Boy Meets World: Fashion Designer Wes Gordon

Wes Gordon brings a downtown wink to his sophisticated uptown chic

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Mark Mahaney for TIME

Gordon, right, in his studio in Manhattan’s financial district with assistant designer Remy Renzullo.

“I kept reading about central Saint Martins, Central Saint Martins, Central Saint Martins,” recalls designer Wes Gordon of his days as a fashion-obsessed Georgia teenager. “I didn’t know what it was, but I knew I had to go there because McQueen, Galliano and Stella McCartney went there. It was like Hogwarts. I had to go there if I wanted to be a wizard.”

Gordon, now 26, did indeed cross the pond to attend London‘s prestigious arts university, and his breakneck rise to fashion darling since graduating in 2009 seems like a form of wizardry all its own. The former Oscar de la Renta and Tom Ford intern launched his label in December of that year, just a month after moving to New York City. Harrods and Saks Fifth Avenue immediately picked up the line, followed a year later by Bergdorf Goodman and Kirna Zabête, the influential SoHo boutique known for experimenting with emerging designers.

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Born in Chicago and raised in Atlanta, Gordon fell in love with fashion design in middle school. In high school, he spent an “intense” summer, he says, learning sewing and patternmaking from a local seamstress while “compulsively reading books about fashion.” It was when he was at Central Saint Martins that he scored the summer internship with de la Renta. “I took all the money I made at my summer job at a law firm and spent it on my wardrobe for Oscar—pinstripes, seersucker,” he recalls. It worked. De la Renta chose Gordon to be his personal intern, who would hand pins to the master as he draped. Just a few years later, de la Renta was in attendance at Gordon’s first presentation.

With their rich colors and custom brocades, Gordon’s clothes have a luxe, elegant quality reminiscent of de la Renta’s. His upcoming collection, for instance, includes a crocodile-embossed bubblegum pink silk satin.

It’s the kind of mix that retailers love. “Wes Gordon is a modern-day Bill Blass, designing pure American sportswear with a twist,” says Ken Downing, senior vice president and fashion director of Neiman Marcus. “He reminds me of a young Michael Kors in his personality and vision,” says Beth Buccini, a co-owner of Kirna Zabête. “And those clothes! Far more sophisticated than you would expect from someone his age.”

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This sense of elegance, paired with wit, has made him a red-carpet favorite of such celebrities as Katy Perry, January Jones and Lena Dunham. “Wes’ designs have an incredible maturity that, coupled with his rowdy sense of humor, make me feel like both a lady and a tramp,” says Dunham. For the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute ball last May, the Girls star wore a malachite green duchess satin gown she chose from dresses that Vogue editor Anna Wintour selected for her. Wintour had Gordon swap out the gown’s original crimson lining with robin’s egg blue. “My dress was the most delightful combination of black-tie-appropriate and sort-of-cheeky.”

The designer has also had his requisite Michelle Obama moment: the First Lady wore one of his jackets to the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards last year. Gordon, a social-media addict, found out about it on Twitter. “I saw a tweet that said, ‘Michelle Obama in houndstooth metallic jacket.’ And I said, ‘Wait, how many people make houndstooth metallic jackets?'”

Head-spinning as such gets may be, Gordon is looking forward to the ubiquity that is the mark of true success. “I dream of walking down the street and seeing not just some woman in my clothes but a stranger in my clothes,” he says. “She’s going to know it, because I’m going to chase her down the sidewalk.”

Cho is a CNN national correspondent and host of Fashion: Backstage Pass. It airs on Feb. 22 at 11:30 a.m. E.T. and through the next week on CNN International
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