When Balenciaga and Alexander Wang announced in July 2015 that Wang would be ending his brief run as creative director of the fashion house by the end of the year, it shook the fashion world.
This was one of the most respected brands in high fashion, losing one of the hottest young designers in the industry — whom it had picked up just under three years prior.
Wang recently sat down with Business Insider for an episode of our podcast “This Is Success,” and he opened up about the experience, which he remembered as “an incredible but difficult period in my life.”
“I would fly red-eye Sunday night, arrive in Paris, 8 a.m., go back to the hotel to change, get to work at like 9:30, work all day until like 9 p.m. — all week to Friday, and then take the red-eye back to New York and spend the weekend in New York,” Wang said. He did this two weeks a month for three years. At one point, he was also designing a line for an H&M collaboration. It was exhausting.
But while Wang’s stint at Balenciaga may not have met expectations, Wang considers it a learning experience that helped him get to this stage of his career, where he’s defying industry norms and passing $150 million in revenue. He explained that it taught him how he needed to be honest with himself and others about what his goals were, as there is only so much time, energy, and creativity to give. He learned the dangers of burnout and how, as the Wharton psychologist Adam Grant has noted, attention management is more important than time management.
2 jobs, 2 cities
François-Henri Pinault is the CEO of Kering, the Paris-based luxury group that owns Balenciaga, as well as other prestigious fashion houses like Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent. Wang said Pinault personally told him in 2012 that he wanted the young designer to join.
“I had never really thought about designing for another brand,” Wang told us. “I never thought about working for another luxury group. But when the opportunity came, it was a really big one.” He said that within a month of meeting Pinault, he decided to take the job.
Wang still had the label that carried his name, which he launched in 2005, in New York. He worked out a schedule that would allow him to remain the creative director of both Alexander Wang and Balenciaga, but barely.
“I just got to the point where I was in meetings and I felt like I was pushing paper,” Wang said. “And I wasn’t even really able to have brain space to think.” He said that when he was in Paris, his days would primarily entail sitting in a room and having a nonstop lineup of meetings and presentations of new designs — “rolling rack in, rolling rack out; boards in, boards out.”
Read more: How Alexander Wang went from 20-year-old college dropout to head of a global fashion empire beloved by Rihanna, Kanye, and the Kardashians
Unable to commit
And regarding his own output, he soon found that he had a “hierarchy of ideas” and was presented with the challenge of which of his two brands got which ideas. “Do you give your best ideas to the brand that has the bigger platform and better resources, or the one that you really own yourself?” he said. “So, it was always this kind of internal struggle of where I wanted to give my best output.”
Despite all of this, his output at Balenciaga was well-reviewed by the fashion press and retail buyers, and the brand did well financially. But the path he was on was personally unsustainable, and he knew it.
Wang told us he was wary from the beginning about commitment. “I think I always knew deep down inside that it was like me going to grad school,” he said. He noted that he had dropped out of Parsons School of Design years earlier to start his own label and had never worked for any other designer. It just so happened that his “grad school” experience was having one of the most prestigious roles in the industry.
He also never fully committed himself to Kering. He never bought or even rented an apartment in Paris for his Balenciaga trips, and, most important, he never agreed to give Kering a stake in the Alexander Wang label. It’s common practice for a luxury group to take ownership in the label of a designer it acquires, to bring it into the family of brands, but Wang remained reluctant to do so.
As Wang described it to us, his persistence in not offering ownership of his label to Kering communicated to Pinault that he “wasn’t locked in for the endgame.” When it came time to discuss his departure with Kering’s CEO, Wang told us, “It was a very mutual decision,” affirming Kering’s statement announcing the news in July 2015 that it was a “joint decision” to not renew Wang’s contract. The statement portrayed the two sides as leaving on good terms, with Wang headed back to his own label full-time.
“I feel very, very lucky to have that opportunity,” Wang told us. “But there’s a time period to everything.”
Using the experience going forward
The experience taught him the importance of intention and clarity with his goals. When we spoke, he told us that he wanted to elevate his namesake brand to the timeless status that American designers like Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein have. He couldn’t hope to achieve that if he wasn’t all in on that goal, and likewise he would not be able to give Balenciaga the full breadth of his energy and talent if he wasn’t willing to prioritize the fashion house. Goals of that level require full attention, and after a few years of being on the fence about where his priorities were, he and Pinault confirmed what Wang knew inherently.
Wang wasn’t going to shut down his label or hand it over to someone else, and a dream job wasn’t as appealing if this sacrifice had to be made. “At the end,” he told us, “I want to know that the success when I look back after however many years, that I have a brand that I feel ownership over.”
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