Jason Wu goes to school

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Jason Wu mentors Otis fashion students as they prepare a collection of women’s outfits inspired by uniforms of the 1950s. Photo by Avishay Artsy/KCRW

Fifteen fashion design students at Otis College of Art and Design just spent nine months working with celebrity designer Jason Wu, famed for his sumptuous inaugural ball gowns for Michelle Obama. He’s become a go-to designer for celebrities, but also has made accessible lines for Target and Nordstrom.

Their final outfits went on show in early May at a student fashion show at Otis. And now some of them are on display in the Neiman Marcus store window in Beverly Hills.

Wu was one of several professional designers in the fashion industry who lent their time to work with the students. This mentorship program has been going for 38 years now. And it has students go from first sketches to runway show in just a few months.

“The reality is by working in this time frame it really gets them up to speed in terms of how the industry runs,” said Jill Zeleznik, chair of the fashion department at Otis.

Wu’s class was asked to think about traditional uniforms and then design a modern take on them.

“I had the idea of mixing these very strict professional-looking uniform tailoring, mixed with couture technique, so that the students could have an opportunity to create and really think big, you know, outside of the box,” Wu said.

Jason Wu offers guidance to an Otis fashion student. Photo by Avishay Artsy/KCRW

The workshop began at LACMA’s Costume and Textiles Department, where students got to look at highly-detailed clothing by the Hollywood costumier Adrian, military uniforms, airline uniforms, and hostess dresses for the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Jason has long looked to the 1950s for fashion inspiration.

“I think it was really about presenting yourself in the best way. And also it's a great era for fashion and it's kind of the golden era of couture. You have amazing designers like Dior, St. Laurent, that really emerged in that era,” Wu said.

This studio was a partnership with Otis, LACMA and Mary and David Martin’s MADWORKSHOP.

The nonprofit’s director, Sofia Borges, said the group is “interested in the idea of the changing relationship of women in the workplace and how we can really think about developing a new style of uniform for how we can adapt and continue to be present in this kind of changing environment.”

Oli Perez, left, and Jason Wu with a fashion model wearing Perez’s outfit at the Otis student fashion show. Photo by Avishay Artsy/KCRW

After nine months of hard work, the students’ designs were finally unveiled in early May at Otis’s annual fundraiser fashion show.

Wu’s students made outfits that combined masculine and feminine styles, with muted colors and a very high quality. The winning student from the class, Oli Perez, made a coral pink wool outfit with a silk lining that looks like a blazer on one side and a dress on the other.


One of Jason Wu’s students’ fashion designs at the Otis student fashion show. Photo by Avishay Artsy/KCRW

Wu says he didn’t really have formal mentors.

“I did run into a lot of people that were willing to help me, from pattern makers to the people that own the factories,” he said.

He got his start designing and sewing for dolls. He studied fashion design at Parsons and trained under Narciso Rodriguez. By 24, he’d launched his own line, and was working on Michelle Obama’s first inauguration gown when he was only 26.

“I wanted to be able to offer a comprehensive view of how the fashion industry works for these students before they go out in the real world, so to speak, because there are so many things that you just don't get to learn in school,” Wu said. “You’re never ever fully prepared. But my goal is to let them be as prepared as possible.”