NEW YORK — On a rainy night in December 2008, the Institute of Contemporary Art brought some of the country’s most promising young designers to Boston for a fund-raiser. On hand were talents Chris Benz, Brian Reyes, and Elise Overland. The evening also featured Jason Wu, a fresh-faced 26-year-old who was just getting his business off the ground.
Less than a month later, the entire country knew Wu’s name.
His story is now part of fashion folklore. On the night of the 2009 Inaugural Ball, he ordered pizza and settled in to watch the event on TV. First lady Michelle Obama stepped onto the stage — wearing Wu’s one-shoulder white chiffon gown. Until that moment, the young designer had no idea she had picked his dress, a dress that changed Wu’s life.
“My goal at the time was to show my collections at New York Fashion Week, to have them carried in the best stores, and to have some of the world’s most important women wear them,” Wu said last week in his Fashion District studio. “I assumed at the time that would mean Hollywood actresses. I never imagined it would mean the first lady.”
Wu, who returns to the ICA Thursday as the headliner of a sold-out talk called “In Conversation With Jason Wu” with ICA chief curator Helen Molesworth, went on to design the first lady’s second inaugural gown, and many of the dresses she has worn at national and international events. Hollywood actresses seeking elegant red carpet attire quickly followed.
Even though he has been asked about dressing Michelle Obama and those two inaugural gowns hundreds of times, Wu, who is articulate and charming in a simple black sweatshirt, does not roll his eyes or sigh when the topic is raised. Instead, he still sounds a bit in wonder about it all.
“I’m so happy to have done both of them,” he said. “But it doesn’t matter what she wore, she would have looked gorgeous.”
He grins widely when he talks about how he was there when the dress was unveiled at the Smithsonian, how excited he was when Obama wore it on the cover of Vogue, and about the process of creating the dresses.
“I knew that the first dress would be white. That’s the option that I presented,” he said. “The second dress, I was also clueless that she would be wearing it until that night. There wasn’t any symbolism for the second dress, I just knew it would be red. It’s something that just felt right.”
For Wu, who grew up in Vancouver and went to Eaglebrook School in Deerfield, the first lady’s decision only cemented a career that was already rapidly ascending.
“I remember the excitement we all felt as editors that there was a new face on the scene,” said Sasha Iglehart, deputy fashion director at Glamour. “Jason was part of a new wave of energy, but he has a particular place. There’s an established chicness. He’s using traditional fabrics, but there’s something fresh about the way that he’s working with them.”
Wu is unapologetic in his love of feminine and elegant design. These words were almost verboten in the fashion industry a decade ago. Aside from veterans like Oscar de la Renta and Carolina Herrera, tastemakers were fawning over more experimental designers like Marc Jacobs. Even among the recent wave of American designers, Wu stands out as the expert of the freshly updated, ladylike look.
He has become such a phenomenon that top editors braved a blizzard during February’s New York Fashion Week to attend his show.
“I think there was always pressure as a young designer to be cool and downtown,” he said. “I never had it in me to be cool and downtown, nor did I ever want to be. Think back to Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, and Christian Lacroix. Those designers are part of the reason why I became infatuated with fashion. They made pretty clothes.”
He has always been fixated on design. Whether it was his enthusiasm for store mannequins while shopping with his mother as a boy, or his extensive childhood doll collection. His love of dolls carried over into his teenage years, when he started designing clothes for the toys. He started making doll clothes at age 10 — because he didn’t have enough fabric to create a full-size outfit — and continued as a means to support himself until he launched his line. He’s still making the doll clothes and even crafted six ensembles for a RuPaul doll.
He has no intention of stopping at clothing, shoes, and handbags. He’s already designed a faucet (he calls it “The little black dress of faucets”), eyeglass frames, and a candle. The candles flicker throughout his minimalist and flawlessly appointed showroom. He’s even designed some of the chairs in the showroom. His latest project is a makeup collaboration with Lancome.
“What I’ve felt is that if you’re a good designer you can design anything,” Wu said. “I’ve always felt like I wanted to create a lifestyle brand out of Jason Wu that goes beyond clothes. A woman can’t exist in a white box. She needs to exist in the world, and I want to design that world.”
In other words, he is clearly taking steps toward someday releasing a line of home goods that will appeal to the “Wu woman.”
But Wu has done all of this cautiously. He’s had no shortage of opportunities to lend his name to products or appear on fashion reality shows. But he has no interest in celebrity. He stays close to his studio and focuses on design.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if he eventually winds up at the head of a major European design house,” says Nina Sterghiou, style and market editor of Marie Claire. “I can’t think of any of the young designers coming out of Europe that can match him.”
Louis Boston owner Debi Greenberg has no doubt in Wu’s abilities to conquer any area of design. She is responsible for his presence at the 2008 ICA fund-raiser, and helped bring him back to Boston for the Thursday ICA talk (Wu is also presenting a trunk show at Louis on Friday).
“When we first carried him, you could really see his technique and his creativity,” Greenberg said. “I thought to myself, ‘This kid is so young, and yet he’s fearless in exploring things that are technically difficult.’ At the time, it’s something that most American designers were not trying.”
Wu is quite self-assured and intense about his work. But he says the mistake some designers make is that they’re humorless and that attitude is reflected in their clothes.
“I always say that fashion takes itself too seriously,” Wu says. “But I suppose I’m flexible. I can do pop culture. I can do a little camp, but I can also make serious clothes. There needs to be joy in whatever kind of fashion that you do. There has to be joy because that’s the reason why you make beautiful clothes.”