Wu Talks Gowns and Grants at Fashion U


Michelle Obama, Jason Wu

First Lady Michelle Obama and designer Jason Wu attend a ceremony to donate the gown Wu designed for her to wear to the 2009 inaugural ball to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP

When Jason Wu designed a flowing  ivory chiffon gown for First Lady Michelle Obama – sewing organza flowers and crystals into the fabric by hand with his staff of four – he had no idea she actually would choose it over the other contenders for inauguration night.

On that January night in 2009, Wu was home watching the celebration on TV like everybody else. He had just ordered a pepperoni and mushroom pizza from Domino’s – he and friends were watching the Inaugural Gala in his studio apartment on West 37th Street – when the familiar ruched bodice and sparkly shoulder strap appeared onscreen.

“I think that’s my dress,” he recalled saying, as he retold the story to an audience of high school and college students at Teen Vogue’s Fashion University last weekend. His hunch was confirmed, he said, when calls from CNN and Good Morning America started coming in minutes later.

Wu says attempts to find greater meaning in the design – some commentators speculated that the dress was “optimistic” or purposely evocative of Jackie Kennedy’s inaugural dress – were wrong. “I really just thought that it was a dress that would look great on her,” he said. “It was as simple as that.”

Watching his dress debut on national television, Wu knew that a new world of opportunity had just opened up for him. And in fact, he has a new collection for Target, which will go on sale February 2012.

“I turned down lucrative things [because] I wanted to stay in high fashion,” said Wu, who dropped out of Parsons, the school of design, adding that he had never been in it for the money. “My parents thought I’d crash on the couch for the rest of my life.”

Wu was one of more than 25 speakers, along with designers Alexander Wang and Betsey Johnson, who addressed 500 students at midtown’s Hudson Theatre on Saturday, Oct. 22. The students, whose interests ranged from fashion photography to merchandising, came from an estimated 49 states and 25 countries. They were in New York City to attend the sixth annual “Fashion U,” a three-day crash course covering fashion design, marketing and business. In addition to Wu’s reflections on the inaugural gown, attendees learned about his early promise as the 17-year-old creative director of a high-end doll company.

The young designer also counseled students to be “conscious of the business aspect of fashion,” because resourcefulness will save the day when grants will not.

“It’s a hard industry to break into,” said Omar Villalobos, 20, an attendee who runs Chicago-based fashion company GOCA with founder Gordana Rasic, 21. “Instead of just reading the magazine, we had an opportunity to connect with those people. I made great connections today all over the world.”

The seminars provided some insight into the challenges to come, according to Rasic.

“It is a business,” she said. “You do look to obtain some kind of profit out of it, as much as you want to be an artist.”

Teen Vogue Editor-in-Chief Amy Astley interviewed Wu before handing the mic over to students. Afterward, Astley moderated a panel of Teen Vogue editors. Students asked her the requisite “how do I get an internship?” question – one young woman even regaled the panelists with a flattering rap in hopes of interviewing them for her college paper.

According to Astley, the answer to the perennial question remains the same.

“Really, do your homework – so that wherever you may be interning, you have an understanding of that place,” she said. “Spend some quality time on the computer reading everything about the business … Nowadays, there’s really no reason not to be informed – it’s all at your fingertips.”

The weekend began Friday night with a kickoff party at H&M on 42nd St. and 5th Ave. Designer Michael Kors gave the opening address Saturday morning. Among the industry professionals who led seminars at the Hudson Theatre and Conde Nast headquarters that day were Keegan Singh, Katia Kuethe, design team Proenza Schouler, Tamara Mellon of Jimmy Choo, Jessica Simpson, Peter Som and Rebecca Minkoff. Students could choose from an assortment of seminars or a Teen Vogue editorial floor tour. By the time Wu took the stage, most students had attended at least five events.

It was a scene from an episode of “Ugly Betty” that made Boston University senior Catherine Young, 21, certain that she wanted to be a fashion photographer. She asked Astley and the editors where to start.

“My next step is to follow Amy’s advice: go home, look up photographers and offer to be an assistant,” she said. “I’m graduating soon, and I want to make sure I find something that can play to my strengths.”

Some attendees are thinking even farther in advance. Susanna Friedman, 16, had been waiting four years to be old enough to apply to Fashion U. She says it was worth it: “It gave me a clear sense of where to start.”