JASON WU, WHO STAGED A SMOOTHLY convincing and frequently cool and clever collection at his debut for Hugo Boss, has a very clear goal for the hyper-organised German label he finds himself running these days. He wants to sell the brand’s fashion as not just practical and authoritative, but also as a modernist German dream.
The country seems to be doing quite a lot right these days, from winning the World Cup to outperforming most every democratic economy. But its fashion industry does very much lag behind the other great Western cultures. Wu, the son of Taiwanese immigrants who moved to Vancouver when he was just nine, wants to change that. Though not by overturning the Boss company culture, but by harnessing its greatest strengths.
It’s striking that when I sit down with Wu to discuss what he is planning at Boss, that the most frequent word that comes up is we. This is one visiting American designer that is clearly in for the long haul. Who sees designing for Boss as a unique chance to reposition a label with enormous resources, and to sell Boss, and ultimately a certain German aesthetic and point of view, to a global audience.
Everything changed at Boss once CEO Claus-Dietrich Lahrs decided to appoint Wu, a radical break nor just for the house, but also for German fashion. Remarkably, no German- based brand of any real importance has ever hired an international name before. Boss not
only hired Wu, it also broke with the past by staging its first ever runway show on the official calendar of a major season. Previously, it generally staged spectacular events, where no designer took a bow. So, this February, the great and the good gathered in a raw space of a not quite completed west Midtown office building for the debut catwalk show created by Wu. After a triumphant performance for the brand’s top line, Wu appeared and took an extended bow.
“I was determined to provide a point of view, even if our aesthetics are quite far apart.”
At first sight, Jason Wu and Hugo Boss are not an obvious match – his frothy and rounded style with Boss’ meticulous aesthetic. Hmmmm. Yet, what hit the runway was a fine statement of German precision, smart mannish tailoring and restrained glamour. Presented in a Gattica-like corporate campus with gardens and ash trees, the collection boasted crisp dry felt dresses, surgically cut tuxedos and razor sharp cashmere topcoats – always playing with Boss’ menswear codes.
“I was determined to provide a point of view, even if our aesthetics are quite far apart,” said Wu. He did, while also conjuring up the sort of evening glamour that Boss’ career gal customers surely crave. With women’s wear a mere 15% of total Hugo Boss revenues, building a women’s business is vital for the future.
“Jason’s entrepreneurial spirit and focus make him the ideal choice,” said Hugo Boss CEO Claus-Dietrich Lahr, who during his five- year tenure has boosted annual revenues to over two billion euros.
Wu first won fame by dressing Michelle Obama, and this collection will win lady fans internationally and in Germany. The one great democracy currently governed by a woman – Madame Merkel.
We caught up with Wu in Soho this summer, who was keen to talk about the whole experience of working in Germany.
“I stay in a charming, little bed and breakfast, two minutes away from Boss. I fly over on Sunday and I fly out Saturday, so I am always back in time to have dinner with friends on Saturday night. That’s my schedule.”
“It’s been very interesting, coming from bustling New York to Metzingen in Germany, which is so serene, and dare I say, picturesque. Then there is the super industrial Hugo Boss. It’s a contrast for sure, and a different way of working in this stage of my life. But I feel it is the way I want to work. When Boss asked me to assume this position I felt like it was some- thing I was ready for in my life,” he smiles over cocktails in the Mercer Hotel.
Wu clearly loves the opportunity to spend more time in Europe. Before he would go mostly to Paris and London, with occasional trips to Como in in Italy for fabrics. Now, he spends one week every month in Germany, though not in a plush hotel.
“I stay in a charming, little bed and breakfast, two minutes away from Boss. I fly over on Sunday and I fly out Saturday, so I am always back in time to have dinner with friends on Saturday night. That’s my schedule,” he opines sipping a margarita.
Wu manages to fit in weekend jaunts to Berlin, staying in Soho House, but is clearly embarrassed to admit that he still has not made it inside Panorama-Bar. When it comes to working on the accessories, he lands at Malpensa outside Milan to visit Boss’ plant in Col- drerio, Switzerland.
“This whole thing has changed my life in a very interesting way. When I was in Berlin I went to the Bunker. It was amazzzzzing! I’d love to do something there. I’d love that. The world is my canvas at this point. I can do what- ever I want,” he practically giggles.
