Fashion designer Jason Wu was only 26 years old — and two years into running his eponymous clothing line — when first lady Michelle Obama catapulted him to international fame by wearing one of his gowns at the 2009 inauguration ball. It was a career-defining moment for sure, but it also shifted the way Jason thought about the power of fashion.
“Yes, we make beautiful clothes, but what we do can have a significant impact in many other ways,” he tells Nfocus.
This spring, his designs made a significant impact in Nashville by helping to raise necessary funds for education programs at the Nashville Symphony. As the featured designer at the Symphony Fashion Show, Jason drew a crowd of 700 to the Schermerhorn Symphony Center for a runway show of his Fall 2018 collection. We sat down with the designer earlier that day to chat about his unconventional start in the industry, his favorite career moments and the best — and worst — trends in fashion.
First of all, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us. We’re excited for you to show your Fall 2018 collection at the Symphony Fashion Show. I want to talk about the collection first. What was your inspiration behind it?
I was inspired by this architect, Ettore Sottsass, and his colorful work. He did a lot of work with jewelry. It’s all very colorful, very rich, and that’s kind of where I started with the original inspiration for the flowers. And there’s always a floral element in all my collections, and this season is no different.
When you’re approaching a new collection, how do you tackle that challenge?
It’s different every time. I think you just do what you feel like at the moment, and sometimes that feeling completely changes the week before the show. And then you change everything. I think it’s a reflection of things that inspire me at the moment and things I’ve seen, and that’s why I think traveling has been very important for me as a source of inspiration. Because I think getting to see different things all the time really helps.
Is there a piece in this Fall 2018 collection that you really love?
Yeah, the last gown I really love. It’s this very pleated, tulle drape gown that has these embroidered Swarovski crystals in these odd geometric shapes. So it’s something that’s quite modern but really quite classically beautiful at the same time. I really love that dress.
I love that dress too. It’s really pretty. Let's talk about your start in fashion. You had an unconventional start. Your background is in designing doll clothes, and I sort of got the sense from reading your story that you really had to hustle and work hard. You didn’t have anybody in the fashion industry that was necessarily opening doors for you. What have you learned from that process, and how has it made you a better designer and a better businessman?
I think having a start designing toys gave me a basis on how to work in the business. For example, how to register toy names and how to file patents and all these copyright things, you know, those things that you don’t think of when you start, when you’re a budding fashion designer. But I actually learned that before when I was working at the toy company. It’s just things like that. It gave me a really good base on what it’s like to be in a workplace, to work with others, the idea of collaboration and to really see the 360 degrees of a business — from design to production, to shipping, to all of that. So that really prepared me a lot more than I thought and more than I ever imagined when I started my business. There were just things that I instinctively knew to start, so that was really a big part of that. What that taught me also was just to follow my instincts and to do something even if no one has done it or it doesn’t seem conventional. You kind of create your own box, and you kind of go with that, and that’s really been the mantra for my career — to try different things; don’t mind being the first.
How has your style and your approach to business changed as you’ve gotten older and more established in your career?
Well, I think my work has always been very feminine, very sophisticated. The clothes have gotten more refined over the years. I’m obsessed with techniques, fabrics, craftsmanship; those are the most important things to me. When I started, we didn’t have any sewers. We had to make everything out in factories, and now we have our own atelier, and I think the craftsmanship that we are able to get out of our atelier in New York is really incredible — really stunning pieces that are made as beautiful inside as out.
You were still a really young designer when first lady Michelle Obama wore one of your gowns to the inauguration ball in 2009. How do you think that changed the trajectory of your career?
It changed everything because having done something like that — I think the women’s industry knew me, but having dressed the first lady really catapulted my name to an international platform. That was something that kind of just happened quite literally overnight with that kind of reaction, that everybody knew who I was all of a sudden. I had been doing it for a while — contrary to the popular belief that I had just started like the day before. I had been doing it for a few years, and I was fortunate because, by then, I was in the right stores; I had already been familiar with the industry, so it kind of prepared me to take it a step further after that.
How did you feel when you got that news? When you heard that she was going to be wearing your gown?
I didn’t hear; I saw. I mean, I saw it on TV when she came out. I don’t know. It’s hard to describe that feeling. I’ve never been able to really capture it with words because it’s something that just felt like something so incredible has happened in front of your own eyes and you are all of a sudden a part of it. And I moved to America as a Taiwanese-Canadian person coming in wanting to make a name for myself as a fashion designer, so then to have done something that has real significant value in American history was something that was beyond my wildest imaginations. It’s not something you really put on your goals. You know what I mean? It’s like, “I want to be in a fashion magazine; I want to do fashion shows; I want to be in Bergdorf” … things like that. But it also really changed the way I saw things. I realized that fashion can be so much more; it can be a message. And yes, we make beautiful clothes, but what we do can have a significant impact in many other ways, and that’s how it really showed me a bigger world, I guess, a broader one.
