Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors and Marc Jacobs may be the instantly recognizable names in American fashion today. But when it comes to the future establishment, Alexander Wang will surely be on the list.
At just 27 years old, he is the reigning superstar of New York Fashion Week. His runway shows are celebrity-studded and his after-parties are not to be missed. He has a $2-million Tribeca loft, his collection is sold in 500 venues worldwide, and he has already attracted the attention of the world's biggest luxury group, LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton. (At one point, it was even rumored he was a contender to replace John Galliano as creative director at Dior, considered to be one of the top jobs in fashion.)
Famous fans Alicia Keys, Courtney Love and Lea Michele were front row at his runway show in September, while Amanda Hearst, Christina Ricci and Penn Badgley were among the guests at the self-avowed party boy's fraternity-themed after-party, which featured Jell-O shots, keg stands and performances by Odd Future and Tyler the Creator.
Perhaps more than any other American designer working today, Wang is a product of his times, creating collections for a generation raised on the Internet, extreme sports and sexually suggestive imagery and for whom nostalgia means 1990s grunge.
"I like energy and commotion and absorbing things," Wang said recently at his downtown Manhattain studio. "I'm always texting, watching TV and talking on the phone, even when my friends are over."
Like Tom Ford in his Gucci years, Wang sees the humor in bad taste. Stiletto sandals with mud flaps, blazers decorated with metal piercings, sparkly Lurex pants and handbags with enough studding to tick off airport security are all part of his sexy-with-a-wink aesthetic. But Wang also designs a lot of really wearable pieces, such as the washed silk sweatpants and ponte knit blazers in his T by Alexander Wang basics line and the botanical print parachute dresses and colorblock intarsia knits from the spring 2012 runway collection he showed last month.
"Although his runway shows are very directional and very urban, the collections are easy to translate," says Ken Downing, fashion director of Neiman Marcus."Whether it's sexy jersey dresses with high-low hems, leather jackets over sportswear pieces or flirty, feminine dresses, he's the [must-have] item guy."
Wang's favorite haunts aren't museums or art galleries, but the Kmart drugstore department, Paragon Sports, Home Depot and fetish stores.
"I don't disregard anything," the designer says, his long hair, sweet face and T-shirt-and-jeans uniform belying the tough and trashy image of his brand, which includes men's and women's wear and accessories. "If I think something is really ugly, I want to find out why and I want to play with it. I want to challenge myself and make it work."
In many ways, Wang represents the tension between the past and the future in fashion, between a slow, more rarified, artisanal luxury and a fast, made-in-China, attainable luxury.
His prices are well below those of most designer collections — $182 for a jersey dress, $315 for a panne velvet maxiskirt, $585 for a silk streamer dress and up to $3,995 at the top end for a leather and angora poncho straight from the runway. Accessories include $595 pumps with rabbit tails and the bestselling $875 studded Rocco bag.
"He gets his time and his contemporaries," says designer Diane von Furstenberg, who is president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America.
Wang launched his line in 2007, gaining attention for his runway shows styled by the L.A.-based model Erin Wasson. At first, his clothes channeled the "off-duty model look" — ripped jean shorts over tights, burnout T-shirts and motorcycle jackets.
His collections grew to be more sophisticated. The well-received spring 2009 runway show tapped into a colorful, 1980s-tinged "Miami Vice" vibe, with athletic influences and body-revealing styles emerging as Wang signatures.
For a guy who admittedly has never been a big athlete, Wang returns often to sports references, such as the Bruce Weber images of football players that influenced his spring 2010 collection and the NASCAR uniforms patchworked with sponsor logos and stadium seating charts that were motifs for spring 2012.
"Growing up, the only sport I took was tennis because I wanted to spend time at the country club," he says, laughing at himself. "But I like the idea of taking something I have such a distant connection to and finding out more about it. If I was a varsity athlete, I would probably feel strongly about how a uniform has to be worn. There is something about not knowing that makes it more interesting."
Wang, who is of Taiwanese descent, was born and raised in San Francisco. His parents represent the ultimate American success story, working their way up from service jobs to owning their own plastics manufacturing business.
During his teenage years, he lived with his two older siblings while his parents moved their company to China. Wang attended the posh Drew School in San Francisco, with the likes of Samantha, Victoria and Vanessa Traina, daughters of novelist Danielle Steel and her ex-husband John Traina.
Wang credits the Traina sisters' throwaway attitude toward designer clothing (ah, to be a rich teenager) with helping to shape his idea of casual luxury. "They had access to anything and everything, and yet there was always a strong sense of personalization and individual thought that went into what they wore," he says. (Wang bonded with Victoria over a pair of Gucci shoes from which she had cut the ankle straps, and they are still close friends.)
He started making clothes when he was 15 and had his first fashion show at the 1999 wedding of his brother Dennis (now his chief financial officer) and sister-in-law Aimie Wang (now his chief executive). He showed 30 looks with hair and makeup and dressed the bride, who changed nine times throughout the night, at one point wearing a sexy spin on a traditional Chinese cheongsam in red satin with a super-high slit.
Wang moved to New York City to attend Parsons School of Design in 2002 but quickly became restless for real-world experience. He dropped out and began interning — at Marc Jacobs, Teen Vogue and Vogue. By 2004, he had a plan for his own label. "I was helping pull [clothing] at the magazines, and I knew what they were looking for and what they couldn't find at the right price."
He put together a line of cashmere sweaters in six weeks. They were oversized, adrogynous "boyfriend sweaters" priced to sell at $295 to $500, one with an intarsia design on the front of a girl smoking. At his first trade show, Wang left with 80 orders.
"I wanted the pieces to have the integrity of a designer product, but for my friends to be able to afford them," he said. "There was a disconnect between what they saw and read about in magazines and what they could buy."
That's where Wang saw an opportunity. And he hasn't stopped moving since, even bounding out at full speed onto the runway when he takes his bow after each show.
In December, Wang tapped Rodrigo Bazan, formerly of Marc Jacobs, as the first president of his company. In March, he launched a comprehensive e-commerce site (the Web is the biggest driver of growth for the brand, Wang says). The same month, he opened his first bricks-and-mortar boutique in New York with such decorative flourishes as a fox fur hammock and an industrial cage used for rotating installations. Another store is slated to open next year in Beijing, and a home accessories line is also on the horizon.
"Now more than ever, the world is changing," Wang says. "It's not just about being a designer. It's about being a creative person who can oversee an entire brand down to the stores and the people who sell the product."