NEW YORK TIMES | ERIC WILSON
ALEXANDER WANG may be the savviest designer of his generation.
At 28, he is the rising star who built a global multimillion-dollar business in less than a decade, opened his own stores in New York and Beijing and, last week, landed a plum job at a prestigious label in Paris, when he was named the creative director of Balenciaga. Some see Mr. Wang’s appointment as symbolic of the triumph of youth; others see the demise of fashion.
“It was a coup for Alex, and a coup for American fashion,” said Diane von Furstenberg. But, she added, “he’s going to need some mentoring in Paris.”
In a way, it is fitting that Mr. Wang should become the first American designer to take on a big, historic European design house since Marc Jacobs, Michael Kors and Narciso Rodriguez went to Paris in the late 1990s. (Only Mr. Jacobs, with his role at Louis Vuitton, remains there.) While other young designers have occasionally been proposed for such lofty jobs, it is Mr. Wang who most perfectly represents his generation’s more accessible and business-minded approach to fashion. He also reflects the growing prominence of designers of Asian descent who are making their mark on the global stage.
He is young, energetic, engaged, streetwise and generally adorable. And like all great (meaning successful) designers, he recognized a crucial shift in the market well before its impact had been fully realized, in this case how the democratization of fashion would also lead to a gradual devaluation of the concept of luxury. He created a business with estimated sales of more than $60 million by making contemporary T-shirts, sweatshirts and shorts that look remarkably like high fashion. (His company does not release numbers.) Early in his career, when critics said he was too commercial, Mr. Wang said: “I don’t see that as a negative thing. It is something I actually enjoy.”
But it is for the same reasons that his appointment at Balenciaga — nearly a century-old fashion house that was thoroughly modernized over the last 15 years under the considered eye of Nicolas Ghesquière — bothers so many people, or at least the fashion purists. Some established designers, grumbling privately because they did not want to be seen as meanies, see the change as symbolic of a broader watering-down of creativity in fashion.
“They’re not fashion designers,” one New York designer said. “They’re fashion curators. They’re sitting at a computer copying other peoples’ ideas.” Even on Balenciaga’s Facebook page, alongside the many positive comments about Mr. Wang, one fan sniped, with Ghesquière gone, “who will Wang rip-off now?”
Their fear is that PPR, the luxury group that owns Balenciaga, as well as Gucci, Saint Laurent and Bottega Veneta, plans to take the label in a more commercial direction, or that the choice of Mr. Wang, as an Asian-American, was somehow an opportunistic play for the emerging luxury market in China.
Mr. Wang’s command of the Chinese market and his fluency in Mandarin were not overlooked by executives at Balenciaga, but François-Henri Pinault, the chief executive of PPR, said that they were not considered criteria for his recruitment. He nevertheless described Mr. Wang’s heritage as “an extra value,” noting that he will bring more exposure to the brand worldwide.
Responding to the question of handing the keys to one of the most famous names in fashion to a designer so young, Mr. Pinault argued that, when Mr. Ghesquière began designing Balenciaga in the mid-1990s, “he was designing uniforms for Air France, and who would have said that Nicolas would become such a great talent?”
Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue, who championed Mr. Wang for the job, also scoffed at concerns about his age.
“Oh, please, come on,” she said. “How great is it to be young? That is when designers are at their most fearless. That is when you do your most creative work.”
When Mr. Ghesquière was named chief designer there, in 1997, he was just 25.
ON Nov. 5, in a major surprise, Balenciaga announced that Mr. Ghesquière was leaving. His vision for the house, combining a reverence for the archives of Cristóbal Balenciaga with high-tech fabric treatments and elements inspired by science fiction, was so transformative that Style.com/Print recently described it as “the standard by which other big house revivals are judged.” The business grew to include 62 stores and, Mr. Pinault said, sales have expanded substantially since it was acquired by Gucci Group (as PPR was formerly known) in 2001. But Balenciaga is an expensive business to operate.
There were demands for more commercial styles and reissues of his earlier designs, leading to what retailers described as a confusing assortment in the stores, and, according to several colleagues of Mr. Ghesquière, the designer’s frustration.
Isabelle Guichot, the chief executive of Balenciaga since 2007, said in a telephone interview on Thursday that the role of a designer in today’s industry demands a quality that she called “creative realism.”
Last month, when the company began a search for its next designer, there was a short list of candidates. Christopher Kane, the young English designer who recently consulted on Versace’s Versus collection, was reportedly one of them. Mr. Wang, Ms. Guichot said, was the “top choice.” Mr. Pinault, who makes the final decision on the hiring of designers, approved.
“We’re not asking him to be an entrepreneur,” Ms. Guichot said. “But luxury fashion is a business with some rules, and he understood that very early in his career, without ever compromising the creativity.”
Among the observations made on the hiring of Mr. Wang, who has a strong accessories business, having astutely positioned his handbags at the lowest end of the luxury category, is that PPR was looking for its own version of what Mr. Jacobs brought to Louis Vuitton.
“There were some feelings after what happened with John Galliano at Dior that the brands were promoting the individual designers too much,” the veteran consultant Robert Burke said. “Now they’re thinking, what is it going to take to keep a brand relevant and alive?”
Linda Fargo, the fashion director for Bergdorf Goodman, said there are real “design chops” in Mr. Wang’s collections. Asked about the complaints that he copies, she said: “I hands-down do not agree with that. I think he’s incredibly original.”
MR. WANG grew up in California. His parents, who had emigrated from China, had a successful plastics manufacturing business that they later moved to Shanghai. Among his classmates at Drew in San Francisco was Victoria Traina, who now works in fashion in New York and was a big influence on Mr. Wang’s look, often described as “off-duty model” for its slouchy ease and street-wear feeling. Beginning in 2002, he attended Parsons the New School for Design for two years, while working as an intern at Vogue and for the designer Derek Lam.
Then, like many now-famous designers have done, he dropped out to start his own fashion label. With his sister-in-law, Aimie Wang, he started a line of sweaters: six pieces that were sold on consignment. The reaction was so strong that Mr. Wang had a full ready-to-wear collection by 2007, when he became one of the hottest names on the New York fashion calendar. His family remains involved in the privately controlled business, which now has about 140 employees. He will continue to design his own label.
And there was never really any question that it would be that way. Ms. Wintour recalled Mr. Wang’s appeal for the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund award (a prize he won in 2008). “He was so articulate,” she said. “He said he wants to dress the girls of his age and his generation. That’s what you see in everything he does. He lives and breathes the Alex brand.”
Ms. von Furstenberg, who was assigned to mentor Mr. Wang after the competition, recalled walking into his showroom for the first time. “There wasn’t very much there, but it was all very clear,” she said. “His clarity is part of his talent. He knows who he is.”
Part of Mr. Wang’s appeal is his connection to the street. He associates with the cool photographers and provocative musicians, and despite showing at the beginning of each season, has his radar attuned to the models of the moment. These qualities were also attractive to Balenciaga. Mr. Ghesquière is one of the best designers at adapting the reality of the everyday life with a strong vision for modernity, and Mr. Pinault said he expects Mr. Wang to build upon that legacy.
Making it profitable will also be important. Tapping into emerging markets like China, India and Brazil will be crucial. In New York last week, while not going so far as to say Mr. Wang was hired because of his heritage, Mr. Pinault gave the impression that it was an advantage.
Increasing profits in countries where luxury is a mature business is very tough, Mr. Pinault said. But in China, where the potential is so strong that economic growth of 5 to 7 percent is seen as a bad year, the possibilities are endless. Making a profit there, he said, “is an easy job.”