So obviously that was a big moment in your career, but you’ve had a lot of other really incredible clients that you’ve dressed like Reese Witherspoon, Diane Kruger and Kerry Washington to name a few. I won’t ask you to pick a favorite, but are there specific moments or garments that stand out in your mind for being really significant or ones that you just really loved because of the process behind them?
I would say Diane Kruger at the SAG Awards. She wore this mustard yellow gown, and that was the second time we had collaborated, and she’s now one of my dearest friends. But that was maybe eight years ago, and … we didn’t get to do a fitting in person; we texted each other and did it by email sketches, so it was something that just kind of came together. It was really one of my all-time favorite, favorite looks that I’ve ever done for the red carpet.
I remember that look, actually. It was gorgeous. Who would be a dream client for you to work with someday?
I would love to work with Tilda Swinton. I think she is such a chameleon and so incredibly chic in the way she dresses — but also in her demeanor. She’s an original, I think; there’s no one like her, and I’m really attracted to that.
What do you think you would be doing if you hadn’t become a fashion designer?
I never really thought of that, to be honest with you. But I think I would still be in a creative field. I think cooking or something. I think I would be in the culinary world.
Nice! Are you a good cook?
I think I’m OK. I love doing it. It’s really great. I’m a home cook, but, I mean, I love it. I think it’s really creative, and I really have a lot of fun. It brings me a lot of joy.
What part of your job still gets you the most excited?
I think when I’m designing a collection and fitting a garment and it’s just the way [I] imagined when it comes out. That is the moment when you say, “That’s why I do what I do.”
What is, in your opinion, the best piece of fashion advice you could give to a person?
Never take trends too literally, and always stick with your personality. Nobody can do “you” better than you.
If you had to boil it down to one or two things that people get wrong when it comes to fashion, what do you think that would be?
Over-accessorizing. There’s a lot of that, and I think there is such a thing as too much, and this is coming from someone who loves Dynasty. But even then, there was a certain drama with the outfits that is fabulous. But I think, don’t pile it on.
Given the cyclical nature of fashion, is there a certain trend that you would love to see make a comeback from the past?
Not that it ever went away, but I think certainly, at the moment, not the most talked about is beauty. Right now, fashion is not so much about beauty. It’s a very “look at me” moment. But I love beauty.
What do you mean by that?
My favorite era is the ‘50s, with that glamour and the beauty of that. And that’s what I miss. It’s just a very loud moment in fashion, and I like things that are a little more elegant and a little more subtle at times. And you know, it will never go away, but it certainly isn’t what’s in fashion right now.
Well you’re doing a good job of bringing that back.
I mean, I just do what I do. My clients love it. It’s what I know how to do. And again, it’s not about me chasing trends, especially not after 10 years in business.
What’s a trend that you wish would go away and never come back?
Oh, my God, there are so many. There are a lot of logos right now …
So we have a growing fashion industry here in Nashville — I don’t know if you are familiar with that at all — but what advice would you give to aspiring or up-and-coming fashion designers, ones that are coming into the industry now?
I think nowadays it doesn’t matter where you’re from or where you are. Through social media, and in this digital age, your work can reach so many more people just from your phone than it’s ever been [able to] before. So it’s something really to be taken advantage of because it’s free; it doesn’t cost money. I can’t tell you the kind of people I discover daily on Instagram — different talented people that do things, and I think, “Oh I didn’t know about this person and wouldn’t have.”
Do you think that there’s a threat of that oversaturating the industry?
I guess that goes with everything. But yet without that opportunity, a lot of voices wouldn’t be heard otherwise. So I think you have to kind of be your own editor. But I think that’s something that’s really interesting right now, that people are their own editors a little bit. They edit what they like. There’s less of a universal trend.
The Symphony Fashion Show obviously benefits our Nashville Symphony, and we are all so grateful to you for coming and participating in this. It’s such an important part of our community, and events like these provide necessary funding for its programs. What are the causes and charities that are most important to you?
I’m on the board of ACRIA, which now just merged with GMHC, so its Gay Men’s Health Crisis; it’s an AIDS organization that I have been a part of for many years. I’ve worked with them for six years, I think, on different fundraising opportunities, bringing awareness and education. So that’s nice. It’s something that’s really been a great project.