Alexander Wang is part of American pop culture, and that, in a way, has always been the goal. The fashion designer’s name gets dropped in songs by rappers like Kanye West, his clothes are worn by the country’s top models, and he has millions of online followers.
The son of Chinese immigrants who settled in San Francisco by way of Taiwan, Wang started his fashion label in New York City at just 20 years old. In the 15 years since, he’s built a global empire of high fashion and collaborations with accessible consumer brands like Uniqlo and H&M.
Representatives of his label declined to share financials, but noted that annual revenue exceeds $150 million, a number reported by Business of Fashion for 2016.
Wang has achieved recognition, but now it’s a matter of establishing staying power, the way iconic American designers Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein have. To do this, he’s taking risks like skipping Fashion Week, when most of the world’s biggest designers showcase their upcoming lines, and hosting fashion shows where no one else will, as he did this past May, at New York’s Rockefeller Center, where he invited the public to come watch.
Wang is usually rocking a sleek, all-black outfit, and while at first glance that can make him look as icy as a runway models, he’s also a total goofball. He’s embracing the spotlight more as a way to connect with his fans, and he’s sharing more of his personality. Earlier this year, he launched a YouTube channel that features him doing his best “Real World” audition and getting a courtroom sketch artist to draw him as he reclines in a bathtub.
We sat down with Wang for an episode of Business Insider’s podcast “This Is Success.” We discussed his rise to celebrity and the challenge of staying relevant in the fashion world. He also spoke about his three-year stint as the creative director for the venerated label Balenciaga from 2012 to 2015, which stretched him thin but honed his long-term focus.
Over the past decade and a half, he’s learned whose criticism matters and how to balance business and creativity, as well as what it means to produce work that’s meaningful.
We started at the beginning.
Listen to the full episode here:
Subscribe to “This Is Success” on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or your favorite podcast app. Check out previous episodes with:
- Bridgewater Associates founder Ray Dalio
- Philanthropist Melinda Gates
- Oracle CEO Mark Hurd
- Former race-car driver Danica Patrick
The following is a transcript edited for clarity. Narration is in italics.
Alexander Wang: I definitely come from a family that is very entrepreneurial in spirit. And I think I just always witnessed and watched my family be in business together, but also how they thought about business and how they thought about creating a better life for their family. And I think inherently that must’ve just rubbed off on me.
Richard Feloni: It wasn’t expected of their kids to go into the business, as well?
Wang: Definitely there was the opportunity, that my mom wanted to save the business that she created in California for either myself or my brother. And I told her very early on that it wasn’t for me. I was, very early on, determined to work in fashion. I wanted to work in fashion when I was very, very young and I knew exactly that was what I wanted.
Feloni: You knew that from being a kid?
Wang: I remember my mom would take me to hair salons when I was really young, and I’d always want to go with her shopping. I remember ripping out pages of ads in magazines when I’d be waiting for her at the hair salon, and she’d be like, “Why are you ripping out pages from a magazine and taking them?” And this was when I was probably seven, eight years old — really, really young. And I just started creating this personal desire, and learning and educating myself on what this industry was all about, and this idea of creating. And one thing led to another. I started going into her closet, taking apart her clothes — which she wasn’t very happy about — and buying scraps of fabric and started just putting things together and sewing on my own, teaching myself how to sew.
I started working when I was 15 at a painting studio, a ceramic painting studio. Because I came from boarding school, I was very used to being independent and traveling on my own and being on my own, and so I signed up for all of these summer programs, both in London and Los Angeles. I would go over the summer and take these fashion courses.
But I knew very early on that my endgame was to end up in New York. I knew that was where I had to be in order to really succeed in this industry. I got into Parsons, I moved here over the summer, and immediately I took on a retail job and internship and then started school. So I did all three at the same time, because I was just so excited and ambitious to get my hands dirty.
Chasing the dream in New York City
Feloni: It was after sophomore year when you decided to drop out?
Feloni: How did you decide that?
Wang: I was interning at Teen Vogue at the time, which was my second internship. My first internship was at Marc Jacobs, which was a dream come true for me, coming into New York, being 18 years old. I remember Teen Vogue, it was just getting started at the time. They were sharing a lot of the same resources as Vogue — stylists and editors, etc.
My job was to call in all the clothes for the shoots. And the editors, of course, at Vogue, they expect to get what they want at any time of the day. And a lot of the brands, the designer brands that they were used to working with, weren’t willing to send clothes to the Teen Vogue magazine because they felt, because of the price point and because of the audience, it wasn’t right. So there’s this big discrepancy between what image the magazine wanted to portray and what the brands felt was appropriate.
