Jason Wu: Boss Man
“I think if you did a survey of who would be the best match, I don’t even think my name would come up.” That’s Jason Wu’s verdict on his appointment as creative director of the house of Hugo Boss. It’s pretty no-frills – which is exactly what you would assume the designer of that rigorous, minimalist house would be. Wu’s hitherto aesthetic has been the exact opposite. Wu-wear is about froufrou fairy-tale evening dresses – the kind of dresses you might wear to a ball to celebrate your husband’s inauguration as President of the United States, for example.
“My own references are much frothier. It’s about embellishment, lingerie details, it’s that,” says he. “For Boss, I have to approach it very differently. From the angle of what Hugo Boss was, is, and where I would like to take it. It’s me translating their heritage.”
There’s quite a heritage to translate. It stands for Teutonic tailoring, ferociously stripped back, lean and mean. The womenswear, however, is less precisely defined. Which is where Mr Wu comes in – Boss was born some 90 years ago, in 1924, “but 80-plus of those years didn’t involve womenswear at all,” states Wu. “By and large it’s not a very feminine aesthetic. How do I put a feminine spin on a very masculine reference? I think that’s really why this collaboration works.”
Wu’s path to fashion is unusual. Born in Taiwan in 1983, he emigrated to Canada age nine, which is where his love of fashion began. Upon his arrival on North American shores, he spoke no English. “I think I knew how to say ‘hi’ and ‘apple’, something like that. That was it,” he says, self-deprecatingly. “I was never the textbook, book-smart kind of guy – I’m the one Asian person you’ll find who’s terrible at math. I needed to find something to relate to, in the language, and I found this stack of fashion magazines my mom had left around. And I was looking at the shoots, and I wanted to read about the fashion designers. So I got a dictionary and was going back and forth, and that’s really how I learned the language. I always loved art and design, but that’s really when I started to love fashion, too.”
Despite their sophistication, there’s still something of that childish glee to Wu’s clothes: the overblown ballgowns, the lush furs, the heels and the red lips. Wu started out, after all, by designing dolls – the American company Integrity Toys titled them fashion royalty, and they are intended as grown-up collectors’ objets rather than childish playthings. He was still in high school when he created the range, and the earnings provided some of the seed capital for establishing his own label, founded in 2007 when Wu left Parsons before completing his degree to go it alone.
“I think they had no idea how old I was,” he admits, with a grin, of his beginnings with Integrity. “I submitted everything through email. It was a creative outlet where I could do something exciting and beautiful. I’ve always played with dolls, every since I was little,” he says, a confession common to many a male fashion designer. “My brother was the one who played with trucks and guns and video games. I was into romantic things, pretty things.” Wu also created Integrity’s RuPaul replica doll – he still counts the drag queen self-dubbed supermodel of the world as a friend.
In an odd way – and I’m sure he won’t mind me saying this – that established the blueprint for Wu’s own womenswear. “It’s very feminine, it’s like hyper-feminine – super feminine, super exaggerated, super glamorous.” That was Wu talking, albeit in reference to a specific collection from a few seasons ago, but the number of times Wu crammed “feminine” into that statement nails with a stiletto heel exactly what his brand stands for. Wu makes contemporary clothes imbued with an aura of old Hollywood glamour, both under his own label and at Boss. “I’d never call myself a trendy designer,” he says, wrinkling his nose. “I’d like to think that my work can last a long time, that it can be relevant 30 or 50 years from now, and still be wearable. It’s really about embracing the feminine form and creating truly desirable clothes.” It works: Wu’s distinctly polished woman feels like a natural contender to Oscar de la Renta’s crown as the king of “shiny set” dressing in New York. And the designer has barely turned 32.
