How This Designer From Queens Got Kim Kardashian's Attention

Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
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This story was originally published on September 22, 2015

It was Kylie Jenner's 18th birthday party — arguably one of the most sought after events of the year — and all eyes were on the #worldsmosttalkedabout family. Inside the bash, Kendall was posing in the kitchen "cookin' pies," with a massive thigh-high slit on display. Kourtney also sported a super-sexy number: a sleek, cutout jumpsuit that left little of her midriff to imagination. The images went viral, as did their outfits. Who was the lucky designer who got to dress the Kardashian-Jenner family for the party of the century?

It wasn't Givenchy, or Lanvin, or even Balmain, as the world anticipated. Rather, it was LaQuan Smith — the namesake ready-to-wear label of a 27-year-old Queens native, whose now five-year-old brand has been seen on the likes of Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Beyoncé, and, of course, the Kardashians. Known for his structured pieces, immaculate fabrics, and bold colors, Smith transformed his brand from 3-D leggings to incredibly-crafted evening dresses and separates. All the while, he stayed true to his roots — manufacturing the entire collection in Long Island City, and designing for the modern woman who loves to have fun.

But how did this young designer, who started his line by hand-sewing pieces in his basement, garner the attention of some of the world's most famous women? We visited Smith in his studio as he prepared for his spring/summer 2016 presentation. Click ahead to view his take on growing up in a household of powerful women, the gold leggings that put him on the map, and all things Kim K.
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Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
When you were growing up, was there a moment when you knew that you wanted to be a designer?
"I have been creative for as long as I can remember; I was always sketching, and was into different colors, fabrics, and textures. My grandmother taught me how to sew when I was 13 years old. And I started creating different patterns, deconstructing things like my mother's leather jacket, and just trying to come up with really cool concepts with pattern-making. From then on, I would always write letters to the principal [of my school] about why I thought we should have a fashion show and all of these other absurd things, not realizing that this was just what I genuinely loved to do. I grew up in a house with women who knew how to shop, and knew what good quality clothing looked like and felt like. So I think it’s just in my blood."
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Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
What types of pieces did your mother and grandmother wear? How would you describe their aesthetic?
"Lace — a lot of lace — and a lot of organza. I feel like the '90s was either super-obnoxious and loud, or really matchy-matchy — very gold-on-gold, or platinum-on-silver, or all-white. Things were really classic, but they were also pumping up the volume with tons of colors and just having fun. So, I definitely think I take after my family in terms of developing a sense of good taste in clothing."
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Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
Did you also have this innate personal style? Or were you more interested in making clothes than wearing them?
"[My personal style] came as I matured. I didn’t consider myself a very stylish person because my mother always dressed me up, so I just put on whatever she chose. But, I think the older I got, I started to appreciate really good things for myself. And soon after, I realized that I actually wanted to make these nice things for women."
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Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
Did you teach yourself to sew?
"I did. My grandmother would buy me patterns from Walmart and other random places, and she'd say, 'Quan, if you really want to know how to sew, you have to know the basics of a pattern — what a pattern is, and how to utilize it.' So, I would cut out patterns and learn the basic techniques of sewing. Soon after, I would take pieces out of the bag of clothing my family was donating to the needy (my family is a very generous family). These pieces I thought were really cute and chic in terms of silhouette — and I would deconstruct them, try to lay them flat over a fabric that I liked, and utilize that as my way of pattern making."

Do you remember the first piece you made?
"I don't, but I do remember the first time I tried to make a pair of pants. It was a mess. It was just such a joke, I don’t even know what I thought I was doing. To know that I can actually make pants now is such a cool thought."
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Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
When did you launch your first line?
"The years when I graduated high school in 2006 until 2010, when I launched my first collection, were spent prepping, designing, studying my craft, learning about designers, and the history of fashion. I was just trying to get as much of an inside scoop on the industry as possible. In fall/winter 2010, I debuted my collection at The Society of Illustrators on the Upper East Side; it was a really huge show, and a huge success for me."

And at that time, did you have a studio space?
"I was working from my home until 2012, when I got an actual studio space in Long Island City. For two years, I was cranking things out of my house, which just shows the growth in terms of building my company and building my brand. I went from a basement to having a studio — to not only having my own showroom, but manufacturing in the same building we house the collection as well. One of the reasons why I chose Long Island City is because I’m from Queens. I wanted to keep [my brand] true to who I am, and dedicate it to my roots."
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Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
Tell me about manufacturing your brand locally.
"New York used to be the place for manufacturing, and it’s not like that anymore. Everything has been transitioned overseas. But, if you want to get something made in Japan or in China, the minimums are absurd — and you can never really be ready for that unless you're a huge corporation. Manufacturing here does make things a lot harder, though. Because the prices have gone up, and the amount of available labor has gone down, there’s just not enough manpower here to do things large scale."
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Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
Do you find it more expensive to manufacture here?
"It is more expensive, that’s a fact."

