Adrian Wu is one of Canada’s fastest rising fashion designers and no one is more surprised about that than Wu himself. Since igniting Canadian runways at the tender age of 18, the 21 year old is poised to realize his dream of designing in Europe. Within the next few weeks, some of the most famous fashion houses in the world, including Jean Paul Gaultier, Chanel, Lanvin Paris, Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior, will review his body of work. It’s all too much for a young man who used to call Burlington his home, but Wu is anxious to begin the next chapter of his life.
TorontoVerve recently sat down with the talented designer in his downtown Toronto studio for a very revealing interview.
TorontoVerve: Tell us about your childhood. Who was Adrian Wu before all the media attention and fame?
Adrian Wu: I was a naive homosexual. I was a little spoiled. Since I was born, I wanted to be a sex therapist until I [dropped out of the University of Toronto]. So who was I before all of this? Well, I was in love and I think that’s also what led me to drop out and re-evaluate what I wanted to do. Because when you’re young and you’re in love, you just go along with what’s going on, and you forget about the bigger questions.
TV: Was your heart broken?
AW: Yeah, I guess so. A lot of what I do is try to find my passion. What am I passionate about? I think we’re all trying to ask that question. And surprisingly no one in high school asked me that. I’m also passionate about reform and education because that’s the only way we can move forward in society. Anyways, I’m going off in a tangent.
TV: So would you say that this person who broke your heart is the reason why you’re here today?
AW: One could be so idealistic or dramatic, but yeah, I think love -- just the philosophical question of love, what Plato and Aristotle said of love, brings up a much deeper question of existence. It can sound so vague or cliché, but at the end of the day I’m just making clothes. In reality, what’s the point? Eventually I’m going to die. This is my life now, but all this is going to be gone some day. So why are we all kicking and screaming? Why are we all fighting and getting angry? Why is this plane taking so long; when 50 years ago we can barely do that. So again, what I’m saying, let’s ask the bigger questions. And I think that I use fashion as a medium to spread that message.
TV: But what do you say to those people who aspire to attain your status?
AW: It’s just marketing. Let’s face it, this business is about making money. How many fashion designers will admit to you that our job is to convince stupid people to pay large amounts of money for a rag. It’s business. [A journalist once said that I shamelessly self-promote myself], and I do. How else am I going to get people to buy my product? And the irony is I’m not even interested in selling the product yet because there is no market in Canada -- I hate to say it. What fashion industry do we have here? Who is making money? Joe Fresh! They are. This is the reality of it and yet not a single journalist would dare write that almost no Canadian fashion designers are breaking even. The average consumer is not going pay $800 for a [Canadian design] when they can spend an extra $100 for a Mark Jacobs made in Italy. That is the Canadian fashion industry summed up in a nutshell. I’m 21 years old...what do I know? I’m just telling you what I’m seeing. I’m seeing designers with a second job. I’m very fortunate doing what I do, but I have my [financial] backers and that’s the only way I can do it.
TV: Are you worried that there may be some backlash from the Canadian fashion industry and your peers about what you are saying?
AW: No, because I say this all the time. I’ve been saying this since 2008. People know I feel this way, but no one cares or writes about it. [There are Canadian fashion designers] asking for investors on North American websites. They’re asking for money publicly. Literally admitting to the public that they’re not making money so they’re asking people for help. No one is going to say that out loud.
TV: Are you saying that all these Canadian fashion magazines and critics are perpetuating a false image of a thriving Canadian Fashion industry?
AW: You have to ask yourself the question, ‘what is the Canadian fashion industry?’ If you ask me what the Canadian fashion industry is, it’s Aritzia and Joe Fresh. Most people don’t even know that they’re Canadian.
TV: Since you were 3, you went to private school and wore a uniform. What was it like growing up with all that order and regimen?
AW: I think it’s a factor and not a cause of who I am. I have not had individuality until just 3 years ago. Do I even know who I am right now? I don’t even know. But definitely, wearing a uniform since I was 3 years old was frustrating.
TV: Tell us about your family. What are they like?
AW: That’s a vague question, BUT my mother is an extreme idealist. She makes a point to enjoy life and spend the most money to get the best. From her, I’ve learned to enjoy the best things in life. My father, on the other hand, will go to Walmart [to buy clothes], yet he’s a very respected physician - makes a decent salary and he’s always taught me to be a realist and spend money wisely. 'Buy things that have resale value because the world revolves around money.' My mom is Christian and an idealist and my dad is atheist and a realist and I think I’ve gotten the best of both worlds from them.
TV: Your personal style is androgyny-inspired. I remember the first time I approached you for TorontoVerve street style. You had a mohawk and were wearing a man’s dress shirt, a skirt with platform shoes and carrying a fur purse. You were born and raised in conservative Burlington. How did your friends and family react when you first stepped out in this style?