And I remember, I went to my editor, and I said, “What do you think if I created this: I feel like there’s an opportunity for a very design-led, integrity-driven product that is at a more accessible price point.” And she introduced me to a showroom and she said, “You should go speak to the showroom. Maybe they can help, walk you through your ideas.” So I went to this showroom, and I talked to them about this idea that I had about starting my own line and what segment and category I wanted to go into and what price point.
And they were very interested in the idea. They said, “OK, why don’t you take the summer and go create some samples and come back in the fall? We could maybe work something out.” I was still enrolled in school at the time, and I brought the idea to my mom and my family back in San Francisco and I said, “Hey, there’s this opportunity where the showroom essentially would do all my press and sales and all I have to do, essentially, is create a collection.” My mom definitely challenged me and asked a lot of questions, but in the end, she was always very supportive of anything that I wanted to do and was determined and passionate about.
When I have my mind set on something, it’s very hard for me to derail or go somewhere else. I always come back to a certain idea. So she allowed me to leave school. I presented the pros and cons to her and I said, “The worst thing that I could lose out on is time. I can always go back to school and this is an opportunity that I feel like I just need to explore.” We had $10,000 that she lent me and we started the business from that.
Feloni: So what, you’re 20 years old at this point?
Wang: I’m 20 years old at this point. So I created the samples and went back to New York. The funny thing is the showroom that was very interested in my idea, by fall they told me that one of their brands that was already in their portfolio was essentially working on the same thing. That was the first big surprise and obstacle that I wasn’t really preparing for. But my sister-in-law at the time was also in-between jobs and offered to help, and she came in and was like, “You know what, we’ll figure this out.” We didn’t have any mentor, anyone that we could lean on. I don’t come from a family that was from this industry.
The only contacts that I had were through my internships, and we found out about this trade show that was happening called Designers & Agents, d&a. We decided to get a booth there and try selling the collection ourselves. Also, I shouldn’t mention that we had called almost every showroom in the city up until this point and no one would pick up the phone, no one would take our call! And so we just said, let’s do it ourselves.
From getting ignored to hanging with Rihanna
Feloni: I’m thinking of this young kid and he’s putting his name on something. I would imagine that a lot of people are like, who is Alexander Wang? Who is this kid? Why do I even need to be talking to him right now? How did you deal with that?
Wang: A good thing is I have a very short term memory! I take it with a grain of salt. And then there were so many people constantly saying, “You have no idea what you’re getting yourself into. You don’t know what you’re doing.” I think in a certain way that prompted me, that encouraged me to want to prove them wrong.
But the editor, her name is Gloria Baume — I want to mention that she was very, very supportive.
Feloni: Do you remember the first time you saw someone on the street wearing your clothes?
Wang: I do. It was one of our knitwear pieces and it had an image of a girl smoking on the back.
Feloni: Did it take off?
Wang: Yes, it did. I actually wore the piece also, and I remember the first piece of press was someone photographing the back of my sweater. I was at some New York Fashion Week event and it was in the New York Times and someone photographed the back of it and called it out. It wasn’t even talking about the sweater, it was just talking about the scene of the party. But the big image was of me standing at the party and my back.
Feloni: I feel like a lot of people know you because you ended up becoming a celebrity yourself. You became like one of the favorite designers of big musicians like Kanye West, and for celebrities. How did you get introduced to that world and become part of it?
Wang: Oh, God. For me, I never really saw lines between creativity and people who are creative, people that I felt I understood, or that I wanted to learn from, or that I was curious about. I always wanted to work with them. When you point out people like Kanye or Rihanna, I think it’s the same thing.
I think silos musicians, designers, or actors want to bracket themselves into are irrelevant. Kanye has a clothing line; Rihanna has a fragrance and a clothing line. I think those elements of what categories you are may be too traditional or irrelevant.
I was always very immensely curious about pop culture, as well — things that influence and impact a generation, that I felt very much in tune with and wanted to relate to. And so working with comedians and musicians, and being able to tap into other conversations outside of fashion was something that was always a big part of who we were as a brand, in creating that community and that tribe of people that we wanted to be aligned with.
How 3 years with Balenciaga taught him what his true goals were
Feloni: You were able to build a name for yourself, and started making these connections and projects. And then in 2012, Balenciaga approaches you and names you creative director. That stint lasted for three years. And I had read at that point that you were putting in 12 hour days going back and forth between New York and Paris. What was life like at that time? Sounds stressful.
