Feature Article
Wen Wu helps outfit women for life's special events

by Beth Luberecki

Walking into the warehouse at the Formosa Sunrise Corporation headquarters is like entering a little girl’s fantasyland. Racks of pink, lavender, scarlet, and coral prom, bridesmaid, and pageant dresses hang overhead, just waiting to be worn. Decorative stones, pearls, and bugle beads twinkle in the light, almost as if each dress is yelling, “Pick me!” A section of floor-to-ceiling shelving units holds rows of wedding gowns, folded neatly in anticipation of the moment they’ll be revealed on the big day.

It immediately makes one think of playing dress up with Barbie dolls or of the princesses who delight little girls at Walt Disney World. But these dresses are all made for real teenagers and women celebrating some of life’s biggest milestones.

This might seem like a strange place for fifty-one-year-old Wen Wu to end up, but to him, it all makes sense. Of course, when he came from Taiwan to get a master’s degree in structural engineering at the University of Florida, he probably didn’t think he was going to end up in the clothing industry. But after five years working for a steel company in Southwest Florida during the 1980s, he began searching for a new opportunity.

“I had asked the steel company owner to buy into the company, but he didn’t want to do that,” says Wu. “So I started looking for different businesses. I’m always an entrepreneur in my head, and once I was more fluent in understanding business and the [English] language, I felt like I wanted to do something myself, to give it a try.”

Inspired by the birth of their daughter, Tiffany, in 1989, Wu and his wife, Maylene, found a bridal shop for sale in Fort Myers. “I checked the inventory and all the dresses were made in Taiwan,” says Wu. “And that just dinged in my head. I can get them made in Taiwan, bring them in, and sell them directly.” Eliminating the middle man, he thought, made perfect sense.

Wu set about obtaining some sample dresses. But when a partnership with the shop’s owner didn’t work out, Wu and his gowns hit the road, going from store to store and to markets in Atlanta to drum up business. He worked out of his Fort Myers home otherwise, building his one-man fashion empire now known as the House of Wu.

“Once I finished a sale on the road, I came back and answered the phone, packed the dresses, printed the invoices,” he recalls. “I did everything myself.”

A year later, Wu moved his business to a space in Punta Gorda when he entered into a new partnership that would last two years. During that time, sales doubled, but a difference in business philosophies brought the partnership to an end. “I felt that with the earnings that we had, we should continue to put them into the inventory to be a bigger business, and his idea was to start hiring people and take money out of the company,” says Wu.

Wu’s sister then came on board, and the business moved back to Fort Myers, occupying several different spaces until Wu built his two headquarters buildings in South Fort Myers off of Ben C. Pratt/Six Mile Cypress Parkway. It’s there that the company’s warehouse is located, along with its customer-service and business operations, a showroom, a photo studio, and a clubhouse space where Wu entertains clients.

“In twelve years, we moved from a company that nobody really knows to a nationally known company that receives many awards for design excellence,” says Wu. “And we moved sales to millions, millions of dollars.”

Wu now oversees twenty different collections under the House of Wu name, offering prom and Quinceanera dresses, gowns for brides and the rest of their bridal parties, pageant wear, and social-occasion dresses. The company’s creations range from the slinky, sexy looks of the Panoply collection to the classic prom dresses from Tiffany Designs to the high-end bridal gowns of the Bellissima Couture line.

Tampa-based Georgette’s carries prom dresses from Tiffany Designs, mother-of-the-bride or -groom looks from the LaBelle line, and gowns from House of Wu’s Quinceanera collection. “They do an excellent constructed-bustier part to the prom dresses,” says Georgette Diaz, the shop’s owner. “The construction is very well done, and the workmanship is very good. In the Quinceanera collection, there’s a very unique look to their dresses; they’re different than anyone else’s. The colors are beautiful, they’re constructed very well, and the fit is easy because they have lace-up backs, which sometimes avoids alteration costs. Older women wouldn’t tolerate lace-up backs, but young girls think they’re very cool.”

“The collections all have a specific look and image and cater to different stores,” says Wu. “Certain stores want certain styles, and every store has their certain segment of the market share. So we design to fit every demand of the stores in the whole country.” That means if a bride in one part of the country wants a couture look, while another bride elsewhere wants a style that’s a bit simpler, the House of Wu probably has something that would appeal to each of them.

All of the dresses are made in China and designed by a four-person team, of which Wu is a member. Twice a year, the designers spend two months in China creating the gowns for the company’s fall and spring lines. They draw on everything from popular red-carpet looks to the fashion trends coming out of Europe when formulating their designs. Then they bring them all back to Fort Myers and stage a runway show to decide which dresses will be manufactured and sold for the season.

When it comes to prom dresses, Wu expects bright colors to remain popular. As for silhouette, he says that girls these days seem to prefer either Cinderella-style ball gowns with full skirts or more fitted dresses, like mermaid-style gowns (think Marion Cotillard’s 2008 Oscar dress).

For bridal gowns, Wu expects the trends of the past several years to continue. “When I first started, it was the puffy sleeve, the ‘leg of mutton’ long sleeve,” he recalls. “Then the trend switched to strapless and it’s been popular ever since.” So has the A-line style, one of the company’s most in-demand silhouettes.

According to Wu, the House of Wu ships between 150,000 and 200,000 dresses a year in the United States alone. The company also has distributors in Canada, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Mexico, and South America. It employs more than sixty people in Fort Myers and in China, and despite the state of the economy, Wu still anticipates “double digit” growth in 2009.

“The bride’s budget has shrunk for their wedding event,” he admits. “The dresses they are looking for may be 10, 15 percent less than before. They want a better deal, a better price. But for us, we are very aggressive in pricing since day one in our business, and we have always been recognized in the industry as a value collection. And we look at every area to reduce our costs of operations in order to bring the best value to the public.”

One way the company has done that is through the pack and ship facility it opened in China three years ago. “I was seeing the cost of packing and shipping, the cost of wholesale distribution, increasing significantly,” says Wu. “So three years ago I started this operation to pack and ship dresses directly from China to retail locations around the country. That saves a lot of freight and labor and handling.” The 50,000-square-foot facility has been so successful that Wu is now offering the service to other businesses distributing products in the United States.

When it comes to these aspects of his business, Wu finds himself drawing on things he learned during his structural engineering days. “Working as a design engineer gave me a further understanding of the cost of building a building, which is a very important thing for the business,” he says. “And the school for structural engineering helped me analytically, to analyze situations and options and choices.”

If only every woman faced with choosing from among Wu’s creations were blessed with such skills.

For more information about the House of Wu, visit www.houseofwu.com.

Beth Luberecki is a Venice, Florida–based freelance writer and an editor for Times of the Islands, RSW Living, and Bonita Living.