100 Dallas Creatives: No. 29 Fashion Forward Charles Smith II
Mixmaster presents "100 Creatives," in which we feature cultural entrepreneurs of Dallas in random order.
I've always thought the notion of an "x factor" is a little bit hokey. But after meeting Charles Smith II at Glasshouse Studio in Expo Park, it began to seem like a real thing. Smith is sporting an alluring all-black ensemble -- imagine what a bagpipe-playing motorcycle gang might wear -- and his hair is wild. As a look, it totally works for him, and he designed all of it himself. (Except for the jacket, which is Alexander Wang.)
Smith is a fashion designer from Harlem and he's the creative director of Glasshouse, a photography studio. But that's hardly all. Basketball is what initially brought Smith to Dallas when he was in high school. He's really good at it. (Like, scouted by the NBA good.) Then, one day in New York City, he caught the attention of another kind of scout: a modeling rep. Within weeks, he was a professional model walking runways in Milan...while still playing basketball...and then going to art school? It's hard to keep up.
Most people spend their whole lives trying desperately to succeed at just one of those things: Smith clearly has a magic touch. And that excitement and energy is present in the air when you talk to him. These days, he's focused entirely on his fashion line -- Smith the Second -- which is currently available online but will hopefully also be in physical stores sometime in 2015.
Someday I'll probably be bragging that I spent a couple of hours talking to Charles Smith II. "Charles Smith the basketball player?" my friends might say, or "Charles Smith the model?" or "Charles Smith the designer?"
I just don't know what he'll be famous for.
You have your hand in so many different disciplines. When you were growing up, did you have an idea of what you wanted to do? When I was little, I thought I was going to be an inventor. I used to take things apart and put 'em together and I swear I invented the Heelys. I literally took one of my shoes and somehow engineered it to put a roller skate on it off of my roller blades and they were actually functional. Obviously, years later the Heelys come out. If I had known all this legal stuff, I could have been rich by now.
I played basketball as well. I played my entire life, actually. My father played, my uncle played. My aunts, they played too. In sixth grade I stopped. I took one year off and then really took to it cause of one of my best friends forced me to play. And then I realized, "Huh, I'm not too bad." I ended up becoming better than him because I'm such a determined person. Once I start something, I can never quit, unless I just know it's something that's not for me, like baseball. I love Yankees, that's my team. I'm from New York, but I know I cannot play baseball. It's not a part of my reflexes.
My mom worked at this rec center and I would be in the gym by myself just playing, just shooting and being really hard on myself. I wanted to learn to shoot so I kept shooting, and I wanted to dunk, so I would always jump really, really high to see how close I could get to the rim. By the time I got to high school I was really, really good. I used to play on the summer league team called the Dallas Mustangs. That's what brought me to Dallas. I went to Lincoln High School. I ended up playing ball for my high school and for my summer league team and both teams are top teams in the nation. The summer league team was sponsored by Reebok. So we were always gone. And Lincoln was one of those public schools that actually traveled outside of Texas. We went to Boston and New York and California and Florida. We went everywhere.
I was also professionally male modeling, which no one knew at the time. My mom told me not to tell anybody. Fashion isn't a subject at Lincoln. It was before I really got comfortable with myself. You don't think it's cool. During the summer I always had to go back to New York because of modeling or whatever, but no one ever knew why I kept going back for this long period of time during the summer, they just knew I left. I would just say I was going to visit my grandmother. I mean, it wasn't until I got out of high school cause social media came into play and people would say, "Oh shit, I didn't know you modeled!"
How were you initially discovered or scouted, then? I honestly was just walking on the street. I just happened to run into a scout. I didn't see what they saw in me at the time. I didn't think I was that attractive. I didn't think I looked good. I thought I was an ugly duckling. I didn't have that kind of confidence in myself, at that time. Which is another reason why I love the fashion industry. They have this vision of what the potential of someone could be. But they see it before you see it. Especially if you're new to it, or you've never been in it. I started and within two weeks I was signed and they took me to Milan, Italy for my first two years of modeling.