Wang: It was a really, I have to say incredible, but difficult period in my life. I had never really thought about designing for another brand. I never thought about working for another luxury group. But when the opportunity came, it was a really big one. And I knew that because I very much respected the house and Kering group, which owns the house. And I thought they’re interested in investing in the brand, they’re interested in me designing for this incredible historic legacy — let’s hear them out. Hearing them out very quickly turned into me signing a contract in like 30 days.
I remember when Mr. Pinault [Kering CEO François-Henri Pinault] told me the news in Paris. I was very, very shocked and I couldn’t tell anyone. But of course, I had to consult my closest friends and they all were like, “This is an incredible opportunity. Go for it.” I think I always knew, deep down inside, that it was like me going to grad school. Because I never finished school; I never got to work for another company.
I wanted to see how I would be able to operate on a much higher level with a brand that had a lot of other categories and had a bigger platform to be able to speak to the industry. And so in that sense, it really allowed me to see at a much higher level. But at the end of the day, I think everyone acknowledges that as a creative, there’s always a hierarchy of ideas. Do you give your best ideas to the brand that has the bigger platform and better resources or the one that you own yourself?
So it was always this internal struggle of where I wanted to give my best output. And realized that I wanted to come back home and I wanted to give my all to the brand that I had ownership over, that the ideas and the success of those ideas I would have ownership over.
Feloni: It was just too much — you couldn’t give your full self to either. You were being torn apart?
Wang: Yeah. I was traveling two weeks every month. I didn’t get an apartment in Paris on purpose. I always stayed in hotels. So I would fly red eye Sunday night, arrive in Paris at 8:00 a.m., go back to the hotel to change, get to work at 9:30, work all day until 9:00 p.m. all week to Friday, and then take the red eye back to New York and spend the weekend in New York.
Feloni: It was like that for three years?
Feloni: Were you exhausted?
Wang: I just got to the point where I was in meetings and I felt like I was pushing paper. And I wasn’t even really able to have brain space to think because I would have meetings, no joke, every 30 minutes. I remember, I would sit in a room in Paris and it would be teams coming and rolling racks in, rolling racks out, rolling racks in. Boards in, boards out.
At a certain point your eyes and your thought process get numb. So it was a very mutual decision to talk to Mr Pinault. He knew that when I didn’t offer the brand for him to invest in that I wasn’t locked in for the endgame.
Feloni: So they would have a stake in the Alexander Wang label.
Wang: Yeah, that’s usually how the strategic luxury houses work. They put you in a house and they want to know that you’re there to grow that house for the long term.
My brand was at a certain level where I wasn’t going to shut it down. And it was a brand that I grew from the ground up. I want to know that its success, when I look back after however many years, that I have a brand that I feel ownership over.
We’re coming up on our 15-year anniversary and I think we’re very lucky to even have been in business for 15 years. But the industry is changing drastically and I am always thinking about who is our consumer, versus just designing fashion. And thinking about the greatest brands that have always inspired me. When you think about Ralph [Lauren] or Calvin [Klein], these incredible American lifestyle brands, what does that new generation look like coming out of America?
Getting a business crash course in a year as CEO
Feloni:In 2015, Alexander Wang dedicated himself full-time to his own fashion label. And he decided he would be his own CEO.
Wang: And to be really honest, it wasn’t that I wanted to be CEO. It was that me and my family decided that I needed to take control over the entire brand for a period of time where I could really understand all the ins and outs, and the weaknesses as well as the strengths of the whole operational system of the brand. That was as we were entertaining offers from investors. I should preface it by saying that my family was always very supportive in the sense that, when the time is right we feel like we want to invite outside expertise.
Feloni: Because it was a family business?
Wang: Yes, it was a family business. The family was more than willing to take a step back, but they wanted to make sure that I really understood what the infrastructure was like. So that when we’re having these conversations with investors we knew what we would be looking for.
I felt like I needed to really understand the business as a whole and not just like, OK, this is what we do in design, this is what we do in marketing — but really the whole scale of what the business meant on a global level.
Feloni: You were saying that Balenciaga was like grad school, and so, basically, being CEO, that was like business school?
Wang: Yeah, it was like business school. It was hard. It was a hard year. And I will also preface this by saying, when I took the role of CEO, I had already started the search for a CEO.
