Fashion designer Jason Wu sets his sights on Asia, here for Fashion Week

Having already made a name for himself on the global fashion scene, the Taiwan-born designer now wants to expand in this region

In several ways, Jason Wu's story reads back to front.

The New York-based designer is best known, of course, for exploding onto the global fashion scene at age 26 by dressing Mrs Michelle Obama before working his way out from the White House towards dressing regular folks.

And now, the 35-year-old, having more or less conquered the Western world, wants to work his way back to the continent of his birth and discover Asia - or rather, allow Asia to discover him.

He is in town to headline the annual Singapore Fashion Week, where he will also be giving talks on fashion and technology. It is his first visit to Singapore since he was eight, when he took a tour of the region with his mother.

"I travel so often, but really not as much in Asia as I'd like to," he tells The Straits Times over the telephone from his home in New York City prior to his trip. "I've largely concentrated my career in the West. I think for the next phase, I would love to spend more time in Asia - that's where I'm from - and explore more opportunities there."

This is why he is eager to show at Singapore Fashion Week, which runs from today to Saturday. Local audiences will get to see his Spring 2018 collection of fresh and feminine, sportswear-inspired looks featuring cut-out dresses and pastel hues on the runway.

After the event's conclusion, he will head to Shanghai to celebrate the opening of the St Regis Shanghai hotel.

When I was growing up, the consumers were maybe more interested in very, very large brands and big names. I think, at this point, people are interested in exploring more independent brands. There's a real thirst for something unique.

TAIWAN-BORN JASON WU on the Asian market being more ready for designers such as himself. He is pictured at the launch of his Jason Wu Fragrance early last month in New York, with actress Jaime King and models Lily and Ruby Aldridge

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Making his presence felt, testing the waters and establishing contacts in Asia are part of laying the groundwork for an Asian expansion.

Although he is tight-lipped about the details, his brand has plans to open more distribution points for Jason Wu and its more relaxed sister line, Grey Jason Wu, in Asia.


Big on design tie-ups

"Being a New York-based designer, it was very important for me to establish a home base and to work on getting everything right here first before I expanded," he says. "(But now) I think this is, in many ways, the right time."

The Asian market, he feels, is more ready now for designers like himself.

"When I was growing up, the consumers were maybe more interested in very, very large brands and big names. I think, at this point, people are interested in exploring more independent brands. I think there's a real thirst for something unique; something not everybody has," he says.

He is perhaps being modest when he paints a picture of his eponymous label as an indie brand: The celebrations for its 10th anniversary were held at the St Regis Hotel in New York City in February, complete with a show and a dinner.

The label, which is best known for its modern and feminine dresses and gowns, has also branched out into fragrance, accessories and eyewear.

Grey Jason Wu, which was launched last year, recently rolled out a collaboration project with 15 different lifestyle brands, including Moleskine, Sharpie and Le Sportsac, to present items in Wu's favourite hue - a special shade of grey he developed in partnership with colour specialist Pantone.

Wu himself has also served as the artistic director of womenswear at German fashion giant Hugo Boss since 2013.

 

He is well known for collaborating with everything from beauty brands including Lancome, Caudalie and Shiseido to discount store retailer Target, luxury home fixtures brand Brizo, Brazilian shoe brand Melissa and even automobile manufacturer Cadillac.

This diversification is not just to keep himself from getting bored.

"I think fashion lives in spaces. I'm interested in exploring what that space looks like. It's something that personally excites me," he says.

"Don't get me wrong - fashion is my love and that's what I do - but I'm mostly interested in the world around it. I think when you have a sensibility, you can lend that to everything design-oriented. That motivates me to explore things that are maybe less explored by other fashion designers."

Pointing out that fashion is evolving such that the lifestyle portion of it is becoming more important, he says: "I've never been afraid to be the first person to do something and to go for opportunities and maybe look at things as what they could be, not as what they are right now."

Even as a child, he adds, "I always did things my own way".

At 16, for instance, he started designing dolls and their clothing for US manufacturer Integrity Toys.

His love for fashion dolls was encouraged by his mother.

"I remember asking for Barbie dolls when I was four or five, in contrast to the video games that my brother played. I grew up in Taiwan in the 1980s. It was more conservative at the time. I think people thought it was very weird for a boy to want that sort of thing. My mother bought it for me anyway," he says.

Seeing that Wu and his brother, who is three years older, were not flourishing in Taiwan's academically rigorous educational system - with after-school tuition classes to boot - his mother moved the family to Vancouver, Canada, when he was nine.

After his stint as a toy designer, he enrolled in New York's Parsons School of Design in 2001, but left in 2004 to intern at fashion brand Narciso Rodriguez. In 2007, he launched his own label.

