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Fashion / Style File

Jason Wu Opens Up on Michelle Obama, Crazy Cat Ladies and Fashion Grit

Unknown No More, Wu Settles Into Building an Empire

BY // 05.02.19

At only 26, Jason Wu was a virtual unknown when Michelle Obama picked him to design the one-shoulder white gown she wore to her husband’s first inaugural in 2009. She selected the young designer again four years later to create another custom gown — this time in red velvet and chiffon — for the second inaugural.

Both times, Wu was so nervous that something might happen to the gown that he wouldn’t let it out of his sight until it got to the White House

“It was the beginning of my career and I had never flown business class, so I flew business class just so I could hang it,” he recalled during a recent Houston visit. “Something about the dress was so important and sticking it in a box was fundamentally wrong. I did the same thing for the second gown, even though I ‘trained’ it (took Amtrak) from New York to Washington in its own suitcase.

“Listen, I take my work very seriously. It’s my duty to be able to present (my clients) the best of what I have to offer. That’s more than just the work; it’s everything from start to finish and how she receives it. There’s something about pulling out something wrinkly in a box that doesn’t sit right with me. I still take that approach.”

In fact, when flying to Houston to present his fall collection at the Children’s Assessment Center 20th annual Spring Luncheon and meet with clients at Elizabeth Anthony, he carried the feather cocktail dress that Victoria’s Secret model Martha Hunt had worn the night before to the Time 100 Gala on the plane with him so it could be in Houston in time for the runway show.

“At 12 years (in business), we’re not by any means an old company yet so I don’t handle myself like that,” Wu says. “I handle myself always like I’m an intern.”

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A decade ago, Wu was among a crop of hot young designers who burst to stardom with plans to revolutionize fashion. Now, at the ripe old age of 36, he has embarked on a new strategy to grow his business.

“The one thing about my generation of designers is that we really grew up in the spotlight,” he says. “Now everything is so covered. People expect everything right away. But it takes at least a decade to really mature in the business. It’s a small feat just to stay in business, especially with the fast-changing pace of fashion today. That’s something really important to know.”

Wu has rebranded his business into two groups, the more upscale Jason Wu Collection and a lower-priced contemporary line labeled simply Jason Wu. He has introduced a new floral fragrance, Velvet Rouge, and has revealed plans for his first stand-alone boutique planned to open in Shanghai later this year.

“My attitude has very changed a lot. I think I’m a lot more open-minded. I think I’m really curious again. I feel like I’m in start-up mode again. I want to try things that maybe I wouldn’t have dared tried before,” Wu says.

Jason Wu New York Fashion Week fall 2019 (Photo by Alessandro Garofalo)
Jason Wu New York Fashion Week fall 2019 (Photo by Alessandro Garofalo)

His fall collection reflects his love of flowers and feathers (he always sews a feather into one piece of a new collection for good luck). It features several floral dresses and numerous gowns with sculpted edges that resemble rose petals, along with a number of bright red creations.

“My new fragrance is about rose and amber and incense. It’s very sexy, gorgeous, beautiful, rich. So the rose motif was the center theme around the collection. Flowers have always been something I’ve been really obsessed with. It’s been a lifelong obsession. My father was a really serious gardner, so I caught the bug really early in my childhood,” says Wu, who was born in Taiwan and raised in Vancouver before heading to New York to attend Parson’s School of Design.

Even in this casual age, Wu believes women still want to dress up and look good.

“I’ve never been about a look that you can only wear for the moment or a season. I’ve always been about clothes that are meant to last a lifetime. So my mission never changes. It’s about embracing the woman’s feminine form and it’s about creating something that’s truly beautiful. And maybe sometimes that’s out of fashion, as cliche as that sounds,” he says.

At the previous two editions of New York Fashion Week Wu took a break from presenting a runway show and instead showcased his collections on mannequins so that guests could get a really close-up look at the intricacies of his attention to craftsmanship.

“I took an approach to do these carefully considered presentations, which actually is just as much work as a show, but it’s just presenting the work differently,” Wu says. “I think in today’s world it’s so much about the flash and the front row and everything else. Sometimes the clothes get lost.

“The idea of presenting clothing this way is to show that American couture is very much alive today because Americans don’t get the credit all the time for being executors of couture-quality clothes. There’s just not that many of us that do this kind of work anymore in the U.S.

“It’s important to show the clothing can stand by themselves in a way that can be viewed very up close and just as beautiful as our counterpart of Europe.

Crazy Cat Man

During his last visit to Houston in 2015 to present his collection at the Best Dressed Luncheon, Wu admits he was a “crazy cat lady.” He says he still is. “Crazier maybe. I’m want a third one. I want a Bengal. I’ve heard they’re quite wild. They’re so beautiful.”

But he believes he has changed a lot in other ways since then. “I think I’m a lot more open minded I think I’m really curious again. I feel like I’m in start-up mode again. I’m curious. I want to try things that maybe I wouldn’t have dared tried before,” he says.

“The thing about our industry is there’s a lot of glitz and glam and the flash can really get in the way sometimes. For me, it’s about keeping my head down and doing the work. That’s what really matters.”

While in Houston, Wu also celebrated at an intimate dinner party hosted by Children’s Assessment Center Spring Luncheon co-chair Phyllis Williams in Tony’s wine cellar, where he raved over the restaurant’s legendary dessert souffle.  Also joining in the fun were the other luncheon co-chairs, Alicia Maguire Smith and Ericka Bagwell, Elizabeth Anthony owner Julie Roberts, Children’s Assessment Center executive director Elaine Stolte and Wu’s husband, Gustavo Rangel, the company’s chief financial officer.

Wu and Rangel were also thrilled to get a private tour of the home of John and Dominique de Menil, arranged by the Menil’s Tommy Napier.

“It was so amazing,” says Wu, who is a big fan of Charles James, the fashion designer who also created much of the furniture in the Menil home.

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