Alexander Wang: Double Trouble
Three years ago, he was a controversial choice to helm Balenciaga. Now, on the eve of his own brand’s 10th anniversary, Alexander Wang is proving he can do haute as well as hot.
Alexander Wang usually starts his day with an anxiety attack. His panic is fleeting and contained, however, since there is no space allotted for it in a schedule that would dampen the palms of a seasoned air-traffic controller. On this afternoon in late May, for instance, Wang is in Paris, in the midst of a 12-hour “check-in” at the Left Bank headquarters of Balenciaga, where he has been the creative director since 2012. Last night he was in New York, shooting the lookbook for his own label’s resort line, and in three hours he will fly to Rome to film a scene for the Zoolander sequel, a fitting cameo for someone who makes a point of not taking fashion too seriously. “We’re not in the business,” he says, “of curing cancer.” Seated at a glass table in the spare, whitewashed chambers adjoining his office, wearing a version of what has long been his de facto uniform—a black sweatshirt draped over his lanky frame, slim black jeans, chunky black sneakers—Wang comes across as perky and amiable, unperturbed by the pressures that have been the undoing of many a designer before him. “Honestly, when I see it all written out, this looong list my assistant gives me in the morning, I can’t help but freak,” Wang says. “But then the day gets going, and I get in the motion of it and…” A sly grin breaks out across his fine-boned face. “My friends call me the Energizer Bunny.”
When it was announced that Wang would be filling the shoes of Nicolas Ghesquière, whose 15-year tenure at Balenciaga was summarized by Style.com as “the standard by which other big house revivals are judged,” the fashion community responded with a haughty, dismissive gasp. Did Wang, then 28, have the required experience? Would he be stretched thinner than his beloved jersey T-shirt dresses? And, most critically, was he too—how shall we say?—American to oversee a storied French luxury house?
Wang became downtown New York’s prince of cool by elevating streetwear staples—nonchalant sweaters, slouchy denim—with a high-goth (and highly commercial) sensibility. Impressive as his rise has been—not quite a decade after launching his line as a capsule knitwear collection, he now has 23 stores worldwide, with annual sales estimated at just over $100 million—there were concerns about how his insouciant aesthetic would translate into the more rigid, precision-oriented universe of European couture. “It was kind of annoying, because the minute I got this job, I was suddenly reduced to someone who just made T-shirts and jeans,” says Wang, who dropped out of the New School’s Parsons School of Design at 21. “I knew exactly what people would say, and my attitude was: I’m not going to respond, I’m not going to give interviews. What I’m going to do is prove them wrong.”
Three years in, he has largely done that. His collections have been praised for being both reverent and irreverent, and for infusing the iconic bubble skirts and cocoon jackets created by the company’s founder, Cristóbal Balenciaga (aka fashion’s Picasso), with an edge all his own. “I’m much more confident now than when I first got here, and feel like I really hit a stride with the fall collection,” Wang says, gesturing to the mannequins scattered about the room, sheathed in pieces from the show that commenced with Lady Gaga sauntering down the catwalk in an obsidian black power dress. Everything from the “fur” collars made from piercing rings to the “tweed” made from woven rubber and Lurex speak to Wang’s embrace of the subversive. “Oh, and look closely at this embroidery,” he says, proudly thumbing a shimmery metallic bodice. “It’s actually made to look like cut razor blades. There’s something quite dangerous about it.” While Wang has squelched any fears that his tenure at Balenciaga would be overly casual or commercial, he approaches his role there with the same ethos he brings to his own company. “I feel that fashion doesn’t need to be pretentious, even at this level,” he says. “So the challenge is: How do you keep the integrity of the craftsmanship while pushing for a new standard of luxury?”
