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Alexander Wang SS15 How to make it in fashion
Alexander Wang SS15, Photography Lea Colombo

Alexander Wang: how to make it in fashion

‘You can’t rest on your laurels’ – the designer who launched his label after dropping out of university gives his ultimate guide to breaking into the industry

Mention Alexander Wang and you’ll often hear how he’s the designer who elevated the model off-duty look and created the ultimate ‘cool girl’ label. “I’ve always felt very uncomfortable with that. That stigma,” he says of the latter, wincing. “I’m intrigued by the girl who’s underdressed or overdressed for an event. That kind of subversive, irreverent take on dressing or appearance. She’s never hitting it right on the spot. There’s something a bit off. I don’t like things too precious or too perfect or too balanced. There always has to be a tension or a friction, a juxtaposition.”

We’re at the Rosewood in Holborn, where Wang is holding court ahead of the opening of his London flagship in an old post office on South Audley Street in Mayfair. “People might hate us for taking away their post office,” Wang chuckles. “But hopefully we’ll bring a cool, new experience to the area.” After that, he’s off to Greece on holiday before New York Fashion Week and his SS16 show. Maybe bring some Euros? “That’s what I’ve been told!” he says. Ten years ago, the Parsons dropout had just launched his label with a unisex capsule sweater collection. Today, his family-owned business is a full-on megabrand, with his recent exit at Balenciaga leaving him free to channel all his attentions into it. Wang’s own label remains rooted in his darkly sensual, sinister-sporty handwriting, which has seen him push his goth-grunge inclination into polished tailoring territory with plenty of teeth.

He’s got fans on a pop culture scale but still finds the whole fame thing kind of awkward. “I still want to take a picture with certain people.” So who makes him feel like a fanboy? “Madonna!” After hanging out at the Met Ball, Madonna asked Wang to be in her Jonas Åkerlund-directed video for “Bitch I’m Madonna”. “When I got there she was just like, ‘Hang out, do what you wanna do’. Everyone was just having a good time and it was very improv-driven and organic.” To mark ten years of Alexander Wang – which the designer is celebrating with a limited edition re-issue capsule collection of ten archive pieces voted for and chosen by you – we get the designer’s thoughts on how he got to where he is today.

“I always get really awkward or nervous when schools ask me to come and speak because everyone’s like, ‘How did you do it?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, I left!’ Everyone has their own way of learning or adapting to how to achieve their goals and sometimes school plays a very big part in that. For me, unfortunately, I tried it and it didn’t work out. Life organically took a different course and I think the most important thing is you have to have clarity in what you want and secondly, you have to take a risk. If you just kind of sit there and let things happen to you, then you’re just going to take the course that everyone else takes. That’s how life is. I spent a semester here in London at Central Saint Martins before I went to Parsons and it was intense. You worked that one idea to the bone. And it’s great, but you know, everyone has to decide what they want out of it. Some people just want to create a beautiful show or a beautiful collection. In my opinion, if they want to continue, they need to find a way to sustain it, but I can only speak from my own experience.

Internships are super valuable. When I left Parsons I was doing an internship and working in retail. Interning taught me how the industry worked and retail taught me how the market worked. I was at Marc Jacobs first and then I did Teen Vogue and Vogue. We’re not in an industry where we’re isolated, and the editorial side taught me how magazines view designers or get certain things, and about price points, advertisers, all those politics that people don’t necessarily think about. I think a lot of people know that Anna Wintour has been a big supporter but at the very beginning of my internship it was an editor named Gloria Baume at Teen Vogue who pushed me to start the line. She was the first one I even expressed my idea and the price point to. Teen Vogue had just started and Camilla Nickerson was pulled over from Vogue to do a special story for them. I was working in the fashion closet and she wanted to call in all these beautiful things, but the price point meant Teen Vogue couldn’t shoot them so she was getting very frustrated. That really triggered something in my head as well.

