Last Wednesday, Chicago had a front row seat as Jason Wu showed his Fall 2014 collection in the Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago, thanks to Saks Fifth Avenue and charity partner, A Better Chicago. Perhaps best known for designing both of Michelle Obama’s inauguration dresses, Wu has become a household name after launching his eponymous line in 2006, collaborating with Target in 2012, and dressing the who’s who of Hollywood starlets along the way. Amelia sat down with Jason at Saks the morning after his big show to discuss his latest collection among other things.
Here’s a question I’m sure you haven’t heard before- What was the inspiration behind this collection?
The inspiration behind the collection was really old world couture details with very American sportswear staples. That’s always been a part of my work but this time it was amplified to a degree where most of the jackets are inspired by Northface jackets and ski jackets. It felt like a really fun dichotomy to take that aspect of our culture and really play it up and make it very luxurious. One reoccurring thing throughout the collection was the gold hardware detail with the square, and that was actually inspired by Velcro, an elevated version. If you look at the shapes it’s very cocoon meets sport and I think that’s very interesting.
Is it safe to say that you’re moving away from the embellishments that people have come to associate with your designs?
That was the idea, the embellishment is still very much there, but it’s much more subtle and tone-on-tone. A lot of what you saw may be embroidery, but felt like texture and part of the fabric rather than embroidery. It’s a different approach to what I do. Though there is a recurring motif in the collection that’s the astrakhan motif. We really like it a lot, that wavy hairy texture. You can also see it in the handbags. We used thread embroidery and stand up beads, and did that on silk to get different depths and levels. That kind of motif is something you saw throughout the collection and we did it in jacquard and fabric. That was perhaps more subtle than what people are seeing from me, but it felt like the type of clothes that the modern woman wants to wear.
Now last night you showed your Fall collection, but obviously we’ll be moving into Spring as people read this interview. What inspiration can people draw from your fall collection to apply to their Spring/Summer wardrobes right now?
There’s a lot of slip dresses in there. I love the idea of a big cozy coat over something that’s delicate. So you can just loose the coat for Spring. I think there’s something quite sexy about a dress that just skims the body a little bit, and moves along with you and is bias cut. I really just started that this spring a lot with the bias cut dresses, it felt like a new way to embrace the body. Previously, the way I worked with the body was much more constructed, much more corseted, and much more seamed and structured in that way. So I had to ask, how do we explore the female form in another way? And it felt like doing that, letting the fabric caress the body on bias felt like a new, slightly softer approach.
One of my favorite questions to ask male designers is, what are both the challenges and potential advantages being a man designing for women?
It’s a different way of designing, especially for me because my designs are very feminine and I think speak to women, and what they want. Of course, being a male designer there’s the aspect that you never get to wear your own clothes, but I surround myself with women that inspire me and I think to be able to take a little bit of everything from all of them and put it into the collection. Designing from a third party point of view is a very interesting way to design. I’m designing from the outside, but I have lots of influences from the inside. It’s a nice way to look at it. That’s how I see it.
Who are some of those women that inspire you?
My mother! She got my first sewing machine when I was 9, so she’s always been very influential.
Is that the sewing machine that got you started making doll clothes? [Jason famously fell in love with fashion through designing clothes for dolls, and worked in toys for 10 years before leaving Parsons.]
It’s so funny, I didn’t set out to make doll clothes but I had dolls, and I had a sewing machine. It was very obvious from the beginning that I wasn’t going to be an architect or a lawyer. My mom was very indulgent in what I wanted to do. I didn’t have very much fabric at the time, so pattern making for a doll seemed perfect. So that’s kind of how I began.
Who are other women that inspire you?
As for women who inspire me, my mom is definitely one, Michelle Obama is another one. She’s very powerful and inspirational in every sense of the word, not just from a fashion point of view. Kerry Washington is a good friend of mine.
Speaking of Kerry Washington, congratulations on sending your first dress down the red carpet at The Oscar’s!
Thank you! She was one of the very first girls to wear my designs when I started out. Diane Kruger is another one that I have a very good relationship with. When we work together it’s just very easy and effortless.
Was it a challenge to dress Kerry Washington’s baby bump for the occasion?
No, I know her very well. She’s pretty much still so perfect just with a bump, so it was very easy. It wasn’t about an overly thought out complicated dress it was just about highlighting her natural beauty. A fun little side tidbit is that the day before I told her I think you should do a burgundy lip. It was just my natural thought process, not thinking about the paparazzi or anything, and that’s how it happened.
Is their anyone in Hollywood you’re dying to dress?
I love Cate Blanchet, and she knows it!
I would be remiss not to ask you about dressing Michelle Obama, especially here in Chicago. When did you find out she’d be wearing your design for the first inauguration?
