Estelle Swaray — she of the megahit “American Boy” — has learned a thing or two about music and fashion. Regarding the former, the West London native knows to skip over her ballad “Back in Love” during her concerts (“I did it one time and I think I put the audience and myself to sleep”) and to end with her most famous, Grammy-winning jam (“I can sell them [“American Boy”] through the whole show”). Sartorially speaking, Swaray, who uses only her given name professionally, realized “that you shouldn’t wear silks, satins, those kind of materials, ’cause once they start sticking and you start seeing sweat patches, it’s the most unattractive thing on the planet.”
This story first appeared in the August 17, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
There have, of course, been myriad other lessons learned since Swaray’s first U.S. album, “Shine,” dropped last year, catapulting the rapper-R&B singer to top 40 stardom and onto the pages of glossies including Interview, Elle and Vogue. Chief among those lessons: the value of an original look. For Swaray, this meant hewing to sexed-up Fifties polish — think upper-thigh-grazing shifts; poufy, cleavage-bearing frocks; trench coats, flashy baubles and an asymmetric haircut. “Audrey Pepa” is what she calls her stylistic hybrid: Audrey Hepburn’s crisp elegance crossed with Salt-N-Pepa’s brash vibe. “I’ve always dug Audrey Hepburn,” she says. “I think she’s one of the classic beauties. And Salt-N-Pepa is just me and my outspoken, need-to-say-some-s–t side.”
Clearly for Swaray, fashion speaks volumes. “When I started my whole thing, I was like, ‘I want to have a look,’” says the singer, who left London for Manhattan shortly after she scored a record deal with John Legend’s HomeSchool Records in 2006. (She now lives in Brooklyn.) “When I was growing up, [musicians] always had a look. It wasn’t just clothes you wore down the street.” Back in 2004, when her first album, “The 18th Day,” made its debut in the U.K. on Richard Branson’s V2 Records, Swaray’s look was “a bit more hip-hop, a bit more tomboyish,” she says. Things changed when she “hit 25 and was like, you know what? These boobs and these legs ain’t going to look like this forever.” Skin, “boobage” and legs, then, all figured prominently in the Holly Golightly-from-the-hood image she crafted for the release of “Shine.” “That was my thing that I was gonna do,” she says bluntly. “No one else was doing it.”
That is, until now. “Everyone and their auntie is doing Fifties [dresses] and corseted dresses and doing half a head shaved,” says Swaray. For the record, she recalls — half jokingly — rocking that hairstyle back in 2005, “when [Rihanna] was chilling in Barbados.” And so, goodbye, Audrey Pepa.
Hello, “Minnie Tantrum.”
“I think it’s just another level of confidence,” Swaray says of her new alter ego, which takes its name from the cartoonish voice Swaray adopts when she “takes the piss out of people.” Jumpsuits and slinky dresses are new essentials, as are separates including harem pants and sharply tailored jackets. (Her shoe fixation — she owns more than 400 pairs, taking up “90 percent of my house” — is unchanged.) And while she mentions Bianca Jagger, leggy entertainer Lola Falana and blaxploitation film star Tamara Dobson in conversation, Swaray distills her fashion m.o. into a practical one-liner: “Chic, nothing too crazy, nothing too clingy — just 100 percent free.” Adds the singer: “[Before], I was having to prove my point at every single step of my day, while still having to be classy and be a lady. Now, I have no energy for it; I just want to live.”
Swaray, who has lately been working a closely shorn do, keeps things breezy on her as-yet-untitled follow-up album, which will hit shelves before the end of the year. While 2008’s “Shine” was about “a bunch of pent-up anger at boys,” her upcoming release was inspired by “the experience of moving from London to New York….Crazy girls, crazy guys, crazy living situations — just having to adjust.” Pop and dance music, genres Swaray had not thought about dabbling in before, also influenced her sound. “That’s a whole new world that opened up to me,” she says of club-thumping anthems. “I’ve got four dance records on the new album — like, good dance records, not dance as in the Jennifer Lopez phenomenon.”
It’s a group effort, to say the least. Swaray has been clocking long hours in the studio, collaborating on tracks with diverse types — French DJ David Guetta, Guns N’ Roses’ guitarist Slash, up-and-comer Kid Sister — and working with hit-makers such as Swizz Beatz, Will.i.am and Wyclef Jean. (Given as she is to odd-couple pairings, Swaray describes the vibe as “if Marvin Gaye and Coldplay were to be born in the rave scene.”) However, she’s not itching for a Kanye West rematch. “I’ve always been an artist on my own, but since I’ve been [in America], people kind of associate me with him,” Swaray says. “So I’m thinking the smart thing to do would be to not do something with him. Maybe I’ll get him on a remix.”
Swaray is much less hesitant when it comes to corporate and fashion matchmaking. In the last year, she worked with British shoe designer Jonathan Kelsey on the design of a handbag called the Belvie for Belvedere Vodka; she created a T-shirt and posed for H&M’s Fashion Against AIDS campaign, and hawked — exclusive song and all — Kraft Food’s Crystal Light drink powder. And just last month, Rachel Roy revealed via Twitter that she and the singer are collaborating on a jewelry line for Rachel Rachel Roy, set to debut for spring.
As much as Swaray loves her Stateside life (which includes a boyfriend of about a year — an American boy, natch) she does have one gripe concerning a fellow U.K. export: Topshop. “It’s really, really, really packed,” she says of the store’s New York outpost. “It’s just like, you know your heart is in one place and, for me, I walked into [the SoHo store] and I was like, no, this isn’t my home. I don’t like it. I’m gonna go.” Fast-fashion issues aside, Swaray is looking forward to her future in America. “Even though I still have something to say,” she says, pausing, “I don’t have to push as hard or force myself through anymore. I’ve still got some work to do, but now it’s on my terms, you know?”
STYLED BY MAYTE ALLENDE; HAIR BY DICKEY/HAIR RULES; MAKEUP BY AJ CRIMSON FOR KISSABLE COUTURE; FASHION ASSISTANT: JENNIFER BLITZER