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The Pursuit of Success: How Jason Wu Ignored Convention and Overcame Boundaries

At 26 years old, just three years after the launch of his eponymous label in 2006, First Lady Michelle Obama donned a custom Jason Wu dress for her first and second inauguration. But before discussing his story of dressing the first lady at this year’s SCADstyle, Wu and W Magazine’s Rickie De Sole started the conversation from his beginnings in Taiwan.

Wu was born in Taipei in the ‘80s, a time he says was very conservative. As a kid, a male, and in a reserved environment, his fascination with dolls was a bit more than untraditional. “It wasn’t about the dolls at all,” he mentions. “I was attracted to beauty.” His mother took notice of his quirks, accepted them, and moved little Jason and his older brother to Vancouver in hopes of a better place to grow.

Jason Wu is the recipient of SCAD’s Étoile Award.

When he first landed in Canada, 9-year-old Wu had no inkling of the English language. “I think I could only say ‘hi’ and ‘apple’ or something,” he said jokingly. His mother hired an English tutor, alongside purchasing his first sewing machine in hopes of fostering his artistic nature.

We can pretty much thank Wu’s mother and the tutor for what happens next.

Wu became fixated on fashion magazines when the tutor would bring over glamorous, glossy-pages of beautiful women in impeccable clothes. It was like the dolls he used to play with back in Taipei had come to life. He would have the tutor teach him the words in the magazine, and look in the dictionary in his free time to learn more about what was written.

“People always ask me when I caught the fashion bug,” he said to starry-eyed students. “I don’t remember not having the fashion bug because I’ve always had it.”

After fully learning English and his education in boarding school, 17-year-old Wu would take a train to New York where he eventually landed a part-time job making dolls. He credits his experience making dolls for his approach to fashion from a “product design” perspective, allowing him to think of the bigger picture of a garment.

This carried to his studies at Parsons School of Design— which he ended up dropping out of 6 months before graduation at 23.

“Stay in school,” he quickly stated while laughing. “I just wanted to start something.” And with the money he made from making dolls, Jason Wu, the brand, was born. He never really worked for a fashion company full-time before his own, so he had much to learn and a lot to prove.

During the brand’s launch, Wu’s friends were just getting employed in the industry. He went around and asked for help from them with things he didn’t know until he got it. Much like how he learned from his English tutor until he got it.

He shared a story of how for the first three years, models would show up late to fittings since he wasn’t on the levels of New York fashion giants. So, Wu and his team would play Monopoly (which, unfortunately, he doesn’t have time to do anymore).

Then, dressing Michelle Obama catapulted his career to New York fashion giant status. De Sole recalled a joke she was told, stating that he went from “‘Jason, who?’ to Jason Wu.”

“I don’t know who she is,” he laughed when sharing the story of first dressing Michelle Obama. “I’m not really into politics.” But he did work with her a few times after receiving a call from her team. The funny thing is that he only sent one sketch to be considered for First Lady Obama’s inauguration dress since he only had one idea.

A group of friends and Wu watched the inauguration for the first time eating pizza, like most of us do when watching the inauguration. “[I] lost it,” he recalls. The rest is pretty much fashion history, literally.

Wu receiving the Étoile Award.

Before ending his conversation and taking a few questions from eager students, Wu mentioned the importance of authenticity. He’s an uptown type of designer and he says he tried the “cool” route, but it wasn’t him. “I do like a nice afternoon tea…and rosé.” Us too, Jason. Us, too.

Jason Wu is this year’s recipient of SCAD’s prestigious Étoile Award.

 

Photos by Angie Stong and Lucy Hewitt