I really didn’t know it was my dress until the night of! We had been in touch for a few months, but it wasn’t a sure thing until I saw her in it. However, the second time around I knew.
How do such important and timeless designs come together? Who decided to go white the first time around, and red the second?
It was all very instinctual. Everybody loves to study into those things, and ask what’s the meaning here? But really it was just the first color that came to mind for her. When you can see it immediately like that you have to go with the vision it can’t be over thought or overwrought, it has to come from the gut, and that was definitely the case with the Inauguration dresses. It just felt like the right thing. It just felt like that’s what would look great and be the right thing for the occasion, and I’m so happy that the first lady agreed both times.
It was very instinctual, yet we’ve spent years reading into and dissecting the designs and the meanings behind them ever since! [laughs]
People like to study things, and that’s great, but fashion is about feeling, and if it doesn’t carry the emotion and the feel then it’s really just clothes and not fashion. Those are two very different things. What we really try to trigger with shows is a cohesive collection that tells a story when you put it together, that’s what fashion really is, and that’s what’s really interesting for me.
At what point in the design process do you start to develop the narrative of a collection?
From the beginning! I start out with a very specific idea on an image board. I take some pieces off, I put some on, I look at colors, fabrics, and eventually it starts to tell a story. Once the story is told it evolves. Sometimes the story looks exactly like what you thought it would look like from the very beginning, and sometimes it looks nothing like what you originally thought it would.
What was the case with this collection?
This one was pretty exact. It was an evolution from Spring. The big cozy coats and parkas felt like the right way to go for fall, and of course we were praying that it would be freezing cold for the show, since we were one of the first shows at fashion week. The only thing we can hope now is to get the clothes to the stores as quickly as possible!
What was the idea behind the hair and makeup from when you originally showed the collection at NYFW?
I love hair pulled back! I think all my shows have the hair pulled back, there’s a certain sophistication and precision about a chignon or a ponytail. For fall I loosened it up a little bit, and there’s a bit more texture. It’s a bit more boyish, kind of like a faux-hawk with a chignon in the back. Then for the makeup, we kept it very fresh faced.
Do you have any processes and/or habits that are specific or consistent to your design process?
Travel has to be the big one. Just from here on, I go to Germany next week than Taiwan, and Hong Kong, so I see everything by default. That’s one big perk of my work is I get to see so many different places.
What have your clients taught you about your own work? How do they interpret it differently?
They all interpret it differently. There are different needs across cultures, and then there are very similar needs. It’s always interesting to see how people wear the clothes. For instance, you’re wearing it [a printed black and white Jason Wu blouse] with a little a-line leather skirt, but somebody else might wear it with a high-waisted pant, or somebody might wear it with jeans. How the clothes are worn is very interesting to me. I love it with the leather skirt, it’s very modern, for a young girl it’s very chic. I always like the idea that the clothes are versatile, they’re defined by the woman, and every woman is different. So truthfully it’s how do you fit into this world I’ve created. That’s what I’m intrigued to see, and that’s the most interesting part about it for me.
Where do you see your line evolving next?
The direction I’m headed in with this Spring and Fall, you see that softness, and that’s going to really be quite consistent in the next few seasons. I really like to play with fabric. It has no be something that’s more than meets the eye. It’s really not about an outlandish or a really overt kind of image, there’s a subdued elegance. It’s luxury, but it’s not loud luxury. It’s luxury in a much more understated way, and I feel that’s really what my clients want. They’re not loco, they don’t do that. That subtle elegance makes people take a second look when you walk by on the street without screaming at you.
What’s your favorite piece from this collection?
It’s got to be that big black anorak! I love that. I put a lot of love in that! The mink needed to be treated, the fox needed to be treated, then we had ot send pieces in for embroidery and there’s six different fabrics on there, it kind of came from all over the world. It came together just a week before the show. It was a process, and it was so great to see it come together. When all the elements come together it can go right, or terribly wrong. It’s a leap of faith, and that’s the fun part about designing, you really never know. Every season is different. There’s no formula. The formula would be in your vision, and world, and aesthetic, but you can take that in any given direction each season. That’s the fun part.
How did you like showing at the Art Institute last night?
It was nice to show in the modern wing of the museum last night, it felt very sophisticated. It’s a really beautiful wing! I wish I could always show in museums. I’d love to do a show at the MET in New York, but the red tape around that would be crazy.
If “red tape” wasn’t an issue what are the top three places you’d like to show?
Definitely The Met, I think The MoMA could be interesting, and then Grand Central Station. I’m talking about the actual Grand Hall. The ceiling is so beautiful. It doesn’t close ever, I think it’s always open.
[Photos By Hallie Duesenberg]