On a late May afternoon in a sun-drenched penthouse atop Atlanta's W Hotel and Residences, designer Jason Wu mingles with the usual suspects, at least in these here parts: deep-fried fashionistas wearing hand-picked selections by couture curator Jeffrey Kalinsky, owner of the Jeffrey boutiques. Of course, there's Sacha Taylor and Lila Hertz, tastefully-donned hostesses with the mostesses and event chairs for Kalinsky's 17th annual Jeffrey Fashion Cares fundraiser. There's also a passel of local media -- folks like me who spent the day trolling our modest closets to trot out something that might impress Wu, whose rocket blasted off less than a year ago after he hung a $3500 silk sheath dress dotted with hand-embroidered florets on Michelle Obama for a post-election 2008 Barbara Walters Special. At this Fashion Cares kickoff event, 26-year-old Wu is undeniably the youngest person in the room, the only Asian face, and surprisingly all smiles at the endless reception of smothering hugs that mash him into the busty chests of excited belles in 5-inch Louboutin heels, fresh out of the box from the fabulous Bob Ellis shoe store. Despite all the lipstick and hairspray, this isn't some silly socialite scene: it's philanthropic marketing at its best, Southern-style.
That late-spring soiree, which helped Atlanta's Fashion Cares host committee raise more than $239,000 for the Susan G. Komen for the Cure and the Atlanta AIDS Partnership Fund, months in advance of next week's August 31 fundraiser, is a prime model of how philanthropic giving (among certain donor groups, to certain causes), is thriving in spite of this year's sluggish economy. Of course it helps to have a great track record (last year's Fashion Cares event raised more than $800,000, with 95 cents on the dollar going directly to the charities), but good talent doesn't hurt, either: "it" designer Jason Wu was a natural choice to follow in the footsteps of Isaac Mizrahi and Oscar de la Renta as top guest at Jeffrey's annual Atlanta fete.
So why is everyone so wooed by Wu? That's easy: when America's First Lady wears a silk chiffon gown with Swarovski crystals and your name all over it, get ready for greatness.
Wu called me this week to bring me up to speed on the hype.
"It was a good opportunity to expose my brand internationally and a once-in-a-lifetime chance," he says of designing a white one-shouldered dress for Michelle Obama to wear to her husband's January, 2009 inaugural balls. Just don't presume that one presidential photo opp can sum up the Wu milieu: for this Taipei-born designer, who sketched his way through childhood in Vancouver, Tokyo, Paris and New York, it's all part of the arc of success he envisioned when he started drawing clothes on paper at age 9.
"I've always been very singular in my vision," Wu explains. "I've continued to hone in on that and improve to hopefully become a better designer every season."
Wu started his own company in 2006 at age 23 after attending Parsons School of Design and interning with Narciso Rodriguez, and his womenswear collections have maintained a consistent blend of feminine reserve and subtle edginess in a steely palette of greys, interspersed with a vibrant jolt of each season's hue du jour.
This past June, on his runway for Resort 2010, Wu showcased belted and embroidered silks in taupe, canary, and rouge. But the true stunners were a dress in peacock blue and a coat in fire-engine red, both fluttering with thousands of hand-stitched petals laser-cut from silk georgette.
Wu, who prefers "subtlety to the overtly sexy," says that his Spring 2010 collection, debuting at New York's Fashion Week this September, will feature similar bold strokes, but nothing too far off the path. "Balance and restraint make for great design," he says.
And what else makes great designers tick? "Being influenced by the changes in the world and everything around us." For Wu, that world includes invitations to Vanity Fair parties and Tara Donovan art exhibits, having his apartment featured in New York magazine's home design issue, zoning to music by indie band Bat for Lashes, creating limited-edition dolls, winking at the revival of the 1980s power suit, and contributing time to causes like Fashion Cares and Glamour magazine's Fashion Gives Back program, for which he designed a tote bag that will go on sale this fall to benefit Dress for Success.
"Design bridges the gap between fashion and art," Wu says. From strong shoulders to an eternal love for neutrals, he believes designers are often on the same page with trends because they're out there in the mix together. "A designer is just a blender," Wu reckons.
Hmm, wonder if that means he'll be serving up some frozen peach margaritas alongside his new looks next Monday night?
For more information about Fashion Cares 2009 or to purchase tickets, click here.
For information about Fashion Week, click here.