I wanted to take that time as I’m meeting with other candidates to be able to ask them questions that were fresh in my mind, as I was learning. And that was a short-lived, but very educational and informative time of my career. But difficult, for sure.
Feloni: How do you know how to balance your time and your energy into the business side of things with the creative side of things? How do you figure that out?
Wang: It’s funny you asked that, because I was thinking about this and I don’t know if it’s just being Chinese! I always think about the business aspect tied into the creative decisions. We as a brand and in our culture, we always try to apply creative thinking to business decisions and business acumen to the creative process. And I really flip that back and forth in every project I work on. I think about the big picture.
When I work on a collaboration or I work on any kind of partnership, I’m always thinking, “OK, what is the end objective? What are we trying to create? What’s the concept? Who is the customer profile? What’s the price point? What’s the distribution model?” I’m not just like, “OK, I’m going to design this T-shirt and then I’m going to give it to them and have them figure it out.” That’s never been the way that I work. And I think that was probably also one of the reasons why my time in Paris was difficult, because in those kinds of structures you are put a bit into a box. I was not used to being in a box; I was very much used to being part of the whole conversation.
Feloni: Could you give an example of a project that you’re considering or starting, and show how that business and creative side are linked, and you can’t even separate them?
Wang: So I’ve been wanting to do underwear for a very long time. And I’ve talked at length with many different partners and internally about how we could tap into this category. It’s a category that’s very much owned by some very large companies and brands and hasn’t been disrupted in a very long time. Victoria’s Secret owns that sexy lingerie category and Calvin Klein owns the sportier, logo-driven kind.
So I knew that if I was assigned a licensing deal that I wasn’t going to be going into a wholesale distribution model. I was thinking, “OK, well it needs to be a new conversation, a new concept. Who are the players in this space?” And I have a longstanding relationship with Mr. Yanai [Uniqlo CEO Tadashi Yanai] at Uniqlo — we collaborated 11 years ago, when I first came out. He’s the owner of Fast Retailing. And I thought, well, they have this incredible proprietary innovation around Heattech and Airism.
And, I thought, well, why don’t we marry that concept with this idea of innerwear, but in a way that can be worn all day — to the gym, layered underneath pieces, on their own. And they loved the idea. I was trying to take a category that I had a lot of interest in and push it into a new conversation that was innovating the dialogue around underwear. And it was a new distribution model for me. Immediately we would be put into over 1,000 doors and I knew that the price point was going to be accessible. It’s been an incredible collaboration so far.
Taking the label to the next level by breaking the rules
Feloni: I feel like you’ve gotten to a point now where you could break the rules, the so-called rules. Even last year, when you pulled out of Fashion Week in February and September, when almost all designers have their shows. And you weren’t the first to do this, but you decided that you’re going to go on your own schedule. What went behind that decision?
Wang: It wasn’t overnight, but we had talked a lot about how can we address the consumer better, how can we be more efficient with the consumer?
Feloni: As opposed to the industry.
Wang: As opposed to the industry. And we were making a lot of direct-to-consumer shifts in how we were re-platforming our website, and shifting the delivery model of our collection. Fashion Week — it’s always labeled a season. Fall-Winter, Spring-Summer 2020, etc. Even I always was confused about the seasonality, let alone a consumer who’s looking at fashion shows and then having to wait six months before that product is sitting on the floor. And also the fact that we have a global brand and that Spring-Summer, Fall-Winter doesn’t really resonate the same in New York as it does in Australia at the same time.
So we thought, well, let’s take away the label of seasonality from our collections and let’s just title them by the month that they’re dropping. So this is our September delivery, this is our October delivery, this is our December delivery, etc. And message it around cultural events. What are people shopping for in December? They’re shopping for gift giving, they’re shopping for holidays. What are people shopping for in January? It’s “new year, new you.” They’re rebuilding their self-esteem, going back into the gym. And so building the product strategy around that kind of thinking, and building the collection and drop cadence around that, as well.
So everything leads from the product, restructuring how we sell the collection. We are still a very heavily wholesale-weighted company. So we can’t make that switch completely. But we felt that by taking away the idea of labels, taking ourselves out of New York Fashion Week, showing the collection during a pre-collection market — we’re able to get what people see on the runway two months earlier. We’re able to be a lot earlier in our deliveries.
Feloni: I would imagine you could have an advantage of being more consumer-facing and tapping into buying trends. But I feel like the risk there would be that even if you thought that Fashion Week is a strange schedule, that’s still when everyone is collected at the same time. So how do you weigh that risk?