He credits his mother with being one of his biggest influences. "(Growing up) I hung out with my mum a lot. I would go with her everywhere. She really appreciates design and loves to go antiquing. She was always interested in the things that I'm interested in now."

Describing her as "brave", he recalls being allowed to explore his interests without prejudice. "I asked for a sewing machine when I was 10 and then she got me a sewing teacher when I was 11."

His mother, Chen Mei Yun, is now a parenting authority in Taiwan, which considers Wu one of its favoured sons; she is a published author and gives talks about helping children achieve their potential.

In other aspects, though, his mother had some of the Asian tiger mum in her. For instance, while she allowed him to take sewing and sculpting lessons, he also had to take piano lessons for many years. "I hated it. My teacher made me cry all the time. She was so strict," Wu says with a chuckle.

His Asian upbringing also laid the groundwork for his work and business ethic.

"I don't know how to explain this without saying that no one else is hardworking, but I think there's a very disciplined way of working that is very fundamentally Asian about me.

"I'm really organised. I think about business on top of design. And I think that has become very important for this generation's designers - that we have to be just as aware of business as being creative."

This, he says, is because the world is now faster, the fashion market has changed immensely and timelines have shrunk. "Everybody has to be much more aware and be really quick to react and it's hard to be quick without knowing the full picture," he says.

He comes from a family of business-minded people - his father and brother are businessmen in Taiwan - and "that's something I adopted - to always look after the logistics and the business side of things. That balance, I think, has become very important for designers of my generation".

He credits his success to a combination of hard work, persistence and luck.

"I've encountered situations and opportunities that have allowed me to succeed, but, at the same time, every time an opportunity comes up, I make sure I work hard and do my best," he says.

It is impossible not to think of Mrs Obama as having propelled his career to presidential heights when she chose to wear that famous white Jason Wu gown to the Inaugural Ball in 2009, making him an overnight media sensation.

That gown, along with the red Jason Wu dress she wore to the second inauguration in 2013, have both been displayed in the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History.

Does he ever feel like his hard work has been eclipsed by Mrs Obama's high-profile leg-up or he has been pigeonholed as a designer of First Lady fashions?

"No, I don't think so. Everybody is pigeonholed in one way or another. But that's also what makes you, isn't it? If people don't have an image when they think of you, then you don't really have a point of view," he says.

"I relate it to an actor - an actor can be known for one movie, but the motivation is more, 'How do you come up with the next hit?' It's not about forgetting or downplaying what you've already done - be proud of that; that's what put you on the scene - but I am more concerned about coming up with my next hit than not wanting to talk about anything I've done."

Such a statement may not have come from Wu a decade ago, he muses, when asked how he feels about turning 35 last month, an occasion he celebrated by cooking dinner for his closest friends - roast chicken with vegetables on the side, and apple pie for dessert.

"The way I answer everything is just completely different from the way I did in my 20s," he says. "I think my 30s has been a time when I've really been able to be much more assured of myself and grow up and be much more confident about what I do, you know? In my 20s, I was much more insecure."

He was also more hot-headed back then.

"Everything affected me more," he says. "I was always much more restless when I was younger. Now, I feel like I can deal with much more stressful situations. I tend not to lose my cool very much anymore."

At this point in time, he says, "I've gotten to know myself enough to be able to pursue everything with more confidence. I am probably the most creative right now than I've ever been".


Classic Jason Wu

Jason Wu is best known for being former United States First Lady Michelle Obama's go-to guy for gowns. Here are five of his standout creations.

1 2009 INAUGURAL BALL GOWN

Wu was instantly propelled from the status of emerging designer to a household name when Mrs Obama chose to commission and wear this white one-shoulder gown at the Inaugural Ball on the day that Mr Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States.

2 2013 INAUGURAL BALL GOWN

She surprised fashion pundits by remaining loyal to Wu at her husband's second inauguration, stepping out in this bold, red halter-neck gown.

3 STRAPLESS FLORAL NUMBER

When Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife, Sophie, made their first official visit to the White House in March last year, Mrs Obama wore this effortless strapless navy Jason Wu dress with floral prints.

4 JASON WU X MELISSA

Wu has been collaborating with Brazilian shoe brand Melissa since 2011. This is one of his most popular shoe designs, the Jean + Jason Wu from Melissa's Spring/Summer 2014 collection.

5 STRIPED CUTOUT DRESS FROM THE SPRING 2018 COLLECTION

Top model Bella Hadid debuted this striking yet laid-back look (above) from Jason Wu's Spring 2018 collection at New York Fashion Week last month. This latest collection, which will show at Singapore Fashion Week, marks a departure from Wu's signature dressed-up evening looks towards a more casual, sportswear-inspired aesthetic, while still remaining feminine and sophisticated.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 26, 2017, with the headline 'Jason Wu wants to woo Asia'. Print Edition | Subscribe