Fern Mallis: You’re are an elusive candidate to get to interview—I’ve been working on this for a while. So, you grew up in San Francisco and did a summer program with Central Saint Martins. When did you do that?
Alexander Wang: That was over my junior year of high school. Growing up, my family always drilled into me a strong work ethic and and the importance of planning ahead—knowing what I’m going to do every summer, after school, etc. So I started working when I was probably 12. I actually lied about my age and worked at a retail store. (laughs)
AW: It was a small boutique, nothing you’d know, but I always knew I wanted to work in fashion. I didn’t have a family that came from the industry or anything even remotely close to, you know, fashion. But I did my research and I always planned what I was going to do. I would try one program for a summer and another the next.
FW: So even at that young age, you were aware of Central Saint Martins.
AW: Yes, I knew of it. I’d done a summer at Otis in L.A. previously, and also knew that Parsons was something that I wanted to look into. But I ended up taking that summer and going to London because I felt like I needed to see London before making my decision to go to New York. After I did my course at CSM, as much as I loved London, I knew I wanted to start my path in New York. It was a little bit closer to home, a little bit less of a leap in terms of a foreign country.
FM: Is there anyone from CSM that is still an influence in your life?
AW: I didn’t get to work with anybody that was championed or spoken of, but it was an amazing time to be in London. I was a junior in high school, and to get to be out there and exposed to a whole new way of learning, working, and being challenged was amazing. But New York was my destination.
FM: You said you started working in a retail store at the age of 12? That’s the kind of advice that every major designer I’ve ever talked to gives young people interested in fashion—work in retail.
AW: When I came to New York, the first thing I did was get a job. I started working at Barneys on the shoe floor!
FM: You worked in Barneys? I love that!
AW: Yeah, I was working retail at Barneys, and then I also had my first internship, which was at Marc Jacobs. I was working both weekdays and weekends, but when I started school, work became a little bit heavy and I had to give up one. I left Marc because I wanted to continue to have my job on weekends at Barneys. So, yes, retail experience is very important.
FM: But then you decided to go to Parsons for two years?
AW: Well I didn’t plan to go for just two years. (laughs)
FM: I didn’t mean it like that! But you went to Parsons, and after two years, you decided to leave?
AW: When I got there, it hit me quickly that I like to get my hands dirty. I like to be very much in the field learning firsthand, and I just felt that a classroom and being graded on my illustration wasn’t for me. Some people need that structure, and some people want to go and find their own way. I felt like I wasn’t being challenged the way I wanted to be. So, I took on an internship again, but this time in editorial. I went to Teen Vogue right when it first started, and there were very few editors. Half the office was turned off because they didn’t even have enough people to fill the office space. They had editors and stylists from Vogue supplementing the editorials because they didn’t have their own stylists yet. I remember editors consistently wanting to pull pieces from brands that they were used to pulling for Vogue, but they couldn’t because of the price point. And I just thought, well, this is so stupid.
FM: So you were identifying a new price point, even then? Interesting.
AW: A lot of brands get classified by their price and what floor they would go on in a department store. So unfortunately—and fortunately—that was my start. I realized that I wanted to leave school and do this side project. I brought the idea to Gloria Baume at Teen Vogue, because I had a close relationship with her. I explained to her what I wanted to do starting the line. She was like, ‘You know, let me set you up with this showroom. They can set you up with your sales and your press.’
FM: This is even before you even had a product?
AW: Yes—she was just like, ‘Go talk to them about what you want to do.’ I won’t mention names, but that showroom championed me to start. This is very exciting! this is what the market needs! …you know. I went to my mom and told her that I wanted to take a leave of absence and go work on this project. She challenged me and asked all of the right questions, but at the same time, allowed me to follow my dream. I went back in the fall to present what I had: Six cashmere samples. I went to the showroom and they said, ‘Oh, actually one of our other designers is already going in this direction now, so we can’t take you on.’ I was like, crap! What do I do now?
