The American Dream of Jason Wu

Last week, I had the privilege of introducing SCAD students to designer Jason Wu, the polymathic wunderkind of fashion and a heroic genius of womenswear. Jason was kind enough to visit the university during SCADstyle, our weeklong parade of what’s next in style, culture, and branding. Also on campus were the charming and hilarious Bob Harper, the vivacious Robert Verdi, and Pierre Cardin’s director of haute couture Maryse Gaspard, among a host of other speakers and personalities, including many SCAD alumni influencers. I took pages of notes in talks on hospitality design, interior design, and wellness design.

The climactic moment of the week — especially for our students — was the moment Jason Wu stepped onto the stage at the theater of the SCAD Museum of Art to accept his SCAD Étoile, an honor the university bestows to celebrate the highest achievement in style and design. Following the presentation of this honor, Jason joined Rickie De Sole, fashion director at W magazine, for a conversation. In the audience, hundreds of students eager to hear his story sat on the edges of their seats, Moleskines and pens poised. His story is worth hearing. Still in his thirties, Jason has achieved what most designers spend a lifetime working toward.

At age 23, he launched his first collection. Three years later, he designed Michelle Obama’s first inaugural gown. When he was 26. Can you imagine? I thought of all our SCAD students, many of them near that age, seeing their design on every front page, every newsfeed, every network. Wow. And then, four years later, as if to prove a point, at President Obama’s second inauguration, Jason did it again!

He is the first Asian to dress a First Lady for that all-important first dance. An immigrant, designing not just one, but two inaugural gowns. That’s beyond impressive. That’s the American Dream. That’s the story of Jason Wu.

His story actually begins with dolls and toys. As Jason tells it, when he was a boy, his mother bought him a sewing machine, and he learned to sew by designing and making clothes for his doll collection. “I wasn’t into trucks and that sort of thing,” Jason told our enrapt students. “It wasn’t just about playing with dolls. I cared less that they were dolls and more that they were beautiful. I loved playing with beautiful things.”

Jason’s humble beginnings, making tiny clothes for his dolls as a boy, has become the stuff of legend. This childhood hobby led to his first design job, which generated the startup capital for his first collection — and then not long after, Michelle Obama called. The rest, as they say, is fashion history.

Jason has since dressed Julianne Moore, Diane Kruger, Kerry Washington, Christy Turlington, the imminently royal Meghan Markle, and another beloved SCAD Étoile, our dear friend Reese Witherspoon.

His career proves that no designer is an island. He has partnered with Lancôme, Swarovski, Bergdorf Goodman, St. Regis, and companies that our students have partnered with at SCAD, such as Target and General Electric. (His capsule collection for Target practically mainstreamed the YouTube Haul revolution.)

His inspirations are multifarious. He finds ideas everywhere: in the modernist painting of Joseph Albers, the restoration of Versailles, and that great American classic, RuPaul’s Drag Race. Jason loves RuPaul enough that he found time, in between creating four collections a year, to design the official RuPaul doll collection. He’s a fan.

Jason’s eclectic influences are a reminder that students and aspiring designers should immerse themselves in everything that surrounds them — especially, for our students, the SCAD Museum of Art. They should soak it in, see it all, and let it inform their work, just as Jason does. “I love the Met,” he told the crowd. “I try to see every new exhibition. The ideas you get!” From footwear to eyewear, fibers to fragrance, tiny dolls to towering First Ladies, Jason’s career is a case study in see it all, love it all, make it all.

The word career harkens back to the path that stars carve through the sky, and the star of Jason Wu has coursed brilliantly across the sky of his own life. And to think, it all started at home, in a boy’s bedroom, making tiny beautiful clothes for his toys. From there, to runways and retailers around the world, all the way to the White House. And of course, you can now purchase a Michelle Obama doll wearing one of his gowns. Full circle indeed. If ever there was an American Dream, then it is the life of Jason Wu.

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Paula Wallace

Paula Wallace

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Designer. Author. President and Founder of the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) || http://scad.edu || http://instagram.com/paulaswallace