Alexander Wang Brings Haute Couture Down to Earth
Alexander Wang, fashion’s reigning prince of cool, is having a moment. Merging neo-grunge style with cosmopolitan sophistication, Wang has become a defining tastemaker of this generation’s ultra-hip nonchalance, through his ability to rethink and revalue casual-chic style. “Just because you want to wear a $1,200 jacket and a $400 pair of shoes doesn’t mean that you don’t want to get a cheap T-shirt,” Wang told The Last magazine (cheap can be relative, though; you can’t buy a Wang shirt at Walmart). Approaching fashion from two price points, Wang appeals to the downtown hipster set, but also to the posh, Celine tote-carrying crowd. Wang’s insistence on affordability pushes the boundaries of high fashion, and it’s making him millions.
At his Spring 2012 runway show, on Saturday, September 10, Wang explored sportswear motifs, without straying far from his signature streetwear edge. The venue, New York’s Pier 94—the raw, industrial space squeezed in between Manhattan’s West Side highway and the river—was styled much like Wang’s aesthetic: understated and grungy yet polished and sleek. Four giant, perpendicular mirrors stood in the center of the space. The all-star audience, propped up in stadium-style bleachers, could check itself out while occasionally observing the collection.
Minutes before the show began, Courtney Love swooshed in, suddenly ensconced by a flock of photographers and flashes of light. She took her front-row seat next to Cecilia Dean, founder of V magazine and a few seats away from Alicia Keys. Straight ahead, the former Editor-in-Chief of Vogue Paris, Carine Roitfeld, slid into the space, performing her own runway walk of sorts, as she threw back her shoulders, pushed out her chest, and struck a new pose for the cameras every few seconds. The pre-show crowd looked more like an after-hours fashion party. But that was to happen later that night at Wang’s mock frathouse-themed celebration, in which the pier was outfitted in Astroturf, beer pong tables, blow-up dolls, and glow sticks.
The lights dimmed and Afro-techno beats filled the space. The hungry photographers ceased their celebrity kowtowing and stood at attention in the back row. As the first model swept through the hall of mirrors, her double gliding after her like a lazy shadow, it became clear that this show was a departure from Wang’s more muted, austere collections.
Athleticism was a recurring theme: BMX racing jackets, utilitarian anoraks, and touches of mesh. First there were the dark, perforated mesh bombers layered over bright blue and tangerine technical polos. Rather unexpectedly, blue-gray ombré floral prints gave way to silk parachute dresses clad with front-zippers and oversized pockets. The show closed with T-shirt dresses thrown over swimwear and sheer jerseys with tribal motifs, that, according to Style.com, were actually prints of stadium seating maps. Wang took his sports-chic theme even further with models carrying motorcycle helmets and golf-inspired weekenders. For fashion writer Lynn Yaeger, this culminated in a “sad sylph practically collapsing under the weight of a humongous cranberry-colored backpack.”
Per usual, Wang could not resist making subtle 90s references: the ankle-strapped mules, laser-cut leather bandanas, and baby-doll mini dresses recalled a 90s minimalism crossed with riot grrrl vibe. Makeup artist Diane Kendal, who helped execute Wang’s wet hair-bare face look, told T Magazine she was familiar with this style, having worked for Calvin Klein and Helmut Lang circa 1990, but that “Wang remembers this girl and is now making her his own.”
Wang’s dream girl doesn’t mind getting her clothes dirty. The designer took inspiration from “dangerous sports, BMX bikes, skate boarding and protective gear,” he told Dazed and Confused magazine. Impressively, Wang managed to incorporate sportswear, one of the season’s strongest trends, without losing sight of his signature élan. Even though color-blocking and feminine florals abounded, Wang still retained his sharp, dark streak: the models were purposefully disheveled, replete with smudged eye makeup and greasy-glossy hair, exuding the Wangian ethos of deconstructed, urban cool. Wang’s warrior-woman is ready for battle, but not without her fish-scale stilettos and midriff-bearing leather blouse.
The performance art duo The Bumbys fittingly described Wang’s models as “sex-starved zombies with oily hair who treat archery class like it’s the new yoga and gunpowder like it’s the new cocaine.” Only Wang could resurrect a post-apocalyptic Tank girl, and make her look fresh and cool again.
But even fashion’s golden boy can be accused of over thinking his concept. The layering of sports motifs, paired with the studied insouciance of his models, seemed to contradict his form-follows-function philosophy. Wang’s characteristic privileging of understatement made this collection appear almost flashy and overdetermined. Then again, what’s wrong with being literal? Naturally, one would prefer to carry a rucksack over a purse on a motorcycle.
Later that night, Odd Future, the culty hip-hop collective, gave a surprise performance at Wang’s after party. According to Women’s Wear Daily, Tyler, the Creator—the group’s leader—repeatedly called out, “My n-gga Alex Wang,” and proclaimed, “If I happen to come in the crowd and just go wild, and you spill your drink on your expensive-ass shirt that’s probably ugly-as-f--k, don’t be mad at me cause I warned you.” Of course, being anti-fashion, or pretending not to care about money and appearances, is just another fashion-performance. For Wang and Tyler, the Creator, their seeming indifference is precisely their fashion statement. Wang is less about being anti-fashion, and more about making hyper-curated dress appear natural, and perfectly undone.
