Alexander Wang x Olivia Kim Q&A | Pop-In@Nordstrom x Alexander Wang
Our own Olivia Kim and Alexander Wang go way back to 2006, when Olivia was the buyer at Opening Ceremony. Wang came through the door with a rolling garment bag, trying to sell some sweaters like a young rapper hustling a demo tape. The next year he crashed the fashion establishment, commencing his ongoing run of spectacular runway shows and game-changing designs.
On the phone – Olivia in Seattle at her office; Alex at his studio in NYC – the two caught up about business, nightlife and approaching fashion as 360-degree storytelling.
AW: Are you in Seattle?
OK: Yes I got here at like 2 in the morning. I just got back from LA.
What’s in LA?
We had a work event and then I was just down in the OC, surfing. Are you in New York? How’s your summer?
I am. It’s good! I was on vacation but now I’m back, and it’s full throttle until September.
Why? What’s in September?? Just kidding!
Exactly. What’s September? Just a month. You’re coming right?
It’s going to be a fun season for us. We look forward to having you.
I can’t wait! Alright, can we play a word association game? I’ll say a word and you say what it makes you think of.
And these should be words that are really familiar to you.
[My set director] Ryan Korban!
Ha ha, amazing. Next word: Tender.
My legs after working out.
My attitude toward fashion week.
OK perfect! Speaking of girls and inspiration, a lot of people are super intrigued by the hashtag #wangsquad, and what that means, and whether you can just sign up for it. What does it take?
You know, we started it from our spring campaign last season and it wasn’t this big thing at the time. We had all this amazing talent, and we did this Polaroid casting thing, and we were like, What do we call this? Just “Spring 2016”? “Squad” sounded too generic. We threw “Wang” in front of it and we just liked the ring of it. We created a special dedicated Instagram account for it and it will continue into our fall campaign. But what do you have to be? It’s just people who inspired us who had something individualistic about who they were. At the end of the day when I say someone’s cool, it comes down to people who aren’t afraid to speak their minds, be themselves, be out of the box, un-formulaic, nonconformists, take risks. Everyone we hold under this umbrella represents this mentality.
Are your family members part of the #wangsquad?
To be honest I don’t think they even know what it is!
Your family is part of your business and has been since the beginning. That’s something that comes up a lot in the press, about your sister and your mom’s involvement. How important is it that your family is part of your business?
This is the only business I’ve ever run. Working with my family, I only know and understand this experience. There’s pros and cons to every relationship with work partners. But I’ve been fortunate to have this situation and experience to always think really liberally. I mean liberally like, I always felt like I could run with an idea, and never had to look over my shoulder, and worry if my business partner was trustworthy. They were my family. I could experiment, try things, make mistakes and know I had the support of my family.
Were you like that as a kid? Would your family let you do things and experiment? Were you curious? Shy? Were you the same as who you are now?
Exactly the same. I come from an American-Chinese background but my parents were always really supportive of what I wanted to do. I’m the youngest of three children, and by the time my brother and sister were grown up – who were my legal guardians, there’s about 17 years of difference – my mom had already got out her…
Yeah her parental responsibilities. She was much more relaxed about things. Much more open about me doing different things. From day one I’ve been interested in fashion, creating, sewing, things that are out of the box for growing up in a Chinese family. There was no pressure to be a mathematician or a lawyer. Those stereotypes fell very far away from my upbringing.
Now that you ARE fashion, what’s your favorite part?
I feel like it’s definitely the storytelling. Building that connection with an audience through storytelling. Obviously there’s the clothes. But that isn’t enough. There’s the show, the music, the campaign, seeing the product in stores, who’s buying it, how they take it and make it their own. It’s that whole process that I find inspiring and satisfying.
Yeah. And isn’t it amazing how back in the day the show was it. That was your utmost expression of what you do. And now creative directors and CEOs of their companies also look at ad campaigns, television commercials and social media campaigns as part of their overall messaging story. How does that affect what you do from a 2017 perspective?
