By guest author Ray A. Smith from Wall Street Journal
A deal between ASOS and LaQuan Smith boosts the profile of black designers in the fashion industry; Bringing styles favoured by Beyoncé, Cardi B. and Rihanna to the masses
LaQuan Smith, whose body-hugging fashions have graced stars like Rihanna and Cardi B, is ready to dress millions of 20-somethings.
This week, ASOS, an online retailer catering to shoppers in their 20s, plans to announce a collaboration with Mr. Smith, a 29-year-old designer with a following among women of color. The ASOS Design x LaQuan Smith collection of women’s, men’s and unisex clothes and accessories, debuts on ASOS’s site in October
The deal represents a milestone for blacks in the fashion industry, which has been criticized for failing to recognize more African-American designers, executives and image makers. Although black music, style and language have driven pop culture in recent years, very few African-Americans are in positions of power in the fashion industry.
Earlier this year, Louis Vuitton hired Virgil Abloh, the designer behind the streetwear-influenced Off-White label, as its men’s artistic director. Blacks’ visibility in the industry rose last year when Edward Enninful, of British Vogue, became the first black editor in chief of a major fashion magazine.
“I’m just really excited, because there are a lot of people out there, specifically young kids, who aspire to wear my clothes that can’t necessarily afford it,” said Mr. Smith, whose dresses can cost anywhere from several hundred dollars to the low four figures. Items in his collection with ASOS will sell for less than $300 apiece, a price in line with most offerings on the site.
Mr. Smith, who grew up in Queens, N.Y., has a luxurious night-life aesthetic that tilts more girls-hitting-the-club than ladies-who-lunch. Among his hallmarks are plunging necklines, skintight fabric and high-slit dresses and skirts. The ASOS collaboration will include recreations of slinky LaQuan Smith dresses that Beyoncé and Kim Kardashian West wore, as well as a full larger-size range for curvier women.
Neither the designer nor the retailer specified figures for the deal, in which Mr. Smith will be paid a design fee and royalties. The collaboration gives Mr. Smith, whose label has seven employees, access to ASOS’s marketing machine and world-wide reach. The retailer, which sells its private-label items alongside some designer brands, says it has 18 million active customers. For ASOS, the deal builds its presence in the U.S., where the London-based retailer isn’t as well known as H&M and Zara.
The designer’s ties to celebrities like Beyoncé, who recently wore one of his dresses on stage during her “On the Run II” tour, also sprinkles stardust on ASOS. “Obviously that resonates with our customer,” said ASOS design director Vanessa Spence.
Only 1 % of fashion designers sold at major U.S. department stores are black, according to Harlem’s Fashion Row, a support-services organization for designers of color. Over the years, dozens of black designers started fashion labels in the U.S., but only a handful have achieved commercial success.
Lack of access is a major challenge when trying to go through the traditional doors of fashion,” said Brandice Daniel, founder and CEO of Harlem’s Fashion Row. “Those doors are usually opened with a warm introduction, and the truth is that there are very few African-Americans in the position to make the introductions“.
Mr. Smith has remained in Queens, although his design studio is in a hip area, not his childhood neighborhood. He says his grandmother taught him to sew and gave him his first sewing machine when he was around age 13. Rejected by both the Fashion Institute of Technology and the New School’s Parsons School of Design, he began making clothes with no formal training. To show off his handiwork, he dressed female friends for parties. He also cold-called celebrities and stylists and in some cases delivered them clothes he had made, hoping that stars would wear them.
In 2009, stylist Nicola Formichetti put his then-client Lady Gaga in a pair of Mr. Smith’s leggings—and the singer was photographed in them. The following year, at age 21, he started to show his collections during New York Fashion Week. More celebrities took notice, including Jennifer Lopez and the Kardashian sisters.
Online sales have been encouraging, but opening his own store remains a dream. “As a black designer, that has been the most difficult thing, cracking into the retail space,” he said. Despite high-profile fans and early champions, like “Vogue” contributing editor André Leon Talley, major U.S. retailers haven’t bitten.
“I would have thought by now I would have been sold in a few prominent stores,” Mr. Smith said. “I’ve reached out to a lot of U.S. retailers. They’re coming to the shows. I am not picked up for whatever reason. There’s a misunderstanding or uncertainty.”
Mr. Smith dresses black celebrities and casts lots of black models in his fashion shows. But he never signaled that white women weren’t welcome and resists being pigeonholed as “urban” or “street.” Retailers abroad, including Selfridges in the United Kingdom and LuisaViaRoma in Italy, have been more receptive, he said.
A black woman at ASOS, Lola Okuyiga, played a key role in the collaboration. Ms. Okuyiga was a buyer for ASOS when she saw Mr. Smith’s collection in Paris last year, he said, and expressed interest in working together.
In recent years, designer brands, retailers and magazines have cultivated black celebrities as black music, style and language have driven pop-culture trends.
“I don’t see this as progress completely,” said Kimberly M. Jenkins, who teaches a course called “Fashion and Race” at Parsons. To her, some of the recent embrace smacks of trendiness, with blacks being superficially admired for their perceived cool factor, only to be “used like a utility.” If the push for diversity were genuine, she asked, then “why are we still seeing cultural appropriation and not seeing more black people in power” in fashion?
While Mr. Smith said he wants respect “for being a designer, not just a black designer,” he believes the industry has a long way to go on inclusion. “If I can contribute to make some change,” he said, “then I’m all for that.”