Alexander Wang of New York and Balenciaga of Paris
ALEXANDER WANG IS TWENTY-NINE. AT TWENTY-ONE, HE LAUNCHED HIS OWN LABEL. AT TWENTY-THREE, HE LAUNCHED A COMPLETE READY-TO-WEAR COLLECTION ON THE RUNWAY. AT TWENTY-FIVE, HE WON THE VOGUE/CFDA FASHION FUND. AT TWENTY-SEVEN, GQ HONORED HIM AS BEST MENSWEAR DESIGNER. AT TWENTY-EIGHT, HE WAS PICKED BY FRANÇOIS PINAULT TO TAKE THE HELM AS CREATIVE DIRECTOR OF THE LEGENDARY HOUSE OF BALENCIAGA. OH, HE’LL BE THIRTY THE DAY AFTER CHRISTMAS. By Glenn o’Brien
Alexander Wang: Heh-heh-heh . . . Well, I’m in Paris, so I’m getting my feet wet.
GOB: You’ve been getting your feet wet for what, nine months now?
AW: Nine months, yeah. But it’s been an incredible journey and experience so far. So, I have had no problem diving in.
GOB: How’s your French coming along?
AW: You know what? I am completely failing in that department. I have zero time to dedicate. But I have promised myself that I am going to make every attempt when I get a free moment.
GOB: Well, probably nobody gives you attitude except for taxi drivers, right?
AW: Yeah, exactly.
GOB: What’s your schedule like? Are you there like one week, and then you’re back on the plane?
AW: I come usually once a month for a week, so it’s been pretty good. I got used to the flight and the jet lag. It’s kind of become my routine now. Then, this summer, I came two to three times a month, just because they were closed in August, so we had to get a lot of the collection under way. But now I feel really good, because we’re in a pretty good place, and I’m pretty prepared, and I am not freaking out. So, yeah . . . it’s good.
GOB: Are you going to eventually get a place of your own, or do you like living in the hotel?
AW: You know what? So far, I’ve really enjoyed staying in the hotel, just because it’s such a fantasy of coming to Paris and staying at a hotel and getting room service and all of that. It hasn’t been a year yet, but probably one day I’ll get really sick of it and just kind of want a place of my own. But right now, I’m quite enjoying it. So, I am going to take advantage of that.
GOB: I know when you were first offered the job at Balenciaga, you said no, I guess for a minute.
AW: Yes, I did. A minute.
GOB: It must be so hard to kind of bifurcate your mind, to generate two different aesthetics. Do you feel like you have to make a big mental switch.
AW: At the time, it was just such a crazy thought to me. I had kind of had other proposals before, and I was never looking, and I was never kind of considering pretty much an offer to find another job. I was very happy and preoccupied with what I was doing in New York. Then, I randomly had this other project that I was working on, that I was going to speak with Mr. Pinault about, and coincidentally, the whole situation happened— the opening came about, and he called me into his office. I thought I was coming into his office to meet about something else. It was during Fashion Week. It was the second day before it was over. I go in there kind of completely unaware, and he breaks the news to me, and I’m just kind of dumbfounded. I was lost for words, and, of course, I was completely honest. . . . That was kind of my first reaction. I was like, “I don’t even know where to begin; it’s not something I feel very prepared for.” He was completely generous in offering me a visit to the archive and saying, “You know, just . . .” So, I was like, “Well, no harm. I can’t lose anything by just visiting the archive.” So, we planned this trip to go to the archive, and it was just an amazing experience. Then, day by day, my thoughts kind of shifted more and more to the yes side, and then, before I knew it, I was signing the contract.
GOB: How long did it take you to make up your mind? A week?
AW: You know what? I wasn’t given a week. I was given about five days. I got back to New York on Thursday, and they wanted to know by Monday if I was interested. Not a definite answer, but if I was interested. So, I said, “Okay, you know what? I should just say ‘yes’ and kind of continue the conversation and see where it leads.” Then, of course, one thing leads to another, and we’re already on contract negotiations, and then I’m already talking about how I am going to split my time. I think at that moment, as I started answering the questions that I had in my own head, it just became clearer and clearer to me that this was something that I really wanted to do, and that my initial thoughts at the beginning and my fear of approaching it was completely unrelevant to what the reality would mean for me. So, I thought, “You know what? Let’s go for it and dive right in.” And there was no turning back. I kind of shut everything out for the few months that the news broke and completely stayed focused on working on the collection and knew that this was my priority, and I got to work.
