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How I'm Making It: Rubin Singer

Rubin Singer may technically be a young designer, but he's accomplished industry feats that many long-time designers only dream of. At just 34, Singer has already helmed his own eponymous line for six years, worked alongside Oscar de la Renta, and dressed mega stars like Beyonce and Alicia Keys for some of the most high-profile events in the country (maybe you've heard of a little football game called the Super Bowl?). When we last met with Singer, it was in the throngs of New York fashion week--and hot off the heels of Super Bowl madness. He showed us around his studio space as he put the finishing touches on his German dominatrix-inspired fall collection, bursting with street smart daywear and edgy evening looks. Now, with fashion month craziness behind us, we caught up with the burgeoning designer to talk superstar collaborations, finding a balance (hint: He's still looking), and dating famed makeup artist Kevin Aucoin his freshmen year of college. Here's how he's making it.
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So would you say that you’re mostly self-taught, or did you pick it up from your father? My father taught me everything from a very young age--I mean, I made my mother's first dress when I was five. I grew up learning from him and playing with clothes and hanging out in the windows with the mannequins and the dresses and the fashion shows and everything...

In 2007, at age 28, you established your eponymous line. What led you to that point? I started working at Oscar de la Renta professionally, and I was there for two years. After that, I went to Bill Blass where I was head designer for licensing at 24 for all of their licensing labels. And when Bill Blass sort of started to come undone in 2005, I started working with Stevie Wonder's wife--a woman by the name of Kai Milla. I was with her for three seasons, and I basically developed her entire business from the ground up.

I had no idea she was a designer! Yeah, she really wasn’t! That’s where I kind of came into the picture. I got to really formulate who I was as a designer with what I was doing for [Milla]. And that ultimately brought me to the realization that I was ready to work on my own. So in 2007, I left her, and immediately put some sewing machines in my apartment, hired a couple of seamstresses, and threw a collection together in about a month. I landed my first store when I was in my first season which kind of got everything going.

That’s incredible. Yeah, it was. It really was.

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Would you say spending time around Stevie Wonder and co. helped you forge your current connections with celebrity clientele? Well, I’ve been very blessed in that respect because the first people I actually ever worked with in terms of a celebrity were Beyonce and Alicia Keys, back in 2008. And that’s kinda how the whole thing started--I had a lot of publicity and a lot of press when I was just starting out. Then the recession happened, and everything really died down. We went from a flourishing business to basically life support for a year and a half. And in that time, I really reevaluated my priorities: Before the recession, I was doing big shows at the tents and I had all these parties and celebrities and blah, blah, blah, the whole thing. And I really realized that once everything came undone, I was only left with the relationships that I had. So since then, I've really cultivated all my relationships with the stylists and the celebrities, so that I have a relationship with them and they have a relationship with me, and we really know each other: I know what I can deliver and what they can expect from me. And that’s kind of how I've built things to where they are now.

How did you become comfortable working so closely with these high powered stars? Do you ever get intimidated? Actually my first relationship was with [the late] Kevyn Aucoin, who was a very, very famous makeup artist. He was, like, my first relationship in my life. So my first year in college, all of a sudden before I knew it I was on Janet Jackson’s Velvet Rope tour, and I was hanging out with Sandra Bernhard and Marc Jacobs and all these people. So I kind of got exposure to these very, very high profiled people very early on in my adult life. And that kind of cooled my jets in terms of being so impressed, because you realize that these people are people. They’re not these untouchable, infallible creatures--they’re human. And that's one of the things that kind of made me comfortable with dealing with so many them. I mean, of course it's impressive whenever you meet somebody who is so famous and so important, but at the same time you know you have to be yourself. And that's what celebrities are hypersensitive to: All these people all over them and trying to get something out of them instead of what you're there to do.

Your big moment this year so far was dressing Beyonce for the Super Bowl. How, as a designer, do you go from dressing such a superstar performer to dressing a normal woman? Beyonce's Super Bowl outfit was a hyper-extension of what I was already working on for my fall/winter collection. It was basically the nucleus of the concept, meaning that I could really go as far as I possibly could with that whole look on stage, which is not the same as reality. So when you look at my collection, it's done in its totality. There’s an air of what I did for her in everything, but there’s not the literal translation of it. You’re talking about probably one of the biggest stars, if not the biggest star right now in music performing at the biggest event in America on television. You can’t get any more amped up than that.

How do you keep your life balanced with so much going on? (Laughs) It’s a funny question. I don’t feel like I have a balance right now at all. Luckily, I have a lot of people in my life that are wonderful and supportive and close to me. From my staff and my father who works with me, to my relationships... so I have those anchors. But life right now is completely crazy in a wonderful, wonderful way. I mean, I’ve worked the last eight years to get to this point, so I’m certainly not complaining about how over-extended I am.

Do you have any advice for aspiring designers who are just starting out? Don’t do it! (Laughs) No, I mean, listen: Ken Downing, Neiman Marcus's fashion director, was a huge supporter my entire career. And he would tell me things over and over again, like, know the customer you're catering to, where is she going... all those things end up defining how your business grows. And I really didn’t get it until my third or fourth year into it, when I really started focusing on, who is the Rubin Singer woman? It takes a long time to define not only your brand DNA but also who and what it is that you are catering to--what it is you're doing. That's the most important thing, and the only way to truly succeed at that is to really listen to what your blood whispers to you and maintain that through and through, no matter how much advice you take or don’t take. Always listen to yourself. It takes so much dedication and drive, and you have to fall down so many times before you learn how to walk.