NEW YORK — Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors and Marc Jacobs might be the instantly recognizable names in American fashion today. But sometime soon, Alexander Wang will surely be on the list.
At just 27 years old, he is the reigning superstar of New York Fashion Week. His runway shows are celebrity-studded, and his after-parties are not to be missed. He has a $2 million Tribeca loft, his collection is sold in 500 venues worldwide, and he already has attracted the attention of the world's biggest luxury group, LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton. (At one point, it was even rumored that he was a contender to replace John Galliano as creative director at Dior, considered one of the top jobs in fashion.)
Famous fans Alicia Keys, Courtney Love and Lea Michele were front row at his runway show in September, and Amanda Hearst, Christina Ricci and Penn Badgley were among the guests at the self-avowed party boy's fraternity-themed after-party, which featured Jell-O shots, keg stands and performances by Odd Future and Tyler, the Creator.
Perhaps more than any other American designer working today, Wang is a product of his times, creating collections for a generation raised on the Internet, extreme sports and sexually suggestive imagery, and for whom nostalgia means 1990s grunge.
"I like energy and commotion and absorbing things," Wang said recently at his downtown Manhattan studio. "I'm always texting, watching TV and talking on the phone, even when my friends are over."
Like Tom Ford in his Gucci years, Wang sees humor in bad taste. Stiletto sandals with mud flaps, blazers decorated with metal piercings, sparkly Lurex pants and handbags with enough studding to tick off airport security are all part of his sexy-with-a-wink aesthetic. But Wang also designs a lot of really wearable pieces, such as the washed silk sweat pants and ponte knit blazers in his T by Alexander Wang basics line, and the botanical-print parachute dresses and color-block intarsia knits from the spring 2012 runway collection that he showed last month.
"Although his runway shows are very directional and very urban, the collections are easy to translate," says Ken Downing, fashion director of Neiman Marcus. "Whether it's sexy jersey dresses with high-low hems, leather jackets over sportswear pieces or flirty, feminine dresses, he's the (must-have) item guy."
Wang's favorite haunts aren't museums or art galleries, but the Kmart drugstore department, Home Depot and fetish stores.
"I don't disregard anything," the designer says, his long hair, sweet face and T-shirt-and-jeans uniform belying the tough and trashy image of his brand, which includes men's and women's wear and accessories. "If I think something is really ugly, I want to find out why and I want to play with it. I want to challenge myself and make it work."
In many ways, Wang represents the tension between the past and the future in fashion, between a slow, more rarefied, artisanal luxury and a fast, made-in-China, attainable luxury.
His prices are well below those of most designer collections — $182 for a jersey dress, $315 for a panne velvet maxi skirt, $585 for a silk streamer dress and $3,995 at the top end for a leather and angora poncho straight from the runway. Accessories include $595 pumps with rabbit tails and the best-selling $875 studded Rocco bag.
"He gets his time and his contemporaries," says designer Diane von Furstenberg, who is president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America.
Wang, who is of Taiwanese descent and grew up in San Francisco, launched his line in 2007, gaining attention for his runway shows styled by L.A.-based model Erin Wasson. At first, his clothes channeled the "off-duty model look" — ripped jean shorts over tights, burnout T-shirts and motorcycle jackets.
His collections grew to be more sophisticated. The well-received spring 2009 runway show tapped into a colorful, 1980s-tinged Miami Vice vibe, with athletic influences and body-revealing styles emerging as Wang signatures.
For a guy who admittedly has never been a big athlete, Wang returns often to sports references, such as the Bruce Weber images of football players that influenced his spring 2010 collection, and the NASCAR uniforms patchworked with sponsor logos and stadium seating charts that were motifs for spring 2012.
"Growing up, the only sport I took was tennis, because I wanted to spend time at the country club," he says, laughing at himself. "But I like the idea of taking something I have such a distant connection to and finding out more about it. If I was a varsity athlete, I would probably feel strongly about how a uniform has to be worn. There is something about not knowing that makes it more interesting."
In December, Wang tapped Rodrigo Bazan, formerly of Marc Jacobs, as the first president of his company. In March, he launched a comprehensive e-commerce site (the Web is the biggest driver of growth for the brand, Wang says). The same month, he opened his first bricks-and-mortar boutique in New York with such decorative flourishes as a fox-fur hammock and an industrial cage used for rotating installations. Another store is scheduled to open next year in Beijing, and a home accessories line is on the horizon.
"Now more than ever, the world is changing," Wang says. "It's not just about being a designer. It's about being a creative person who can oversee an entire brand, down to the stores and the people who sell the product."