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Talk Asia

Interview with Fashion Designer Alexander Wang

Aired June 08, 2012 - 05:30   ET



ANNA COREN, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: (voiceover): In Hong Kong, the city's young and chic gather to catch a glimpse of one of fashion's elite. Days earlier, in Beijing, a second flagship store opened to an eager crowd.

This is the world of Alexander Wang. And if he has his way, it's just the beginning. Ambition is taking the 28-year-old to Asia, where Wang plans to open 14 more stores this year.

ALEXANDER WANG, FASHION DESIGNER: Hi, hi. Nice to meet you. Welcome.

COREN (voiceover): He already holds the reigns to a multi-million dollar business.

WANG: This piece I love.

COREN (voiceover): An empire he's built turning slouchy t-shirts and tough girl leather into award-winning designs. Supported by his family, mentored by two of the fashion world's most feared and revered women, his creations are favored by models.

GISELE BUNDCHEN, SUPERMODEL: He does amazing, like, cool street wear. Like, I think he's the best at it.

SHALOM HARLOW, SUPERMODEL: I like his approach to femininity. I feel like an urban warrior when I wear his clothes.

KAROLINA KURKOVA, SUPERMODEL: He's already built an amazing brand and I think he's just going to just grow and become bigger and bigger.

COREN (voiceover): And fawned over by A-listers.

This week, "Talk Asia" travels with Alexander Wang.

WANG: They already feel - look, they're walking.

COREN (voiceover): From the runways of New York, to the High Street in Beijing and the heart of Hong Kong, as he takes on the fashion world.


COREN: Alexander Wang, welcome to "Talk Asia".

WANG: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

COREN: You have had this meteoric rise. You are considered a superstar in your field. You run this multi-million dollar business. And you've done this all by the age of 28. That's quite an achievement.

WANG: Oh, thank you. I mean, I've always said I have an amazing team and network of friends and people that I work with that, you know, inspire me and enable me to do what I do. And, you know, first and foremost it's - you know, it's a labor of love. I feel so thankful that I'm able to be a part of something that I love to wake up and run to work every day. And it's just - it's a really special thing and feeling to have.

COREN: Your business headquarters are in New York and, I guess, many people thought you would expand your business - your brand - in the United States or move to Europe. But you have chosen Asia. Why is that?

WANG: Yes. You know, we are a New York brand, but we've always viewed ourselves as a global - having a global image. You know, it's a lifestyle that we really relate to - our customers everywhere around the world.

And specifically Asia because, you know, I mean, it's no surprise that there's so much excitement going on here, right now. And for us, you know, Japan is our largest, number one market. And the idea of going back to Mainland China also, specifically, to open our second project (ph) store was extremely attractive.

You know, we were really excited by the opportunity and a lot of the pieces of the puzzle fell together at the right time and we took - you know, we took the chance and it has proven to be really successful so far. So we're really excited.

COREN: Because you are opening 15 stores this year -

WANG: Yes, yes.

COREN: -- 14 of which are in Asia.

WANG: Are in Asia.

COREN: And I presume, I mean, there must be a lot of risk involved, even in emerging markets.

WANG: Yes. I mean, you know, we've always pushed ourselves into doing things that, you know, we felt very strongly about. And, you know, specifically with the different regions -- you know, opening ups stores in, you know, Bangkok and Seoul and Singapore and, you know, Tokyo - they were all very -- you know, they were studied, you know, but I wouldn't say they we just kind of completely went on a whim.

COREN: You did your research.

WANG: Yes, we did our research. But yes, they just kind of all ended up being in Asia.

COREN: Well, you're not alone. I mean, there are so many high-end brands that are out here. Why is Asia so important?

WANG: You know, my mom's been in Shanghai -- she moved back over 26 years ago and she always kind of told me that, you know, that everyone, you know, it doesn't matter what industry you're in - was going to make their way back to, you know, China, specifically.

And I kind of always brushed it off when I was little, you know, I was like, "Oh no, you know, fashion, it's going to remain where, you know, it started and this and that". And I think the mere excitement about Asia, specifically, is, it's almost - in her words , you know, it's the hope of the world right now, because everyone, you know, is counting on Asia to kind of revive the economy.

COREN: You speak of y our mother, and I know that she's had a big impact on your life. She told you, didn't she, that China would become the fashion capital of the world. Do you think she's right?

WANG: Yes, you know, with your parents you are kind of always, like, you know, there is this certain amount of rebellious nature to be like, no matter what they say, you kind of always want to stray the other way, but she was right. Every other week there's a fashion show or there is some big event with some designer brand - doesn't matter whether they're American or European or where they're from - they're putting a lot of effort and attention into, you know, building their presence here.