AW: Honestly, it was more shocking to them than me coming out. I was asked, ‘Adrian, why are you wearing a dress? Do you want to be a woman? Are you transexual? Do you want a sex change?’ You hear it in every gay story that parents can’t accept the lifestyle, but in the 21st century, my parents understand that the world is changing. That’s how Westernized they are. My friends thought my style was weird. I think that’s what the average person would think. It was tough. Even today, people stare at me all the time. I don’t even think it’s how I dress. I can go on about the Asian culture, but I don’t want to go into it too much; there are stereotypes and I don’t fit under a stereotype.
TV: Did you wear androgynous styles before coming out?
AW: Noooo, but I was the club scene gay. Slutty. After I started sewing, I asked, why can’t I wear dresses? And just for the record, I don’t use the word ‘androgyny’ anymore because androgyny implies ‘male’ and ‘female’, which have their own [interpretations in society]. I prefer ‘genderless’.
TV: How old were you when you came out?
AW: I was 14 in white suburbia. It was difficult, but I was safe and blessed. I was looked after very well.
TV: How would you best describe your designs?
AW: Draping. I’m gifted in the art of draping. It’s something very dear to my heart. It’s something that I discovered that I’m good at. You can throw in androgyny and sexuality. It’s part of me being vulgar. I think sex is the last exciting thing in the world. It’s a lasting topic. People can’t say the word and that’s what I’m intrigued about. Sex brings up the discussion of something stimulating and that’s what I think good art is. [It’s what turns you on]. Eventually, that’s what I’d like to be known for. To bring a light to sexuality and the importance of having that discussion.
TV: You created quite a stir with the ‘period’ dress (a dress with a conspicuous blood stain in front).
AW: Yeah, I just wanted to throw it in there. No one really thought of the collection as a group of pieces in an art collection. If you stepped back and looked at the bigger picture of what was said, that’s what was beautiful. I don’t care what the individual pieces say. The ‘period’ dress was one thing, but I just thought it would look aesthetically pleasing as a whole. That’s how my mind works.
TV: You’ve said that you don’t care about fashion. You care about art and fashion is your medium for art...
AW: I said that 2 years ago [when I was naive]. Fashion is my philosophy. A discussion about art is ultimately a discussion about philosophy. It’s like what Warhol said, “art is what you can get away with.” That’s completely true. C’mon, you guys are sitting here right now and I’m 21 years old and you’re actually taking me seriously. I can talk like a 50 year old right now. I can put on any face that I want. That’s what’s interesting about this world. It’s about what you can get away with and what you can get people to buy.
TV: How do you explain your success immersing yourself into something you don’t care about?
AW: There’s this illusion that what I care about is skinny people and that fashion designers [should only dress women]. Why is there this assumption? I would love to do a collection for obese women. A collection is a message. One can argue that a dress looks better on a skinny person, but fashion isn’t just about that. I hate fashion. I really do. Everyone is so caught up in the glamour of it all. It’s frustrating for me that people just go into fashion because of the parties and it’s way more than that.
TV: So you’re saying the fashion industry is shallow?
AW: It is. That’s why I say I hate fashion because there’s this illusion that’s been created. Delusion. And I’m here to say that there’s another option.
TV: The high-concepts of your fashion collections often draw mixed reactions from the press. They’re not quite sure what to make of it. National Post’s Nathalie Atkinson even wondered if you were mocking the fashion industry with your theatrics. How do you respond to that kind of criticism?
AW: I appreciated her article. That was the most well-written view of my work. Whether I agree with it...that’s a different story. One can also argue that it was an insult to my intelligence when she questioned [what I did] because you don’t see [fashion critics questioning other designers like that]. Maybe I am mocking the fashion industry (laughing), but I’m bringing up a discussion and that’s what I care about. That’s the beauty of what I do. I’m forcing people to talk. That’s art.
TV: What do you love about fashion?
AW: I relate to Gabrielle Chanel. Sounds so cliché, but have you seen the movie Coco Avant Chanel? She started from nothing and ultimately asked the question, ‘why is everyone dressing like this?’ And she was the first person to bring black and a simple dress into the [fashion scene]. Everyone [else] was wearing plum and feathers. I relate to that Gabrielle story because now in the 21st century, I’m walking around [asking] why is everyone wearing Lululemon pants? Why is everyone wearing jeans or sweat pants to the grocery store? Do they not care what they look like? [I want to] bring back Dior’s silhouette and femininity. That’s what I love about fashion -- women can look beautiful. Men can look beautiful. Men can be pretty and women can be handsome.
TV: You said that the film Amelie and V for Vendetta inspired your last Toronto Fashion Week collection. How much do movies influence your designs?
AW: Nothing. Ideas influence my designs and my life. Emotion is choice. Call me naive, but I really believe that. When you cry it’s because you associate death as a bad thing. That’s why you cry. That’s an idea. Death is an idea. So when I say inspire...yeah...movies....ok, but it’s the ideas that inspire me. [Long pause] A guy I was seeing at the time introduced me to Amelie the soundtrack. That’s why I did the collection. [That’s] a little tidbit for you. (smile)
TV: You’ve once said that you’re fascinated with inhuman qualities and have a love for X-Men. In the comics and movies, the X-Men are misunderstood by society because they’re different - sort of like what’s happening to you in the fashion community now. Wouldn’t you say?