No discussion of Wu could be complete without mention of Michelle Obama. Guided by Andre Leon Talley, then contributing editor at American Vogue and now editor-at-large for Numero Russia, she not only wore Wu on the cover of her Vogue debut and for a selection of public engagements, but – most significantly – for the 2009 Inauguration Ball. “I was almost in blissful ignorance at the time,” he says. “I’d started working on her wardrobe the summer before, and didn’t really know her so well. I made these clothes but she hadn’t worn them until much later. The inauguration thing. I actually packed the gown and flew it to Chicago myself. I didn’t want to take any chances. I didn’t know she would wear it until the night.” Of course, she did – and there was a repeat performance when she selected Wu again in 2013. “When I moved to America to be a fashion designer, I never imagined I would become part of American history,” he declares, “that my work would be cemented in a museum long after I’ve gone. For me, that was a really, personally significant moment in my life.” He isn’t spouting hyperbole: that first dress, the one that catapulted Wu to international prominence among a throng of young American designers, is now in the Smithsonian. And, Wu recalls, shortly afterwards, had a 300lb truck driver shouting his name at a New York intersection. “He definitely didn’t work in the industry,” Wu deadpans.
Boss made a canny if unexpected choice bringing Wu on board – not because of those all-important connections to celebrities and magazine editors. “I don’t think people think of me like that because of how I design for my own collection,” says Wu. “But it’s the kind of aesthetic I appreciate very much – and can do. I just don’t do it for my own collection. It was a really good opportunity for me to challenge myself, to do something that felt a little surprising and also felt challenging for me. But at the same time showed off a different design side of myself. That’s always interesting because I think in fashion it’s easy to be put in a box. And it’s most fun to challenge that notion and see how much you can do when given different circumstances.”
Wu’s opening gambit for Boss this autumn/winter set the tone for their partnership – and, of a fashion, there was an unanticipated synergy between the two Wus. If you, understandably, expected his eponymous label to address the balance by skewing to the extreme – namely sacrificing itself on a rabidly ruffled altar of Doris Day femininity – you would be surprised. Both lines emphasised streamlined tailoring and a pared-back palette. There was a touch more rigour to Boss, and a bit more oomph around the shoulders and waist at his own label, but there was a synchronicity between them both, a shared flavour. They both whispered desirability – maybe that’s the real Wu tang?
“The womenswear is almost new – it’s only 10 years old,” says Wu of Boss. “It never really had an identity, so for me it was an opportunity to create something new with something that already exists, the men’s culture. It’s something that is radically different from what I do for my own label.” As Wu himself stated, his eponymous label is about “super femininity”, whereas the Boss offering is more mixed. “Obviously I know how to do an evening dress and I know how to do very feminine things – how do I interpret Hugo Boss codes, which by and large are very masculine? It is about that balance, about taking something that is super strict, super structured, and have it be as appealing for women as it is for men. And for a menswear brand to make itself relevant in the womenswear world there has to be something unique about it.”
The unique thing for Wu, at Boss, is the manufacturing foundations. “I started by obsessing over Charles James’s work when I was at school – I wanted to study how it was made from the inside, the structures, the boning inside always intrigued me,” he states. “And it’s the same at Boss. The construction, the technical capabilities of Boss, are fascinating. Nothing has been cut by hand – everything is digitally cut and dissected, manoeuvred. Highly industrialised. They can create things more precisely than anything manually made. It’s a different way of looking at craftsmanship – a way I never thought to look at it. They’ve always been the first to innovate when it comes to new technologies. This is a world I never knew about – it’s something that doesn’t exist anywhere else, it’s one of a kind.”
Of course, that means Wu can do all sorts of fancy things with mechanised cloth cutting and finishing, but how does that ethos inspire a designer creatively? Take a look at his 2015 pre-spring collection for the house, and at all those precisely pleated poplin shirt-dresses. The genesis? Boss is the biggest maker of men’s shirting in the world. It was obvious Wu would want to translate that for his Bossy girls.
Boss is big all over, actually – a £1.5 billion global concern. Wu confesses he has been offered other places, but none of that magnitude – and the scale was as enticing as the challenge of design itself. Wu has leapt into the role, acting as creative director for a dual men’s and women’s ad campaign starring Edie Campbell and Scott Eastwood (son of Clint). The campaign is styled by Joe McKenna and photographed by Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin, creative behemoths to rival Boss’s clout. The results are slick, sharp and glossy. “It’s a cooler approach,” states Wu, with characteristic candour. He’s right.
