German powerhouse Hugo Boss has a new womenswear helm, JASON WU. VINCENZO LA TORRE meets the Taiwanese-American wunderkind
DESIGNER MUSICAL CHAIRS don’t make big news any more; every season young and established creators move from Paris to Milan or all the way to New York and few consumers seem to notice, in spite of the guessing games and speculation that the fashion press revels in.
In recent years, however, houses that had previously never felt the need to hire a boldface name to helm the ship have come to realise that in order to build a strong identity they need to have a figurehead who can act as the face and the creative force of a brand. In Milan, Ermenegildo Zegna placed his bets on Stefano Pilati, who’s now in charge of both the menswear juggernaut and its sister brand Agnona, while in February Jeremy Scott unveiled his first collection for Moschino.
Whether houses need a face to take the bow at the end of a show is debatable (labels such as Max Mara do brisk business by relying on design teams and refusing to recruit a big name to shape their vision), but it definitely helps to have a cool designer to represent what they stand for, not to mention give an interview or two to news-hungry media and charm buyers and retail executives.
Finding a rising design star to put at the creative helm is the best way for a house to make some noise, especially in the extremely competitive field of womenswear. That’s what German apparel giant Hugo Boss felt it needed to do when it approached one of the darlings of New York fashion, Jason Wu, to become its womenswear creative director.
Known for its men’s formalwear and casual separates – countless males from China to the US still count on Hugo Boss as the provider of their first suits, which are well made and relatively affordable when compared with those from other European labels – Hugo Boss has always lacked a strong identity for its womenswear, which is a tiny part of its business and mainly focuses on 9-to-5 ensembles.
Enter the Taiwanese-American Wu, who in less than a decade has become a success story and built a business as the purveyor of flattering dresses, feminine extras and embellished evening gowns that ladies who lunch, uptown girls and red-carpet stars such as Diane Kruger love to wear when they want to look polished and chic.
Even if you’ve never heard of Wu and his eponymous brand, you’re likely to be familiar with two of the most photographed gowns of the last decade, which he designed. The one-shoulder white chiffon gown and the red velvet and chiffon evening dress that US First Lady Michelle Obama wore for her husband’s two inaugurations were both Wu creations, helping to put him on the map as a designer to watch back when his business was just fledgling.
Faced with the challenge of creating a women’s line at Hugo Boss, Wu knew that his feminine bent had to be balanced with the rigorous and minimal aesthetic of the house. “What comes with me as a designer, not Jason the brand but Jason the designer, is that I’m attracted to things that are very feminine, and there’s a softness in my sensibility that appeals to women. That’s quite important for this first collection because within the rigour and the straightness of the tailoring I added moments of softness; something that women like and gravitate towards,” Wu explains.
His first effort for Hugo Boss, unveiled in New York last February at one of the most star-studded shows during the city’s fashion week (Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Hudson and Sarah Jessica Parker were in attendance), melded the distinctive tailoring and sharp silhouettes of the brand with his signatures, such as delicate sheer blouses and flowing laser-cut pleated dresses. After a visit to the company’s headquarters in Metzingen, Wu decided to translate what he saw to a line-up that combined the house’s austere menswear heritage with his own delicate touch. “When I started, I took the campus itself as an inspiration. The architecture is amazing, as you’d imagine, but probably even more amazing because it’s in a suburban area, where there’s a lot of green – very picturesque. And in the middle it’s Hugo Boss, these glass buildings that are super state-of-the-art. Our neighbours are Porsche and Mercedes, so it’s all high tech, and our technical centre is like nothing else in this world; there’s pretty much a machine for everything and the technical abilities and engineering are really like no other. I used that as an inspiration and also a bit of the menswear DNA,” says Wu.
That vision was clear in the collection’s last look, worn on the runway by British model Stella Tennant: a tuxedo-like mannish pantsuit paired with a semi-sheer blouse and high heels, the perfect marriage of Hugo Boss’s tailoring and Wu’s softer approach. As the designer explains, “The menswear heritage is the obvious one, and just because we’re creating a women’s collection it doesn’t mean that it has to be a complete separate entity from menswear. I think gender separation is not so obvious any more: there’s something quite nice about seeing a girl in flats, with a suit, but who still can be very feminine. The idea is to take what the company is very good at, which is tailoring, precise cutting, and engineering fabrics and great hardware pieces, and being able to inject some femininity. That’s how the first collection came about: the idea of nature vs. architecture, masculine vs. feminine.”
Being at the helm of such a global powerhouse would be daunting to any designer, let alone a 32-year-old who’s building a name for himself in the cutthroat world of New York fashion, but Wu belongs to a business-savvy generation of creators who’ve mastered the difficult art of marrying craft with commercial viability. “I wasn’t hired just to design women’s clothes, but to create a world, give an image,” he explains, “The company is ready to take it to the next level and to amplify its message with a fashion point of view, and I’m happy to be the one doing it. It’s really exciting that I could be a part of something that hasn’t yet been created.”
As Wu greets a bunch of girls-about-town to show them the collection at a Hugo Boss boutique – “It feels so real; it’s really nice to be able to see it all come together, on a rack for the first time,” he says with visible enthusiasm – it’s clear that the brand has found the right man to build and, most importantly, t a look from the autumn/winter 2014 show and (opposite) jason wu surrounded by some of his creations for hugo boss o sell the dream.