AW: (laughs) Yeah, I love that reference. Interesting. Am I being misunderstood? I hope I will always be misunderstood because then it forces you guys to come here and talk to me. When was the last time we were ever inspired by something that we understood. So, I hope I continue to be misunderstood.
TV: You know what I find interesting about that? A lot of critics ask a lot of questions about you and your collections, but they never think to ask you for the answers.
AW: No. Very few, like you guys, have come to actually find out who this guy is and I appreciate that. I appreciate when people can come forward and have a discussion with me. [About] X-Men, I like to think that I do have a voice for the youth. There’s corporate [pressure] to satisfy the youth and that’s why I do things. I want to do a collection inspired by Pokémon, but take it into a sophisticated [realm] where even 50 year olds can relate.
TV: The X-Men are evolved versions of humanity. Would you say that your designs are an evolution of Canadian fashion?
AW: That is a very nice thing to say. I appreciate that. Evolution. Moving forward. My mother taught me that. Always changing. My mother, Asian-Christian, is obsessed with R&B and Hip-Hop because she’s very ‘let’s go with the times’. That’s evolution right there. Darwin -- survival of the fittest. And that’s the irony of business and fashion -- I need to care about people, but also need to think of myself and keep moving forward.
TV: What do you recommend to people who love fashion but just can’t afford it?
AW: I don’t believe that fashion is a discussion about money in any way. I love that there’s this assumption that fashion has to do with nice clothing. It’s an interesting topic because style and fashion are two different things. One can say fashion is about wearing what’s in -- the latest Louis Vuitton heels, even Zara or H&M clothing. But, when you’re talking about wanting to afford...I like to argue that anyone can afford anything. Save up your money. Even a homeless person -- save up your change, you can afford that Louis Vuitton purse. Again, it’s a philosophical question. That’s my advice: save your money.
TV: You once said that your dream job is to work for the House of Dior...
AW: I take that back.
TV: ....and be a great apprentice under the tutelage of a master class fashion designer. If that became a reality and your master advised you to tone down your conceptual-vision, what would you do?
AW: I would not be surprised [if I was told to tone it down] because I would be working for someone else. That’s why I said I take if back. If you talked to me 4 weeks ago, before I went to Paris, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to say that ‘maybe I can make it on my own’. But I think maybe a month or year ago, there’s a lot more doubt in me to work for Christian Dior. If it happens that would be great because how many people can do that? But I’m still trucking away and doing what I love. And if that happens, it happens.
TV: In a previous interview, you stated that you battle with LOVE. Trying to find one person who connects with you. Are you winning that battle yet?
AW: You’re the first person to ever ask me this question. [long pause. Adrian is full of emotion. He takes off his glasses and rubs his eyes] Where do I start? I can only say what I’ve experienced. When I first believed I fell in love, it changed my life. It was a long time ago. It was this REAL feeling that nothing else matters in this world. It was the most beautiful moment that I had ever experienced. After that disappeared, it’s been a battle to get that back again. It’s not about a relationship or dating. There’s that pressure for everyone to find one person. Why aren’t we searching for that feeling? It’s so indescribable. That ultimate feeling. It drives me to do a lot of what I do. Every day is a battle. Everyone deserves love. I’m talking about romantic love. Romantic love is the icing on the cake that everyone should be striving for. The irony is that I support an industry that doesn’t help people looking for love because there’s [pressure] to look a certain way when in reality, love has no boundaries. I’m always about shedding away my judgment and seeing that beauty in everyone, and that is a battle within itself.
TV: Let me just come out and ask, is there someone special in your life right now?
AW: Nooo. No. No. Maybe I still think about that ONE. The one who touched me and was the cause of my career. And maybe I will die, and this person will only know after I go.
TV: Sounds like an Adele song.
AW: Maybe it is. (smiling)
TV: You mentioned that the fashion industry is shallow, but yet you've chosen to work there. Isn’t it going to be harder for you to find that real love?
AW: You’re the first person to say [that] out loud. You’re right. You’re right. I’m lucky enough to experience it once. So if I die now, [after inspiring people with that lost love], then I’m ok with that.
TV: A fashion critic (freelance style reporter Christian Allaire) said you’re destined for greatness if only you had a more coherent message in your collections. How would you respond to that?
AW: I do have a coherent [message]. I 100% disagree with that statement. I completely disagree. I make a point to make it coherent. I didn’t sleep for 24 hours before my first collection at Toronto Fashion Week because I was rearranging the order of the clothing to make it look as coherent as possible. Not to put myself on a pedestal, [but] some of the most respected psychiatrists, architects and PHD’s understand me better than my fashion critics. That just says something about my work. If the Harvard University professor understands my work better than fashion journalists, then where is our fashion industry heading?
TV: Let’s close with word association.
AW: Ok. I like this. This is different.
AW: Beauty. The two go hand in hand.
AW: ‘The meaning of Life’. The most rational way I can put it, really. If everyone understood that, the world would be a happier place and I don’t think I’m the only person who feels that way.