AW: I told my sister-in-law, and she offered to take the summer to help me. We went to a tradeshow, and I had one mention in a WWD— a little write up. I remember the first day, my sister in-law fought and fought, and we got an amazing booth right in the entrance of the tradeshow. We had a line at our booth with all these stores wanting to see the pieces.
FM: What did you show at that booth?
AW: Six sweaters. (laughs) In three different color ways.
FM: Three different color ways? They weren’t all black?
FM: Isn’t that how Marc started, though, with sweaters and dresses?
AW: Exactly. But we grew it into a full knitwear line with dresses, bottoms, jackets, and cardigans. It worked for us at first. But I remember going into the stores when that first collection started shipping, and I asked why we didn’t have our own section. Every time I saw our items, they were merchandised in a communal area, and they said it was because we didn’t have a full collection. And I thought, ok, I’ve always wanted to have a full collection…
FM: Like, give me a minute!
AW: Give me a minute! When I’m ready, I’m going to launch a full collection. I took the collection and went to The News [showroom], and they launched us as a full RTW collection. That was 2007, and then we did our first presentation in 2008. At that point, I thought, how are we going to do a show? We don’t have shoes and we don’t have bags. So, I wanted to launch shoes and bags.
FM: Ding, ding, ding!
AW: We did our first collaboration with Manolo Blahnik, which was amazing. I just remember that feeling of, Oh my god, you get to collaborate with Manolo! It was a huge honor, but I wanted to do my own shoes.
FM: Which are very different from Manolo.
AW: It was very different from Manolo. He doesn’t like when you change his lasts and things like that. I told the showroom that I wanted to launch accessories and that there was a gap in the market to do accessories the way I wanted to do them and at a certain price point. They weren’t equipped to do it, so we took everything in house. When we did the first samples of shoes and bags, I took one of the bags and baked it in my oven. I washed it, tied it up with turkey strings, and baked it in my oven because I wanted the bag to shrink and look really shriveled.
FM: And it didn’t catch fire?
AW: No, it didn’t catch fire. (laughs) In the end, it was our first washed bag with all of the zippers and the snake chain, and it did really well for us. So the accessories took off.
FM: When did the ROCCO bag come out?
AW: The ROCCO was the Fall 2009 collection. The funny thing is, at that time I was working on like 10 bags and didn’t even think, Oh that’s going to be the bag. It was just, you know, a gym duffle with feet all over the bottom.
FM: Were you surprised that that’s the one that people gravitated to?
AW: I think when I saw it, like people actually carrying it, I was like, oh… But I didn’t think it would take off, especially at that stage. Accessories being such a new category for us, you never think that something would change the dynamic of how people understand your brand. How they can buy into your brand and how it could be the entry point. Accessories have the reach to bring someone into understanding what your RTW means.
FM: So is the ROCCO bag still in your collection?
AW: It’s still one of the top-performing bags for us. We actually just launched a new reiteration of it called the ROGUE bags, which are made in Italy. We always believe in evolving and elevating the product and the quality, and I’ve always wanted to work with Italian makers. I had exposure to those resources when I was working with Balenciaga, so we re-launched ROGUE, which is the new Italian-made iteration of the studded bags.
FM: Your collections have a lot of black. What is it about black that you love so much?
AW: It’s the most whole color. Every other color goes with black, and every time you put an element of black into a pattern or a look, there’s a strength and power. Any time I think something needs more attitude or something harder or more subversive about it, black is always there for me.
FM: Black works.
FM: Yours still feels very much a like family business. How is that, working so closely with your family?
AW: They have always been supportive. They’ve allowed me to drive the direction, but they’re there to support me. They’re honest with me, if I need to slow down or do something specific.
FM: They have your back. And there are a lot of cute kids, if I remember correctly from the shows.
AW: Yes, they have two girls—one five, and one three.
FM: Have you done a children’s collection yet?
AW: No—well, I mean we do little special orders for them, but that’s not on the horizon any time soon.
FM: Can you tell me a little bit about some of the celebrities you’ve dressed?