Had you been abroad before that? I had been to Jamaica cause that's where my family is from, but I hadn't been to Europe. That was my first European trip. I was only supposed to be there for a few weeks, but I ended up staying way longer than I was supposed to. If people receive you well and they like your look it just kind of continues. I got a crash course in regards to everything fashion and modeling and that world. It was very enlightening to see it. It's a different world within this world. Not a lot of people get to see that kind of stuff or be around that kind of people. These characters, it's just funny. Even to this day, it's still funny.
Men are wearing skirts and kilts and stuff like that. I took to that. Over here, they see you wearing a kilt and they're like, "Oh, you're wearing a skirt." No, it's a kilt. There's a difference! It was very interesting. That experience made me comfortable with who I am and not care what other people think of me. Or how I dress. I just do what's true to me.
From the time that you started modeling, did you look at other designers' clothing and think, "I want to do something of my own?" Or did that come later? At that time I was not thinking about designing. Design wasn't anything I had ever thought about. All I thought I was going to be was an NBA player. It was either that or modeling.
Was it hard to straddle those two worlds? Basketball and modeling? It was when they tried to make me choose. When I came back to the states they tried to give me an ultimatum. They wanted me to come back overseas but I was so invested in basketball, going to all of these major camps. I was going to Michael Jordan camp, I was going to ABCD camp, camp Nets. All of these premiere camps that if you're really good they invite you out to. The NBA scouts are watching you. I was like, "I can't just stop now! I'm kind of on my way right now!" At that time I stopped modeling, for about two or three years. Then I had a repeat client who asked me to walk for them one fall and so I got sucked back into it again. In the meanwhile, that's when design started to come into play.
Being here in Dallas I would go to the mall but I could never find anything that I wanted to buy and everything I wanted to buy cost way too much. I couldn't afford it. That's when I said, "Fuck it. Let me just figure out how to make this shit myself." That's where it started. I've always known the preliminary process to fashion design being in the modeling and fashion industry. Just watching my surroundings. I started working on my sketches. I used to draw a lot when I was younger. It didn't take me too long to regain that once I started again. I was sketching away. I literally have ten sketchbooks full of designs right now, and I'm still sketching.
Is your aesthetic now similar to what it was when you started out? Yeah. Anybody who does anything in regard to aesthetics in the creative sense, they have a formula, where you know this person's stuff. But it's more refined, cleaner. I sew everything myself so I can see my progression cause I'm the one making it. When it comes down to the sewing, the clean lines, the more you do it, the better you get at it. But as far as the aesthetic of it and the design, I almost treat it like basketball: I'm always practicing these different things or these different kinds of aesthetics that I'm attracted to.
I eventually wanna end up working in a fashion house. I have my favorite designers. My top one is Chanel -- Karl Lagerfeld is awesome -- Alexander Wang, Balenciaga. Some of them I've actually walked for. Others I've shot for when I was living in Europe. I love the way that they do it. The art form and the creativeness of it. Especially the couture. It's so beautiful. It's a lot of handcrafted work and these very special techniques. It's art that you can wear. I really respect it because I know the work that goes into it. And then there's the feel that it gives. Because obviously in a more realistic sense, this stuff doesn't really matter. Ok, you've got kids over in Africa starving. I get it from that perspective as well. But it's like, at the same time, we do live in a world where you have to wear clothes. So why not wear something beautiful, or something that's going to make you feel good?
If you could reduce your aesthetic to a few key characteristics, what would they be? What makes something yours? Zippers and all-black. Right now that's the definition of Smith the Second. That's how people recognize me. And then there's a certain stitching that I do that people can recognize. Those are very small detail. Which for me is cool, because the devil is in the details. But at the same time, I'm still figuring out who I am. I've only been doing this for three years and some change. When you think about it, that's not that long. There are people who I know who've been sewing since they were fourteen years old. I started when I was 22.
Although I've moved progressively faster, but it's different because I've been in the industry and I have access to it. I have friends in it, I have made a lot of contacts. I have the advantage to reach out to these kind of people who can put me out there. But I did it strategically. I always know what I'm ready for and what I'm not ready for. People will be like, "Oh, your stuff should be in Neiman Marcus!" and I'm like, "Uh, no. I'm not ready for that!" You have to be ready to deliver. You have to go about it right, because when you get to that level and you actually accept that, you only get one time. If you mess up, that's it. I'm definitely taking it one day at a time.
