alexander wang on life after balenciaga
“There are no more rules in fashion. If you have drive, ambition, an idea, passion and hard work, you really can make anything happen.”
You couldn't have staged a more epic final bow. There he was, Alexander Wang at his Balenciaga swan song this October in Paris, sprinting down the runway in black skinny jeans, tripping and nearly falling into one of the granite pools that made up the set. He filmed the whole thing on his mobile phone, of course, true to the social media generation to which he belongs - and everyone there, from the young guard to the old, laughed with him. It was a priceless illustration of the effect Wang has had on this solemn, old industry of ours, with his eternal "work hard, play hard" mantra. As he steps down from Balenciaga after three years this season, he also happens to be celebrating ten years of Alexander Wang, the mega-brand he cultivated all on his own. "In the long run I have my own brand that I own completely with my family, and that's where my focus needs to be," he says over tea at the Rosewood Hotel in London, a week after his spring/summer 16 Alexander Wang show in New York, and two weeks before his last Balenciaga show in Paris. "Balenciaga also needs someone who's there for the long run, so it was a very amicable agreement on behalf of me and Mr Pinault, and we still respect each other a lot. It just so happened that our ten-year was at the same time," he laughs, not oblivious to excellent PR timing.
Behind his chillaxed Californian twang and angelic looks - his elfin porcelain face and those long black locks - you can't help but think of the thick skin that lies beneath. When Wang introduced his light-hearted millennial self to fashion a decade ago, with the high spirits and fabulous parties that went with it, the industry wasn't as accepting of frivolous fun as it is today, post-social media craze. "There are days when you read something about you that's not the most complimentary, and things that happen that are not the most successful. And you just have to deal with it and move on," he says. "In general, the way the industry has evolved, it's much more about being inclusive now and showing that there's so many kinds of people from all sorts of different backgrounds, who are interested and can do whatever they want within this industry. I think the next generation of designers and brands and creatives, who grow up with social media and the idea that you can do things your own way without following the traditional format, can pave the way and join hands together." Fashion's first designer from the 90s teenage generation to make it big, Wang was a kind of frontrunner for his designer peers, who grew up on MTV and supermodels and weren't embarrassed to love Britney Spears and put it on a pedestal.
"That's who I am. I was literally living in a 90s bubble for a very long time. It's still consistently music that I reference; TV shows, actors, movies, all of that is still very much pertinent to my process and what I love, and a little bit of that nostalgia, whether it's Missy Elliott, Foxy Brown, or Alicia Silverstone. I grew up in California, and I guess there's a sense of casual, laid-back ease that pretty much lives in me." Raised in San Francisco, in 2003 Wang enrolled at Parsons New York at just 18 years old, his 90s teen spirit fully intact. "I just wanted to make things that me and my friends really responded to and wanted to wear; that I felt were inspiring to our generation. I wasn't that person in college who had to put on the most conceptual fashion pieces to blow everyone away." He dropped out a year after to create just that: a label for his contemporaries, which mixed the many cultures we'd grown up with in the 90s. "Every season it organically works its way into the conversation, whether it's the metal goth thing or looking at fly girls or that jacket Jennifer Lopez wore on the subway," he explains. "It's not meant to look dated or meant to look like a 90s collection, it just so happens that that's what we still like and what we reference."
Over tea, he's flexing that reference muscle, going through his archive looks shot for these pages. "Fall 09: animalistic characters meets 80s-like Buffalo-style Ray Petri… Spring 11: honest materials, kind of samurai… Fall 11: hybrid season… Spring 12: motocross racing season… Fall 12: surrealism, deceiving textures, trompe l'?"il… Spring 13: logo mania season… Fall 13: boxing season… Spring 15: sneakerhead season… Fall 15: heavy metal rocker, Victoriana goth, Frankenstein," until he gets to spring/summer 16, his newest collection. "No concept," he says abruptly. "We thought, sometimes the idea of innovation for innovation's sake moves faster than what your audience is ready to absorb. Being modern is to really reflect what's right around you at that time in your everyday, so we thought, well, isn't the everyday and the mundane then the most inspiring?" He's got his eloquence in order, Mr Wang—his generation couldn't wish for a more quotable spokesperson. "We wanted to play with iconic pieces that felt very familiar and had inherent value, whether it was utilitarian, performance wear, denim, or lingerie, and then minutely tweak details but just have it be about this idea of individualism within a tribe," he says. "The conversation you have with your peers is the one that's most important."
If his eponymous brand is Wang playing home turf for his generation, taking on Balenciaga from Nicholas Ghesquière in 2012 was different territory altogether. "It came to me at a time when I had never worked at another brand or company before. I had never been an employee in that kind of capacity. I was given an opportunity to explore something that was very different to what my own brand was. A slightly different consumer," he says. "It definitely has its challenges when you're used to making all the decisions. You sign off—'Let's go!' Suddenly you want to do this, and we have to check this and get that approved and so on. It's just a different way of working, which I'm actually very grateful for, because now I'm like, okay, that's how that works. It was a learning curve: three years. I walk away from it with everyone saying, 'That was so quick,' but I don't know what's quick and not quick. All I know is that I was there for three years and we got double-digit growth each year. So you know what? I consider that an accomplishment for me and my team, and we did a great success." (In Wang's place, Demna Gvasalia of Vetements has taken over at Balenciaga and will show his first collection for autumn/winter 16.)
What has Alexander Wang done to fashion over the past decade? "Um? Thrown some great parties, gotten a lot of people drunk, got lots of people to take off their clothes," he laughs. "For me, I've always loved fashion because it does feel like an escape. I like to do things that relate to people's everyday, but also provide an escape and a feeling that you're buying into something that is a bit of a fantasy." How, then, has fashion changed over the past decade? "There are no more rules," he says resolutely. "You can be anyone of any mind and just put it out on your Instagram account. People are very excited for rules to be broken, and I feel like it has to do with this next generation growing up that's used to anything coming from any source or direction. The biggest pop stars now are from YouTube, you know what I mean? If you have drive, ambition, an idea, passion and hard work, you really can make anything happen." If Wang had a slogan, he might have to steal Coca-Cola's: 'Be yourself'. "You can challenge the way you do things within this industry," he says. "It doesn't have to be so precious, or pretentious. I have my own way of going about things, and whether it's social media or different advertising projects or events, it's very important for us to always be authentic. I feel like people respond to that."
Text Anders Christian Madsen
Photography Daniel Jackson
Fashion Director Alastair McKimm
Hair Recine at The Wall Group using Recine Lux Hair Oil by Rodin
Make-up Mariel Barrera at Joe Management
Nail technician Martha Fekete at Bryan Bantry
Digital technician Karen Goss
Photography assistance Jake Merrill, Kit Leuzarder
Styling assistance Lauren Davis, Sydney Rose Thomas
Hair assistance Shingo Shibata, Kabuto Okuzawa
Make-up assistance Yumi Kaizuka, Toru Sakanishi
Production Nikki Stromberg at MAP
Casting Anita Bitton at Establishment Casting
Models Anna Ewers, Behati Prinsloo and Maartje Verhoef at Women. Binx Walton and Odette Pavlova at Next. Lia Pavlova at One. Molly Bair at the Society. Peyton Knight at IMG. Fei Fei Sun and Vanessa Moody at Women. Isabella Emmack and Stella Lucia at DNA.
All clothing Alexander Wang.