An Interview With Saint Louis Fashion Fund Designer Charles Smith II

Charles Smith II has seen the fashion industry from many angles. After being scouted as a model at the age of 14 on the streets of New York, he traveled to Milan, where he was immersed in the world of high fashion. Today, much has changed: being selected by the Saint Louis Fashion Fund as one of their six inaugural designers meant a move to the Midwest from Dallas earlier this year, where he now works out of a studio in St. Louis on Washington Avenue.

We caught up with Charles to find out more about his involvement with the Fashion Incubator and his experience as a creative now working in the Midwest.

Charles Smith II Saint Louis Fashion Fund

How has your experience starting out as a model and transitioning to a designer influenced your outlook on the industry?
Because I started off at such a high level, I feel like I’ve already had my moment. I’ve always been really level-headed. I’m not into the celebrity aspect of fashion. I don’t get star-struck. I’ve been around that side of the industry already, so it isn’t something that I’m aspiring to be. The fact that I’ve had that advantage helps me focus on what’s really important. I’m not creating something with the hopes of becoming famous. I’ve seen what fame does in a negative way and in a positive way. I think I’m able to stay level-headed because my intentions are very honest and positive.

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What has been your experience as a creative working in the Midwest?
St. Louis is really supportive of creators living in the city. One of the difficult thing is that there is so much separation between people. There is this mentality of shutting people out instead of bringing people together. Racism is apparent. I try to have events and runway shows that help people from different backgrounds and social statuses come together. Not everyone is who you think they are. Spending time together and enjoying the same things helps you realize that. When you have common interests, you can feel a togetherness and love. There is a great opportunity here in St. Louis to help people come together.

Charles Smith II Saint Louis Fashion Fund

Your collections push the boundaries of what people may be comfortable with. Do you ever feel a pressure to conform or be more commercial?
I never feel pressured to conform. A lot of people don’t understand my collections, especially here in the Midwest, because people are very traditional. My designs cater to a certain type of personality. You have to have an imagination—but I see that as a challenge. I’m trying to understand this market while still maintaining my DNA. I’m trying to connect with the women of St Louis.

Where do you gather inspiration?
I’m inspired all the time; I don’t go looking for inspiration. I’m always attentive to what’s around me. Being envious of other people’s lifestyles sometimes can be inspiring. I’m inspired by the way people are and the way they treat others. I’m inspired by art, shape and the psychological mindsets. I’m always inspired by what triggers people to be a certain way or make a decision. I want to use my brand to trigger sensations through different mediums. I’m always looking to stimulate people from every direction. 

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What is your process like?
Intuitive. I don’t force anything. I’m always receptive to my instincts. They trigger impulses.

I’m very still. I understand how to be still and just listen to that voice within that we all have. Some people are moving so much that they don’t take the time to listen to this unseen wave that designers and creators can catch. It’s so important to be still so that you can feel how that voice moves you.

What has been the importance of having mentors for you?
It’s so important in terms of understanding the business side and the infrastructure of how a design house works. When you are on the creative side, you don’t know the business side. Our mentors give us the 411 on their job, what they do and how it pertains to what we need to be doing.

Right now, I work at a pace that makes sense for the resources I have. The knowledge I’ve gained from having a mentor has helped me know where to go when I’m ready to take that next step. They are able to provide very exact knowledge, like details about manufacturing and factories. The also provide invaluable connections to people, which is so crucial in this industry.

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