GOB: That’s like having two full-time jobs. Probably more than full time. Weren’t you afraid that the Alexander Wang line would suffer?
AW: I was a little worried. I definitely knew that there would be that risk. But I’ve always been a risk-taker, since the very beginning, and I’ve always enjoyed that kind of thrill of not knowing what the outcome will be. I am the kind of person who believes you have to take a risk to move forward, otherwise you’re always going to be in a very stagnant position. Not that I was not evolving in my own brand, but I was just like, wow . . . the thought of doing this, and the thought of how much I would learn and challenge myself and the growth that I would gain would be so much more than in anything else I could do at that time. I just thought, “Okay, if I’m going to do something like this, now is the time to do it—while I have the energy, while I have the motivation, while I feel this kind of blood rush in me.” So, yeah, I just kind of went for it.
GOB: Is the transition exactly what you expected? Easier? Harder?
AW: Gosh. I’d probably say . . . I don’t want to say easier. That’s not the right word. I think the worry for me . . . it was really the fears that I had in terms of being in Paris and not knowing anyone, and working with a team that was established before me, with a whole company that wasn’t built by me. I never had work experience before I started my own brand, so I built that really step by step, hiring each new person. So, I really knew the process and the procedure. But coming into a different situation, I think my fear was simply not knowing what to expect here . . . but everyone was so warm and welcoming, and the collaborative spirit and the teamwork that takes place here just kind of diminished all of my fears, and in a way, it just made the process so much clearer to me. So, it wasn’t that it was easier. It was just that . . . And I’d never thought of taking on a completely other full-time job with men’s, women’s, accessories, store planning, advertising, all of that . . . that I would have the capacity to do that. But now that I’m actually in it, I realize that I do have it, and that I am completely capable of doing more. I feel that it pushes me to have to be more organized and to be more definitive in my decisions. It has made me just kind of grow up, in a way.
AW: Yes and no. I always kind of say that had they hired someone that was unknown or from the design team, or another designer that didn’t have their own line, the perception or the expectation would have been a lot different from it being me, people knowing what my work is and what my signature is . . . But I think the great thing about what I do here is that it is a completely different approach from what I do in New York. I want it to be that way. That’s how I feel motivated to do it. If I had to do the same thing and apply the same approach, I wouldn’t know how to have that much come out of me. A lot of times, there’s ideas and concepts and inspiration and thoughts that come to me, and sometimes before I might have been forced to say, “Oh, you’re going to have to get it out of me . . . ” My only outlet would have been Alexander Wang. But now I have a completely different avenue to execute those ideas. It’s so liberating, in a way, to kind of come into a situation where it is someone else’s name on the door. It’s Balenciaga; it’s not Alexander Wang. And to know that there’s a heritage, that there’s a DNA, and there’s other codes that I need to take into consideration and keep in mind, it’s very exciting for me, in a way.
GOB: I can imagine. I like the way you described your Alexander Wang customer as “models off duty.”
AW: [laughs] I want to actually once and for all correct that. It’s so funny, because I think I might have mentioned that casually in a back-stage interview once, and then everyone took to it and made it kind of like my slogan.
GOB: It’s everywhere.
AW: But I was twenty-one at the time . . .
GOB: I was thinking how clever it was. AW: But that kind of comes off as being very . . . limiting. Lots of people are like, “Oh, it’s only about models,” and it’s not. But it’s something that was very playful and witty at the time. It kind of stuck, but obviously, or hopefully, I’ve evolved . . .
GOB: Obviously. But it is a young, sexy idea, so it’s not such a bad thing.
AW: Well, thank you.
GOB: How about the Balenciaga customer? Do you have a description of her? Or him? AW: For me, it’s not defined by a certain person, as it is more a sensibility on how I approach the different lines. With Alexander Wang, there’s always something that has to be a little bit off and kind of subversive, and at Balenciaga . . .
GOB: Parental Advisory, right?
