To promote her new True Religion collection, Joan Smalls is in New York at the start of one very Joan Smalls-packed fashion week. Luckily, a lot of major things have been packed with Smalls lately. She took us to school on Vogue Mexico’s September cover, her unmistakable violet lips launched an Estée Lauder collection–she was the first Latina model to rep the company–and then of course there was that surprising even for lui shoot that her mom thought was fresh.
One of the world’s highest paid supermodels, Smalls is generous with an “I’m just like you” charm that can only radiate from someone who manages to keep it real even when P.R. is buzzing around her. She’s wearing a mesh shirt she designed for her second JS X TR capsule collection in a curtained off room at Beautique, but she doesn’t only plug her mesh and leather-heavy capsule collection. (Think of the kind of sexy streetwear threads both Scary and Sporty Spice would go for, and you’re in the zone.)
Smalls also talked to Styleite about how fashion has a social responsibility to represent all people, how there can be a season that shows progress, and then one that doesn’t right after it, and her own experience with self-acceptance.
So what were you envisioning for the designs?
I was envisioning everyday wear with a detail. I’m so into details when I go shopping. I want something that speaks to me or that feels special in a garment. So if it’s a t-shirt, if it has a leather detail, I think it’s cool. Or, I like a mesh t-shirt that I can wear backwards. So we made this one reversible. So if you want to do the mesh in the front of the back or you want to make sure you want to see your top. Or the fabrics. I’m always into touching things when I’m shopping to make sure it’s a cool fabric. This was is a neoprene. The hoodie is leather.
Do you have personal standards that guide you before you model for a company? Is there something that you’re looking for when you decide to lend your face?
Yes. Absolutely. It’s so important now that you have more of a name and more of presence. You just become more of a brand with things that you like and understand, that you can grow as well. The good thing about True Religion is that when I had the meeting, they were very open to my ideas and I had an input in the collection. It wasn’t like, ‘O.K. this is what we’re doing. Put your name on it.’ I come into the offices in L.A. They created a mood board.
Can you tell me more about the fabrics?
I start by describing what it is that I like. I love a simple t-shirt that feels super soft. And so they give me a swatch of different fabrics that they’ve been shopping for. I’ll say I like this one, but in that color, so can we get that color? It was a lot of that and trying out the jeans once we had the sample. I love leggings, but I’d say, ‘can we put leather to it just on the side so that it adds a little something?’ And gun metal is one of my favorite fabrics.
You get the strength from the color and the fabrics that I choose, but then the fit is very feminine and sexy.
Beyond aesthetics, I know that diversity is something you care deeply about. And you have a unique vantage point on that because you’ve been a a major part of progress. From your perspective, where do you see that the fashion industry is at with diversity now?
I just feel it’s always a conversation that needs to continue happening for it not to become a thing, you know. You see it every day as a topic. It shouldn’t have to be that we’re always making mention of it because it’s a norm now. We’ll see. I feel like sometimes certain seasons, it’s good and then the next season it’s not so good. I just think it’s more about awareness. You walk in the streets in New York. You see people from different parts of the world.
What do you see as the industry’s role in reflecting that?
I feel like the fashion world owes that social responsibility to people to see themselves on the runway or in high fashion. Everybody’s a consumer. Not just a particular gender or a particular race. When you’re in middle America or the middle of the world, you want to see the fashion. You want to say oh my god that girl is so beautiful, you know, you can identify with the girl because you’re familiar and it gives hope instead of pushing an idea of what beauty is or a stereotype of what beauty is. Beauty is different shapes, different colors, different backgrounds. I think that’s what beautiful.
That lui cover was so so sexually empowering. What do you remember about shooting that?
I told them to make sure they give me leeway before they were shooting it just so I could feel or think I was in shape. But it was done with two of my good friends. I always put my trust in them whenever they’re shooting. We go way back to when I hit the high fashion modeling industry so it was quite an honor to have them shoot me. And it was just fun because you’re [laughing] just shooting and having fun with friends and they have such a good eye. My mom said, “fresco!” It means like fresh!! I was like, ‘I learned it from you!’ I got it from my mamma [laughing.] But it’s about being comfortable with your body. Being Latin and growing up in Puerto Rico, you just learn to be comfortable with yourself. I mean it’s super hot so you can barely wear any clothes [laughing.] So it’s about being confident and loving yourself whatever you are.
How do you think that influences what you look for in clothes?
Whenever I design a collection, I always think about how a woman wants to feel comfortable and sexy and at her best. So I always make sure the fit is correct. Every girl wants her butt to look nice. Even when we’re fitting the jeans, I would say, can we make it tighter up to here and then flare out? Just so it creates a better illusion and silhouette. And the way it feels on our skin. It’s all about comfort and confidence.
What was your own path to self-acceptance and feeling good about your body?
Probably putting less pressure on myself and not caring about what other people think. I feel like a lot of your confidence can be steered by what people say or what people criticize or what they visualize and I think once you let that go, that’s when you feel you’re sexy. You feel so sure of yourself and you embrace yourself because you don’t care what people think. And I always say, you don’t live with people and people don’t live with you so their opinions don’t matter. Last time I tried paying my bills with somebody else’s opinion, it didn’t get me far so why should you care? You know? [laughing]