Photography by David Needleman
"My favorite color is black, but just because you wear black doesn’t mean you are depressed or suppressed," says Alexander Wang, who is rocking a black cotton T-shirt he designed: uber-soft, like it has endured 30 years of washing, whose price tag isn't break-the-bank -- but is far from Hanes.
Wang is known for being chipper, gregarious, the life of a party -- qualities not usually associated with "It" designers -- and far removed from the tortured aura of McQueen or the liquor-fueled fury of Galliano.
"I love what I do," Wang says. "I got into this because it makes me happy. And it’s the lifestyle -- it’s not just about creating clothes but going out in them and living in them."
The 27-year-old designer is seated at a marble table in his TriBeCa headquarters (he has three floors of the building). Behind him, a giant, 12-foot-tall mirror frames him like a portrait. With his long, parted rock-'n'-roll hair, delicate androgynous features, and omnipresent smirk, Wang is giving a punk take on Mona Lisa realness. Around him are racks of clothing from his various collections -- women's ready-to-wear and the lower-priced T line for men and women, not to mention accessories. A full men’s collection will debut this fall. "If you ask me what guys I think have awesome style," Wang says, "I wouldn’t even be able to name one. It’s much more about these guys I'm not even familiar with, that are much more quiet. It's not the movie star or celebrity. That’s not what’s important for me. It’s a quiet discovery of the details and the fit."
Wang cheekily adds, "The point is to create things that I want to wear and that I'm not able to find." His menswear tends to take the traditional and then subvert it -- a bomber jacket is melded with a cardigan, track pants are made in leather, and basketball shorts are made in a chunky knit. The result is chic and moody, but also smart and playful.
His sense of fun expands to Fashion Week, where his after-parties (renting out a gas station with Courtney Love serenading the revelers, creating a fun-park complete with a blow-up castle to bounce in) are as sought-after as his runway shows. Fashion parties can be a bit like Taco Bell -- the exact same thing, but in slightly different shapes. "In college, friends would invite me to fashion parties," Wang says. "I thought it was exciting. I had just moved to New York and wanted to see people and investigate the scene or whatever. After a while, it gets old. You see the same people over and over again standing around in a white loft with champagne. It’s a traveling crowd. What is there to look forward to? I want to have fun and dance and party."
But Wang points out that his socializing has a limit, and he wants to refute a magazine piece that alleged he went to an underwear party on Fire Island. "I did not set foot into it!" he says. "When I got there, they said, 'You have to check your clothes.' I said, 'No way, forget it.' The writer witnessed me outside and assumed I went inside, but I didn't!"
Wang balances his fun-loving proclivities with equal parts workaholism -- a late twentysomething doesn't amass a multimillion-dollar company from design talent alone. "I've always thought of myself as more than a designer," Wang says. "It's not the same industry it was five years ago. The landscape has changed. I work just as much in sales, marketing, press, online, and e-commerce as I do designing the collection."
The opening of his first store last spring capped off a mega year for the designer, whose SoHo flagship will soon be joined by a Shanghai location. He won the CFDA Accessories Designer of the Year Award and also snagged GQ's Best New Menswear Designer in America Award. Wang has achieved remarkable success by being as creative on the business side of his company as with design. His first (and only) ad campaign for T consisted of billboards and taxi ads in New York City and L.A., and starred notable DJ Diplo -- the only print ads ran in Interview magazine. The next season he projected films on Manhattan buildings for a weekend.
"From the very beginning," Wang says, "we've taken an organic approach, going with our instinct and trying things out. If things don't work, we try something else. Nothing falls into a formula. It's what makes sense at that time. Our business plan has never been more than one page."
Wang moved to New York City from California's Bay Area to attend Parsons, but dropped out during his sophomore year in 2004. "I had two years left, and then the pressure would be to find a job as an assistant designer and work my way up. That's how the industry goes," he says. "Or, I could take the opportunity to do something small and manageable, and if it doesn't work out, school is always there.”
The reasons for leaving school were also creative. "Everyone has a different way of learning," Wang says. "A lot of people love having the teacher tell them what to draw and paint and drape. That wasn't for me." It was a gamble, but, with Wang's innate design and business sense, it worked and he built a career by thinking outside the box.
He started his first knitwear collection with his sister-in-law handling the business side of things. They would put the oversized cardigans and knitted hoodies in a wheeled suitcase and go from store to store trying to sell their wares.
The influential N.Y.C. store Opening Ceremony was one of the first to carry his clothes. "It's a strong point of view, and it's his thing," says the co-owner Humberto Leon. "He's really good at cultivating his thing. In the beginning, it was more younger, insidery people buying it, but now it's reached a broader demographic."
Today, Wang's brother is the CPO of the company and his sister-in-law is the CEO. His mother serves on the board of directors. "I value working with my family," Wang says, "because I can trust them. They're always going to be there for me no matter how the business goes." At this point, the only direction has been up.