He has inspired Madonna to wear a beer helmet. He led a stampede of sugar-fearing fashion editors to raid the candy aisle of a Mobil station. He has enlisted McDonald’s, 7-Eleven, and Hooters to serve as corporate caterers. And now, after more than 10 years of serving as the New York fashion world’s savviest bad boy, Alexander Wang has opted out of the traditional fashion-show schedule and announced a collaboration with the storied Italian luxury brand Bulgari. Is this the kind of thing that happens when millennials turn 35?
It’s a hot and heavy night in August when Wang, dressed in a conservative black button-up, dignified knee-length shorts, and a blindingly blinged-out diamond Rolex, rolls into EN Japanese Brasserie, in New York City’s West Village neighborhood. Wang is a regular there, and he’s greeted accordingly before being ushered into a private booth in the back. One of his favorite dishes arrives almost immediately. “You’ve got to try the natto,” he says deviously, referring to a pungent preparation of fermented soybeans.
This is a meaningful moment for Wang. The September edition of New York Fashion Week is imminent, but he’s not feeling its accompanying pressure, thanks to his decision to show his spring ’20 collection off-schedule, all the way back in May, at a time when his message received maximum impact. “The way that shows are communicated and shared today, there’s a lot more flexibility in getting the story out there that doesn’t need to rely on the Fashion Week,” he says. “For us, a fashion show has become a brand moment.”
Ironic Mom Jeans
Wang’s offerings include a growing men’s collection, but for now it’s mostly a girl thing. Dresses, jeans, bags, shoes—the whole gamut, all infused with the sexy subversiveness that is Wang’s calling card. His inner circle, occasionally referred to as the #wangsquad, consists of models (Binx Walton, Anna Ewers), entertainers (Lady Gaga, Zoë Kravitz), and fashion-establishment types (Kaia Gerber, Vanessa Traina). “They’re all people who have a very strong sense of who they are, and their own style, and are able to take the brand and make it their own,” he says.
His clothes reflect that democratic approach. Wang sells mom jeans and shrunk cable-knit sweaters alongside tweed bra tops and spray-painted overcoats. “Fashion, historically, has been so much about dictating, but today it’s the consumer that dictates what they want,” says Wang. His best-selling black Kori booties, with a slice missing from its stacked heel, are worn to work by stylish finance types. But his $995 Motel slippers—flip-flops covered in mink—are more likely to be seen at Paul’s Cocktail Lounge. (Act fast, as limited sizes remain.) In May, he sent Hailey Bieber to the Met Gala in a WANG-bedazzled powder-pink thong. How does he come up with this stuff? “It’s my A.D.D.,” he says with a laugh.
“Fashion, historically, has been so much about dictating, but today it’s the consumer that dictates what they want.”
Wang’s default expression tends to be a bright smile, which would be weird except that it manifests so honestly. In the fashionsphere, which tends to take itself painfully seriously, here’s a guy who is having serious fun while also running a serious business: In addition to his creative-director duties, Wang serves as the chief executive and chairman of his brand. (He took over the roles from his sister-in-law and mother, respectively, in 2016.)
“That was a turning point for me,” he says, tasting the tempura. “And that was a high point of when the industry was starting to very much change. I wanted to be able to understand the business inside and out.… Not that I was ever the person who sat in my studio, designed things, and sent them out.”
A Considerable Amount of Shock and Awe
Born in San Francisco to Taiwanese-American parents, Wang came of age in the Bay Area’s tony private schools before heading to New York and enrolling at Parsons School of Design. Immersing himself in the city’s fashion scene, he interned in the fashion department at Teen Vogue before dropping out of school and launching his own line. At age 22, he showed his first full collection at New York Fashion Week, and the next year won the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, taking home a tidy $200,000. In 2012, to a considerable amount of shock and awe, he replaced Nicolas Ghesquière as the creative director of Balenciaga, thus beginning a three-year period of intercontinental shuffling between Alexander Wang headquarters, in Lower Manhattan, and Balenciaga’s atelier, in Paris.
In the intervening years, Wang’s business has steadily grown. Flagship stores occupy prime spots on Grand Street, in New York’s SoHo, and Albemarle Street, in the heart of London’s Mayfair. But Wang has remained hyper-attendant to the cool-chasing consumers at the heart of it all. For fall ’17, his branded marijuana paraphernalia featured imagery of an advertising campaign shot by Juergen Teller. In 2018, he celebrated Pride Month with a capsule collection of condoms. (“Protect Your Wang,” ordered the packaging.)
Inflatable Pools Filled with Beer
Most memorably, he pioneered the concept of a public show: #Wangfest, as it was called, squired a troupe of models all over New York City on a party bus before arriving at a Bushwick warehouse, where they outfitted themselves in the spring ’18 collection and then walked a makeshift runway. (The after-party featured inflatable pools filled with Budweiser, stacked towers of Dunkin’ Donuts, a bouncy castle, and a Ja Rule performance. “#Wangfest was the Fyre Festival we were all promised,” declared the blog Fashionista.)
“It just didn’t make sense for us to constantly only be doing these super-exclusive small shows,” says Wang, whose design chops are matched by his marketing savvy. “We had passed that 10-year mark, we weren’t the new kid on the block showing for the first time, and we’re also not the Kering and the L.V.M.H. that are flying editors to Rio de Janeiro or Morocco to see Diana Ross perform or whatever.” Now, he continues, “we’ve figured out a way to have a show and invite the industry, and make sure they were taken care of … but also allow the public to be involved in a way that’s very sentimental.” Case in point: his spring ’20 show at Rockefeller Center in May, which provided a more traditional experience to the press (who were sequestered on a lower level) while creating a spectacle for the public to enjoy.
A Whole Lot of Fun
But he can’t just sit out the festivities entirely. This very night, in fact, he will throw a good old-fashioned rager at 712 Fifth Avenue, in the space formerly occupied by Henri Bendel, to reveal his collaboration with Bulgari. Wang and his merry team of mischief-makers have turned it into an 80s-themed department store for the occasion.
In his quest to reimagine Bulgari’s Serpenti Forever bag, Wang made a second visit to Rome. (“The first time was for Zoolander,” he says with a laugh, referring to his cameo appearance in Zoolander 2.) At the Bulgari atelier, Wang recalls, “you had to go through, like, 15 doors of security to enter one room. But at that point, there was a desk full of diamonds, raw rubies, and sapphires. I felt like I was Aladdin in the cave.” By dipping a toe into the ultra-luxury space, Wang acknowledges the evolution of his customer base—some of them might be all grown up, but they don’t necessarily want to feel that way. That’s where he comes in.
Despite the maturity and responsibility generated by years of consistent success, the Alexander Wang brand has evolved into a crucible of both quality design and a whole lot of fun. As he enters the next phase of his career, he remains at the center of things. See for yourself on Instagram, where Wang’s corporate and personal accounts have 5.3 million and 310,000 followers, respectively. He’s also got a new talk-show series on YouTube, Spill the Boba, in which he hangs with his inner circle while drinking bubble tea.
And you’re welcome to stop Wang on the street to say hello. Really! “Someone asked me to sign their boob before,” he says, finishing up dinner with a few bites of white-chocolate fondue. “I was like, ‘Left or right?’”
Ashley Baker is the Style Editor for AIR MAIL