By his own admission, Wu isn’t a trend-orientated designer. Hopefully, he’ll take it as a compliment if I say he isn’t cool. For his first Boss collection, Wu looked to the label’s headquarters in Metzingen, Germany, for inspiration. He flicks through a few shots on his iPhone – pristine, regimented plots of grass flanking faceted glass and steel buildings, with Sound of Music-style hillsides rolling in the distance. It’s idyllic meeting industrial, a marriage of man and nature. “It’s not Bauhaus – but it’s so Bauhaus,” says Wu of the Boss campus. “That was kind of the inspiration for the show set itself. It’s really about nature meeting the architecture. It’s set in a suburban place with tons of land and trees. The contrast is very interesting to me – of the campus architecture, and the nature. That’s what inspired me. For me, this story was never fully told to the public.”
Suddenly, Campbell pops up in the series of pictures, toting a boxy black calf bag in a razor-cut white shirt-dress and set against that faceted facade. After re-creating the campus in abstract form for his autumn/winter Boss debut during New York Fashion Week, Wu decided to shoot the pre-spring lookbook on location at the brand’s base. The marriage of Boss’s mechanical precision with something more natural is evident in the asymmetric pleats fanning across Campbell’s dress, and in the floating panes of plissé chiffon and Bauhaus-influenced grid embroidery on a hematite-grey evening dress. That number was worn by Diane Kruger at May’s Met Gala.
It’s odd how quickly Wu has carved out his Boss niche, and how very Boss it feels. For him, that’s part of his job – not just creating the clothes he wants, but creating them with Hugo’s handwriting. “When a designer takes over a house you have to really look within, to be able to draw on all that’s available to you, all that’s existed, all that they have done before, and being able to channel that into a collection that still feels modern and still feels relevant for today,” he says, slightly breathlessly. “That has to come from the heritage. That’s the big difference between working for a storied brand and building your own. It’s not about looking outside for inspiration.”
“Hugo Boss is not French, nor Italian – it’s German, and the approach is very different,” he then asserts, flicking at lightning speed through his iPhone again until he unearths images of a gargantuan, perfectly appointed room – part amphitheatre, part operating theatre. “They call it the technical centre,” he says. “It’s loosely termed an atelier, but it’s not like the French or the German interpretation. It’s blue and white, and pristine. It’s superbly organised – on a normal day!” That’s the nerve centre of the creative process at Hugo Boss – about as different as can be imagined from Wu’s own eclectic headquarters in New York’s garment district, with newsprint pasted onto the walls and colourful fashion sketches framed alongside Wu’s equally colourful creations. “It’s a different way of working,” he confesses.
Regardless of the label, Wu is decidedly pragmatic in his approach to clothing. When I ask about commerce versus creativity, his answer is immediate and emphatic: “I think it’s important. To me my reality is I love creating a beautiful show that has a message, but I love to see that translated into a woman’s wardrobe.” Music to the ears of anyone hoping to build on, say, a multi-billion-pound global concern. Wu has considerable business nous – last spring he launched Miss Wu, a range with a contemporary price point. He now oversees eight lines a year under his own name, including all-important pre-collections, as well as another four for Hugo Boss. While he doesn’t design the menswear, he does have a hand in its presentation, overseeing the campaign imagery alongside the womenswear. “Fashion is really a utilitarian thing,” Wu continues. “Not only does it project an image, but it’s covering you up! I like my work to have validity in everyday life. That’s always been my take – that whatever I do on the runway can translate into real life.”
Ultimately, that’s what attracted Wu to Hugo Boss – the scale of it and the possibilities to dress the world. That first campaign gave us a hint of Wu’s vision to come, one he’s already building on and refining. In short, Jason Wu has only just begun to show us who’s boss.
Photographer: Thomas Lohr
By Alexander Fury