This article appeared in ELLE magazine, published in March, 2014. Interview by Irina Aleksander.
At Balenciaga, Alexander Wang may be the youngest American to take over a Parisian atelier. But Irina Aleksander discovers how much he has in common with the master couturier, Cristóbal.
One common sign of youth is a certain recklessness—all ego and little patience. But when Alexander Wang was named creative director of Balenciaga at 28, he handled himself with impressive humility. For his first collection in February 2013, he didn’t come out swinging a sledgehammer against the storied house’s foundation, but knelt before it, showing clothes that honored Cristóbal Balenciaga’s rounded volumes and restrained elegance. Though Wang’s appointment felt fairy-tale-like—the American party-boy prince who once upended the fashion industry with cashmere sweaters and streetwise separates invited to rule a French fiefdom—his graceful debut was a reminder of the reality, which is that Wang has long been a thoughtful, mature designer who seems to know exactly what he’s doing.
When Wang and I meet in New York one brisk afternoon in November, about a month before his thirtieth birthday, he insists that his modest first steps weren’t a conscious strategy. “I just did what was coming from my heart,” Wang says. “You don’t always have to do everything at once.”
If fall 2013 was a sort of prologue—“a dot, dot, dot,” as Wang likes to say—then his spring 2014 collection is the first chapter in the inevitable best-seller that we will come to know as Alexander Wang’s Balenciaga. As Kristen Wiig, a longtime Balenciaga fan, emerges on set in Wang’s alluring new trousers with a petal peplum extending behind her legs, the garment’s shapes recall Cristóbal’s lines, but the modern silhouette and proportions are unmistakably Wang’s. “Fall was an homage to Cristóbal,” says Wang. “With spring, I wanted to bring some of my own language to the equation.” His DNA is even more pronounced in a structured skirt and top in white calfskin overlaid with pale pink netting and leather appliqués—a sort of 3-D-print look that, as Wiig models it, seems at once sporty and refined. “It’s always about that continuing narrative,” he adds. “You have your own personality, but then you’re also working with things that existed before, and how do you push that forward?”
The answer has been about finding points of commonality between his vision and Cristóbal’s, a task for which the archive of Balenciaga’s old notebooks, photographs, and sketches has been useful. Wang grows excited as he recounts watching the label’s couture presentations from the 1950s, in which women glided in and out of the room for hours, the fabric moving along with them. “You think, Wow, those pieces were so avant-garde,” Wang says, “but at the same time women felt really connected to them. He was dressing them to go out and live their lives.” The designer pauses and then adds, “Finding that connection…it’s very much the way I like to work as well.”
Indeed, like Cristóbal, Wang has always had a unique sense of how women want to dress. His irreverent approach to luxury, which has brought his namesake label (including a robust accessories business) estimated sales of more than $60 million, is surely what caught the attention of the executives at Kering (formerly PPR), Balenciaga’s parent company, after Nicolas Ghesquière’s departure. In his 15-year tenure, Ghesquière became one of the most influential designers in Paris, updating the house with elements inspired by his fascination with futurism and science fiction. Wang’s term will bring its own surprises, and for all the grumbling about his appointment—that he was too young, too American, too street—few have pointed to the parallels between Wang and the label’s Spanish Basque founder: that both were reared in towns steeped in seaside culture (Cristóbal in Getaria; Wang in the Bay Area); that just as, according to legend, a teenage Cristóbal found his first muse in the Marquesa de Casa Torres, Wang looked to high school pal Vanessa Traina, the daughter of author Danielle Steel and a very American kind of pop-culture royal; that each migrated to distant metropolises where they ultimately made their names. Of course they worked in very different eras, but as Wang himself says, “women still want something that feels liberating, that feels new, that feels inspiring.” Women, the designer declares, “want to be seduced.”
Seduced would be a way to describe Wiig when she sees a white dress with a geometric cut and selects it on the spot for her premiere of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. “I tend to like things that have a modern, sort of futuristic feel,” Wiig says, adding that Wang’s dresses are “youthful and cool.” The actress, like others the brand has dressed in the past year (Julianne Moore, Carey Mulligan, Kristen McMenamy, and Rooney Mara, to name a few), seems indicative of Balenciaga’s woman: self-assured, discerning, and sophisticated, yet down to earth. “[Kristen] has this unprecious elegance that I find really inspiring,” Wang says.
Wang appeals to this sort of woman with garments of elaborate, intricate construction that are nonetheless effortless for the wearer. His smoking jackets are veiled with a fine, sheer organza and the look features hidden interior corsets. A crop top with an abstract floral print is actually silk viscose, pleated to achieve a crushed effect. And his curved-shoulder moto jackets and abbreviated skirts are assembled of leather hand-braided onto molds, an intensive process that celebrates Cristóbal’s sculptural designs. Wang has even extended the architectural theme to the spring runway, outfitting it with mirrors so that looks could be viewed from all angles, as well as the design of Balenciaga’s new SoHo women’s store, which juxtaposes the sweep of a curving skylight with hard marble interiors. (The store’s fall opening, which saw the closing of an entire city block and shielded VIP arrivals from street gawkers with a towering green hedge of white peonies and roses erected by florist Jeff Leatham, is part of Balenciaga’s ongoing global expansion.)
As Balenciaga’s narrative continues to unfold, Wang’s own story is being written too. Though we’ve always known Wang as a “young designer,” by the time he shows his next collection his twenties will be behind him. “Yeah, I guess they can’t say, like, ‘at only 30!’ ” he jokes. And so what has changed in the past few years? “Oh my gosh, everything!” exclaims Wang, who now splits his time between New York and Paris, where he presides over a large design team and goes to bed by 10:30. “But in terms of following my instinct and my gut—nothing.”