For Pulitzer Prize winning fashion critic, Robin Givhan, Wang represents fashion’s current attitude of disinterest toward lavish, high fashion merchandise. “Modern style dictates the need for imperfection. Take a luxury garment and wreck it in some way. Pair a fancy evening gown with bed head. Being too polished, too perfect, reads as fake,” Givhan wrote in her column for The Daily Beast. “Authentic beauty comes when something precious is treated with nonchalance—even disrespect, perhaps even a bit of abuse,” wrote Givhan. “The idea is to show how little you care."
Wang constructed the urban uniform of the late 2000s by branding the long, slouchy silhouette and just-thrown-on appearance of models-off-duty. The designer has even managed to make sweatpants, T-shirts, and deconstructed, downtown dress aspirational. Wang’s approach is simple, but not easy to deliver: his goal is to create “clothes that girls want to wear,” the designer told i-D magazine. This is the Wang way: take something familiar and mainstream, recreate it with luxury fabrics and refined silhouettes, and call it high fashion.
SELLING OUT, CASHING IN
Although Wang’s exploitation of the just-rolled-out-of-bed look exudes a countercultural angst, there’s no denying that Wang is embeddeded within mainstream commercial culture. Corporatization could easily be blamed for draining out the irreverence and iconoclasm of contemporary design. Wang, however, has strategically used fashion’s ties to commercial culture to launch his brand and reach larger audiences. "Sure there’s an element of corporate-ness here, but I think fashion has never been more creative,” blogger BryanBoy told New York Magazine. “Now that everybody is fighting for the consumer, designers are offering more.”
Wang is well on his way to crafting a design empire. His commitment to affordability has resulted in a multimillion-dollar business that keeps growing. Wang stands out as a bellwether of fashion forecasting, and his impact can be seen on the racks of Topshop and H&M for a fraction of the price. The designer took wearability to the next level in 2009 with his diffusion line, T by Alexander Wang, dedicated to pre-weathered cotton T-shirts. After T, Wang introduced a menswear line, a footwear collection, an e-commerce site, and opened a flagship store in SoHo. Since launching his first womenswear line in 2007, after dropping out of Parsons School of Design, Wang’s ascension to fashion royalty has been meteoric. In 2008 he won the Council of Fashion Designers in America/Vogue Fashion Fund, and received $200,000 to expand his business. Since then, Wang has collaborated with Uniqlo, Keds, Gap, Dockers, and even created a nail polish line with Sally Hansen. He is currently designing T-shirts printed with an amorphous marking that resembles a spilled cup of coffee for Starbucks’ 40th anniversary.
RUNWAY VS. RETAIL
But for Cathy Horyn, the controversial and renowned fashion critic for the New York Times, Wang’s garments do not reach the haute-couture expectations of the runway. Horyn, although very well respected in both the fashion and journalism industries, has been banned from shows for her bitting, pointed reviews. And Wang is not exempt from her criticism. Wang is actually “not a great designer,” Horyn tells the Independent, and is at his best when he stays within his youthful vocabulary; he shouldn’t attempt to do “serious Fashion.”
Wang, Horyn maintains, should stick to retail. “When I saw his clothes in the stores…they translated really well in retail,” Horyn says, “but on the runway it was overreaching for what it was.” The high fashion runway should be reserved for “something that is really exceptional, [it should] make you feel something,” says Horyn, “[and] put out things you've not seen before.”
For Horyn, where high fashion is avant-garde, Wang is “conventional” and “square” (according to Interview magazine, his favorite film is Clueless). Horyn waxes poetic about the real high fashion designers: Miuccia Prada, Raf Simons, and Phoebe Philo whose companies (all European) have “integrity” and use only the most high quality fabrics and expert pattern makers. Put simply, fashion, like all art, is hierarchal and predicated on exclusivity. “[Azzedine] Alaia is one of the most innovative high fashion designers out there,” Horyn insists, “but you have to see [his clothing] very close up and you have to be in Paris to see it.” To participate in high fashion, then, one needs not only to be a fashion connoisseur, but also moneyed and well-connected enough to afford trips to France to fondle lush fabrics.
“You don't want to say to designers 'don't expand out of your universe, don't try to be a high fashion designer,’” Horyn laments. “But there’s no reason for [Wang] to do that… he can be innovative within his realm.” One of Horyn’s favorite items, out of all of New York Fashion Week’s shows, was Wang’s stadium jersey: “jersey is a common form that's been exploited by a lot of people in a lot of different ways, but I thought he brought something fresh to it,” says Horyn. “Women of all ages could participate in what he did for Spring, although they may have some hemline issues.” But was it groundbreaking? “I don’t think so,” says Horyn.
Even so, high fashion has acknowledged Wang. According to Vogue UK, as of Tuesday, September 27, Wang was announced as the next designer to be considered for the hallowed seat as head designer for Dior, the historic haute-couture house. Up against established high fashion designers, Marc Jacobs and Riccardo Tisci, Wang is finally playing with the big kids.
Wang has made an unprecedented intervention into the fashion stratosphere (with the help of killer business skills and a few model friends in high places), allowing him to unsettle the top-down paradigm of fashion culture. And like a religion, or a rock-star, he’s worshipped for it.
“A runway can be like a public street, trampled with other people's ideas,” Horyn said in a Times video post. Innovative design, then, becomes about "knowing what you want to say and being precise about it." Whether in retail or on the runway, Wang triumphs doing just that.
EVE MARIE BLAZO B’12 hopes to purchase a Wang stadium jersey…at the next sample sale