NEW YORK — The spotlight is shining more brightly than ever on Jason Wu, the 26-year-old designer who shot to stardom last month when Michelle Obama chose his ivory chiffon confection, embroidered with organza flowers, for her inaugural ball gown. So it's no wonder that there was huge interest Friday in Wu's fall runway show, the first big event of Fashion Week.
"It was already going to be my biggest show yet, but now I feel the pressure more than ever," said Wu, who grew up in Taiwan and learned to sew and draft patterns as a child by using dolls as mannequins. He later studied at Parsons School of Design in New York, and is now the creative director for the Fashion Royalty line of designer dolls, sold at upscale toy stores.
"Not bubbly or cute, but very grown-up," is how Wu described his fall collection, inspired by a book of fairy tale drawings by Victorian-era artist Arthur Rackham, which the designer picked up at the Strand bookstore.
That meant lots of romantic -- but not girlie -- dresses with couture-like details, a Wu specialty. Whether he was inspired by the first lady or not, there were plenty of things in this solidly elegant collection that I could see her wearing. The shapes were simple, figure-flattering (shifts, sheaths and tank dresses) and seemed appropriate for all ages.
It was a great starting point for the week, a very mature effort for someone so young. It's easy to see why Wu has been compared to Oscar de la Renta. The superb workmanship on his clothes is evident, which is wise in this economy. You can see what you're paying for -- lacy black embroidered epaulets on the cap sleeves of a gray cashmere shift, and scattered knotted embroideries that elevated a simple teal wool twist-front sheath to something really special.
There was a dreamy quality to many of the pieces. You wanted to reach out and touch a navy-and-fuchsia plaid shift with a laser dot overlay, to feel how it was done. A navy wool forest-print sheath with a vanishing organza hem seemed to disappear into the ether. And a nude chiffon tank and matching skirt with allover iridescent rubber sequins conjured images of a futuristic flapper.
There was a 1920s feel to a sweet petal pink tiered ruffle cocktail dress too, and a loose-fitting violet chiffon tank gown, with antiqued diamond embroidery. But Wu's attempts at pants -- a draped wool cashmere cigarette style -- were less successful.
"It's about moody and romantic colors -- very rich looking," he said. "We have to give people a reason to want to buy. It's not just about designer brands with inflated prices, it's about investment pieces."
Wu said his spring collection, in stores now, has been selling well, thanks in part to the publicity from the first lady, who also chose to wear one of his dresses for the cover of the March issue of Vogue magazine. Wu's line is carried in L.A. at Neiman Marcus, which recently featured it in the store windows.
"That push took our collection to the next level," said the designer, who launched his business in fall 2006.
So has Wu heard from Obama since the big night? "She's a little busy," he said.
But he is enjoying his newfound fame. "The funniest experience was when I was waiting for a cab at a red light and this guy rolled down his window and said he knew who I was. A trucker knows me! He's not someone who would buy my clothes or be anywhere near the industry, but he knew my name!"