful out of the children, and that my brother would end up working for me,” he says. Brother Dennis is 44, his head shaved bald, and chief principal officer of the family-owned concern; his sister-in-law, Aimie, is CEO. “And he—well, he doesn’t work for me, he works with me. Today and since the very beginning and up until now, he’s still part of the business, with my sister-in-law. So, yeah, thank God she decided to pull through, otherwise I would not be here today, so I have her to thank and the fortune-teller.” He might be peddling the fantasy of being a model off duty, but the reality has a good deal more to do with the Wang clan’s loyalty and commercial acumen. “No matter what happens, blood is thicker than water,” says Dennis. “We all believe in his vision, and being family gives us that much of a stronger foundation to build a business upon.”

Wang enjoying himself at his own after-party.Photo: Patrick McMullan

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.

Soon he quit Barneys to do internships: Marc Jacobs, Teen Vogue, the accessories department at grown-up Vogue, and, finally, Derek Lam. He quit Parsons, thinking it was a waste of time.

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.)

They were with that showroom for two seasons as they grew the line into cashmere sweater coats and sweater dresses. By spring 2007, Wang had launched his full ready-to-wear collection. “It was kind of like the first defining season that people really got a sense of ‘the girl’ ”—Wang’s girl. “Like oh, okay, this is her environment, this is how she puts all the pieces together, this is her attitude, this is her sensibility, this is her style.”

T he company is, by all accounts, and especially in light of the often fast-and-loose fashion-business standards, known for its methodicalness. The family “really knew about production,” an advantage Wang had over many other young designers, says Gilhart. “They knew what they were talking about; they were tough.”

Wang rolled out just the right shoes (all named after models, like the “Raquel”) and bags (named after TV characters, like the “Brenda”) to round out his one-stop model-off-duty proposition. Yes, there’s the collection, with its $1,200 dresses that Wintour finds reasonable, $745 slouchy pants, and those $870 Darcy patent-leather bags. But he uses the associative glamour of those riffs on ninetieswear to sell many more of his T line’s loose-fitting $74 tees. He thinks the different lines fit together seamlessly in one look—“That’s how our girl dresses,” he says. “She’s not wearing the full head-to-toe buttoned-up look. If she’s going to wear slacks or a pair of pants, she’s wearing something really thrown together on top”—and for many women, they probably do. But for others, the T line just offers perfectly proportioned basic pieces with a high-style name justifying their premium over, say, American Apparel’s versions. It’s also more or less how he dresses, except he wears sneakers.

By 2008, he was told by the CFDA/Vogue powers that be that he was ready to submit himself for the Fashion Fund Award. The process is arduous. “It’s not like the CFDA Awards, where you get nominated and just show up,” says Wang. “There’s a lot of tasks, there’s traveling, there’s different projects throughout the whole thing.” But Vogue only wants to bet on a worthy winner.

“I think we got really lucky in terms of timing,” Wang continues. “We could have been at a different point in our business where we weren’t ready to work with Diane Von Furstenberg and use her resources.”

Wang’s idea, as his friend the designer Joseph Altuzarra puts it, “existed before but wasn’t as well done: To create a well-designed product at an affordable price point with a luxury image. It’s an aspirational brand you can buy into. This is why some people are up in arms about it: ‘Oh, you know, it’s not expensive.’ But why not? It’s as produced and well designed as any other brand.”

In this way, Wang really is the future of fashion and luxury goods, looking across the Pacific, not to the fabled workshops of Europe. Wang remembers his mother telling him, when he was in the fourth grade, “China, it’s going to be it.”

Last fall, Times fashion critic Cathy Horyn wrote that he is “not a great designer” but is “clearly a shrewd guy. Unlike some of his dreamy peers, he decided at the outset to make affordable clothes.” To which Wang responds with some equanimity; she can have her opinion. But what gets him very exercised is an aside she made about his making his clothes in China. “I think people have this connotation with China as a negative thing, and it’s quite old-fashioned and quite ancient to think like that.” Though he says he’s making some shoes and knitwear in Italy this season.

N ow his girls, and his business, have to grow up and stop looking like they’re coming into work hung over every day. When Wang moved the company into this loft building over a sneaker and cap shop on Broadway south of Canal just three and a half years ago, it had half a floor. Soon, he says, he hopes to have four, saving them from sharing the one elevator with something called the Professional Business College. (“The elevator is like the death of me! The students don’t care if their hair gets in your face, if they step on your feet, squish you.”) Last fall, Wang’s company hired its first nonfamily executive as president, from Marc Jacobs. The Soho store opens February 17.

“Alexander isn’t just content with clothing New York or Los Angeles; he wants there to be Alexander Wang girls everywhere, from London to Sydney, Paris to Shanghai, and there are,” prophesies Anna Wintour. That’s a lot for a 27-year-old to handle, especially when everybody in fashion sees him out dancing till the wee hours all the time.

“I like to go out. I think it’s almost pretentious to say you’re not going out,” says Wang. “I’m young, I’m only just getting started. But I’m not gonna be that person rolling around in a wheelchair at the club.”

He’s a long way from that. “I speak to a lot of people who are older than me, and they always say that one phrase, ‘Oh, when I was your age …,’ you know? ‘I was doing this or I was doing that,’ but I think youth also just develops so much quicker now with all of the tools that we are given. With the Internet, and with communication, and with BlackBerries and things like that,” he says. He feels the hot breath of the next generation behind him. “And you look at people that are even half my age and doing, you know?”

And five years from now? He begins some predigested patter about feeling “challenged and relevant.” But then he gets quiet, thinking, for a brief moment, beyond his in utero fashion destiny. “I think just to be happy. Really simple. It might be connected to a lot of other things.”

He has no idea, really, which, when you’re 27, and working all day and dancing all night, is a good thing.

Women of Wang