COREN: You work with your brother, Dennis, who's the Chief Principal Officer of the company. Your sister-in-law, Amy, is the CEO - they obviously both have business backgrounds, but you also must. [AUDIO GAP]

WANG: For me, I've always been interested in both sides of [AUDIO GAP] - we've always said that our life is a lifestyle brand. And to understand how to design the product, to how to sell it, to the environment that it's in, to what the music is when, you know, the customer walks into the store - are all very important parts of the process for me and kind of, you know, exploring, you know, what our language is.

And I think with how the economy has turned, you know, it's really made us, then, to kind of reevaluate, you know, the purpose of what we're doing it and how we're doing and where we want to be. And, you know, it's helped me, essentially, do my job better. Which is design product that I love.

COREN: Well, let's speak a little bit more about your family. Your parents are originally from Taiwan and they moved to California in the 1950s.

WANG: Yes.

COREN: And I believe that your mother started off washing dishes in the United States - that they are really the quintessential American success story, aren't they?

WANG: Yes, I mean, parents moved to California, San Francisco, you know, with my brother and my sister, of course, you know, in search of a better future and, you know, my parents were always -- you know, they always were business-minded, I guess you could say. You know, my mom didn't have really that much experience, you know, they opened their first restaurant together. She worked as a bank teller. She worked as an airline stewardess. Eventually, opening up their own plastic manufacturing business.

And, from there, you know, by the time I came into the picture, I guess it was a little bit different for my sister and my brother. But, you know, at the same time, it was -- you know, they decided to move back to China in search of more opportunities. And I was - I actually went back to Shanghai with them for a year - spent a year at an American school there.

I wasn't accustomed to -- you know, it was a much different time. I wasn't accustomed to the way of living, and I moved back to California and attended boarding school.

COREN: Your mother was 40-years-old when she fell pregnant with you, and I believe that she went to a fortuneteller for some advice.

WANG: Yes.

COREN: Tell us that story.

WANG: My mom's very superstitious - I guess I could start by saying - and when she got pregnant when she was 40, you know, she was very hesitant to move forward with the pregnancy, you know. So, she went to go see a fortuneteller. And, I guess, the fortuneteller, you know, advised her to keep the baby and to move forward with it, and that it would be something what would - me - I would be something that would be very beneficial for her to have, you know, in the future. And she said that my brother would actually work with me one day. And, you know, I guess it turned out to be true, so -


COREN (voiceover): Coming up, we get a rare backstage pass to one of the Fashion World's biggest events and share the frenzy with Alexander Wang in the lead-up to the show.

WANG: At this point, you know, hopefully the shoes don't break.




WANG: At this point, it's kind of, you know, things just happen. You know, you kind of just make decisions like, "Would you like this?" A lot of ultimatums, because things that don't work - now you have to make a decision - do you want or do you want to drop it, you know?

I think we should spread them out more, because I feel like it looks very empty on the end.


WANG: Do you know what I mean?

It's a big operation - everything's kind of being, you know, putting together all the last-minute fittings, you know, light tests, staging tests, hair and makeup - this space? I mean, if you look at it, it's cavernous. You know, you can really build any kind of set you want in here.

But I feel like she should come out this way and then just kind of come this, like this, and then like this, do you know what I mean?

The question's all about, you know, fractured ideas, fractured patterns - so I wanted the mirrors all broken up into the kind of forms - a kind of funhouse effect - an abstract view of how you look at the clothes.

This show's going to be particularly special, because we have a very special finale.

Tonight, everything gets packed up. Tomorrow morning, there'll be a van that comes up - they bring the collection to the space. Pieces are still worked on last minute until, you know, until the very end. So, you know, those are kind of probably hand-carried. But, you know, I have a great team, again, that I trust. And, you know, they kind of take a lot of the relief off of me.

Once all the girls arrive, I think, then I -- you know, I think I feel much better, but, you know, you always kind of have those girls that kind of, like, arrive, like, you know, last minute and you got to get them to hair and makeup. But, other than that, I feel like, at this point, you know, hopefully the shoes don't break.

Me and the team and everyone's worked for six months and, you know, putting together something that's going to last 10 minutes. So, you know, you want to make that impact.

BUNDCHEN: He does amazing, like, cool street wear. Like, I think he's the best at it. You know what I mean? And I'm just very happy to be able to be here for him.

WANG: I've just got to sit back and relax and watch the show now, I guess.

Oh, my gosh. It played out even better than I had ever imagined. I'm just, out of body experience right now, so, I'm super, super psyched.


COREN: You were quite artistic from a very early age. What are your first memories of, I guess, discovering your creative flare?

