When Sergio Hudson accepted the Designer of the Year Award at the Harlem’s Fashion Row 15th Anniversary Style Awards ceremony Tuesday night, he recalled the first time a store buyer told him his clothes should be more “urban.”
“That’s when I realized a designer who looked like me isn’t supposed to design the clothes I design,” he said.
Clothes like the super heroine suit made famous by First Lady Michelle Obama at the Biden inauguration, the body-powerful sleeveless powder blue gown Serena Williams chose for the September Vogue cover announcing her retirement from tennis, or the curve-snatching, high-waisted pants, short skirts and midriff cutout dresses that the self-styled Blake Lively has on heavy rotation in her wardrobe.
“Because we are not a monolithic people, we don’t do just one thing, we’re not just Black,” Hudson, 38, told the rain-soaked crowd under a big tent outside Grant’s Tomb, eliciting cheers and applause.
Hudson has made it his mission to be a regular face in American sportswear. And even as the cloud of a possible recession hangs over this New York runway season, he and his five-person team are doing everything they can to keep the momentum going.
That includes a new storefront on Luxury Stores at Amazon, selling his bright-colored signature suiting with high-waisted pants and collared blazers, fishnet paneled minidresses and iconic belts, all of which retail from $295 to $2,195.
“They approached us and I was a little gun-shy for a while, but it seemed like a good idea when they broke it down to me,” said Hudson during a recent interview at his New York showroom.
“The thought is, join them. We need that muscle,” said Jodi Sandman, who is chief executive officer at Crescala Fashion Development, and also president of sales at Sergio Hudson.
“We’ve long admired the work of Sergio Hudson and are thrilled to bring his finely tailored collection to Luxury Stores at Amazon,” Muge Erdirik Dogan, president of Amazon Fashion, said in a statement. “Sergio’s classic silhouettes designed in both eye-catching prints and soft satin hues are the definition of elegance.”
Hudson’s power tailoring has become a signature.
“There is a vision of a sculpted real woman’s body I have never seen a male designer understand before. It’s hard to explain it until you slide it on,” said Sandman.
Growing up in Ridgeway, South Carolina, he was inspired to get into fashion by films with strong female leads, like “9 to 5,” for one. He met his business partner, Inga Beckham, after making some custom clothing for her cousin, Lisa Wu, a personality on “The Real Housewives of Atlanta.”
“He lived and breathed fashion. He knew when Alaia did this, or did that, he was a student of it from when he woke up to when he went to sleep,” said Beckham, who has a background in real estate. She was looking for a project to invest in, and believed in Hudson enough that she moved him to L.A.
The partners put everything into his February 2020 debut New York Fashion Week show, only to have every buyer appointment cancel when COVID-19 hit. “It was a dark time,” the designer said.
Moda Operandi was a bright spot, however, hosting the first Sergio Hudson online trunk show in March 2020, which resulted in $55,000 of orders.
“We’ve had our eyes on Sergio since the debut of his eponymous label in 2015. His fresh take on American sportswear feels modern and differentiated from anything else in the market,” said Moda’s chief merchant April Hennig. “Season after season he continues to deliver vibrant collections that reinterpret classic staples that feel unapologetically sexy and powerful.”
Stylist Meredith Koop took notice, too, asking Hudson for a few designs for her client, Michelle Obama. It was a game-changer. The former first lady stepped out wearing the now-famous suit at the inauguration on Jan. 21, 2020, and by Jan. 24 Hudson had appointments with every store. “I was shocked, because we’d been passed on by Saks the season before. It was crazy to go from one extreme to another,” he said. “There was a business well before but it’s different because of that day.”
They were able to negotiate with Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman, Net-a-porter, Moda Operandi and Matchesfashion to sell the collection without any exclusives, and to deliver it later in the season.
“We are a small team, self-funded, minority woman-owned; we told them if you want to partner with us, you need to understand that,” Beckham said.
The collection Hudson is showing on Saturday has already been sold to retailers, and will be shipped in November. “We no longer ship product we know will be marked down because it’s arriving in stores in the hottest time of the year,” explained Sandman. “When I started with Sergio, I said we can’t do any markdown agreements, and if that doesn’t work for you that’s OK.”
The stores were willing, and Beckham hopes they will continue to support the brand as it goes into its third runway season and the next.
“It’s my hope that this is not because of George Floyd..and even if it initially was, retailers and investors are starting to see we don’t need them to buy our clothes because we’re Black, or give us money because we’re Black. I want to be in business with them to make money,” Beckham said.
Hudson agrees. “I want to do what Michael Kors did, what Ralph Lauren did, what Calvin Klein did…I’m optimistic those age-old ‘isms’ don’t apply to fashion anymore. If we do the work, and prove we are worthy, it doesn’t matter what color your skin is. That’s what we’re all waiting for, for Christopher [John Rogers], for LaQuan [Smith], we yearn for the day we’re not just a Black designer.”
The brand is trending in the high 70 percent sell-through at full price with its 15 retail accounts, Sandman said. “That’s giving us grounding.”
What’s been selling? Suiting. “Sergio is the person who creates the business suit that can go from day to evening…and now we’re getting quite a few requests for dresses and evening, too,” said Beckham, adding that the business has has grown 50 to 55 percent year-over-year, with clients like Jennifer Lopez coming back for turtlenecks and other essentials time and time again.
To help fuel growth, Hudson is focusing on building his direct-to-consumer business and relaunching his website. “There’s only so much money you can make at wholesale,” he said, acknowledging he will probably need to fund raise to get to the next level.
“I can’t afford my clothes, even if I wanted to,” he laughed. “I can’t do what Valentino is doing but I’m competing with Valentino. Take the Oscars, for example — I made three or four Oscars dresses but I got bumped for a bigger brand. I’m not mad about it, though, because one day I want to be the brand that’s doing the bumping.”
For his fall collection, he was inspired by Prince’s “Lovesexy” tour costumes from 1988 and ’89, particularly his use of black-and-white polkadots and bright colors. “I like to put a bit of ’80s, a bit of ’90s and a bit of Africa in every collection — but Africa in a way a white woman would wear it and not feel like she’s appropriating,” Hudson said, adding that he hopes to visit Africa one day, and maybe even show a collection there.
But for now, he’s focusing on New York. “At the end of the day, it validates you to the luxury customer. I think every show is my favorite, but I think this is really going to show who we are.”