In our long-running series "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.
Though we put a lot of emphasis on fashion schools here on our site, it's not so much the be-all and end-all when it comes to getting a job in the fashion industry. Plenty of successful designers, stylists and business owners have thriving careers without a traditional fashion education, and LaQuan Smith is one of them. Born and raised in Queens, New York, the designer has been making clothes since he was a teen. (He was gifted a sewing machine at 13 years old by his grandmother.) Although Smith didn't get into FIT or Parsons to study design, that didn't stop him from putting his homegrown New York hustle to work in order to launch his own eponymous line.
At 21 years old, an age when fashion students are usually preparing to put on a graduation show or thinking about post-grad work, Smith made his New York Fashion Week debut. In 2013, he officially launched his namesake label, creating an aesthetic that embraces the female figure. Over the past five years, he's grown a steady clientele of high-profile celebrities, including Beyoncé, Rihanna, Lady Gaga and the Kardashian-Jenner crew.
"I love a good curve — LaQuan Smith is always about accentuating the waist points and carving out the hips and just really celebrating the body," says Smith. "Now people know my identity and what I stand for. It's just re-enforcing those messages and offering it in another way."
Come October, Smith's brand will be available on a mass-market level worldwide, thanks to a partnership with Asos, which will include both women's and men's apparel, plus-size, footwear and accessories. "I'm still growing my brand and this just opens up a lot of doors for other potential partnerships to happen in the future for other brands like mine," says Smith of his new collaboration. "A lot of the kids that aspire to wear my clothes and want to be a part these experiences can't necessarily afford it, so I think this is great."
Ahead of Smith's Spring 2019 runway show, which debuted on Sunday night, we caught up with him over the phone to learn about how he's grown as a designer, the challenges he faced when launching his label and why he thinks his brand has yet to have its big break.
What first interested you in fashion?
It was more intuition for me. My grandmother taught me how to sew and I was always illustrating and it sort of happened organically. I have a very well-dressed family. My mother is really into fashion and style. I gained an appreciation for well-tailored clothing and, more than anything else, women in general.
What made you want to pursue fashion design?
I would have to say attending the High School of Art and Design. That was an incredible experience for me coming from Jamaica, Queens. I feel like that was a school that really helped me with my craft and helped me understand a love of creativity and individuality. I just embraced all of it, so I knew from a very early age, especially in high school, that I wanted to be a fashion designer.
You applied for fashion school but that didn't work out. How did you persevere and keep honing your craft?
Right now my motto is independency across the board. My story has been these trials of rejection — not being confident enough or not being qualified enough. So my whole DNA has been self-entrepreneurship and building my own empire, and that's been the greatest motivation. When one door closes, another one opens. With the consideration of me being rejected from schools and all that, I still think there's a lane of success for everyone. No matter where you come from.
What were some challenges or big lessons in the beginning of launching your label?
Building a fashion line is definitely a hard experience. It's a very expensive experience and if you don't have connections, or if you don't have money, you don't have the right tools to start the infrastructure of a fashion brand. It's very difficult.
One of the things that I learned as a young designer is that it's not just about talent. There are so many incredible, talented people out in the world, but without the business aspect of it, you're sort of spinning your wheels in a way. For me, it was about: How do I strategize? How do I build a business with the things that I'm doing? The struggle has been self-financing and obviously building core relationships with retailers, editors and things like that.
Do you have any mentors?
I will always be appreciative of André Leon Talley. He took me under his wing at a very early age and we're still really good friends. It's so funny because when André met me I was 20, 21 years old and now I'm 29. He's like, 'Wow you've grown so much.' He understands the struggle. He understands that I've been putting in the work and he really sees how much I'm dedicated and how much I am destined to win in this industry. It's great to have mentors like him because he's been in this industry forever. And it's great because he's also a Black man and we share similar struggles in that way, as well. He's amazing.
What would you consider your big break as a brand?
In my opinion it hasn't happened yet. I'm still working towards that. We all set different goals for ourselves and we all put people on pedestals but for me, I want to really establish a brand that the world would know me for one single thing, and that's to celebrate a woman's body. The idea of what this new modernized sensuality means, I want to be the epitome of that in today's market. So I think I'm working towards that breakthrough. I haven't quite hit it yet so we're still getting there.
I've read stories about how you were creating your collections from your grandparents' basement in the early days. When and how did you find your own studio space in Long Island City?
I found my manufacturer in Long Island City and we had an amazing bond. I was really happy with the way that she crafted my clothing. She's an amazing entrepreneur from Japan and we're also both Virgos. She owns her own manufacturing company and we really understood each other's language in terms of quality. That to me is most important. She's the whole reason why I even moved to a space in Long Island City so I could be close to her, I can be a little bit more hands-on with how the clothes are being crafted and manufactured. I've been here for about five or six years now.
It's really nice and I like the fact that it's Long Island City because it's close to Manhattan but I'm not in Manhattan. Manhattan can sometimes be a little bit crazy and stressful. I like that I'm in my own little bubble because I think it helps me create better.
How have you evolved as a designer?
My experiences have helped me evolve. The women that I've dressed have helped me become a better designer. My eye and my skill — even my taste level — are just better. Because of my travels across the world and meeting so many incredible people, I'm understanding different cultures and appreciations, like how women in Africa have a huge appreciation for lace and women in Italy love to dress up, versus the women in the States where it's all about sportswear right now. It's taking all of these influences but still staying true to who I am or what my message is. That has helped me evolve in a way and I think that it's great that women can rely on me to get their sexy back or to feel completely confident in a dress.
When you put on a very select piece of clothing, it speaks volumes. The women that I've dressed and even the body shape, I've been challenged with dressing so many different body forms that people are actually happy or excited for what we're doing because this is — not the first — but we are one of the few brands that are actually dressing women with curves. It means something to me.
How did you build your network of celebrities and stylists since the beginning?
It really truly started from the ground up. Many [independent] designers don't come from much. You start with what you have. For me, being born in New York City and growing up [here] and going to industry and fashion parties — all of that is rubbing shoulders and elbows with stylists and you climbed your way up the ladder. A lot of networking, a lot of talking and showcasing my work, wearing my own designs, a lot of self-promotion.
I would tell designers: If you want to get yourself out there, wear your own stuff, wear your own clothes. You are your brand. When you step out and you go to an event or you go to a function and someone's like, 'I love what you're wearing.' It should be a conversational piece for you to be able to talk about [your brand]. There's always room for opportunity but you have to put yourself out there.
Do you have a career mantra that helps you keep going season after season?
I just feel really blessed. For me, with all the incredible trials and errors that I go through as a designer, as a young business on the rise, I thoroughly enjoy what I do. I love what I do. I see the effect that I have on people. I see what kind of inspiration I give to people, I give to women, I give to other designers. I inspire people and I'm happy. If I'm able to make one woman happy and make her feel really beautiful and confident — even though she already is internally — but to feel that on the outside and the inside, then I feel like I've done something.
So I'm happy to be doing what I'm doing and I'm just really blessed to know that there's a lot of people out there that are supporting me and watching me and helping me and are rooting for me. It just keeps me going.
See the full LaQuan Smith Spring 2019 collection in the gallery below.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.