“I see today as the time for a German brand to make a stance. When you think about it there is really not that much in Germany from a fashion point of view.“
For his debut show, Wu referenced Bauhaus in, “a very conscious decision,” and he is de- termined to keep what he keeps referring to as the “cleanliness of German design,” in each collection, albeit with “a little of the austerity that comes naturally.”
He enthuses at Hugo Boss special ability to make very structured, tailored silhouettes, and wants to channel that into the whole of the collection.
“I see today as the time for a German brand to make a stance. When you think about it there is really not that much in Germany from a fashion point of view. Hugo Boss is one of the most well known German brands and we are really ripe for a major change, in a way that they have never done before,” says Wu, who designs the house’s top line Boss.
His strategy is clear, defines the whole company via its top label, eradicating the past when there were so many different sub divisions – Black, Orange, Hugo, etc. … To that end, Wu has been overseeing both the cruise campaign shoots – shooting in Metzingen with Thomas Lore. And even the menswear campaign, even though he has nothing to do with creating the men’s collection.
“We (again!) have never done that before. And I wanted to do it in Germany, and I wanted the Boss campus to be the star! It was the inspiration for the show. So I thought, I’m bringing Edie Campbell to Metzingen; this is where I shall shoot. In Boss, and what I call our campus. It looks like a college campus! I mean even the way we pollard the trees so they all grow back in the same direction. I love that!”
Why, did he think, he was the only major foreigner designer given control of a major German brand?
“It is a combination of several things. The company has evolved to a stage where to get to the next level we had to do something a little more daring. And our CEO Claus-Dietrich has had international experience at Dior, and he maybe sees a bigger future for Boss than previ- ous leaders. We have gone into a project to see what we can do and change. It is easier said than done. There are a lot of steps if you want to bring change in a giant fashion company. And when you are talking about a billion dollar company, that is a much bigger step than changing over- night,” he says with a modest nod.
Sometimes change does require a bit of a fight, but not always. He’s been surprised how agree- ably Boss adapted to his request to utilise all the men’s facilities to make our women’s collection. “The bulk of our strength and technical ability is actually devoted to menswear. And women’s were almost established separately and looked at as a different business. But they saw, and I saw, and we discussed this before I joined, that we would use the DNA and the technical genius to make industrialised things. And next season you are going to see me playing a lot more,” he says, promising a feast of laser cutting.
“The new visual approach is almost as gutsy as the move to hire me. First off all, Edie Campbell is the face. And that is a huge departure for the company. She is edgier. And this is shot by Ines and Vinoodh and styled by Joe McKenna. There is this cleanliness but it really is about the attitude!,” he expounds.
Working with a giant global firm like Boss has also made Wu think more deeply about his own house.
“My own brand is romantic, it’s sophisticated, it’s American sportswear. With a couture sensibility. That’s what it is. It’s a much more glamorous or romantic take on clothes than what I am doing at Boss,” concedes Wu, who famously catapulted to fame by dressing Michelle Obama for the presidential inauguration ball, even going to the fitting personally. This spring, in his signature show, it looked like he wanted to see the First Lady exploring the Arctic.
Wu’s key looks for fall were wrapped up coats in panels of shearling, astrakhan, silver fox and black leather. Cut with round shoulders and finished with metal snaps and hardware, they warded off the freezing temperatures, yet were all plausibly stylish. Moreover, each seemed ideal for handling severe chill outside in a New York blanketed eight inches of snow.
“My couture homage to North Face,” joked Wu, referring to the All American outdoors brand favoured by hikers.
For the evening, his finest moments were the languid worn velvet moiré dresses with scalloped necklines where the last thing one thought about was the weather. Clinging and cut just below the knee, they had all the modernist class one associates with Wu.
Like most of us Johnny Foreigners who visit Germany, Wu finds the locals speak such good English there is little point in learning German.
“I am picking it up, but everyone is so international over there. Germany is so multiingual, and it is that kind of spirit that Boss needs to have. In so many ways the way we in New York think of things is much more local. The people at Boss are the most international I have ever met. You know, it is not unusual to go to a foreign country and to not have that person speak a tongue you understand. But in Boss everyone speaks everything, pretty much. But for someone to bring change, like using the campus, you need to take the point of view of an outsider. I think when you are so close to it, you almost don’t see it. And I think that is where I came in. Anyway, German is hard to pronounce!”
This article was taken from Achtung issue 28 – get it now online at www.doyoureadme.com