Jason Wu, designer to the stars and to the US first lady, drops in at MEIFF and talks to Gemma Champ.
Far behind the VIP velvet rope, in Emirates Palace, just before the opening-night gala premiere at the Middle East International Film Festival, Jason Wu looks very young. Newly minted, in fact, fresh and uncreased by life's hardships. And indeed by fashion standards he is newly minted. But don't be fooled: this is a man who has experienced more success in his short life than most designers achieve in their whole careers. Before this year, only the most dedicated style seekers had heard of the 26-year-old from Taipei, a finalist in the 2008 CFDA Vogue Fashion Fund award that has sparked careers for Thakoon and Proenza Schouler among others. He didn't win the prize in 2008 - that honour went to Alexander Wang - but in 2009 he struck gold in a way that no one could have expected, least of all Wu himself. In January this year, the brand new first lady, Michelle Obama - a woman constantly scrutinised and feted for her personal style - chose to wear a one-shouldered white chiffon, organza and Swarovski crystal dress to the inaugural balls that she attended on the night of her husband's ascension to the most powerful job in the world. That dress was by Wu, and famously even he was unaware that she had chosen it until he saw it on television and his phone began ringing off the hook.
For a man who has been in business just three years, that is some endorsement. In fact, it changed his life. "When the inauguration happened and I found out that night that it was me that Mrs Obama was wearing, it really took my name on an international stage," he explains. "That usually takes 30 or 40 years to accomplish, or may never happen, so I've been extremely lucky, but at the same time very humbled by it all."
Wu is something of a prodigy. Already displaying the aesthetic maturity of Oscar de la Renta, he was studying sculpture in Tokyo at the age of 14, had decided to pursue fashion at 16 and was creative director of Integrity Dolls Inc by the age of 17. This is one of the more peculiar aspects of Wu's career. Integrity Dolls Inc produces Fashion Royalty, an ever-changing cast of fashion dolls populating a parallel world of socialites and models. Dolls such as Adèle Makéda, Top Model and Socialite Extraordinaire, have entire backstories worthy of the Bold & The Beautiful.
It's an unlikely sideline for a designer whose most famous dress will reside in state at the Smithsonian's collection of first ladies' inaugural gowns. But while Wu underplays it - "I've switched over to a consulting role" - it's clear that his work for Fashion Royalty was not only a formative part of his training but continues to inspire a strong affection in him. Perhaps suspecting sarcasm when I ask him whether his dolls are comparable with the recent Barbie reboot (in which 50 designers, including Vera Wang and Donna Karan, designed Barbie frocks for a show at last February's New York Fashion Week; designers at Dubai Fashion Week will create a similar event at the end of the month) he responds with a frosty "Mmm-hmm?"
"What I make is more on a collectable level," he insists. "Really I don't make toys. Right now I consult with the company about the direction they need to go. It's more like a luxurious item versus a mass product and that's what I've always been into." So it's an easy target for a giggle, but there is a long tradition of working in miniature to create complex fashion, and Wu credits his time designing Fashion Royalty as providing his grounding in cutting and styling. The legendary couturier Madame Vionnet, after all, used to create toiles of her geometrically constructed pieces on a miniature mannequin on a piano stool, and Wu's later studies at the famous Parsons school of design in New York echoed this idea too.
"Weirdly, in my first year in Parsons, we learnt the technical aspects of making patterns on a miniature scale. It's so much easier to see: you're looking at a map of how a garment is made, and it can be very challenging sometimes, but you see it in a bird's-eye view, which is what you get when you work in miniature." Add the fact that, while his contemporaries at boarding school in Connecticut were spending their holidays working as waiters, Wu was flying to Hong Kong to meet manufacturers, and it's no surprise that beneath his shy exterior beats the heart of a canny businessman. "It taught me attention to detail. I think when you've worked in miniature you notice everything, every flyaway thread, every piece of lint."
It is this concern with quality, as much as Wu's aesthetic, that has attracted hoards of devoted fans just three years after launching his label. "I've always had one aesthetic," he says. "But I've got better at it. It's for the woman who will notice that there's that extra piece of lining inside, the tailor-made construction of the jacket, the contrast colour in the embroidered fabric, the hours of embroidery that have gone into a lapel."
Wise words from a young designer who has, thanks to the CFDA/Vogue competition, benefited from some of the best advice in the industry. Like the former award-winner Thakoon, who is shown in the film The September Issue receiving tips and endorsements from none other than the US Vogue's editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour, Wu puts much of his high profile down to his luck with mentors. "The September Issue was filmed a little bit before I started out, and I went through the whole process much later. It's daunting to be a young person and to come into the spotlight and any guide one can find is good. I've been very fortunate. Otherwise I wouldn't have known so many things. I'm still learning, I'll never stop learning, but it does help to have influences in your career who have done it before and who can help direct you."
Any young designer - and frankly many old ones too - looking at Jason Wu could not fail to wonder: where did it all go right? How did this young man from Taiwan - albeit a preternaturally talented and creatively driven young man - end up as the great American success story? Ambition, sure; ability, no doubt; obsession, certainly. But perhaps the most important of all his many attributes is luck. He is what the author and sociologist Malcolm Gladwell would call an "outlier": a person who has, at exactly the right time, in just the right place, combined intense hard work with taking every opportunity offered and adapting his considerable skill to the requirements of the moment.
"I didn't know anybody," admits Wu. "I just knew that that's what I loved and I got a lot of joy from it. I would like to say I had a road map. I really didn't. I leapt into the industry and found my way. I'm still finding my way."