Two years in at Balenciaga, Alexander Wang has hit his stride and proven that a young American from San Francisco can handle a legendary Paris fashion house…and more.
The Silicon Valley shop is a full-circle moment for Alexander Wang—a homecoming of sorts for the San Francisco-bred designer. His appointment as Balenciaga’s artistic director in December 2012 meant that Paris Fashion Week was just a few months away. As he conceived that first collection, he was concurrently designing the Mercer Street boutique with interior designer (and friend) Ryan Korban. Not surprisingly, his debut collection and the store revealed many shared motifs—sharp lines, a cool color palette and a quarry’s worth of marble. By summer’s end, the Valley Fair boutique will be further testament to the potential of Wang’s aesthetic codes. A strong influence is his high-school classmate Vanessa Traina. Providing creative consult to the house, Traina says: “A lot of our communication is a silent nod, because we’ve known each other since we were teenagers. We would go shopping on our lunch break just to see what was out there.” They aren’t just window-shopping anymore, as Wang is tasked with creating nine collections (yes, nine) each year for Balenciaga—not to mention overseeing his eponymous label in NYC. Here, C discusses the then and now with the in-demand designer.
“California doesn’t have die-hard fashion rules, but it has strong alternative fashion subcultures like rockabillies, surfers and ravers. Maybe that mix has allowed me to find my own way and have an independent approach to fashion.”
Did you always want to become a designer? I’ve known that I wanted to work in fashion ever since I was a child, which is surprising, because I didn’t come from a family who worked in the industry or had connections in fashion. I’ve been very lucky to have a family who has encouraged my aspirations, even when I would sketch dresses with crayons or would stage fashion shows as a teenager.
When you were initially approached about the position at Balenciaga, did you feel ready for the challenge? When I accepted the position at Balenciaga [as artistic director], it was right before December 2012, which is when the public announcement happened. I knew that the first challenge would be the Paris runway show, just around the corner. I had to think fast and work fast. I knew I had to go with my gut and with my instinct to present my understanding of Balenciaga in the debut. I don’t think anyone could be completely prepared for that kind of challenge…but I didn’t look back or think about the pressures of being young or American. I just thought of the personal experiences I had already built up and concentrated on what I could do, the ideas. That was the way forward.
How much time have you spent looking at the Balenciaga archives and how much does the brand’s heritage influence you? When I first started, the process of working with the archives and with brand heritage was a totally new way of working. At Alexander Wang, the emphasis is more about creating and defining consistent codes, like identifying what seems relevant right now. At Balenciaga, the House DNA is already well-established, so it’s more of a dialogue between what resonates with me and then synthesizing that with the history of the house. I always ask, what can be reworked into the heritage alongside what could be new? For the debut collection, I explored the archives and wanted to present a deep understanding of the history. It was a dedicated homage to the foundation created by Cristóbal Balenciaga, but I wanted to take certain elements forward, like the marble pattern in guipure lace or fur. I even try to find forgotten codes that could resonate today. It can be really immediate when you step into the archives. You’re immediately confronted with the physical history of the house, the actual, beautiful artifacts. You try to unearth pieces that already seem supremely modern, elements that could be amplified or shared. There’s always a sense of discovery and curiosity, so working with the archives has been rewarding and challenging in an enjoyable way.
What does the legacy of Balenciaga mean to you? Above all, Balenciaga means modernity and innovation, in any era. Next to that is a sculptural quality, a graphic and architectural silhouette. For Balenciaga, I always design in 360 degrees to underscore the sculptural shapes. The challenge has been how to add new layers to the brand’s DNA. Sometimes it’s about peeling away layers, to create new forms and to constantly evolve the brand.
What do you think has been your greatest accomplishment since your appointment? It’s definitely too soon to pinpoint a single accomplishment for me! I try to keep focused on what’s next.
A lot of your designs require your team to be innovative. Please describe some of your most technically difficult looks for Balenciaga? The Balenciaga studio is always insanely innovative with textiles and techniques. For the Spring/Summer 2014 collection, I think some of the most intensive techniques were used in the first leather looks, where leather cords were hand-braided onto bust forms in a spiral to create rounded perfecto jackets and curved skirts. In the finale looks, we also developed a “crushed” cloqué fabric where viscose and Lurex were bonded, hand-pleated and then cut out by hand to get a lace effect. Tough to describe—but the end result is tactile and effortless in person.
A lot of people have remarked that the Fall collection reflects a lot more of your personality. Do you think that’s true? The Fall 2014 collection was a way for me to introduce a new strand into the Balenciaga DNA. In my research for the show, I noticed that there were very few examples of knits in the archives. And as I really started in knitwear, I felt it would be the right time to bring my personal experiences into the house codes. So the Fall collection became a complete investigation into the vocabulary of knitwear, with twisted knits, embroidered knit surfaces, knit gauge motifs, it became an obsession. Using knits was also a way to rework the strict Balenciaga silhouette; it became a logical way to soften the shapes, or to make the shapes more asymmetrical, without becoming undisciplined.
Who is the Balenciaga woman in your mind? I’m always hesitant to answer this question and to make a huge generalization. Balenciaga is a complex brand; it has a complex, rich history. If I think about the women whom I work with on a close, personal level, the women in my family and my closest friends, they are all complex characters. They are all confident women who aren’t afraid to take risks and carve their own identities.
How did your friendship with Vanessa Traina evolve into a working relationship? I’ve known Vanessa since high school in San Francisco, so we’ve got years of figuring out fashion together. She has impeccable taste and understands the brand’s history intimately and sincerely. I knew I could depend on Vanessa to help me move Balenciaga forward.
How have you enjoyed working in Paris? I’m still just getting to know Paris and exploring the city. I spend part of my time in New York and part time in Paris. In New York, I already have my haunts, my restaurants. In Paris, I’m still in a discovery phase—I’m getting to know its contours and its energy bit by bit.
How do you concurrently manage your eponymous label? I’ve become really adept at balancing between the two brands. It’s a challenge to manage between the two, but I feel like I’ve got incredibly hard-working teams at both, so it has been an enjoyable and manageable challenge. Each brand has its own distinct identity and it has helped bring clarity that they’re located in separate cities, both with their own clear identities. The Alexander Wang brand is linked to that nonstop New York energy; Balenciaga is linked more to Paris’ artistic layers of history and tradition. With two clear identities then I can focus on how to evolve each brand in their own way.
Do you have a motto that you try to live and design by? I don’t have a formal motto–that’s way too formal for me!
How much do you think growing up in California or San Francisco has influenced you? I don’t think growing up in San Francisco has had a direct influence on my work, but it has definitely influenced me as a person. There’s a culture of innovation and openness in San Francisco, but it’s also quite old-school and intellectual. On one hand, people are relaxed and only wear performance gear like North Face or Patagonia, but then there’s another side that’s about dressing up in gowns for the opera. It’s high and low mixed together. California doesn’t have die-hard fashion rules, but it has strong alternative fashion subcultures like rockabillies, surfers and ravers. Maybe that mix has allowed me to find my own way and have an independent approach to fashion. Balenciaga Valley Fair, 2855 Stevens Creek Blvd., Santa Clara; balenciaga.com.