Wang: Yeah, thank you for bringing that up. I also feel that fashion shows now, when you think about the ones that really play on the big scale, the Diors, the Vuittons, they’re most likely paying all of the celebrities to sit in the front row, flying out the editors to whatever exotic location to participate and cover the show. But consumers, the audience that is genuinely interested in the brand, they’re looking at it online through social media. And so we realized that in order to have an event, let’s not call it even a fashion show. It needs to be entertainment.
You need to build content around it, that people are not just watching models walking down the runway, because you can see that going to Vogue.com. So, when we made the shift, we implemented a whole host and live stream element to our show. It really became live entertainment, as well as all the content that we would shoot around the show, like backstage with the models while we have the talent there on set. Fashion shows aren’t really about the clothes anymore. It’s about the brand exercising their message around what they want to say with this community around the content.
Feloni: By the time that our audience sees or listens to this, you’re going to have your show at Rockefeller Center.
Feloni: And no one has ever done that before. And that reminds me too, like when you had a show in Bushwick, Brooklyn, that hadn’t been done before. And I’d seen some people were mad that there was a lot of traffic. Some people couldn’t get in. When you’re taking risks to be different, how do you decide, OK, this is something worth trying, or maybe people haven’t done this for a reason?
Wang: We as a brand have always wanted to push the boundaries and move the conversation forward. If everyone is just sitting around with the status quo, then nothing’s ever going to change. Unless you challenge that, there’s always risks involved and I think we recognize that and we stomach it and we go with it. But I think that will always be part of the brand.
Of course the editors were not happy that they got to see it second, and that it was in Brooklyn. And I think definitely there were learnings from it in terms of operational efforts, and logistics around traffic, and how to do it better.
And I think this time with Rockefeller, what’s exciting is that there’s never been a show where literally everyone is invited. We’ve done public shows where we invite like 150 people who go to our store and get tickets but this is Rockefeller Plaza. There’s an invited portion for the industry but around it, the entire mezzanine, anyone who wants to come can participate. It’s going to be really exciting because yeah, there hasn’t ever been a fashion show there and it’s such an iconic New York location, and this collection is about giving back to New York and a tribute to American sportswear and all the pioneers that paved the way for me.
Feloni: On that note, when you’re out doing things the way that you want, some people will be critical of that. And I feel like in the fashion industry, from what I’ve seen, it seems people can be really vicious when things aren’t going to their expectations. So how do you even know who to listen to, whose criticism matters, or whose praise matters, for that matter?
Wang: The consumer. In the end, it’s if the audience, and the community, and the consumer that I’m trying to speak to understands what I’m trying to do. You’re never going to be able to make everyone happy. But I think it’s if you’re able to address and learn from certain mistakes, and be able tof provide better for the consumer. A lot of the time they just want to be involved, they want to be included, they want to be heard, and that’s whether it’s for the product or the experience I think that’s the most important.
Feloni: So you have to approach business from your audience’s perspective.
Wang: The rest is just noise. I don’t want to bite the hand that feeds me, because I grew up in this industry and it was very supportive. A lot of the organizations and the editors and the buyers, of course, are very important to our business. But yeah, at the end of the day, I think for everyone’s sake, it’s the consumer who is shopping at those stores, who’s reading those magazines. They’re the most important.
Creating a brand that lasts
Feloni: When I think of the industry, it seems that success would be relevancy, because there are only like a handful of brands that have lasted forever and the rest, they come and go.
Feloni: How do you think of relevancy and then how do you think of success? Are they tied together? Are they separate?
Wang: I do think they are tied together, but not necessarily under the same circumstances. And I say that in the sense that, right now I’m much more interested in the consumer than I am in just fashion. And what the consumer wants from us as a brand sometimes isn’t just apparel and clothes, it could be other categories. Whether they’re lifestyle categories that have been done before by other fashion brands or they’re new categories, things in the wellness space, things in the entertainment space, such as festivals and events. I think other ways where the brand has resonance among a community is where I’m interested in moving into.
Feloni: Is the way that you define success now, 15 years in, different from when you were just starting out?
Wang: Yes. There’s a huge part of me — I just want to create beautiful things, but I want to create beautiful things that really leave an impact, and create things that I think people really resonate with. And that means something. Building meaningful work and meaningful relationships is the most important thing for me. And I think that’s one of the things that I’ve realized as I’ve matured, and become more clear in my head of what that equates to.
Feloni: Well, thank you so much, Alex.
Wang: Thank you.