For burgeoning designers not based in New York or Paris, making a brand happen presents a bigger set of challenges. But you wouldn’t know it speaking to Charles Smith II, who already has a high-end line of clothing and is about to debut a more accessible collection here in Dallas.
The 26-year-old designer has honed a traditional runway-ready approach paired with a DIY aesthetic unique among the young creative class in our fair city. Then again, Smith is no ordinary young craftsman.
As a lanky young teen in Harlem, New York, he was on the fast track for a basketball scholarship, attending training camps for the NBA and Reebok. Around the same time, he was scouted on the streets of New York by Elite Model Management and sent to Milan to walk the runway. Chosen to do look books for the likes of Karl Lagerfeld and Valentino, the exposure to high fashion influenced his future aesthetic.
“I couldn’t just go to NorthPark and buy the clothes I wanted, so I thought I’d just make them myself,” Charles Smith II says.
“Having been around fashion as a model, I always paid attention to my surroundings,” Smith recalls. “When I was in the fittings, the designers would be very picky about every single detail — how it looks on a person and the message they wanted to get across.
“Obviously, I couldn’t see the business side of things, but I would see the way of doing things and the way you put yourself out there.”
When not traveling, Smith says, “I got into trouble being young and stupid.” Eventually his mom relocated to Dallas so that Smith could attend Lincoln High School and play with the Dallas Mustangs summer league. But his time spent on the runways stayed with him, and he was drawn to move on the other side of the lens as a designer.
“I couldn’t just go to NorthPark and buy the clothes I wanted, so I thought I’d just make them myself,” he explains. “I started sketching and drawing. I knew what my woman wanted to be like and knew what I wanted to wear.”
That would be pared-down, monochromatic and sexy separates — minimalist, with a hint of sport. In order to bring his potential client’s wardrobe to life, Smith went to the Arts Institute of Dallas to study how clothes were actually made.
His natural desire for competition made him keep “going and going until it’s the way things should be. My first collection I did when I was in school wasn’t about whether or not it was going to sell — I wanted to do something bigger on the scale of Chanel or Alex Wang.”
The first Smith II runway show for fall/winter 2012 was staged shortly after the designer’s graduation, in a club called the Red Room, and Smith soon garnered a collective of private Dallas clients ready to wear his designs to cocktail soirees and black-tie events.
Priced between $500 and $2,000, his main line isn’t cheap, but it is carefully constructed. To bring his work to a wider audience, Smith decided to create a diffusion collection of more casual separates retailing at $550 and under “that still have this Smith II element. This is a way of getting back to my roots: having things that are cool but affordable.”
The S2 line will make its debut this Thursday, July 16, at 8 pm at 4DWN Skatepark. Because the event will benefit his alma mater basketball team as well as DISD scholarship funds, Smith is selling both general admission and VIP tickets. (The latter comes with a signature limited-edition tee.)
The idea of giving back to the community while offsetting production costs shows a savvy you typically don’t see in local talent, one that should serve him well as his company grows. For now, Smith is taking things slow and easy, planning to seed the S2 line in local boutiques, but at the moment everything in both his diffusion and couture lines is still sewn by — and sold by — the designer himself.
“I’m definitely at the point where I’m learning how to share and play with others,” he says. “Being in Dallas, it’s not New York or Paris, but it’s going to arrive.
“In the next couple of years, my vision of my brand is to have a fashion house here. A whole building like Chanel is what I’m working toward. I still like that traditional way of doing things.”