Do you remember the very first piece of clothing that you made? It was a kilt. I wanted a kilt so bad. I didn't have a pattern for it. I drew it out on the fabric and then I cut it out. I can see something and I can do that. I saw how kilts were kind of made, and it came out really good. I did the pleating and everything. But I make kilts now and they're way better.
Having seen the fashion industry from two perspectives, does your experience as a model influence how you work with models as a designer, or how you put on a show? Yeah, it definitely plays a part. I'm very specific about what model I choose to wear my stuff. I know a model's personality. It's not just about how they look. You can be the most beautiful thing in the world, but I might need you for a runway and you can't walk for shit to save your life. I want to know the model as a person, not just how they look. It's never about looks for me. Even in my personal life. It's about who you are. That's what brings the clothes to life. Like this one right here (gestures to one of his models, Lauren). She puts something on and it's about the mannerisms of a person. When I design something I'm thinking about that woman. How she sits, how she crosses her leg, how she holds a cigarette. I'm thinking about how it's going to look when she's walking towards me. How the dress is gonna move or how the skirt is gonna flow. The reaction of the reaction. I'm thinking about it from every possible perspective that clothes are seen from.
Where did you go to art school? The Art Institute of Dallas. I was still modeling and doing basketball and all of that. It was super hard because when you're in the fashion design program, you physically have to be there. I can't skype it if I go out of town. With modeling I'd be traveling a lot and basketball I traveled a lot and it became so taxing. So I had to make some sacrifices. I stopped doing basketball. I stopped modeling. I'm all into design now. This is all that I do.
But you stay in shape for basketball, in the event that something comes up, right? Yeah, I still have to do workouts and things like that but I don't have to go to the practices. I do skills training with a personal trainer and that's scheduled according to my schedule.
Do you see yourself remaining in Dallas? Yeah. I'm from New York but I love Dallas. I can go anywhere if I need to go somewhere in regard to fashion. What makes me want to stay in Dallas is what I feel I can give to Dallas as far as contributing to the arts and culture and the fashion. I want to get people to understand a certain kind of fashion. I want it to be more accepted. It's important that we make people come to Dallas. You get a lot of talented people here that don't get the support of their people here they go to New York or LA because they're not getting the financial support.
It's not about me. Once I design it, and it's on that rack, I've done me. As far as after the fact, when I put on the presentations, when I get the visual out there to the people, I want to know peoples' reactions. I wanna know how it makes them feel, what they get from it. I have people that follow me that come from my situation, that are my age, my race, and they don't get this kind of experience in their own life. I'm from Harlem, New York, and then half of my life was here in South Dallas as well. A lot of these people don't go past downtown, they don't even know that NorthPark center exists, or that the museums are right down the street.
Now we have social media, so things are a lot more visible and people are starting to ask questions or wonder or research these things. They reach out to me and say, "That's awesome. You really inspire me." I love hearing that because it makes me feel like I'm on the right path. If I can make it, coming from these rough situations, these rough neighborhoods, if I can make it simply because I believed in myself and believed in my vision, that will inspire the next person to do the same thing.
Do you have a goal for 2015? Is there one thing that, if you were to accomplish it, you'd say, "OK, that year was well spent"? Get more seamstresses! But I'm not living in a state of regret or wondering about the future. I see my vision and I know where I'm going to end up, but I have to take the steps and I can't shortcut myself. I'm very keen on following the path that's written for me.
I know you have the online store, are you also in physical stores? That's the next step. As a creative, all I want to do is create. I don't want to deal with financials and money and return on investments. Glasshouse Studio is sponsoring me but Thomas is the owner, so he's my business partner. He's that part. It's my business, so I want to know what's going on. I'll never be like, "Ugh, take the wheel." I want to learn the business side cause that's my weakness. I have a hood mentality. As far as how to sell stuff, and the allure of something, I get that part of it. Luckily, I'm a basketball player, so I'm always going to figure it out. I'm gonna make it happen. I'm good under pressure, but at the same time, I still feel it.