WANG: Probably the earliest memories for me would be going to restaurants with my family. You know, every Sunday, we would go have breakfast - like, big family breakfasts at this diner, I remember. And the first thing I would ask for - I'm probably, like, four, five, and I'd ask for dinner napkins and a box of crayons. And I'd just be sketching shoes on the dinner napkins. And, you know, sometimes they give you those little, like coloring placemats. And I remember I would just be putting makeup on all of them.

COREN: And how old were you at this stage?

WANG: I probably, like, five, you know?

COREN: And what was the dream back then?

WANG: The dream back then was to create, really. You know, I was - I remember, I asked my mom for a sewing machine and, you know, not having any experience or knowing how to work it, she bought me a sewing machine. And I just immediately started tearing my clothes apart and re-sewing them back together. And going to the fabric store and picking up scraps and, you know, really making a very DIY version of a pair of pants once that so- proudly wore to school, and ripped in half in the middle of class. But that I'll leave there.

And yes, those are probably my first, you know - my first aspirations to really want to do something in fashion, you know.

COREN: well, you taught yourself to sew, as you just mentioned.

WANG: Yes.

COREN: You went to fashion school in London and Paris when, I think, you were, what, 15.

WANG: Yes.

COREN: And then you designed the bride's dresses - or a whole series of bride's dresses - for your brother's wife.

WANG: At that point, I was kind of making dresses for my sister-in- law. You know, she'd always go to these parties and little things. And I would make dresses for her. And, at the end of it, we'd almost have like, 30-something dresses. And she said, "Why don't you have a fashion show at, you know, the wedding?" And it's like, "I'd love to have a fashion show".

COREN: And did you think then, "This is what I want to do - I want to be a designer."?

WANG: Oh yes, definitely.

COREN: You knew then?

WANG: At that point, I mean, I was already, like, you know, signing up applications for summer programs at Parsons or, you know, trying to buy my way to London to go to Central Saint Martins.

COREN: Well, you mentioned Parsons. And you did get into Parsons - the design school in New York, which is where the likes of Tom Ford, Donna Karan, Mark Jacobs, trained.

WANG: Yes.

COREN: But you dropped out.

WANG: I dropped out.

COREN: What happened?

WANG: When I got to New York, the first thing I did was got an internship at Mark Jacobs, even before school started. And it was -- you know, I was thrown right into the fire. It was, like, three weeks before the show, we were staying up until 3 am every night, you know, cutting trims, cutting patterns, doing this. I was learning so much.

And then I got to school and I was, you know, starting kind of over in a way. I was like, you know - Parsons has a very, kind of, systematic way of how they want you to adapt to the industry and they want you to learn about 3D first and color - which I understood and I totally respected that.

So I went through it for the motion of two years, and then, you know, at that point I already had an internship at Vogue and Teen Vogue on the editorial side. And I felt that I was learning so much more through my internships and that I really wanted to take the opportunity to do something. And I wasn't planning on leaving school.

I actually was signed up to go back my junior year, but when the idea came to start my own line, I talked about it with my sister-in-law. And we, you know, came together with this plan over the summer that we could kind of drive store-to-store and kind of sell to the stores on consignment - the product.

And I remember, in, like, a week, the product sold out. And I had to make the decision if I wanted to move forward with that or if I wanted to go back to school. And I decided to move forward with it. And I said, "Ok, well, you know, if it doesn't work out, I can always go back to school, but I have to take this chance to try something that I really believed in".

COREN: Alex, you are openly gay. Well, it's obviously not an issue for you, living in New York and working in the fashion industry.

WANG: Yes, I suppose not.

COREN: But, let me ask you, have you ever been discriminated against because of your sexuality?

WANG: Yes, I mean, probably more so in school, growing up. You know, it's just natural. You know, when you go to high school or, you know, when kids are younger and there's not an understanding of differences. But I built up a very strong, thick skin. And, you know, I think growing up by myself and going through boarding school and having to take care of myself and - you know, it hasn't really been a problem for me in a while so -


COREN (voiceover): Coming up, we find out why Alexander turned down every budding designer's dream job.

COREN: Is that true?

WANG: Yes. There's some clarification on that, you know.




WANG: Why we picked Beijing as our second fashion (ph) was really important was because there wasn't so much of a roadmap as to specialty stores or department stores that were so much established with our brand yet. You know, of course you have the majors like Lane Crawford and Joyce that we work with already.

But, you know, the idea that we really had to build our own retail here to have a presence was really kind of the kick-start to why we opened our second fashion (ph) store here. And, as far as being, you know, American-born Chinese designer, you know, coming back to Beijing to open our second store was really exciting.

My mom has actually been in Shanghai for over 25 years. And she came back a while ago. And, you know, it's obviously not a surprise to anyone that there's a lot of exciting opportunities here in Beijing right now. It's kind of the hope for the rest of the world, as everyone is trying to say. You know, but it was, you know, really kind of a business opportunity for us to kind of expand into something that we were unfamiliar with and that we felt was the right time for us to do something that was different.

