Jason Wu's New Mood

The designer talks to Isabel Wilkinson about the ’60s inspiration of his new contemporary line Miss Wu.

When Michelle Obama, wearing a green checkered dress and a white cardigan, climbed a stage in Cincinnati last October, the reaction was immediate: who had designed the dress—and where could we buy it? In the frenetic game of Michelle Obama Dress Derby—and, during an election season when the first lady’s fashion was a picked-apart component of Obama’s reelection campaign—these things mattered.

Soon came word that it was the work of Jason Wu, the young designer who had catapulted to fame in January 2009, when the first lady wore a dress of his creation to the Inaugural Ball. But, surprisingly, the green dress wasn’t a piece from his successful namesake label; instead, it was Miss Wu, the designer’s brand new line for Nordstrom, which debuted on Monday.

It was an important moment for Mrs. Obama, who showcased a newfound fashion restraint on the campaign trail by recycling outfits, and relied heavily on more accessible fashion. (Miss Wu, a 40-piece collection consisting of girly printed dresses, bold sweaters, and tailored jackets, retails for between $190 and $900.)

“I was sending her some clothes, so I thought I would send her some Miss Wu pieces,” Wu told The Daily Beast by phone. “She’s so great at mixing different price points of clothes, she always makes it work and looks really good.” And though Michelle Obama’s impact on the fashion industry was once valued at $2.7 billion, Wu says that her appearance in Miss Wu didn’t have an immediate effect on sales because she wore the pieces well in advance of the collection’s launch.

Miss Wu is a departure for the designer, now 30, who emigrated from Taiwan at age 9, launched his namesake label in 2006, and has grown a fashion empire around ready-to-wear, bridal, and accessories since then. But it’s not unfamiliar territory: last spring, he produced a lower-priced capsule collection for Target that was a big success. The new collection, which will be sold exclusively at Nordstrom for its first year, represents what Wu calls “advanced contemporary”—and sits at a price point comfortably between his collaboration with Target and his namesake label.

“We have to look at it as more than a collection—it’s the start of a new line, which I haven’t done since the start of my own label six years ago,” he says, adding that he’s already finished with the second installment, the Fall collection. He adds that Miss Wu involves “beautiful fabrics, beautiful prints, beautiful tailoring, so I didn’t feel like I had to compromise much.” (Already, a representative for the designer says, items from Miss Wu have sold out.)

The clothes are feminine and vaguely ’60s; Wu cites style icons such as Marianne Faithfull, Jean Seberg, and Jane Birkin as inspirations. He says that over the course of his six-year career, his main label has “become a little sexier, and a little more provocative, and a lot more womanly,” while Miss Wu brings out the “girlier side of Jason Wu that there were hints of in the beginning.”

Since the Obama inauguration in 2009—an event that put Wu on the map—the designer says, a lot has changed. “I’ve just refined my skills and grown my business,” he says.

As such, we had to ask Wu if he had submitted any sketches for Mrs. Obama’s gown for the second inauguration, which is just around the corner. “I can’t answer that,” he says, laughing. “We’ll have to guess, right? I didn’t know last time till the night of, so who knows.”