Wang credits his life in Paris—or, more accurately, his lack of a life in Paris—with allowing him to move between two harried worlds without suffering debilitating vertigo. Never one to turn down a late night of dancing in New York, where his Fashion Week parties are notoriously libertine extensions of his personal life, he has carved out an almost monastic existence in Paris. He doesn’t speak the language and still can’t name the neighborhood of the hotel where he stays, always in the same room, for a week or two a month. “I haven’t yet figured out the whole arrondissement thing,” he says, sounding more like a tourist than an appointed arbiter of the country’s culture. Unlike, say, Marc Jacobs, who when running Louis Vuitton created a home in Paris and spoke rhapsodically about how the city’s unique rhythms inspired his designs, Wang describes Paris as a kind of non-place where he can work without distraction—an approach that would have been blasphemous in a more precious era but dovetails with today’s corporate climate, where there’s little patience for creative eccentricity if it gets in the way of machinelike output. “I take the red-eye on Sunday and go straight to the office on Monday,” he says. “Then it’s back to the hotel, eat, sleep, and back to the office. People ask why I don’t get an apartment here, but in my personal life I like to consolidate. One home, one bank account—clean and simple. I’ve got enough responsibility without having to think about furnishing another place, you know?”
Wang is equally streamlined when it comes to his inner circle, which has not expanded much beyond the same 10 friends he’s had since high school and college. Being single, he refers to his friends as “my vacation, my everything” and appreciates their frankness: “They have no problem telling me when they hate a collection.” Among his closest allies is Vanessa Traina Snow, a high school classmate and a daughter of the novelist Danielle Steel. Traina Snow was at Wang’s first fashion show, which he put on at age 15 during his older brother’s wedding, and now joins Wang during his stays in Paris, serving as a stylist and consultant. “She’s the woman most prominent in my mind when I’m designing for Balenciaga,” says Wang, who cites the actress Zoë Kravitz, another pal, as Traina Snow’s inspirational counterpart for his own line. Traina Snow and Wang have a symbiotic relationship, always fused at the hip, finishing each other’s sentences, speaking in coded whispers, constantly breaking out in laughter. “As a designer and a businessman, Alex has grown so much,” Traina Snow says. “But as a person? He’s the same guy: loyal and fun. We are always aware of the fact that, if someone had told us in high school that this would be our lives, we would have died laughing.”
Isabelle Guichot, Balenciaga’s president and CEO, agrees that Wang has grown more self-assured on the job—both in the boldness of the collections, and, with a double-digit growth in sales, his respect for the bottom line. “In fashion, we always say that men are more loyal to a brand than women,” she says. “I think Alex is very smart in wanting to change that, to make this a place where the same woman comes to get dressed season after season.” For Wang, this has meant focusing on what he calls the “essentials”—an oxford shirt, a peacoat, a trench—that return every season in familiar shapes. “I like the idea of a woman coming here not just to buy the It bag, because that’s not sustainable, but to be wardrobed,” he says, using a word uttered with philosophical gravity around the offices.
Yet for all the talk of Wang’s increased confidence, there is one subject that remains sensitive: the legacy of Ghesquière, whose introduction of high-tech fabrics infused Balenciaga with the sci-fi elegance that rescued the brand from obsolescence. Bring up Wang’s predecessor with anyone in the company today, for instance, and what you’ll invariably hear is—actually, scratch that. In order to meet Wang and visit the atelier, one must first agree not to mention “NG,” as if doing so would cause the regal building’s plaster walls to crumble. This is understandable: Ghesquière’s departure, in 2012, was abrupt and acrimonious. Still, with all the present talk about the importance of heritage, of mining a fashion brand’s past to inform its future, there’s a tetchy awkwardness in trying to avoid uttering the name of the man who, after the haloed Cristóbal, was a key figure in the story of a house that, in 2017, will celebrate its centennial.
But Wang, it turns out, doesn’t mind discussing Ghesquière’s influence. “Look, that was obviously a very important part of the history of this company,” he says as he takes a stroll through the neighborhood to show off the 17th-century former hospital that is being refurbished to accommodate Balenciaga’s future headquarters. “I have so much respect for what he did, and there’s no denying the stamp he left on this brand. But right now my focus is on the future, on taking this opportunity to see what I can do.”
