Minutes before Jason Wu was to become famous as the 26-year-old designer of Michelle Obama’s inaugural gown, he ordered a pepperoni and mushroom pizza from Domino’s at his apartment in Midtown, then sat down with his boyfriend and a neighbor to watch the festivities on television.
Like the rest of the world, Mr. Wu had no idea what the new first lady would wear on Tuesday night. He had never met her, nor did he know that the design he had submitted to Mrs. Obama, last November, was being seriously considered. At first he wasn’t even positive that the white chiffon dress she wore, which went by in a blur, was his until the phone began ringing and ringing and ringing.
“It’s difficult to describe,” Mr. Wu said the next afternoon, after appearing on the morning shows and talking endlessly about the symbolism of the dress, the color and the selection of a designer barely known outside the fashion beltway. “I was over the moon. I know I am an unusual choice for a first lady. I didn’t think it was my turn yet.”
In his small studio on West 37th Street, Mr. Wu, with close-cropped hair and a lineless face, wore a cardigan and a necktie and looked like a truant from boarding school. His work space is spotless, with a big rustic slab of wood as a table, which is precisely where the thousands of organza flowers and crystals had been hand-sewn to Mrs. Obama’s dress over many late nights by Mr. Wu and his staff of four.
Between interviews, Mr. Wu was working on samples for his fall collection, which will be shown next month.
Although he was already something of a “fashion darling” — Anna Wintour attended his last show, when he was a finalist for Vogue’s annual prizes for emerging designers — he is expecting a crush of new attention. On Wednesday, Diane Von Furstenberg sent him a congratulatory note, and Parsons the New School for Design issued a press release boasting that Mr. Wu, Isabel Toledo and Narciso Rodriguez, all designers of clothes worn by Mrs. Obama last week, had once studied there (though it did not note that none of them graduated).
“No doubt, this is going to give the business a boost,” he said.
Mr. Wu started the label in 2006 with money from his family and his savings from a job he has held since he was 16, as a freelance designer, and now creative director, for a line of designer dolls called Fashion Royalty and manufactured by Integrity Toys in Chesapeake City, Md. His dolls ($70 to $400) are sold at F. A. O. Schwarz. His evening dresses ($2,990 to $4,700) are sold at Bergdorf Goodman. The word “prodigy” comes to mind when Mr. Wu mentions that his collection is expected to have sales of $4 million this year.
Even when he was 5, growing up in Taipei, Taiwan, his parents, who operate an import-export business, recognized his creative ambitions. His mother sometimes drove him to bridal stores so he could make sketches of the gowns in the windows. When he was 9, the family moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, where, like many future designers, he began experimenting with fashion by using dolls as mannequins.
He carried on with his hobby as a student at Eaglebrook School in Deerfield, Mass., and at the prep school Loomis Chaffee in Windsor, Conn., during a senior year in France and then for three-and-a-half years at Parsons until he left to intern for Mr. Rodriguez.
Mr. Wu’s clothes are most often described as ladylike and seem to belong to an earlier era, meaning polished jackets, flower prints and dresses with nipped waists and teacup skirts. He spends a lot of time at stores around the country, at Satine in Los Angeles, Jeffrey in Atlanta and Ikram in Chicago, developing ideas for specific customers and climates.
It was Ikram Goldman, who has played a behind-the-scenes role in connecting designers with the first lady, who introduced Mr. Wu’s designs to Mrs. Obama. (She had previously worn one of his dresses for an interview with Barbara Walters; she bought it at cost — for a little less than $1,000 — through Ikram, he said.) After the election, Mr. Wu immediately sent sketches to Ms. Goldman.
Two days later, Mr. Wu recalled, Ms. Goldman asked him to make the white dress. It was ready by Thanksgiving, when Mr. Wu, who is 5-foot-7, flew to Chicago, carrying the floor-length gown in a garment bag on his lap and hand-delivered it to Ms. Goldman. He was not paid for that dress or two more colorful designs he submitted later, he said, but made them with the understanding that if Mrs. Obama should end up wearing one, the dress would be donated to the Smithsonian Institution.
“It’s priceless to be a part of history,” Mr. Wu said.
The symbolism of Mrs. Obama’s choice of such a young American designer is invigorating for the fashion industry, especially at a moment when new companies are facing tight odds of survival.