LaQuan Smith is on top of the Empire State Building — and on top of the world looking out at the city that got him here.
“For me to have my runway show here represents the strength and vibrancy of New York, it represents luxury and Black excellence. Nobody else has done this, and it represents that I can break barriers and reach new heights,” the Queens-bred fashion designer said during a preview, surveying the blanket of buildings below.
At New York Fashion Week on Thursday night, Smith will present his spring collection in the Art Deco skyscraper, marking the first time the New York landmark has hosted a fashion show in its 90-year history.
Eleven years into his business, through twists and turns, it is Smith’s moment to shine.
Sales of his sleek, sexylicious clothes are up 87 percent from Fall 2020, and total business is up 74 percent. “Our bestsellers are our mesh bodysuits,” he said, declining to share revenues. “I don’t know where women are wearing them!”
His stockist list is growing, too, with 15 new retail accounts this year. Now customers can buy those bodysuits, patent pencil skirts and corset tops at Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom. And he has a Puma collaboration coming early next year. “I’ve always wanted to do sexy athleisure,” he smiled, relaxing into the couch of the Empire State Building’s green room.
“More people have been receptive to the idea of me as a designer,” he said, acknowledging the racial reckoning in America and the fashion industry. “I don’t think what my success looks like has changed, but it has expanded.” He’s also a CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund finalist.
Smith, 33, had the attention of Hollywood since before he had a collection.
And even now, every few days one of his looks is worn by a celebrity — in an ad campaign (Kim Kardashian in a rose gold leather jumpsuit for her KKW fragrance), on a red carpet (Maggie Q in a black bodysuit and shattered glass beadwork pencil skirt at the “The Protégé” premiere) — and at French President Emmanuel Macron’s Élysée Palace in Paris (Hailey Bieber in the midriff-baring beige dress heard ’round the world).
“I think it was so appropriate! And I love that she created a stir, which is great for a LaQuan woman,” said the designer, who had photos of David Bowie and Iman on his mood board for the fall 2021 collection featuring said dress. “I thought she looked sophisticated, she did not look trashy. She and Justin looked great.”
His work will also be exhibited in the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute’s “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion” exhibition.
“When I think of American fashion it’s informal and eclectic, with references to old school Hollywood glamour, Harlem Renaissance, hip-hop, and so many other things,” Smith said.
As for his part, “I have been trying to define what sexy looks like because it has such a bad rep. People equate it to trashy. I’m all about being sexy and comfortable. There’s a way to represent what sexy is in American fashion. And It doesn’t mean you have to show your whole body.”
Smith makes no secret that he wants to be the next household designer name. The buzz is humming, but the business side is still a work in progress.
“I’m not quite emerging, but I haven’t hit the surface yet. It’s popcorn in the microwave,” he said, acknowledging he’s at a pivotal point, still small and independent with just 15 employees, and producing all his clothing in New York City, which is a point of pride. “I need better marketing and advertising. We could do better at e-commerce. And from a larger perspective, I’m looking for financial partners. My stockists are growing, which is helping with my cash flow, but really expanding my collection, I want to get into shoes, accessories, fragrances, and I am looking for a distribution deal.
“I think sometimes it wasn’t fashion school but business school I should have gone to,” said Smith, who famously didn’t get into fashion school.
“Being rejected from FIT and Parsons, I didn’t know what to do but I knew I had talent and a little bit of a following. This was the era of MySpace and I was charging $100 for a dress. Girls would hit me up since junior high school. So I had a little side hustle.”
Sewing his own clothes and selling them via social media was his first fashion revenue stream.
“Even now, it’s so ironic because FIT will ask me to come speak to students. And I’m like, ‘You know you all rejected me!’ But I do it anyway because it’s the right thing to do. And I talk about the process of fighting for what you want and believing in yourself. I don’t promote not going to school but I do promote following your dream and your heart. I think when you are young, you can get consumed by too many opinions about what you should do. But when you gain a sense of self, you can see, ‘This is my trajectory. This is my five-year plan and 10-year plan.’ Write those things down, come up with some vision boards,” he advised.
And go out and mingle.
In the time of COVID-19, what he missed, and thinks aspiring designers probably did, too, was networking. “Being able to rub shoulders with politicians and photographers and artists…that’s the beauty of going out in New York. You can have a fabulous time and a few weeks later you are having a coffee with someone you could collaborate with. New York is a melting pot of amazingness,” he said.
Smith made the most of it, being his own brand before he had one.
The first celebrity he dressed was Lady Gaga in 2009 for the Much Music Awards — and it was a fluke.
“I was living in New York making these 3D leggings and they kept calling me the ‘leggings boy.’ I would make 15 pairs a night, and wear them out myself. I’d go to Bryant Park during fashion week, crashing shows, and people would take a photo with me and say, ‘Can I feel your legs? Are they spiky’?’ If I saw a woman who inspired me, I’d chase her down and give her a pair packaged with my business card. This was during the blogging era, and girls were popping up in these leggings.”
Cut to a trip to the supermarket with his mom; he’s flipping through tabloids at Pathmark in Queens and sees Gaga in his leggings. “I was jumping up and down. I didn’t have PR, I didn’t have a marketing team. That is the beauty of New York,” he said.
He later found out Gaga’s stylist Nicola Formichetti had somehow gotten hold of the leggings. It was the spark and soon, Rihanna was wearing his full catsuit in her 2009 “Rude Boy” video.
“That led to custom work and celebrity work. That’s really how I built my business, from a celebrity perspective,” said the designer, nodding to another cornerstone of American fashion: Hollywood.
(His own pop culture influences stretch back to Lil’ Kim and Jenny from the Block. One of his favorite films is Robert Altman’s 1994 fashion week satire “Pret-a-Porter,” particularly the scenes with Thierry Mugler, an obvious inspiration for LaQuan’s love of a corset.)
Smith launched his first collection at New York Fashion Week in 2010; by 2014, Serena Williams was closing his water-goddess-themed salon-style show at the Peninsula Hotel, and Diane Von Furstenberg, Sandra Bernhard and Common were among the guests, all thanks to André Leon Talley, a supporter from the start.
It took the designer a while to learn to build a product range. “In the beginning, my pieces were more big and performance-like, which is why a lot of celebrities gravitated to the clothes. But now women are not just coming for that one special piece, they are building an entire outfit,” he said. “I want women to not even need Spanx to feel snatched,” he explained of his body-con reason for being.
Mentoring from Talley, Carine Roitfeld, and Tom Ford (generous, considering Smith makes no bones about wanting to be the next Tom Ford), helped him think on a broader scale about what the LaQuan woman was wearing from day to night.
“When I started, it was so hard to get help and recognition. I remember sneaking into Bryant Park and speaking to Fern Mallis. That’s why it’s important to give back, because so many people have taken 10 minutes out of their day for me,” said Smith.
It’s all been leading to the Empire State Building.
“I want people to experience the glamour of the LaQuan lifestyle,” he said of the collection, which will play off the Art Deco interior, with lots of leather, and include eight runway styles available to buy on the spot through sponsor AfterPay. Priced $215 to $395, they are more accessible than his main line, $450 to $20,000.
“This show is a testament to what it looks like growing a business and building a fashion empire in New York City. I wish I could have a camera around filming me all day, because I’d love to do a documentary. It’s so many things people don’t see,” he said, putting it out there. “There are a lot of risks and rewards and there is nothing else I’d rather do.”