(To Lauren, the model with us in the studio): Would you like to add anything? When I first met him he was working at Best Buy, then when I saw him again he was making t-shirts. The t-shirts were fucking awesome. Then when I saw him again he was designing. He just keeps growing. He's so dedicated and hardworking and just one of the most beautiful souls. I love real people because the Dallas fashion industry is all about status and latching on to something for the moment and there's no depth. I think you can do both. That's exactly what he brings. He's gonna go beyond anything here. I don't think the world's ready. That's why I think it's gonna take a little time. The world's preparing.
100 Creatives: 100. Theater Mastermind Matt Posey 99. Comedy Queen Amanda Austin 98. Deep Ellum Enterpriser Brandon Castillo 97. Humanitarian Artist Willie Baronet 96. Funny Man Paul Varghese 95. Painting Provocateur Art Peña 94. Magic Man Trigg Watson 93. Enigmatic Musician George Quartz 92. Artistic Luminary Joshua King 91. Inventive Director Rene Moreno 90. Color Mavens Marianne Newsom and Sunny Sliger 89. Literary Lion Thea Temple 88. Movie Maestro Eric Steele 87. Storytelling Dynamo Nicole Stewart 86. Collaborative Artist Ryder Richards 85. Party Planning Print maker Raymond Butler 84. Avant-gardist Publisher Javier Valadez 83. Movie Nerd James Wallace 82. Artistic Tastemakers Elissa & Erin Stafford 81. Pioneering Arts Advocates Mark Lowry & Michael Warner 80. Imaginative Director Jeremy Bartel 79. Behind-the-Scenes Teacher Rachel Hull 78. Kaleidoscopic Artist Taylor "Effin" Cleveland 77. Filmmaker & Environmentalist Michael Cain 76. Music Activist Salim Nourallah 75. Underground Entrepreneur Daniel Yanez 74. Original Talent Celia Eberle 73. Comic Artist Aaron Aryanpur 72. Classical Thespian Raphael Parry 71. Dance Captain Valerie Shelton Tabor 70. Underground Culture Mainstay Karen X. Minzer 69. Effervescent Gallerist Brandy Michele Adams 68. Birthday Party Enthusiast Paige Chenault 67. Community Architect Monica Diodati 66. Intrepid Publisher Will Evans 65. Writerly Wit Noa Gavin 64. Maverick Artist Roberto Munguia 63. Fresh Perspective Kelsey Leigh Ervi 62. Virtuosic Violinist Nathan Olson 61. Open Classical's Dynamic Duo Mark Landson & Patricia Yakesch 60. Rising Talent Michelle Rawlings 59. Adventurous Filmmaker Toby Halbrooks 58. Man of Mystery Edward Ruiz 57. Inquisitive Sculptor Val Curry 56. Offbeat Intellect Thomas Riccio 55. Doers and Makers Shannon Driscoll & Kayli House Cusick 54. Performance Pioneer Katherine Owens 53. Experimental Filmmaker and Video Artist Mike Morris 52. Flowering Fashioner Lucy Dang 51. Insightful Artist Stephen Lapthisophon 50. Dallas Arts District 49. Farmer's Market Localvore Sarah Perry 48. Technological Painter John Pomara 47. Progressive Playmakers Christopher Carlos & Tina Parker 46. Purposive Chef Chad Houser 45. Absorbing Artist Jeff Gibbons 44. Artistic Integrator Erica Felicella 43. Multi-talented Director Tre Garrett 42. Anachronistic Musician Matt Tolentino 41. Emerging Veteran Actor Van Quattro 40. Festival Orchestrator Anna Sophia van Zweden 39. Literary Framer Karen Weiner 38. Man Behind the Music Gavin Mulloy 37. The Godfather of Dallas Art Frank Campagna 36. Rising Star Adam A. Anderson 35. Artist Organizer Heyd Fontenot 34. Music Innovator Stefan Gonzalez 33. Triple Threat Giovanni Valderas 32. Cultural Connector Lauren Cross 31. Critical Artist Thor Johnson 30. Delicate Touch Margaret Meehan
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about arts and culture events in Dallas and offers you won't hear about anywhere else.