Alexander Wang may be the savviest designer of his generation.
At 28, he is the rising star who built a global multimillion-dollar business in less than a decade, opened stores in New York and Beijing and, last week, he was named the creative director of Balenciaga.
“It was a coup for Alex, and a coup for American fashion,” said Diane von Furstenberg. But, she added, “he’s going to need some mentoring in Paris.”
It is fitting that Wang should become the first American designer to take on a big, historic European design house since Marc Jacobs, Michael Kors and Narciso Rodriguez went to Paris in the late 1990s. Wang most perfectly represents his generation’s more accessible and business-minded approach to fashion. He also reflects the growing prominence of designers of Asian descent on the global stage.
He has created a business with estimated sales of more than $60 million by making contemporary T-shirts, sweatshirts and shorts that look remarkably like high fashion. Early in his career, when critics said he was too commercial, Wang said: “I don’t see that as a negative thing. It is something I actually enjoy.”
Some established designers see the change as symbolic of a broader watering-down of creativity in fashion. “They’re not fashion designers,” one New York designer said. “They’re fashion curators. They’re sitting at a computer copying other peoples’ ideas.”
Their fear is that PPR, the luxury group that owns Balenciaga, as well as Gucci, Saint Laurent and Bottega Veneta, plans to take the label in a more commercial direction, or that the choice of Wang was an opportunistic play for the luxury market in China.
Francois-Henri Pinault, the chief executive of PPR, said that they were not considered criteria for his recruitment. Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue, who championed Wang for the job, also scoffed at concerns about his age.
“Oh, please, come on,” she said. “How great is it to be young? That is when designers are at their most fearless.”
Isabelle Guichot, the chief executive of Balenciaga since 2007, said that the role of a designer in today’s industry demands a quality that she called “creative realism.” Wang, Guichot said, was the “top choice.”
Wang grew up in California. Among his classmates at Drew in San Francisco was Victoria Traina, who now works in fashion in New York. Beginning in 2002, he attended Parsons the New School for Design for two