Alexander Wang on World Domination
Alexander Wang has replanted his roots in New York after a buzzy three-year run at Balenciaga. What’s the latest on his plans for world domination? Over tea at The Roxy, he laid out his game.
I actually was just in Paris last week, but I’m back in New York most of the time. I had Men’s market and pre-Fall market there. The first two weeks after I left Balenciaga, I said to a co-worker who was working side-by-side with me in Paris, “How did we ever do that?” I’m still at the office every day from 9 till 9, and I still don’t have enough time to meet with all the teams in New York.
We’re happy to have you back here full-time.
It feels really good. I spent three years there; that was enough for me. I always had curiosity—I’d never worked for another brand before; I had never been an employee in that kind of capacity. I was very lucky that opportunity came. I was adamant that I wanted it to be nonbinding, and I wanted to keep my company private and take it as a learning experience. At the end of the day, my family and I own 100 percent of our company, so this is where home is, and I wanted to learn a lot and teach myself a lot of discipline and organization. Now, I’m back.
So, what did you learn from Balenciaga and from your experience in France?
Clarity, decision-making, and delegation. I wanted to see what my company might look like if it were to grow twofold or threefold, and to be a part of a much larger infrastructure where there’s much more retail expansion and different kinds of platforms of growth that I eventually would want to venture into. I got a sneak peek of it, and exposure to other categories I haven’t done before, like jewelry and red carpet dressing. That was very big—to work with the atelier and have the resources and craftsmanship. But I didn’t know anyone in Paris, whereas in New York, I have my community, and I see my friends all the time. I find so much comfort here. I don’t speak the language [French]—I tried, it didn’t work—and so it was a lesson on how to really focus and learn to spend time with myself.
Your final Balenciaga collection was gorgeous. Did you feel like you killed it?
I almost killed myself—I almost tripped and fell flat. I was just so ecstatic—I knew that my team and I did an awesome job, and we felt really good about the collection. When I started working on it, I was like, Okay, this is the last collection. My team didn’t really know that. I wanted to do something that was completely unexpected, and show things that people don’t expect from me. I wanted it to be romantic and sensual—ruffles, flowers, and things that felt kind of overly feminine. When you feel like you’ve got nothing to lose, then you get very free, and there are fewer restrictions.
What are you looking for when you’re designing?
Each season, we ask ourselves again, What do we represent? What do people come to us for? There’s also the dry, business side of looking at what sold and what didn’t sell, but it’s still very interesting. I encourage everyone on my design and merchandising teams to work together. The more we can learn about the other roles, and other needs, the better job we do. Then, of course, there are things that we gravitate toward creatively, like colors, fabrics, and themes. We depict pop culture, music, street, and always try to find a subversive element to make it slightly more interesting. Is it about being very near to reality, or is it about making reality more skewed and abstract? It has to tell a story—I don’t want to do a show with beautiful dresses and beautiful prints, and have people ask, What was the concept? The word modern is thrown around so casually in fashion, but what does it mean? I actually looked it up on dictionary.com—it means a mirror of what’s right in front of you. There’s an idea of everyday things that feel banal, and not overcomplicating things.
Have you noticed that your customer base has grown broader?
Definitely. We’re expanding globally, too. Italy is our largest international market. When I found that out, I thought it was very surprising. The more the Internet becomes accessible and people are able to navigate through it, the more they are able to find their own crew, this sort of language of interest. Has the customer evolved in terms of me growing up? For sure, but deep down inside, it’s always youthful-minded. I think age is a number, and I like to feel adventurous and experiment and live vicariously through things. I feel very much connected to the street, to also have a fantasy of what that could mean in a different context. There’s all this talk about the millennials, and how they followed us—is that our true customer, or a future customer? But there’s also a much older clientele that is just finding out about us, for whatever reason, and I’m so excited about them, too. I don’t see my customers as being from age 25 to 35—it’s how different kinds of customers come to our brand that interests me. How are we able to maintain our own integrity but also speak to them all?
How did H&M help you bring that tribe together globally?
It goes without saying that the H&M’s reach is incomparable. They’ve created a very unique model. I had just started Balenciaga at that time, and that definitely helped me speak to a high luxury customer, but that’s not the only thing that interests me. For H&M, I didn’t want to redo our archive or rerun last season’s best looks. Performance wear and athletics really interested me, and I didn’t have my own resources to do that. It’s not like I was trying to do a fur coat for $99—I did a windbreaker that would naturally cost $99, so people feel the integrity behind that item.