How does that affect your brand?
"It can affect my sales. Sometimes my margins could be a lot higher because of the cost of production, but that’s a struggle any designer who produces in the United States goes through. Even though I could probably find cheaper sourcing in a place like L.A., New York is where it’s at for me — it’s where I can control things, and it’s where I have built and set up resources."

"When you buy LaQuan Smith, you're making a commitment. It’s not something that you have to think twice about, because you’re buying a piece for the value of what it really is."
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When you started your line, how did you envision it?
"When I started, everyone knew me for these gold 3-D leggings that I had been running around Manhattan in. And, seriously, I would make about 10 pairs of them. And if I knew that, say, Fashion Week was tomorrow, I would give them out to really stylish girls that I would see on the streets of New York. Then these chicks would pop on all types of blogs, and people wanted to know where they could get these leggings."

"It was all strictly word-of-mouth, until one day, Lady Gaga showed up in a pair of them. That’s when everything started to form. I was 20 years old, and I remember reading an article with Andre J., a huge fashion personality. He was in Paris, and he was like, 'LaQuan, I’m going to Paris Fashion Week, and I need a look.” So, I gave him the leggings with the matching jumper dress, and he wore it to this very exclusive Jason Wu party. And I couldn't believe [the people there] were mentioning my name. It was like nobody knows who the heck I am, I’m a little kid from Queens, and they’re talking about me in Paris? That was a major moment that made me realize this was something that could really work out."
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Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
Did you ever find out how Gaga got a pair of your leggings?
"I think, honestly, that it was one of those pass-it-off kind of things. New York is so dope in that way; you could be rubbing shoulders with someone so major and you don’t even know. And that’s what I love about social media — that’s what I love about going out and partying, and just kind of tapping into your networks and having a great time with it. I never take anything too seriously because the worst that somebody could say is no. I was the only designer in the world making those leggings. If you google it, it pops up; it was a phenomenon."
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Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
What happened next?
"Then, Rihanna popped up in [my clothes] in her "Rude Boy" music video, and it really helped set the tone for what was to come next. That was all in 2010, and now we're in 2015. So, I’ve had time to not only grow the company, but grow the clientele as well. LaQuan Smith, the company, the brand, and the women that we dress, it is very much inspired by pop culture — music, entertainment, fashion, and politics — what’s going on in the world, what’s trending, and what’s hot. Music girls are great; I enjoy working with women like Beyoncé and Rihanna."
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Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
Would you say that having celebrities wear your clothes helped catapult your name or your brand?
"I think it helps keep LaQuan Smith relevant, like, 'Oh, that’s hot right now. That’s what everybody is wearing right now.' I do I feel like it’s a double-edged sword, though. I feel like some women are very intimidated by the brand because they think, 'I'm not a celebrity, so I can't wear this or that.'"