AW: Parental Advisory, exactly. But with Balenciaga, there’s a purity that I always strive for, and a balance. Every line and silhouette and fabric . . . there’s this really streamlined process that I go into working with each garment. I think that’s really the difference that there is, at least for me, in the approach. Sometimes, there is a little bit of this austerity that I think is very inherent to the brand, this aristocratic kind of approach, but still made very . . . First of all, it was always about dressing the woman and making sure that she felt comfortable in her own clothes, and that she wasn’t constrained by corsets or anything like that, and that the body moved within the silhouette. That I find in that a real relationship to my approach in my own brand. So, there are similarities and there are differences. That’s kind of exciting with each collection, that I get to dis-tinguish the two and unravel the puzzle, in a way.
GOB: Cathy Horyn wrote a review of Alexander Wang and a few other designers, and she said that there’s no new ways to design, that change comes out of technological progress, like new fabrics or processes. Do you agree with that?
AW: Yes. My approach always has been that I’m not here to reinvent the wheel. Unless humans develop a new chromosome and start growing new limbs . . . Something has to fit, and the woman or the man has to feel confident enough, to feel empowered and sexy and attractive, and kind of desired, in a way. But with that, obviously, there’s a silhouette that you’re working with. But then how do you push it forward? That’s really where the technicality comes in, whether it’s new machinery that’s developed, with new fabrications that have synthetic fibers, that you can meld things and nucleus things or glue things together to achieve new surfaces. That’s kind of the playing ground that I really get to experiment with here at Balenciaga, because the possibilities are just endless in that arena. I get to do so much with experimentation on textiles that is, again, so incredible and mind-opening. The resources that we have in factories now . . . I think that’s where I guess the newness would come from.
GOB: How do you keep current with that?
AW: A lot of research. Of course, I have the privilege of being part of a big machine and having amazing resources and connection to factories all over the world that do very specialized crafts. A lot of great design trips that we take to find new suppliers and things like that. And then there’s just a lot of experimentation. Again, one of the greatest luxuries that I have here is that I can say, “Let’s try this, and this way, this way, this way,” and I get ten variations coming back, and then I take it, and I play with it, and I print it, and I laser it, and then I cut it, and then I bond it again, and then I glue it, and then I foam-inject it. Everything has been attempted, I guess you could say.
GOB: Is there a sort of avant-garde of clothes today in sports? It seems that’s where a lot of the technological stuff comes in.
AW: From sportswear?
GOB: Active sportswear. I think you’ve said that you weren’t into sports, but you were really into sports clothing.
AW: Yeah. One of my favorite pastimes is going to Paragon Sports or to Modell’s. I love looking at active sportswear. There’s just so much advancement in the construction and fabrications and how things are made. You look at like tennis shoes, or sneakers, for example. Just the advancement in how things are constructed is incredible there. It makes high fashion look like it’s ten steps behind. So, I always kind of go there, and I look at them, and I try to get inspiration from that kind of area.
GOB: I think it was in 1992 that Balenciaga designed the French Olympic team’s uniforms. Is that something you’d be into doing?
AW: Oh, yeah. Definitely. That’s something that I’d be very excited and honored to be a part of.
GOB: I read something you wrote as advice for Vogue. You said, “Give your accessories the right accessories.” Can you explain that to me?
AW: I don’t know . . . where was that? “Give your accessories the right accessories.” I don’t remember saying that. [laughs]
GOB: I thought it was really funny. Kind of a zen statement.
AW: I’m trying to think whether I could have said that or not. I can’t pinpoint where I said that.
GOB: It sounds very philosophical. Before you had your own line, it seems like you had a million jobs. Are you always on the move? Or do you think you’re there for the long haul?
AW: I mean, I’ll be here as long as they’ll have me. I am having again a blast right now, and it’s really been an incredible journey. Hopefully, it will last a lot longer. Again, for me, it’s always about being challenged, and I think why I took on so many internships earlier in my life is because I always wanted to learn, and I always wanted to progress, and I wanted to kind of push myself. Now I’m having one of the biggest challenges of my life and my career in front of me, and it’s put me in a spot that, again, is . . . what’s the right word I’m looking for . . . is stimulating and challenging, but again, I’ve never felt more energized than I am now before in my life. So, I’m very content.
GOB: It shows.
AW: Thank you.