From dressing Barbie to Michelle Obama, Jason Wu, fashion designer, on how he talked his way into the industry

Taiwan-born, New York-based fashion designer Jason Wu made clothes for his Barbie dolls as a child, but after talking his way into the fashion industry, ended up dressing none other than Michelle Obama.
PHOTO: Instagram/jasonwu

I was born in Taiwan in 1982. My dad was in agriculture and my mum was in the restaurant industry and, with my older brother, Kevin, we lived outside Taipei. When I was five, Kevin and I went to a toy store with our parents. Kevin went for the Nintendos and Transformers and I made a beeline for the doll section.

That's when my parents realised, "Hey, this kid is different." I think they were confused, but they loved me and decided that if that’s what I wanted that's what I'd get, and I came out of the store with a Barbie doll.

I wasn't the best at school, but the most alarming thing was I was bad at maths, which wasn't great in a traditional Asian education system. I started taking music and arts classes outside school.

Under different circumstances I wouldn't be me, I'd be someone else, and quite possibly someone who isn't his true self. I think my parents were aware of the talents I have, and they fostered what I was leaning towards.

Amazing Muriel

School was very regimented, and it was clear I was not going to thrive there, so when I was 10 my mum emigrated to Canada with me and my brother so we could go to school there. My dad didn't move with us.

Vancouver was a huge culture shock. Although there was a big Asian population, life was very different. At lunchtime people got out their sandwiches and I'd have fried rice or soup, they didn't take off their shoes when they got home and everyone spoke English.

I had an English tutor called Muriel, an amazing woman who is still in my life today. She realised immediately that I was never going to learn English from a textbook, so she bought me a bunch of fashion magazines.

I was fascinated by the beautiful things in them and the fashion designers and that's how I learned English. My first English words were "Stephanie Seymour".

Muriel also helped my mum understand more of who I was and who I was becoming.

Finding my calling

I did everything with my mum, I could not have had a more supportive parent. When I was 10, I asked for a sewing machine and she bought me one. A friend of the family made drapery for a living and they gave me leftover swatches of fabric and I started sewing costumes for my dolls. By then, I had at least 100 Barbies.

My mum promised that if I was good in school, she'd hire someone to teach me to sew. She kept her promise and when I was 11, she hired a fashion student, Tara, who took me under her wing and showed me everything.

I saw a Christian Lacroix spread in a magazine and decided to make a Barbie version of that. I was also doing a lot of drawing. I was always curious about how things were made and that pushed me in the direction that eventually became my calling in fashion.

Toy story

When I was 16, at boarding school in the United States, I was not loving geometry and history lessons, I wanted to work. I cold-called a toy company and told them they needed a designer and they asked me to come in for an interview.

I'd never been to New York, but that didn't stop me taking an Amtrak train from Connecticut. When the guy came out to meet me, he said, "You're a kid." I convinced him to let me show him what I could do, and he hired me.

The company had been making dolls for under US$10 (S$14.36), but with me as the freelance creative director, we changed the company into a high-fashion collectibles doll company, Integrity Toys, which is what it still is today.

In my senior year, I went to Rennes, in France, for an exchange programme and lived with a French family. There is so much beauty in France, it really opened my eyes to so many things.

Meeting Michelle

I decided that New York was going to be home and applied to the Parsons School of Design. I moved to New York a week before the September 11 attacks; I was horrified. It was my first time to be on my own, in my own apartment, and I was excited, afraid and curious. In my third year, I interned for fashion designer Narciso Rodriguez.

That's where I met one of my best friends, Michelle. We were both going through break-ups and we bonded through that.

In my early twenties, I thought I had an answer for everything. I was ambitious, cocky and thought the world was my oyster. I had no idea what I didn't know. Aged 23, I started my first business out of my living room and asked Michelle, who had been working at the department store Bergdorf Goodman in retail, to come and work for me.

To have and to hold

About the time I started my business, I went to a friend's house for New Year's Eve and that's where I met Gustavo Rangel. We became friends and about a year later began dating.

Gus and I are opposites in many ways – he's all about checks and balances. He was working as a personal shopper for men and helped me out on the side, and in about 2010, we started working together.

He's been with me every step of the way and I really appreciate that. We got married in 2016. I don't have immediate family in New York, and they are in a different industry, so even if they wanted to, we wouldn't be able to work together. So, it's great to have someone who has your back, it's a partnership, it's really special.

Holding the baby

Michelle Obama had been buying my clothes for a few years already when, in 2008, I received a request to dress her. My husband said, "You need to do this, it's a moment in history."

I made some custom pieces and sent them over. When Obama was elected, I got a call asking if I wanted to come up with an idea for the inauguration dress.

While I was on the call, I began sketching. It was a very spur-of-the-moment idea, I believe in gut instinct. She liked the dress and we worked day and night to make it.

We finished it the day before Thanksgiving and, rather than FedEx it to Chicago, my husband and I flew there to deliver it by hand, me holding the dress like a baby.

Trying times

I've fallen on many hard times through my career. In 2008, I was so excited to get a huge order from a store and delivered it – and they didn't pay me. I had no money for a lawyer, it's just what it was.

I think sometimes the best comes out of me when times are hard. I have drive and ambition, and I think everything is possible. There's a part of me that's still very much the 23-year-old, I just do a lot more checks and balances.

I would love to dress Tilda Swinton – she is as chic as ever – and there are so many Asian stars I want to dress, Asian pop culture has become a golden phenomenon.

I worked from home throughout the pandemic. We are creative people, we need to work, and we did four shows during the pandemic. We wore masks 24/7 and I'm proud to say no one got Covid – though we all did this year.

I will turn 40 this month. My thing about ageing is that as long as I don't look it, I don't care how old I am.

I will do fashion week first and then celebrate my fortieth. I don’t need to have the glamorous St Tropez trip, it's not who I am.

I want to have dinner with the people I love the most in one room. Perhaps two dinners, nothing fancy – one in New York and one in Berlin because a lot of my friends in fashion will be in Europe and Berlin has a special place in my heart because it's a fun, amazing, modern city.

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This article was first published in South China Morning Post.