Jason Wu on Inspiring the Next Generation of Fashion

Creativity and business savvy have propelled Jason Wu to the top of his game

Designer Jason Wu with model Anna Ewers. Pictures / Supplied.

Judging other designers doesn’t come naturally to Jason Wu. “I’ve been on the other side of the seat so many times in my career,” says the New York-based 33-year-old. “I almost feel inadequate to be judging other designers. I’m still not where I want to be in my own career!”

Despite this humble proclamation, Jason’s serene nature, measured voice and steely gaze make him the perfect moderator; a rarity in an industry often associated with flustered creative types. He is best known for designing Michelle Obama’s floor length silk chiffon inauguration gown in 2008, and his dresses are familiar red carpet fixtures; he counts celebrities Diane Krueger, Michelle Williams and Emily Ratajkowski as friends and clients.

Last week he visited Sydney as the international guest judge for the Australia and New Zealand International Woolmark Prize — awarded alongside six other regions including the British Isles, Asia, Europe, India, Pakistan and the Middle East and US; all judged by industry heavyweights including former editor-at-large of American Vogue Andre Leon Talley and editor-in-chief of Italian Vogue Franca Sozzani.

The International Woolmark Prize has propelled the careers of several designers over the years; its premise is to use and promote Australian merino wool. A rich alumni of past winners includes Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld, along with more recent winners such as Christian Wijnants and Dion Lee. Each regional designer is required to present a single outfit, with the winner from each region gaining prize money to produce a six-piece collection that will ultimately compete in the international finals next January in Paris.

Such major exposure for a burgeoning brand looking to make it big is no small feat; after all, it requires extra time and resources on top of their regular workload, and presenting to an intimidating judging panel of some of the world’s best industry figures.

Jason’s presence rounds out an impressive panel for the Australia/NZ competition, including London-based designer Richard Nicholl (who closed his eponymous label in 2015 to concentrate on freelance opportunities), general manager for David Jones womenswear Damien Burke, fashion writer Mitchell Oakey Smith and Harper’s Bazaar Australia editor-in-chief Kellie Hush, who presented the awards alongside Jason in Sydney last week.

This year’s event is of particular significance, the first time in the prize’s history to open entry to New Zealand designers. Kiwi debutantes, Wellington-based Lucilla Gray and Auckland-based labels Harman Grubisa and Georgia Alice, each showcased strong entries.

Considering the limited number of design awards available in New Zealand, the opportunity for local talent to compete on an international scale provides immeasurable opportunities. The overall prizes were awarded to Sydney-based womenswear label Macgraw, designed by sisters Beth and Tessa Macgraw and menswear label Ex Finitas, designed by Lukas Vincent.

For Jason, the future looks bright. “To see the young designers display an encouraging ability, not only interacting with beautiful clothes, but also selling it as a business — that was really a highlight for me. They’ve worked hard to get to where they are in such a short amount of time.”

His own career trajectory is inspiring. In 2001 he attended the prestigious Parson’s School of Design, before leaving in 2004 to intern with Narciso Rodriguez. In 2006, Wu used the savings from his time designing fashion and accessories for dolls to fund the launch of his own label.

Years later, that label has become a go-to for a certain polished Park Avenue set, who love his slick tailoring and event gowns. Typically all-American in his design formula, Jason carefully balances glamour with pragmatism. Collections are less about a mood, but more about keeping in sync with his client’s desires — think chiffon in May and vacation wear for November.

He continues to keep busy as the artistic director for German stalwart Hugo Boss, known for its clean cut aesthetic, and in April launched the Jason Wu Grey diffusion line, a collection of sporty casual separates. In that same month, he wed long term partner Gustavo Rangel (CFO of the Jason Wu brand), in Tulum Mexico.

It’s a relentlessly paced world Jason lives in, but it seems he wouldn’t have it any other way. “I don’t sleep, but I do love a good spa!” he says, laughing. “I’ve always been a big multi-tasker. I sell myself better when I’m fully occupied.

The most important thing for me is organisation and having great teams around me, because without them it would be impossible to do what I do. My mother always said to me ‘never stop being a student’ meaning, don’t think you’re a know-it-all. The best way to continuously be inspired is to go into any situation thinking you don’t know anything.”

• Dan Ahwa flew to Sydney as a guest of Woolmark.

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New Zealand Herald

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