Hi, how are you? Nice to meet you.

It's been great to already see the kind of attention and following we've had, you know. Based just on the internet. But now, having a store here, they can really come inside and experience the brand, you know, in person.


COREN: Alex, you launched your first line in 2007, but, of course, this was, like, the cusp of the global financial crisis. Were a lot of people warning you, "Do not open your own business."?

WANG: Oh, yes. I mean, even from the very beginning, you know, it was always, "You're too young", "You don't know what you're doing", you know, "You're going to compete with all the other, you know, designers who have the money and the name to, you know, put themselves out there".

And it didn't stop me. You know, I felt very strongly about what I wanted to do. And even if it was in a small way, I said, "You know, even if we do it in a really small way, I'm happy with that. Because I'm still creating and I'm still doing what I love to do".

COREN: In 2008, you won the Council of Fashion Designers of America/ Vogue Fashion Fund Award - quite a mouthful - a prize worth $200,000. Was that a turning point in your career?

WANG: It was a big turning point. Anna Wintour and the whole CFDA have been so supportive of our brand from the very beginning. And, you know, it's just a really great time to be a young designer in America right now. You know, I think a lot of younger designers, when they first start out, they want to go out there and put on the best show and kind of prove themselves and say, "This is what I can do".

And I definitely have that as well, but I think we had to work backwards a little bit in being like, "OK, well, don't have, you know, the big momma-daddy, you know, company that's going to support us and invest in us". You know, we have to make sales. Every dollar that came out of the business went back into the business. And, you know, we really invested our money very carefully in terms of how we wanted to expand.

COREN: Diane von Furstenberg, I believe, picked your talent quite a few years ago. And she asked you to design for her. And you said, "No". Is that true?

WANG: Yes. There's some clarification on that, you know. It was when I had put out my first sweater and somebody on her team - I think it was her PR team - bought the sweater and was wearing it around the office and she said, "Oh, who designed that sweater?" And that was when she first found out about me.

And she called me in to have a meeting. And she said, "I'd love for you to design the knit-wear". And I said, "OK, well, I didn't have my first season of sales yet". You know, my first official season of sales - I had four sweaters. And I knew it was - I mean, I was so honored, of course. And to have that kind of invitation from Diane at that point of my career. But I also felt that, you know, I've already given up so much to take this opportunity on, I have to keep treading forward. And I have to give it my all, you know. And so, I politely turned the opportunity down at that time.

COREN: It wasn't a flat-out "no".

WANG: It wasn't a flat-out "no". And, you know, I explained to her, and she completely understood and, you know, two years later she became my mentor.

COREN: And tell us about Anna Wintour, because there's always the perception that she's just this ice queen - this scary, scary woman.

WANG: Oh my gosh. No, you know, I think with Anna - she knows what she wants and she's very determined and a lot of people get intimidated by that. But, at the end of the day, she is the most welcoming, supportive, you know - she's actually quite funny, too. You know, she has a great sense of humor. And I've had a great relationship with her over the years.

COREN: Does it give you a buzz when you see people wear your clothes? I mean, because you have a lot of celebrity fans. But what about everyday people, you know, in the street?

WANG: I mean, I -- of course, I have so many people that I looked up to and that we partner with and we collaborate with, you know, who do have more of a, you know, I guess you could say a well-known identity -

COREN: Such as?

WANG: Such as, you know, we work with a great musician such as M.I.A., Santigold, a good friend of mine, Zoe Kravitz. I mean, Die Antwoord, who was in our last campaign, Asac (ph), who performed at our last after-party. But I get just as excited by people on the street, honestly, that, you know, are just carrying our bag or wearing my shoes. And sometimes it's even fun to start following them a little and be like, "Oh, you know, like, where did they buy that? You know, how did they wear that?".

COREN: Vogue editor Anna Wintour says, "Alexander isn't just content with clothing New York or Los Angeles. He wants there to be Alexander Wang girls everywhere from London to Sidney, Paris to Shanghai". Is this true? Is this global domination?

WANG: No, it's definitely true in the sense that it's always, again, been about a global lifestyle brand. And we really see our customer as a global citizen who accesses the same information as us in New York at the same time and interprets it in their own way. So.

COREN: Where do you see yourself and your brand in five to 10 years?

WANG: Hopefully, you know, with more stores and more experience. You know, it'll help us do a better job, you know, because there's always more to learn and there's always more to improve on. But I never want to lose that feeling of living in the moment and, you know, and not taking things for granted.

COREN: Well, an absolute pleasure to meet you.

WANG: Thank you.

COREN: Alexander Wang.

WANG: Thank you so much.

COREN: Thank you.