There’s so many vehicles now for your story. Before, the fashion industry was this very exclusive thing,. There were editors and stylists, and a small audience that was able to afford the clothes and went to the fashion shows. Now that’s completely changed. It’s a huge platform everyone can participate in. Whether it’s music, or movies, there’s so much hybridization of industries right now that I feel like everyone’s looking at different platforms and industries to adapt themselves and stretch their ways of participation. I’ve always believed in not have just fashion shows communicate the brand. We have videos where the product might be secondary, it’s more about a tone, or letting a character communicate through humor or irony. A lot of people might scratch their heads, like, What does this have to do with clothes? But if you can build your audience and gain that trust and credibility, that’s the number one thing. The rest comes after that.
You’ve done an incredible job of authenticating your voice. You’re a people-person but with this distinct point of view. Is there any bum side, buzzkill to all this? Is there anything that totally bums you out about fashion?
That was a long sigh!
It does become overwhelming sometimes. And there’s a very business side of fashion that interests me but at the same time puts a lot of pressure on me. In today’s world those thoughts are constantly being brought up. It’s not just fun and games. But you want to keep that magical aspirational element alive. In fashion there’s a lot of pretentiousness and snobbery, and that brings down certain moods. But I feel fortunate to be a part of fashion when it’s changing so drastically. It makes you challenge yourself. It’s a time of reinvention, a turning point. I’m excited to see how it all turns out.
You’ve always been so fun. I remember when I first met you, you were still in school, and you had those sweaters and you wheeled them into the store at Opening Ceremony.
You had this attaché. It was old-school. And this rolling garment bag. The way you approached your line and what you were doing, it came from this genuine and fun place. And I still think you’re so genuine and fun.
Oh thank you. That’s a hard thing to balance. Especially when more people work for you. To stay true to yourself, and maintain that integrity. To be able to push forward and break down stereotypes and boundaries, but have fun at it and enjoy every moment.
The new collection takes a lot of cues from nightlife, being out, the punk scene. How does being part of nightlife inform what you’re representing? Or is it more about the personalities and people you’re inspired by?
I’m very nocturnal. I’m a person who comes to life at night. I’m in a better mood at night. My brain starts working better at night. I love going out, feeding my eyes. I don’t know. When I go out, people are a lot more, I don’t know! Going out and having that discovery moment. Nightlife in New York is always changing. It keeps you on your toes. You know, that place closed down, where’s the new place everyone’s gonna go? How are they gonna dress there? What’s the music going to be like? Who’s going to perform? That aspect of nightlife is something that I find really at the root of my inspiration.
Yeah, and that sense of entertainment. I feel that when I come to your shows. Do you intentionally do that?
Yeah. With every fashion show I feel it’s our duty to reflect what’s going around in our universe. Whether it’s the people who come to our shows, or the music, it’s what we feel is inspiring at that moment and how we mirror it back to social culture and society. Without getting too brainy, we use that as our platform for our messages.
You were one of the first people who were really having fun in this way, and by really using music to communicate the season, do you consider yourself a rebel in that way to the fashion industry? Would you use that word about what you do versus other people in the industry?
I don’t know if I consider myself a rebel, I just do what I want to do. And I don’t care if someone tells me it’s not allowed, or taboo. I guess I’m shameless that way. If I believe in something and I feel it’s interesting and relevant and believe it has integrity I just do it. Whether it’s showing in Brooklyn, or showing our stripper collection in a church. Everyone’s going to have their own judgment and critique. I’m speaking to a specific audience and that’s the audience I choose to build a connection with. Anyone else that’s outside of that that doesn’t get that? Alright. Who cares? Someone else down the road will satisfy them. You have to be OK with that and do what you want to do.
OK! That’s it. Wait: How long are you going to grow your hair? Are you going to keep growing it?
I don’t intentionally keep growing it. I’m really lazy about my hair. I live out in Brooklyn and I’ve been going to this guy Joey in the East Village, I’ve been going there literally for about ten years, at Blackstone. I’ll look in the mirror and be like, Oh man, my hair is really long: Joey can you take off two inches?
But it’s so bouncy. At the end of your shows when you’re running down the runway, it’s so bouncy, it’s flowing, it’s beautiful, it’s like those afghans at the Westminster Dog Show, and their hair moves in this perfect swish-swash. I always love that about your hair. I don’t want you to cut your hair.
Oh my god thank you. I had a shaved head once in high school. I do not have a very good-shaped head. So my long hair actually covers my deformed head shape. I will try and hold onto my hair for as long as I can.