When I set up the brand I remember having buyers from Neiman Marcus and Saks come into my apartment, looking at samples on my bed, with my friends there eating pizza. It was such a fun time but it was also because I was so unaware of everything. We just kind of made up our own rules. I didn’t have a fancy studio or a big investment or fashion show. I started with six sweaters and we grew it into a bigger sweater line and did that for about two or three seasons until we launched the full collection with the showroom, and then another showroom when we outgrew that. It wasn’t all as planned out as it might have looked from the outside. It was a lot of figuring it out and organically letting certain things manifest.

I started the line with my sister-in-law so naturally we just had to divvy up the responsibilities and learn throughout the process. I’m very thankful for that because it has allowed me to know about my business. Even today I am just as interested and motivated by those other areas as I am about the design part because they all matter and all need to work together in order to be a success story. I encourage everyone on my team to work in that manner, too. I push the design team to sit in with the merchandising team, to sit in with communications team. Today, designers being creatives as well as strategic business minds is definitely a big part of the industry. I think it’s very rare to find incredible, creative individuals who found that perfect match with the business partner.

“I remember having buyers come into my apartment, looking at samples on my bed, with my friends there eating pizza...We just kind of made up our own rules” – Alexander Wang

You have to hire someone for production who is tough. Really tough. My sister-in-law definitely in the beginning played that character – the bad guy. I have an excellent production team now and it’s all about negotiation and finding the best factory that understands your aesthetic and your hand and the quality expectations. There’s always going to be a company that’s going to put in a bigger order than you but then it’s building the loyalty with that factory. I never thought I’d be here today. When I started I thought I’d launch a sweater line and probably do it on consignment to a couple of stores. Getting included in the Vogue Fund and having to go and meet Anna and present the collection in front of the whole panel was really a turning point. It was quite intimidating and I remember thinking, these are samples that I literally threw together for this presentation! I had no idea how I was going to produce it but I knew I’d figure out a way. Opening the first store in New York in 2009 was like, wow, we’re doing this for real now. We have a store to fill 365 days throughout the year. Now we don’t have enough space for all the product I want to put in there!

It’s such a cliché, but the biggest misconception about being a designer is the whole glamour side of it. I definitely have certain friends in the industry but I don’t think it’s as glamorous as the magazines and the press sometimes portray it. I don’t always like to go to parties if I know it’s just going to be something very sterile. Most of my working day is spent in meetings. I actually really love meetings – getting everyone together and just hearing their ideas. There is pressure doing this, but you have to be able to also let go sometimes. As serious as I take my business and what I do, you also have to know when to move on to the next thing or the backup plan. A lot of people depend on us every day to make things work, whether they’re on the production team, the shipping team, whatever it is. And if you’re just holding on to that one thing… Of course, when I really believe in something I’m going to push and find a way.

Over the last ten years, the biggest change in the industry has been the speed. It’s just a progression you have to accept. The evolving nature of this industry means being able to adapt and learning something new and finding out, ‘This is my strength and this is what I do really well’. And when that vehicle has run out of gas you need to jump onto the next one and learn how to drive it. Everyone wants to be a part of the fashion industry today. Celebrities and VIPs are the new media. And no offence, it’s not about magazines anymore. People communicate through talent and people and social media and all of that. And it’s fashion week 365 days a year. Even when it’s not, there’s a couture show, there’s a resort show, there’s a dinner, everything is a fashion show even if it’s not really a fashion show.

“It’s fashion week 365 days a year. Even when it’s not, there’s a couture show, there’s a resort show, there’s a dinner, everything is a fashion show” – Alexander Wang

Honestly, I would love to go back to just SS and AW collections. I would love not having to do pre-collections. If we could do pre-collections that were just for the stores and the clientele I would be happy with that but now it’s like everyone has to make it into something. It’s a show with people attending and there’s a review and the pressure of making it into something when really the origin of what it was created for is something completely different. You have a pre-collection but you also have to do a commercial collection for the pre-collection! It’s never-ending. 

You can’t ever feel like what you’re doing is the best thing and that it works and that everyone’s going to buy it. I’m constantly pushing. After each collection we’ve got to do better, we have to source things better, produce things better, the quality and communication has to be better. I guess that’s something I’ve learnt. You can’t rest on your laurels.”

Alexander Wang’s new London flagship store is now open at 43-44 Albemarle Street in Mayfair.