The breakthrough designer (remember Michelle Obama’s inaugural ball gown?) appears at this month’s Jeffrey Fashion Cares fundraiser. He chats about stepping out in the South.
Have you gotten used to being an honored guest? I’m never used to it. I’ m very low key, I like to entertain at home, I’m that type of a guy. My company’s just three years old, so I’m experiencing a lot for the first time. And we’re just really fortunate to be growing during an economy like this.
We’re lucky, but also because of that we work harder than we would ever
work, because it’s the only way.
What are your hours like? Crazy hours. It used to be, a month before Fashion Week we’d work overtime, but now every day is Fashion Week. There’s
so much going on all the time that my staff—we’re always there.
I guess you really need to love what you’re doing. It’s the only way to do it. When I went to Parsons [The New School for Design], one of
the first things I was told was if you don’t love fashion you need to
get out. It’s a very glamorous industry, but most of all it takes hard work and dedication. Five percent of it is glamorous. The other
ninety-five percent is hard work and just like incessant—I struggle
over a bead or [if it’s] a shade off on the fabric.
You’ve pointed to illustrations of fairy tales as the inspiration for your latest collection, and you design for a line of dolls. Are you drawn to elements of child’s play? I think fashion can be only so serious. One of the dresses [in the
fall 2009 collection] had a print that featured little vignettes of
fairy tale drawings. It was a mature-looking dress, but up close there
was a whimsical element about it. I think you’ve got to have fun with
fashion. I think the second you take anything too seriously, it’s not
Having worked on designing dolls since I was sixteen, that gave me a
lot of experience in having attention to detail and just general work
experience—knowing what to do and what not to do when you’re operating
a business. Those things really helped me when I started my business
three years ago.
Wow. When I was sixteen I was lifeguarding. I was a ski patrol before that. I was in Connecticut and that was all I did.
How did you make the leap into fashion? Well I was not a great ski patrol [laughs]. It was certain I was
not going to be doing that for a living. But I was artistic ever since
I was five. That was one of the reasons my mom moved me here—because I
wasn’t going to have the opportunities I had here in Taiwan, where I’m
from originally. Especially in the eighties, Taiwan was less open to
the idea of boys being in the arts. Most of my cousins and friends
ended up in business. That was the norm. My mom saw that early on—that
I was really artistic and obsessed with dresses, and she thought it
would be best for me to move here.
Does your mom ever give you feedback on your designs? She gives me her input. She’s got great taste. My dad, though,
really has a lot of input into what I do because he’s a businessman,
and a really great one at that. He’s helped me a lot. Being a designer
in a self-owned company, you are operating a serious business on top of
being a creative person. It’s not just drawing and painting and draping
fabric all day. It’s about keeping the company afloat and letting it
grow and grow under these crazy circumstances. My dad has been really
great about giving me monthly advice on how to make it work. So I have
Jeffrey is your exclusive retailer in Atlanta. How did that relationship come about? It’s a strategy we felt strongly about—that as a young collection we can’t be readily accessible. I think the definition of luxury has somewhat been lost in the last few years. I think as a society we thought luxury just meant something that was really expensive, when in my opinion it means something that’s unique, special, timeless, and rare. That’s my approach to making clothes—to make only the best and to sell in places we really believe in. And so Jeffrey in Atlanta was the obvious choice.
I imagine your designs—polished, feminine, modern—are a big hit in the South. We had a tremendous response [last season at Jeffrey]. I think I understand the ladies here and I think they understand my aesthetic. You know what else I’ve discovered that the store manager at Jeffrey introduced me to? Chick-fil-A. It’s my favorite! So I’m a Southern boy at heart.
Jason Wu photo courtesy of C&M Media