Did it make you a household name in markets that you had never been in before?
Yeah, but some people love the collaborations no matter who is doing them, so I’m not giving ourselves that much credit.
How’s the London store doing?
London is good. We opened in Mayfair about six months ago, and it’s our biggest store to date. It houses all the categories, which has always been a dream of mine. Even in New York, I’m not able to really show the full spectrum of our collections.
Are you a London guy?
Love London! Love London! If I had to live anywhere in Europe, I would pick Barcelona, but London is definitely on the top of my list. But New York is my home, and that’s never going to change. I’m here to stay.
Walk us through a day in your life.
I usually start my day at 9, and Wednesday is the most regulatory. I do my executive meeting with my CFO, my HR person, my sister-in-law, who’s the CEO, and maybe someone on the manufacturing side. We go through all the weekly updates in terms of store openings, manufacturing updates, personnel, health benefits, shipping, deliveries. We have Hong Kong and Paris offices, too, so we go over any updates there. That usually lasts until noon. After that, I have 15 minutes to have lunch, then I usually go into a communications meeting. After that, I’ll probably go into merchandising meetings. After merchandising meetings, there’s maybe a visual or store planning meeting where I look at all the reviews of all the different stores—are they using the right materials, if expectations of budgets are right, fixtures, making sure that everything has a place. We are launching jewelry, scarves, belts, so we get all the proper displays for the pieces, make sure they ordered the right amount of mannequins, foot models, and things like that for all the stores. After the store visual meetings, I usually go into design, whether it’s men’s, accessories, or T.
How many employees do you have right now?
As of last week, 272 worldwide.
Is working on two brands at once something you would consider doing again?
Never say never, but I feel like it never gets easier. I always think, Oh, once I have these people or that structure…but as we grow, we find new challenges. New things go wrong. But maybe, one day, if or when it does become a well-oiled machine, I might be able to do some other things. But it’s probably not on the near horizon that I would take my focus off my own brand. I’m so inspired; there’s so much I want to do.
You started a trend of defections and exits among top creatives in Paris. Is there something in the air?
I don’t know, but it definitely makes me really value being a privately owned company and having my own brand. It’s great to work for a luxury brand that’s part of a group, but it’s hard. You’re doing a lot and not really able to absorb the benefits of that work in the end—it’s like doing all of it for someone else.
What are your goals for the company within the next five to 10 years?
We are very well-balanced in terms of our offering, and we are not just domestic or international, either, so that’s very well split. What I don’t like is that my pie chart looks like I’m 80 percent wholesale. I want to be direct-to-consumer and omnichannel, with control over my distribution and the stories I tell in my retail outlets. I look at Apple as an example. I feel like that’s what retail will be in the future—beautiful showrooms for people to experience the brand. They’re going to go home and buy it online. E-commerce and the website need to be booming, and ours isn’t there yet. I want to put a lot of focus on our digital infrastructure. I also want to build out our supply chain and our resources, so when we expand into categories, we know exactly how we’re doing it. There’s definitely more expansion I want to get into, whether it’s athletics, beauty, or home, which we dabbled in a little bit. To be scalable is really important, especially in such a volatile time.
What do you look for in models?
I’m sure a lot of people say this, but it’s that “It factor.” There are so many beautiful girls out there—a lot of them I’ve used— but a model who will have a long career has personality. Girls want to look like her, guys want to sleep with her. It doesn’t mean they have to be loud and obvious. Look at Anna Ewers—she is obviously beautiful and perfect, but she’s not very outspoken. She’s coquettish and shy.
What do you think of the show-now, buy-now idea of the fashion show?
I’m so pissed I’m not the first one! We’ve been talking about it for so long, and unfortunately, we are locked into an old, very outdated model. Again, 80 percent of our business is wholesale, and with buyers coming into town during market week, we are locked into certain parameters.
To celebrate your 10th anniversary, you partied with pole dancers and Hooters wings. What about your 20th?
A music festival—Alexander Wang sponsored by Coachella? I like to celebrate. Everyone works so hard and does a great job.