It was quite by chance, and some luck, that I was invited to attend a panel discussion on fashion a few weeks ago in Abu Dhabi featuring Tunisian actress Hend Sabry, celebrity stylist Brendan Cannon, American Vogue Contributing Editor Kathryn Neale and young prodigy Jason Wu.
Wu’s name is relatively new, and his story is one of fairytales – very similar to that of First Lady Michelle Obama, whose white dress worn at the presidential inaugural ball was designed by Wu himself, only 26 at the time.
Although the media enjoyed exploiting the symbolism of the dress’s snowy whiteness, connoting the hope for change and the fresh start of a new era, I chose to see it as a reminder of what evening wear is all about: femininity at its most refined; intended to bridge glamour with a woman’s natural love for being at her most beautiful.
“I didn’t even tell my parents that I was working on a dress for Michelle Obama, said Wu when asked by Cannon on his reaction to seeing the dress being worn that night. He, like everyone else, did not know what the First Lady would choose to wear from the many options prepared for her.
And as he speaks about that moment, his tone is still slightly surprised and incredulous. “In a sense, I’m now part of it all, said Wu about that eventful night. Receiving 200 emails in 10 minutes, and marveling about technology being so instantaneous, Wu shakes his head at what seems to be his luck.
But Wu has more than simply luck propelling his success and sudden fame. Wu credits the support of family and friends, some as far away as his native Taiwan. And the Pope of fashion herself, Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour, has supported him from the start. But Wu is genuinely talented as a designer and an artist in his own right.
He learned to sew at the age of nine, sewing and designing outfits for dolls. Later on, he would design a doll clothing line at 16 and then become the creative director of Integrity Toys aged 17. And in the middle, he studied sculpture in Tokyo and spent his senior high school year in Paris.
When asked about misconceptions in the field of fashion he replies, “This is an industry of 24/7 glamour, particularly as a young designer starting out in difficult economic times. The hard work, however, makes the final product all the more rewarding in my opinion.
Wu’s designs are not explicitly prim and proper. Explaining that he designs for a variety of ages, his designs are captivating women in their 20s as well as their mothers. Fine tailoring and unique color pairings with a dash of sass and a touch of class have been embraced by Wu’s clients in the wake of many designers’ recent confusion as to what should be presented on the runways in light of the current recession and subsequent mood.
Wu doesn’t compromise his brand’s integrity and philosophy for the arbitrary trends that many designers have been caught up in recently.
Wu’s design philosophy is: “timeless, impeccable and [with fine] detail, explained the designer, whose self-named brand has evolved without straying from such considerations for ladylike aesthetics.
“I incorporated a lot of sculptural elements into my collection this season through the use of fabric manipulation and technically forward fabrications. I was inspired primarily by the works of [artist] Tara Donovan and the eerie heroines of Tim Burton’s fantastical films.
His Spring 2010 collection played with reworking classic shapes and silhouettes, giving them new form in an almost whimsical way. A one piece romper with the reworked silhouette of 40s inspired culottes in denim silk is absolutely relevant today, and will be wearable later on because ultimately, the style has been brought down to its most simple lines.
A hypnotic black and white print on a shift dress perhaps refers to the spooky yet quirky and playful nature of Burton’s various Gothic-inspired characters. And a pink feathered number with a lime green belt solves the problem of how to appear demure and ladylike while maintaining a playful air for eveningwear.
His pieces would find a market and quite a number of fans in Egypt, where elegance is a constant aspiration and women enjoy wearing bold fashion-forward pieces but still remaining true to certain classic sensibilities.
Other white pieces in his collection make me question whether Wu is entertaining any thoughts of going into bridal wear as many designers are now doing. He seems slightly surprised at the question, answering that he is focusing on “lifestyle dressing and ready-to-wear clothes for day and night.
But doesn’t it make sense that with such an acute understanding of what women want, and how his style fuses somewhat classic notions of elegance and propriety, he would be an ideal candidate for bridal wear design?
“They wear me because it’s special and has a timeless quality or has relevance in 20, 30 years, says Wu of his designs which are sold in a limited number of outlets in the US and have yet to enter the market in Egypt. With so many different women eager to wear his clothes, he does concede that his far-reaching appeal is great for the growth of his brand.
His advice: “Now is definitely the time to purchase timeless, iconic pieces – I think at some point or another many women are blinded by the allure of a trend. The pieces she buys should be an investment item that will last and be relevant in 20 years.
On the traditional abaya garment seen regularly in Abu Dhabi, Wu said, “Coming here I was very intrigued by the abaya. I love the sense of mystery behind it, and fashion is mystery and the abaya is a physical expression of that.
Though he wanted to visit Cairo, time constraints kept him away. It’s our loss too, Jason Wu.