Photo Robbie Fimmano
Toast of the New York fashion scene, Alexander Wang combines design talent and business acumen like no other. Numéro met up with the young prodigy in the wake of his sold-out collection for H&M and his dextrous revamp of the Balenciaga look.
Numero: A reputation for being an inveterate party animal has stuck with you since your very first collections. Do you still go out as much, now that you’re designing for Balenciaga ?
Alexander Wang: [Bursts out laughing.] Let’s say that it’s necessary to find a balance in one’s life and that, in this stressful industry, I needed to find a way to relieve the pressure. Dancing and seeing my friends was the best way.
Is it also a way of staying in touch with the trends of your generation?
Yes, but I like reaching out to a broad clientele, and not just my generation. I like the challenge. Producing pieces at very different prices is also important to me. That’s why I liked creating a capsule collection for H&M.
The collections you show in New York for your signature line combine streetwear and luxury in a different way each season. How do you decide on the balance?
For each collection I start working on, I ask myself what my brand represents and I try to develop its identity. I always start with several ideas. I hate pseudo-stories like, “It’s a story about Brigitte Bardot on a trip to Bali.” I take a much more organic approach, based on ideas of colors, materials and shapes. I explore multiple ways of finding productive contradictions. I’m not interested in exploring a one-dimensional idea. I start with elements that are seemingly contradictory and try to find a connection between them.
Today your brand has become the embodiment of a hip New York lifestyle. But presumably you didn’t just wake up one morning and say, “I’ve got it, I’m going to sell New York to the rest of the world!”
[Laughs.] No, of course not. I’m from California. I went to school in Los Angeles and took summer classes in London. When I had to choose where I was going to study, I thought New York was a good compromise between California and Europe, and the lifestyle change wasn’t too radical. But I don’t feel like I embody New York. Sometimes you inadvertently fall into people’s mental categories. You fit their fantasies and expectations without trying to. They say I embody the New York style, but I don’t know what that means. New York is such a melting pot of cultures and subcultures. Do they mean the uptown style, the downtown Manhattan style, the Brooklyn or East Village styles? All I’ll say is that New York’s energy influences me a great deal. I think it’s the only city in the world that’s constantly evolving.
The comfort and the relaxed attitude you bring to your collections are typically American, inspired by sportswear. Would you say this is a more contemporary, more appropriate attitude than stiff, frozen silhouettes?
All the clothes and accessories I design are clearly rooted in an easy-to-live-with comfort. It’s even true of my summer 2015 collection, which was inspired by haute couture references like Mme Grès and Fortuny. This is an intrinsic part of my approach to design. Whether my creations are abstract, vintage or futuristic, I try to bring my own references to our contemporary lifestyle. If I’m producing sophisticated pieces, they have to be functional. Conversely, I try to bring refinement to sportswear. But whatever the situation, I avoid preciousness. If I’m working on a luxury piece, a crocodile bag for instance, I like the idea that you can throw it on the floor, that it’s not too fragile and doesn’t need too much care. Things that are too precious and predictable aren’t me. I always need to find my own vision.
What do you feel about the journalists who, all of a sudden, lionized you because you drew on haute couture?
[Laughs.] In fashion, several conversations coexist simultaneously. So you always have to ask yourself who your client is and who you want to excite or impress most. No offence, but for me the client is more important than the journalist. That said, I don’t pander purely to business dictates either, because it’s important to produce strong pieces that create a universe and point in a particular direction. But when I read the runway-show reports by certain important journalists, I notice they react positively when they feel the designer is speaking to them directly, appealing to their fashion culture.
Far from being a cheap version of your own line, your H&M collaboration was a capsule collection with its own character, exploring sportswear codes more directly than under your signature label.
When H&M contacted me, I thought about what would be appropriate. A lot of brands have put out more affordable versions of their iconic pieces through H&M, but my brand is too young to propose archival pieces. So I asked myself what I could offer in this price range that would still be of quality, and I naturally turned to sportswear. I’d always wanted to explore this avenue for my own brand, but didn’t have the resources or the opportunity – H&M gave them to me on a platter. I thought it would be a very interesting exercise, because we all buy Nike and Adidas products in this price range. Whether you’re an Hermès, Alexander Wang or H&M customer doesn’t change that, you still buy high-street sportswear. So I thought it would be a smart way to broaden my audience.
This collection was also very different from and complementary to the T by Alexander Wang basics line you launched shortly after your signature line. Where does that fit into your brand universe?
Some still call T a diffusion line, but I never thought of it that way. A diffusion line offers cheaper versions of designer pieces, to reach a wider audience. I originally created T as a capsule collection of basics that complemented my main line. It embodies the most casual, comfortable aspects of my brand. Once again, this is something totally organic for me, because I wear sweatshirts and T-shirts every day. I think these basics should be of just as good quality as the more sophisticated pieces.
Music plays an important role in your universe: you’ve worked with the group Die Antwoord and with Diplo, and D.J. Baauer has mixed at your after parties…
Music is indeed an essential part of my life and of my brand universe. I try to work with people who have a strong identity, who are really creating something, and I find that, for me, it’s often musicians. I love actors and interior designers, but it’s hard to imagine a fashion style inspired by interior design. [Laughs.] Whereas fashion was a fundamental part of movements like punk, grunge and hip-hop. Musicians impress me because they embody their art – they personify it through their style of dress, their visual universe and the way they communicate with the public.
You and Tom Ford are the two designers most cited by rappers. Are you very connected to hip-hop culture, or rather surprised by your appeal to them?
[Laughs.] It’s a surprise and an honour every time I hear my name in a piece. I don’t know 2 Chainz personally, just like I didn’t know Jay-Z before he mentioned my name in his song. Then we met and…
…it was love at first sight. “I love your work!” “Oh, thank you, I love your work, too!”
[Laughs.] Yeah, something like that.
In the videos you post on your website and on YouTube, you create a whole culture around your brand by inviting celebrities like the rapper A$AP Rocky, or the satirical Bon Qui Qui character, to appear in funny little short films. How did they come about?
Communicating with my audience in a way that’s not directly linked to my products is something that’s essential for me. But it’s all done very instinctively – nothing about it is particularly planned.
Instead of putting you in the spotlight, these videos reflect a frame of mind, a mood. Do you put the brand before yourself in your communications strategy?
That strikes me as obvious. I hope my brand will growand will continue for a long time. I won’t always be physically present to talk about it. And the stereotype of the creator-diva just seems obsolete and appalling.
Many say that having family in China has helped your business over there. Is that true?
The truth has often been distorted. My family in China doesn’t work in fashion and doesn’t own a factory. But it is true that, being of Chinese origin, it’s natural for me to consider developing my business there. And, given the current configuration of fashion, it makes sense for me to open my second boutique there. I speak Mandarin and I look Chinese. But most people don’t understand anything about China, which is so vast and so populous. China and the internet are the only two uncharted territories that disconcert or frighten business people today. [Laughs.]
Are you comfortable now at Balenciaga?
Yes, now I know my team well, which is the same team that worked for the company before I arrived. I had to adapt because it’s a French house with an important legacy. Especially the codes of courtesy, which are very different in France. [Laughs.]
Do you have a business-development model in mind? Will you be opening your own restaurants soon, like Ralph Lauren or Giorgio Armani?
[Laughs.] In this life, I rule out nothing. But for now, that’s not at all in my plans. I really just do one thing after another.