Jason Wu

Jason Wu (Jayme Thornton photo)

Before his 31st birthday, Jason Wu had dressed a first lady for a presidential inaugural ball not once but twice, making him the youngest designer to have a gown displayed in "The First Ladies" exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

In donating the first gown to the Smithsonian in 2010, first lady Michelle Obama described Wu's early childhood in Taiwan and education in the United States. Not long ago, she said, Wu was just an aspiring designer, sketching bridal shop displays at age 5 and making clothes for collectible dolls at 16.

Now, she said, he is living the American dream.

There's been no rude awakening. Wu's client list includes Kerry Washington, who wore a violet Jason Wu gown to this year's Academy Awards.

Last February, with Gwyneth Paltrow looking on, Wu staged his debut runway show as artistic director for Hugo Boss women's wear, a title he added last summer.

He maintains his namesake line too, which brought him to the Art Institute of Chicago last month for an event with Saks Gives, the charitable arm of Saks Fifth Avenue.

Before the show, Wu talked about sleep and inspiration at Terzo Piano the restaurant in the Modern Wing. Here's an edited transcript.

Q: Any favorite spots on your Chicago itinerary?

A: I love Blackbird, the restaurant. I go every time I come. I have my cousins here and a couple friends too. I left an open itinerary, which is kind of liberating, because I don't have those. I'm planned out till October this year; it's kind of like insane. One of the things I really want to do is look at the exhibits here. I've only been in the museum once. The Modern Wing is gorgeous.

Q: Does art inspire your work?

A: As a designer, you want to look at things outside of your immediate field for inspiration. It opens your horizon. Fashion magazines really aren't the place to get inspiration; it's what's out in the world. A building, an artwork, a flower. Anything can trigger a reaction. When it does, you know that's the thing to do.

Q: Young designers like you and Alexander Wang are gaining success that many work a lifetime to attain. Why?

A: That's just very American. It is the land of opportunity, and we're very open to new things and not so bound by tradition, because fashion is relatively new in context of our culture. It's not like the French where it's really deeply rooted and there are strictures. There's a generation of us kind of doing our own thing in the last few years, and New York has become not just a fashion week, it's become the fashion week for people to watch out for new blood.

Q: Who is the woman who embraces Jason Wu clothes?

A: The Jason woman is definitely sophisticated; she's strong. There's a sense of richness and a glamorous aura about her.

Q: Were you surprised when Michelle Obama wore your design for the second inaugural ball?

A: It shows her confidence. There was a lot of expectation for her to do something new. She really stuck by what she liked and felt good wearing. When the project came up, I told someone I really thought red was the color. Sometimes the best ideas aren't overwrought. You just kind of see it. People like to break it apart and analyze it, but in the end, it's instinct.

Q: What are some fashion forces that are interesting you at the

moment?

A: A huge trend right now is American sportswear. We've always been made fun of for our casualness in the U.S. Yet the casual element is what women want to wear, and that is not limited to the U.S. anymore. So how do you make the most luxurious sweatshirt, the most beautiful track pants — well, out of silk! The elevated sportswear pieces to me feel very modern.

Q: What interests you outside of

fashion?

A: Food — kind of the antithesis of fashion! Last night I went to restaurant called Resette in New York, the kind of place with bone marrow on toast and truffle pasta.

Q: You joked about how sleep was so last season. Are you getting more rest?

A: Sometimes it's good when a flight doesn't have Wi-fi. I slept a few hours on the plane today. It's always easier to sleep outside of New York. New York has just so much energy, and you don't want to miss out. I'm going back to Taiwan at the end of the month to visit my family.

I definitely wouldn't be here without my parents. They really helped me with my business and supported me from the beginning, from my mom buying my first sewing machine when I was 9. She really gave that kind of unwavering support that made my path so much easier. I always had friends in school who didn't know what they wanted to do, and I never had that feeling. I didn't want to try different things. I just wanted to do this.

wdonahue@tribune.com