New York Fashion Week in February reached unprecedented heights of chaos. There was the polar vortex, the blizzards, the gridlocked traffic, the delayed catwalk shows, the inappropriate footwear on icy pavements. Most normal people didn't venture out. But on Wednesday, February 12, at 2pm the fashion industry's finest gathered on the second floor of an empty skyscraper on 55th Street to see what the new artistic director for Boss womenswear, Jason Wu, would present for his big debut.
The famous faces on the front row, always revealing for a fashion brand, were stellar: Gwyneth Paltrow, Diane Kruger, Benedict Cumberbatch, Reese Witherspoon and Gerard Butler, all dressed head-to-toe in Hugo Boss, turned out to show their support for Wu. By 2.45 anticipation was at fever pitch, but Wu isn't the apprehensive type.
"I don't really have time for nerves," he had said when we met two days earlier in between his model fittings. This is because Wu, 31, has not one but two jobs. The other is his own eponymous fashion brand that he had shown earlier in the week. Best described as American sportswear with a couture twist, his designs have been worn by Michelle Obama, most notably at her husband's inauguration balls.
In his new position, Wu oversees all women's ready-to-wear and accessories for Hugo Boss, the 90-year-old German retail behemoth with 12,500 employees, 7100 points of sale in 129 countries and a net income of 2.4 billion in 2013. By comparison, his own brand has 35 employees and 169 points of sale in 39 countries. It is understandable that he is short on time.
Wu grew up in Taiwan, and moved with his parents to Vancouver when he was 9. "My parents were really great to move us to the West because there was much more room for, let's say, an untraditional career path, and it was always very obvious I was going to be arty. I wasn't your average child."
For his 10th birthday present he begged his mother for a sewing machine. His only interest lay in making dresses for his burgeoning collection of dolls and Barbies. In the basement of their home he set up a cutting table and a little sewing machine, and honed his craft using upholstery offcuts, with the help of a sewing teacher hired by his mother.
There he learned English with a tutor, Muriel Kauffman, who has remained a supporting influence in his life. They would read fashion magazines, using a dictionary to translate. Wu admits he didn't get on with regular textbooks so Vogue and Harper's Bazaar were a quick and efficient route to fluency.
Wu's parents, insistent on the best education, sent him to boarding school: first in Massachusetts and then in Connecticut. He was still at the second school when, aged 14, he sent examples of his dolls' dresses to Integrity Toys, an American fashion doll manufacturer, which commissioned him as a freelance designer for the dolls' clothes and accessories.
At 16 Wu was appointed creative director of the company and later became a partner. (He continues to oversee the company's high-end fashion doll lines, many of which are collectables.) In 2001, Wu moved to New York (where he still lives with his partner, Gustavo Rangel, who is the chief financial officer of the Jason Wu brand, and their two cats) to study at the prestigious Parsons School of Design, but he quit six months short of graduating to take up an internship at Narciso Rodriguez, where he stayed for two seasons.
In 2006 the Jason Wu label launched and in 2008 Wu was a finalist for the Vogue Fashion Fund, an award for emerging designers. Anna Wintour, the editor-in-chief of American Vogue, whom he cites as another mentor, remains supportive of his work. "I was a bit like a deer in the headlights in the beginning when I was young and thrust into this world of fashion that is so fast and so demanding, and [Wintour] really guided me," he says. In 2010, Wu won the coveted CFDA Swarovski Award for Womenswear.
Wu's appointment at Boss, announced last June, came as a surprise to many who know the German label for its immaculately tailored menswear, and know Jason Wu for its embellished femininity. But for a brand struggling to assert its womenswear identity under various creative directors since its launch in 2000, Wu was a coup.
Hugo Boss' purpose-built modernist headquarters in Metzingen in the southwest of Germany was a whole new world to Wu. It is all clean lines and futuristic machinery. Each department is housed in a different glass building of exposed concrete and steel set against a green landscape. One building even has a park on its second floor growing out of the concrete.
"The development centre is the most unique I've ever encountered," Wu says. "It's on a par with a Mercedes-Benz factory. It's huge; it looks like a spaceship. It's so technology-driven and it's great to have that at my fingertips. I've been using it non-stop ever since." This includes the machine that makes every part of a suit, one for the perfect crease, one that perfectly folds a shirt.
Wu, who travels to Metzingen for a week every month, delves into the vast archives, which comprise not only clothing but artist collaborations such as a paper suit created by James Rosenquist. Wu says even the modernist canteen is really cool, "with wooden tables perfectly aligned and a conveyor belt. "And everyone is tall and good-looking," he says, laughing. "Seriously, I could never have imagined."
Wu was confident his debut collection could provide that much-needed identity, based on Boss's rich DNA of menswear and tailoring. "What I bring to this collaboration is an outsider's perspective. It was very natural and very easy for me to figure out what I wanted to do. The answer has always been right there on the campus but nobody saw it."
The first thing he did in Metzingen was create 10 white shirts and 10 suits. He trawled through the archives and studied the machinery and in-house expertise to pinpoint exactly where the company's strengths lay. Back in New York, he assembled a team of 10 for his Boss womenswear studio, one of Metzingen-like minimalism - very different from his own label's studio.
It is the first time in the history of Hugo Boss that a design studio has been created outside the headquarters and it is now the prototype for all Hugo Boss showrooms across the globe. He uses an advanced version of video conferencing for daily interaction with his team in Germany to maintain a sense of consistency and unification across the four collections per year. Yet Wu enjoys his creative freedom within Boss and is left to "do his thing". He is not trying to change the company's DNA, he says. He is just trying to extract what has been there all along and make that obvious to consumers.
So back on 55th Street, Wu's 100-piece collection fused all the brand's tailoring expertise with just the right dash of femininity. The precision and rigour of the sharply cut jackets and structured suits, made in Metzingen's menswear department, were countered by a more feminine silhouette. Slip dresses were reworked in grey cashmere, and the architectural Bauhaus lines of Metzingen were replicated in a graphic plaid on dresses and coats. Metallic gold skirts and beaded dresses were at the more feminine end of the scale, but the colour palette of grey, black, camel and nude remained muted.
The collection was not to everyone's taste. Suzy Menkes, in the New York Times, wrote, "The problem about female tailoring today is that it is often seen as an apology - something to be softened with fabric or counteracted with a more 'feminine' look. "This is counterproductive because a well-cut coat or streamlined clothes for work are surely still high on women's lists today. Just look at the success of Celine."
But for many - especially those on that front row who stood to applaud as Wu took his bow - this collection heralded a new era for Boss womenswear. Wu describes the Boss woman as assertive and sophisticated. "She's definitely a woman in charge. There's a certain strength and sense of control because the clothes are perfectly tailored and it takes a certain woman to be able to wear that."
His cheerleader, Diane Kruger said, "Jason's clothes are uber-luxurious and feminine. He cuts impeccably and precisely."
Does he sometimes look at his work as a scaled-up version of his childhood obsession with dolls' clothes?
"In Metzingen there is a model store that I get to play with, with a visual merchandising team, to see how the window displays will look once the first collection hits stores. So yes. We love playing dress-up. That's why we're in fashion. It's fun."