Last year at this time, you'd likely never heard the name Jason Wu.
Sure, he's been designing clothes since the age of nine, and after his 2006 debut collection he became the darling of the Vogue and Bergdorf circuit. Yet Wu was hardly a household name.
Then, on January 20, 2009, everything changed - and what a difference a day makes. First Lady Michelle Obama surprised the world - and Wu himself - by donning his now-famous one-shouldered, white goddess dress to the inauguration balls.
The dress has since been promised to the Smithsonian as an artifact of American history, and Wu has been catapulted into the international spotlight.
It's been 72 days since that fateful moment, yet when I spoke with him this week, Wu still sounded a little bit giddy. How could he not? His business is booming, and the first lady continues to don his designs in the world's capitals.
Just yesterday in London, Ms. Obama showed off a Jason Wu chartreuse silk crepe sheath dress on the first stop of the Obamas' first official European trip. Today she wore a Jason Wu coat to meet the Queen.
Yet there is no resting on laurels for Wu; in fact, he barely celebrated his Inauguration Day coup. He is, first and foremost, a workhorse.
Below, Jason Wu talks about America's new first lady, his favorite Old Hollywood stars, and the item of clothing that no woman should go without.
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Lesley M. M. Blume: Let's start by talking about Michelle Obama's inauguration gown. What was your inspiration, and what is the symbolism there - the white, the one shoulder? Were there other designs that were discarded, and why?
Jason Wu: I was asked to submit several gowns for her, and of course I was more than happy to oblige. I came up with a few, but the white gown was the first dress I envisioned her in. I didn't know she was going to wear it for the inauguration. I just thought she'd look really great in it. My goal as a designer is to make a woman look incredible.
I call white the most powerful non-color; it's clean, optimistic, powerful. Regarding the one shoulder, I thought, what's a great balance between strapless and fully-sleeved? The truth of the matter is that we haven't had a First Lady not wearing sleeves for inauguration. The Obama presidency ushers in a new generation, and it's fitting to introduce a new silhouette.
LMMB: Vogue editor Anna Wintour said in an editor's letter last year that women no longer need navy power suits to be taken seriously, that feminine clothing won't detract from a professional woman's credibility. Tell me your thoughts on this.
JW: I think that's absolutely correct. Being feminine in the way you dress doesn't have to compromise who you are as a woman or your career. I think we're past that now.
I don't believe that you have to dress in a masculine way to seem powerful. I think that the way a woman dresses doesn't have to be so aggressive. Being feminine is a powerful feature in itself. Power is in a person's demeanor.
LMMB: But would you have designed a different sort of dress for a female president than you did for a new first lady?
JW: I would have designed a dress that would have been right for whoever the person was. Michelle Obama's dress was the fitting dress for her. That's what it's about: always designing for a specific client, and her demeanor and frame. You highlight her best features.
LMMB: You've been described as the industry's next Oscar de la Renta or Carolina Herrera, and you're still just a baby. Tell me about how these expectations affect you and your work.
JW: I could only hope that I would have the longevity of those designers' careers. Every season I really try to step it up. I always want to become a better designer. I've never been the person to sit back and say, this as a good as it's going to get.
LMMB: How have you handled the pressure of the limelight?
JW: I took one week to do media after the Inauguration, and gave myself one day to celebrate. It was such an intense time; I'd forget to eat. I'd do TV in the morning and then go straight back to my studio. There was so much so much global interest in this Inauguration; I got countless requests from the world-wide media, including a lot of Asian press - especially China, since I'm from Taiwan.
LMMB: You only gave yourself one day to celebrate?
JW: Well, Inauguration - a day I'll never forget - was on January 20, and my show was on February 13, just a few weeks later. When I'm in show mode, I'm a whole different person. I don't rest; I eat, sleep, and drink the show, I'm so concentrated on the work.
LMMB: How did you spend your celebratory 24 hours?
JW: I had dinner with my close friends, very simple.
LMMB: How about rest of the day?
JW (sheepishly): I was at the studio.
LMMB: What is fashion's role in dark economic times?
JW: I don't speak for everybody, but as a designer, I want to create desirable clothes, no matter what economic climate we're in. People are supposedly going back to buying basic items or plain things, but in my opinion, people should be buying special things right now. Buy things you truly love, things that are special, but not a lot of them. It's about value, not quantity.
We need a positive mood right now. Everyone's so down. But in all troubled times, there's always a few bright spots. In this case, one of them is Michelle Obama and how she's put the spotlight on young American designers.
LMMB: How will your next collection be affected by the recession?
JW: I think it comes down to me looking at the brand and see what it represents and be very focused. Now is not the time to do a series of off-shoot lines. When we grow, it'll be a managed growth.
LMMB: So we're not going to see a Jason Wu perfume in the near future?
JW (pauses): Well, there're a few things in the pipeline, plans to take the brand to the next level in new categories, supplemental to clothes. But I can't talk about it right now.
LMMB: Can't you give me any hints?
LMMB (sulking): These days, trends come and go faster than ever. What is one item that should always be in style?
JW: A perfectly fitted sheath dress that can take you from day to night is something that every woman should have in her closet. You can't go wrong with black, but a little bit of color is nice. I love a lot of color, personally. You can accessorize a sheath dress. Look at how Michelle Obama accessorizes clothes to make them her own.
LMMB: When it comes to succeeding in the fashion industry, so much depends on having a unique look - or, to borrow a term that's very 2007 - a recognizable brand. How would you describe what defines and distinguishes the Jason Wu aesthetic?
JW: Feminine, colorful, and bold with quirky touches. Classic but modern at the same time. Any item in the collection will be relevant in the seasons and years to come. I don't believe in dressing for the season. I believe in building a wardrobe for years to come.
LMMB: Which of your designer predecessors have influenced your work the most?
JW: Charles James and Norman Norell, two great American designers. Norell was one of the quintessential 1950s designers, and James was known for impeccable construction. Workmanship was undeniably one of his well-known assets. You can turn his clothes inside out and they're works of art. I also want my garments to be turned inside out and still be beautiful.
LMMB: Who is your favorite Old Hollywood star? Favorite classic film?
JW: I've always loved Jean Seberg, who was a blonde version of Audrey Hepburn with French twist. She didn't have a super-long career and is under-appreciated, though. Classic Hollywood was about full make-up, full hair, but Seberg was so cool and a little more relaxed. Like in Breathless, when she comes in a t-shirt; it's so refreshing.
In terms of films, I've always loved Breakfast at Tiffany's.
LMMB: In your mind, is there one woman - contemporary or historical - who embodies glamour?
JW: Sophia Loren. I think she's in her 70s, and she's still beautiful. There's an aura about her that's so appealing. It goes to show no matter how old you are, femininity and beauty come from within.
LMMB: I'd love to see your horoscope for January 20. What did it say? Your stars must have been going crazy.
JW: You know, I didn't read it. Now I need to go back and look that up.
This is an edited transcript of a conversation between Jason Wu and Lesley M. M. Blume.
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