Boss Backstage: Power Behind The Throne
Hugo Boss’s design headquarters in New York are shiny. Very, very shiny. I’m talking about the atelier here – although considering that Hugo Boss is a German company, helmed by a Taiwanese-Canadian fashion designer whose studio is based in America, the word “atelier” seems indefensibly pretentious. In Germany, at Boss’s European hub in Metzingen, they call it a “technical centre”. That’s a term Jason Wu, the head creative honcho at Boss, likes for its precision. Precision is a word he uses a lot about his Boss. Precision and rigour.
Those are qualities embedded in the design of the clothes, too. Those who thought Wu’s flouncy, undeniably feminine clothes made him a strange fit for the house that Hugo built – including Wu himself, who told me he didn’t even think his name would have come up on most people’s shortlists – are eating their hats. Except Wu doesn’t do hats at Boss, because hats are a bit olde worlde for the Boss he is rebuilding. “I think, in fashion, it’s easy to be put in a box,” shrugs Wu, when you bring that up (as people still do, over 18 months into his Boss tenure). “It’s most fun to challenge that notion, to see how much you can do given different circumstances.”
That is, actually, the rationale behind his choice of locale for his Boss catwalk shows. “I like the idea of staging my Boss shows in a building in construction, because I feel like the Boss womenswear identity is still being built under my artistic direction, with every collection,” muses Wu. “I’m fascinated by the idea of urbanity – a cityscape is a modern backdrop for a show. It’s beautiful, but it’s real. It’s about a world view.” True to form, this time, his models marched around a raw, empty space inside the World Financial Centre, the concrete on the walls so new you could still smell it drying. It’s also a fitting metaphor for the fashion industry as a whole: a glittering, sleek exterior belying the amount of hard graft under its surface. And, of course, the fact that all that work is what eventually helps to make lots of money. Boss is a multibillion-pound business. Wu is building it to reach even higher.
But that’s all in the future. When I meet Wu and his tightknit Boss team three days before the Hugo Boss show, it’s on Seventh – New York’s Fashion Avenue, in the heart of the garment district. It’s two days after his own-label collection, one of the opening acts of New York Fashion Week’s crowded autumn/winter calendar, but Wu has already switched focus and changed gears. If he has quietened down at all following the debut of his own-label collection, he doesn’t show it – in fact, he confessed to me, his next Hugo Boss pre-collection has already been designed, and Wu was supervising the lookbook shoot – he held off from totally bucking the fashion system and showing said looks before the autumn/winter season had even finished, but only just.
Wu has a rare advantage, thanks to his work for Boss: he gets to stake his aesthetic claim on the season not once, but twice. He’s also unique in that he shows both of those statements in the same city, bookending the week. It’s interesting to draw parallels between his own work and that of Boss: the synchronicity between the tailoring; the consistently dazzling handworked embellishments; and more than anything else, a shared approach to 21st-century luxury.
However, Wu is quick to state that Boss is a distinct offering from his own label. Indeed, Wu feels his Boss is now so well established, that, “I can play with it a little more. This was about toying with the codes of the brand, about creating something harder, stronger and sharper than I’ve done before.” The difference? The tailoring chez Wu has an American sportswear feel; at Boss, it was distinctly European.
That came from two points. On the one hand, Wu had been enjoying his frequent trips across the Atlantic: he’s enthusing about the experience of contemporary Berlin, an epicentre of cool. “There’s a real vibe of Berlin,” comments Wu, flipping the hem of a coat cut in a scarlet and black macro-scale tweed that feels modern but also reminds me of the stark portraits of Weimar Germany’s artistic demimonde painted by Otto Dix. “The architecture and culture you can experience in that city is incredible. I’m inspired by the edge of Berlin.” Fuse that with the grand dandies of the Edwardian age – just as cool as today’s skinny-jeaned rockers in slick, tailored hunting gear. That’s where Wu found his latest footwear fetish, the knee-high cavalry boot, or ankle-length versions with jodhpur straps wrapping the ankle. Some of those are balanced on a high heel, corrugated like a modernist architectural detail. When you upend them, that corrugation forms an abstract, angular letter B. B for Boss. It’s always there, you see, always underfoot.
Wu walks me through the racks of clothes – the 40-odd look edit for the show, and the numerous commercial spin-offs, variations in fabric, weight and cut – and a new collection, dubbed “Fundamentals”, which Wu intends to represent the building blocks of a modern woman’s wardrobe. Each is demarcated by a slim metal band, like a piece of stationery. “They’re staples,” says Wu of the clothes and those metallic embellishments. Geddit?
They also synch with Wu’s ideas for autumn/winter. “Industrial beauty,” is the pithy soundbite he gives me, reflected in the corrugated beading veiled with tulle, laser-cut appliqués and the graphic bonded bi-colour tailoring. Splice Wu’s coats open and the hematite flannel will reveal flanks in a tomato-y vermillion or cool oxidised blue. He left the selvedge edges raw on the outside to allow that colour to delineate his expertly cut seams and emphasise the precision in all that tailoring.
It’s cold in Wu’s Boss workrooms – not as cold as the subzero New York temperatures outside. It’s the coldest February in over 80 years, so cold the Bryant Park fountain had frozen solid and the Hudson River a few days before. The Boss office is glacial – sort of. If not in temperature (we’re wrapped up, but not shivering), then certainly in colour. The Boss world is played out in grey scales, harking back to the house’s roots in formal men’s tailoring. Wu challenged himself, with this collection, to stick closer to those origins: after injecting a fluidity and femininity to the Boss formula in his debut and sophomore catwalk collections, this tugs the focus back to sharp, slick suiting. Even the items that aren’t normally part of that remit – say, soft evening dresses, which are traditionally denoted as “flou” in haute couture and dealt with by specialists entirely separate to the suiting workrooms – have a tailored foundation here. Bespoke canvassing techniques, the painstaking underlayers normally used to give men’s jackets a rigid formality, are incorporated into a series of otherwise fluid crepe dresses, three-dimensional bands arching across their surfaces.
“It’s all in the cut,” comments Wu. He could also be referring to the laser-cut latticework that makes a wool dress precious and suitable for evening; or the fact that all those seams are the real decoration (you hardly notice the beading, honestly).
Cut to three days later, and the distinctly un-Boss-y backstage scene at the autumn/winter show. It’s the usual chaotic whirr of activity, part Absolutely Fabulous, part A-Team, with a mulletted Edie Campbell – the show’s opening model and Boss campaign star – yammering into her phone and showing everyone pictures of her two horses, Dolly and Armani (not even making that name up). Pat McGrath and her retinue of assistants are powdering models with minimalist, barely perceptible make-up looks; Guido is tugging hair back from a strict centre parting – like another seam, down the middle of the scalp.
Front of house, everything is calm and precise. Way more Boss. The show space is punctuated with pillars of corrugated plastic to mimic the glistening surface of the external skyscraper. “That’s in the clothes, too,” states Wu, running his hand across a breastplate of laser-cut, translucent plastic paillettes that wind up resembling a cross between glass bricks and fish scales. “There’s something beautiful in the industrial,” he says, looking at those perfectly punched squares glistening on the bodices he’s about to show. “I’ve never seen machines like the ones we have at Boss – everything is mechanised, hyper-sophisticated, and they work together to create something like industrial couture.”
Industrial beauty, just like Wu said. Let the show begin.
Text by Alexander Fury, fashion editor of The Independent, The Independent on Sunday and i
Taken from Issue 42 of 10 Men, on newsstands now…