AW: I’ve been fortunate to work with a lot of people who I’ve been huge fans of: Taraji, Kristen Wiig, Madonna. I never thought I’d ever have the opportunity to meet them and just to be able to make pieces for them or to get to know them.
FM: So how important do you think it is to have celebrities wearing your clothes?
AW: To be honest, celebrity is the new media. Not to say that in a derogatory way, but it’s where the industry is changing. I don’t know if this is the right thing to say, but it’s not about fashion magazines. Everyone is a brand today. You know, whether it’s Rihanna, Kanye, Taraji, or Kristen. People have their own product lines they are branding themselves. As a fashion designer, we’re our own brands and the exciting part is that you can be anything you want to be and you can manifest your own pack.
FM: So what do you think of these people becoming brands? Models and actresses with collections and labels?
AW: Everyone does it in their own way. The landscape is completely changing and that allows for the flexibility to do whatever you want to do. That’s the exciting thing. I’m not going to be stubborn about it like, Oh well, that person has a clothing line now, because you know what? Because this person has a clothing line, it allows people to think differently, which allows people to be open about what I want to do. When we do our T videos, some people say, ‘What the hell does this have to do with fashion? Why would you work with that person?’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t care, this is my way of communicating and it’s about building that connection and story-telling.’ That’s what I feel is the future of anything—building that connection and having your own story to tell.
FM: Along that line, tell me what your story is.
AW: You know, I’m still telling it. I’m a kid who was born into a different cultural background, then came of age in New York. And what surrounds me influences my work, whether it’s living in New York, traveling, the street. I love the subversive. I love this idea of people having the liberty to experience new things, to be provocative. I don’t just mean provocative in terms of being sexual or whatever. Provocative in terms of having something to say.
AW: Disruptive and honest. Having a point of view that you are not afraid to share. I want to speak to my generation and be able to learn about the different platforms that are available to us today, whether it is social media, digital, omni-channel, all of it. This is a part of my generation and I want to be able to utilize those tools.
FM: In addition to growing on those platforms, are you still growing the business with Barneys a lot?
AW: Yes—we’ve been very fortunate to have a long-standing relationship with Barneys. They’ve championed us and supported us through our growth. We’re so honored to work with them downtown, because it’s a smaller store. We’re lucky to be included.
FM: So what’s next for Alexander Wang? What’s on your bucket-list?
AW: I don’t know—it changes every day. Get the show done, and try and take a little mental breather. I don’t have really extravagant plans. I love what I do. I’m really fortunate to have this as my job because I know a lot of people don’t get to do what they love.
FM: So you have no problem waking up every day and going to work?
AW: This is going to sound really sick, but I look forward to waking up and reading my emails. When I read something like, ‘This person wants to get dressed for something’, or like, ‘they want to do this kind of thing with you,’ I get really excited to read those kinds of things. You never know what to expect.
FM: With awards season in full swing, do you want to do any red carpet stuff?
AW: I didn’t really have the opportunity to do that before I did Balenciaga, but when I was in Paris, I had the chance to try my hand at that. It’s a completely different business. We actually started launching eveningwear in our pre-collections as capsules, and they’ve been doing really well. It’s exciting to see that we can dress our girl for those kinds of occasions. It’s something that I enjoy doing more now, and I’m very thankful for any opportunity that comes our way.
FM: On that note, I mean we could go on forever, but maybe we’ll save some for another time. This has been great Alex.
American designer Alexander Wang founded his signature label in 2005, quickly becoming known for his use of luxe textiles in his edgy, sophisticated designs. His men’s and women’s collections, handbags, shoes and accessories are consistent must-haves for the smart, urban crowd.
Native New Yorker Fern Mallis was the Executive Director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America from 1991 to 2001, and created 7th on Sixth productions, or New York Fashion Week as it is known today. She was also Senior Vice President of IMG Fashion from 2001 to 2010. She is currently President of her own international fashion and design consultancy, Fern Mallis LLC.