alexander wang talks selfies, kate moss and balenciaga
Named in TIME magazine’s 100 Most Influential People, Alexander Wang is an iconic figure in contemporary fashion. Sitting down with i-D for our 35th, he talks selfies, celebrity and the value of status.
Kate wears all clothing Balenciaga.
So many interviews with Alexander Wang (Alex to his friends, that I wish I was), either start with or heavily sell the fact that he orders and then drinks hot water with lemon. He does, but what does that have to do with creating a global fashion empire? Well, maybe that everything Alex does and everything Alex is, from the temperature of his water, to his elegant signature, to his cult fashion collections, is in harmony. From his silky black hair to his expensive-looking skin, he is at once so put-together and so beautifully undone. Alex Wang has always been on-brand, because the brand was Alex Wang. So you might hazard that when he was made creative director of luxury x 1000 fashion house Balenciaga in 2012, at the remarkably young age of 28, he would have faced an identity crisis. Not so: "I don't really think, like, 'Balenciaga - Wang'. I think more about the collection and I think more about the direction of where we're going with the collection specifically."
Some of the best designers in the world have put forward their vision for Balenciaga, from the god of gods Cristóbal, to Alex's long-standing predecessor, Nicolas Ghesquière. It's an intimidating ancestry by any degree, and Alex is humble enough to admit he felt it. "I was very nervous. There are a lot of situations where you hear of a new creative director and they bring in their new team, and it's a re-haul. It was much more of a work in progress for me. It was just getting to know the team, and getting them to trust me." Now, three years and twice as many applauded collections on, he has clear goals: "In my time at Balenciaga I want to develop those items and products that can be recognized immediately as Balenciaga. To create these - status sounds so pretentious - but these items that people know represent something; there is a value of immediacy to it. It's the bow, or the feather, or the anchor and I'm just trying to resurrect it and make it more relevant and kind of… it's a dirty word, but exploit it a bit."
Picking out four words from that — immediacy, value, relevant and status — I ask Alex about the trend for celebrity front rows and posts of the influential famous that flow through Balenciaga's Instagram feed, and his own. "Celebrity is the new media," he says. "I'm a huge, huge magazine collector, but magazines are a dying art - a craft. And online is great, but all people want to read about or follow is celebrity. And whether it's a good thing or a bad thing - and I think you can view it in both ways - it's the reality. I think you have to just find your own way to deal with it, and embrace it, because it is what it is, and I don't think it's going away any time soon." Posts featuring what one would presume are very 'Balenciaga' people such as Julianne Moore and Amal Clooney feature on the feed, wearing the brand, but so do all of pop and its culture, including Katy Perry, Rihanna, Lady Gaga and Kim Kardashian. Alex doesn't read the hater comments that lace the threads below these pictures. "There are things that we do that are really polarising," he says, "and I think that's what fashion is about, I mean, you need it to trigger conversation. You can't always do something that everyone's always going to love."
This democratic approach to fashion that Alex embodies makes sense with his own brand, but seems at odds with a brand as high-brow and historically exclusive as Balenciaga, one of the most notoriously difficult shows to get into at Paris Fashion Week. On his celebrity endorsement, he says: "Everything is fashion. I mean there's high fashion and low fashion, but whether you or I think it's good or bad, it's just fashion. Because fashion is a reflection of our times and what people wear." Instead of an insta-star, however, Alex chose Kate Moss to be the face of this feature. "I've always been a big fan [of Kate] but I haven't worked with her yet at Balenciaga and she came to the show, and this opportunity came up and I thought it would be fun to do something with her and i-D because i-D always has an interesting take on iconic figures in fashion."
Named in TIME magazine's 100 Most Influential People list this year, Alex can confidently count himself among those iconic figures. "It's such an honor," he says, and means it. "It's so humbling. And the list spans so many different industries, so to be in the fashion industry and be included on that list, I think that's really something."
For i-D's 35th Birthday Issue, we asked Alex and ten other iconic designers to make a special edition cover wrap. Alex was the only one to send in a selfie, winking on the front cover with a Balenciaga marble-covered phone; the back of his head on the back cover. Now Alex is a very humble man, it's one of the most obvious things about him, and there are hardly any selfies either on his own Instagram or Balenciaga's, so the cover is a generational statement. "I don't ever take selfies, but I felt like this cover should really reflect the times. At first I wanted to do a mirrored cover, you know because i-D is all about identification and looking at yourself… but you said you'd done it already. So I wanted to do something that really reflected our times, and people are obsessed with selfies." I ask if he ever feels self-conscious, "Yeah," he replies, "for sure." What about as a designer, working for a brand with such an impressive lineage? "Well, I've always made a point not to operate under fear. There are times when I'm under a lot of pressure, or I hesitate because I wonder what this person or that person will think. But I do always overcome that. I feel like it's better that I eliminate myself from the reviews and the comments. If it's good, I'll feel good about it, if it's bad I'll feel bad about it, I'm human." Which is easy to forget, because he works at such a superhuman pace and has fingers in all the hot water with lemon pies. And yet his social life doesn't visibly seem to suffer. "When I feel stressed, I see my friends and family," he says, "Yes, I'm very dependent on my friends."
Even more obvious than his humility is the fact that Alex Wang is a really nice person. He makes a quick exit in the decided but courteous manner of an extremely busy, nice person. On my way out I notice the 2009 i-D book 100 Contemporary Fashion Designers on a coffee table, behaving like a coffee table book should. I leaf through to see a boyish Alex on page 662. He's sort of shrugging in the headshot, in a way that says so much about his manner but also contradicts his success, because it's not by chance that he got here. The text about him in the book finishes: "Long may his success continue." Six years on, that's no longer an appropriate ending, because his success is the success of a star that has no chance of fading.
Text Sarah Raphael
Photography Alasdair McLellan
Fashion Director Alastair McKimm
Hair Anthony Turner at Art Partner
Make-up Lynsey Alexander at Streeters London
Nail technician Jenny Longworth at CLM using Chanel S2015 & Body Excellence
Photography assistance Lex Kembery, James Robjant, Matthew Healy
Styling assistance Katelyn Gray, Lauren Davis, Ianthe Wright, Bojana Kozarevic
Hair assistance David Hardorow
Make-up assistance Camila Fernandez
Executive producer (not on set) Lucy Johnson
Producer Lucie Newbegin at 10-4
Production assistance Laure Liyombo, Harry Burner, Lyndon Ogbourne
Special thanks to Jen Ramey
Retouching Output Ltd
Model Kate Moss at IMG