It seems he has something more nuanced to offer aside from such boilerplate musings, but further talk on the subject is nixed by a searing look from Balenciaga’s ever-hovering public relations rep, who has drifted within earshot. “I’m always afraid I’m going to say the wrong thing around her,” confides Wang, though he doesn’t appear to feel particularly handcuffed by this level of micromanagement. Creatively, he owes his success to being preternaturally dialed in to the constantly mutating definition of cool; but perhaps his most critical strength, in his role at Balenciaga, is an understanding of the business of fashion now. In the wake of scandals like the one faced by Dior, in 2011, when John Galliano went on a drunken anti-Semitic tirade, the big fashion houses have stepped back from promoting the cult of personality of their head designers. “My own company bears my name, and I’m the end point of everything that happens there,” Wang says. “But here, I’m a variable in a very different equation—one that was in place before me and will continue on after I’m gone. Essentially, I’m just another employee.”
If Wang doesn’t exude the mystique long associated with fashion’s most prominent personalities—the embattled artist struggling to actualize his whimsical fantasies within the constraints of a corporate power structure—the reason may be that he is the rare talent whose story does not include a hand-to-mouth chapter. Born and raised in San Francisco, the youngest son of Taiwanese parents who worked in plastics manufacturing, Wang launched his company with $10,000 of family money. “It wasn’t like my mom just bought me an office and said, ‘Have fun,’ ” says Wang a few days later, back in New York, where in a span of 48 hours his duties include shooting the latest lookbook for T by Alexander Wang, his label’s more casual line; meeting with the Balenciaga team to begin hammering out the spring collection; and participating in a shoot for this magazine. “We made a line of six sweaters; they sold, we all got paid, and it’s been growing ever since.”
Wang’s eponymous company, which has thrived without help from outside investors, now occupies five floors of a building on Broadway, in lower Manhattan, not far from his SoHo boutique. While touring the headquarters, where teams of patternmakers work on designs that will be manufactured in Asia, Wang talks about how he has always been keenly aware that fashion is, above all else, a business. “When I started, we had to sell, simple as that, and when you’re using your own money, you’re very aware of costs,” he says. “Obviously, it’s different at Balenciaga, but I try to approach that job the same way.” This year marks the 10th anniversary of his label, and while Wang is planning a number of surprises to mark the milestone, he’s much more interested in focusing on what’s ahead than in basking in the afterglow of successes. Working for a global powerhouse has made him all the more eager to see how he can scale up his own brand. “I’ve always seen fashion as more than just clothing,” says Wang, who in the past has done several collections for H&M and constantly cites Ralph Lauren’s balance of scope and consistency as his model. “He can do furniture, he can do restaurants—a whole lifestyle,” Wang says. “People know what he wants without him having to even say it.”
Wang’s older brother, Dennis, who has long served as his chief principal officer, found the space currently housing the company’s headquarters in 2008. “He saw it on Craigslist, of all places,” recalls Wang, taking a break after preparing his resort line for a press preview, his black Range Rover idling out front, ready to whisk him to his next appointment. To celebrate the signing of the lease, Wang attended a “pop-up German rave” that pulsed into the early-morning hours. “It was one of those awesome nights of partying where you don’t really know where you are,” he says. “Anyway, when the party ended, they ushered us out a different entrance than the alley where we entered. Suddenly I realized I was in the lobby of my new offices.” For Wang, this was a positive sign. “It’s a cliché, but I work hard and I play hard.” Two days earlier, he had attended the Council of Fashion Designers of America awards ceremony. He found the afterparty, held at the Boom Boom Room, atop the Standard hotel, to be a lackluster affair. “It was one of those parties meant to look amazing in photos, but actually being there you were just smashed up against too many people under bright lights,” Wang says. “Me, when I throw a party, I want to be able to disappear into it and let my hair down.”
Two years ago, Wang celebrated his 30th birthday in Thailand, dancing with friends and 30,000 strangers on the beach until sunrise. Later this summer he plans to visit the Greek island of Mykonos, known for its raucous seaside parties. Still, what he likes most about this phase of his life is that it affords him a chance to grow professionally, to show that he can transcend trends and be a sustained force in the industry. “A lot of the time the word everyone uses to describe me and my brand is ‘youth,’ ” Wang says. “Well, that’s great and all. But I want to do this for a long time, and now I have a chance to show my maturing process.” He lets out a burst of laughter. “Because youth, we all know, doesn’t last forever.”