"But, then we do find these women who discover our brand, and are absolutely in love with everything, and wearing it to their occasions. That’s the awesome part about it. They’re buying into something, they’re buying into the lifestyle. And there’s always that celebrity factor that comes with it."
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Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
Which celebrities have worn your clothes recently?
"We just dressed Kendall Jenner and Kourtney Kardashian. It was Kylie’s [18th birthday], and those girls — the fact that they decided to throw on LaQuan Smith, was just awesome to me. It just sets a tone for: 'I want to feel sexy, I want to feel hot, I want to have fun, let's turn up, let's look good.' The skirt [that Kendall wore] retails for $500. In my mind, I think it’s a reasonable skirt; it’s attainable, it's not completely unaffordable. But it is set at a certain price point because of its luxury value. It’s a boiled wool skirt, and the fabric's from Italy."
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Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
I first found out about your label on Kim Kardashian's Instagram, do you feel like — [question wasn't completed]
"The first time [Kim] wore LaQuan Smith, she was in the Hamptons getting pizza. And the second time she wore LaQuan Smith, she was at Cannes Film Festival at a yacht event for the Daily Mail. The third time, she was just running around New York City, doing her daily little dos. I love that she can incorporate the brand into her lifestyle, whether it’s from a casual standpoint, or a more elegant one."
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Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
I just find it so amazing, because if I work in this industry and have discovered something on [Kim's] Instagram, I can’t imagine how many people your clothes are reaching.
"I think that’s the world we live in today — everything is truly driven by celebrities, social media, the 'popular' girls of the world, and the influence they have on the world, especially women and young girls. And, despite what anyone might think about these celebrities, or about the Kardashians, they are truly influential in our society right now. Whatever they do and wear, their fan base is genuinely interested. And I think that, at least for the LaQuan Smith brand and clientele, that they buy things from us because it feels authentic to them — it doesn’t feel forced, or like I’m trying to fit in. They buy it because they genuinely like it."
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Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
Do you know how [the Kardashians] found your clothes?
"Building relationships with stylists has been key for us. [Their stylist] Monica Rose has been a huge supporter of the brand. And building a dialogue with her, sending flowers when we get a hit on Kim as a generous thank you, is so important. Because Kim Kardashian is hot right now. She could wear any designer in the world, but she chose to wear LaQuan Smith."
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Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
Is there one moment you love?
"[The Daily Mail] asked Kim what she was wearing at the Cannes Film Festival and she mentioned my name, saying, 'This designer, LaQuan Smith, made it for me.' I think she was maybe like, two months pregnant at the time, and she did not look pregnant at all; she looked flawless. She said, 'I want to wear things that make me feel good about myself and still feel sexy.' That made my heart really warm because celebrities are gifted so many things a day. But the fact that she wore it because she likes it says a lot."
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Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
Tell me how you went from gold 3-D leggings to an evening dress like that.
"It’s interesting because my team that I work with, when we’re in the design process and building the woman of the season, we know exactly who she is. But the brand is progressive, and the clothes are progressive, and so we always want our woman to be progressive. She stays up to date with the times, but she's also true to who she is. If she’s daring enough to go out in metallic spandex gold leggings, then she can definitely come out in a gold embroidered dress from the spring 2016 collection and feel just as sexy, but also more grown-up. I think that, back then I was 21. Now I’m 27. As I grow, we continue to push limits. And [my team is] always like, 'LaQuan, I think the hemline needs to come down a little bit,' [Laughs] and I'm like, 'No, she’s that girl!'"
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Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
Can you describe her to me?
"I think that the LaQuan Smith woman is ageless because we cater to women who are 25 and 50. She's a girl who's going to come out in a mini, because she’s going from car to car, she’s not at the train station. That may just be me living this fantasy lifestyle, but in order for me to make these fantasies come to life, I still have to reinforce the reality of it all. And I can't do it without my team; otherwise, all you’d see is booty shorts, miniskirts, and dramatic coats all day long. That’s all I’m living for right now. But I enjoy what I do, and I enjoy the women that buy the clothes. I’m always interested in who the girl on our e-commerce website is buying, say, the maxi-dress that Kim Kardashian wore for $895. Is she 25 or is she 35? What is she like?"
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Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
Where do you pull inspiration from?
"My mood board is filled with a lot of old school '90s references from Chanel and Azzedine Alaia, to a more futuristic look. I’m really into everything being super-tailored and super-fitted, and really soft. The fabrics [I use] are so bold, fun, juicy, and girly, but the silhouettes are kind of hard — it’s a really cool balance. [My collection] is strictly about having fun. It tells a story, and I’m having a lot of fun with it."
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Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
Tell me about your latest collection.
"The spring/summer collection is inspired by a fun, refined approach to classic tailoring. I’m referencing a lot of classic silhouettes, jackets, and easy '50s shorts, but remixing a lot of it with different textures and fabrics. I'm playing on this kind of taboo idea of wearing tweed in the springtime. And I like that; I think it’s daring, I think it’s fun and new.

"When I think of tweed, I think of it as being bougie and very old school. But when you buy tweed, you’re buying it as an investment piece, not as trend. When I think of denim, I think of hardcore denim; very relaxed, very chill. So, I wanted to infuse the two, because I do kind of live a lifestyle where I can either be in a bougie setting or a really cool, chill downtown one. That is truly the makeup of the LaQuan Smith woman. She is so diverse."
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Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
These pieces look very different from your fall collection.
"It’s different only in terms of the coloration and the fabrication, but then again, it should change. This is spring 2016: What is that life for the LaQuan Smith woman? I think with the way that the world is moving with technology, there’s so much going on in the world. The one thing she can enjoy is dressing herself, and that’s something that I want to provide: a good time. You wear the clothes and you buy LaQuan Smith because you love how it feels, and you love how it looks, and you have fun in it. I think for all of the seriousness happening in the world, we need to lighten things up a little bit. And I think this is a really good approach to that."
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Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
What do you think of the fashion industry is today, and you being part of it. Do you think it’s gotten too crazy? Too serious?
"I think that the fashion industry is not the same as it used to be. Today, everything is about the dollar (which is great, because we all like to make money). But I’m a visionary, and I’m someone that truly appreciates fine art; I appreciate photography, I appreciate traveling, and I appreciate the more artistic things in life. And I don’t want to lose the essence of having fun, or forget why I fell in love with this in the first place."

"As much as it is important to build the business and the brand, and focus on sales, marketing, strategy, and all of those things, I think it’s important to still do the things that I love. Sometimes, I get really frustrated, and I paint. It's something out of my norm that makes me relax. When my creativity is stifled, I won’t perform right, and then [the clothing] won’t feel like LaQuan Smith. And LaQuan Smith is bubbly, it’s juicy, you just want it all! As hard as all this is — and it is extremely hard, and extremely expensive, I don’t even know how I do it sometimes — I think hard work and dedication will always help you do the things you love in life."
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