LaQuan Smith is a rarity in the fashion world as an African-American designer.

Fashion designer LaQuan Smith posing for a portrait in New York. Mary Altaffer / AP

LaQuan Smith is all about the champagne lifestyle: bubbly, luxurious and, especially when it comes to the womenswear he designs, sexy.

The designer made his New York Fashion Week debut at the age of 21 with a sleek, edgy collection he dubbed the “Water Goddess.” Ten years later, his rise seems meteoric in the years of fashion, from sneaking into industry events and sharing the wildly textured and colorful leggings he sewed in his basement in Jamaica, Queens to outfitting Beyonce, Serena Williams, Jennifer Lopez, Kim Kardashian, and Rihanna.

At 31, some see the self-taught Smith as a pioneer in promoting fashion culture, but it wasn’t easy. He said in a recent interview with The Associated Press that he owes his success to his special passion, fashion, and staying true to himself by trusting his gut.

“It’s just doing what I love, doing things that speak and represent me,” Smith said, wearing a red and blue plaid jacket, turtleneck, ripped black jeans, and immaculate white sneakers. “I always like to start with a level of authenticity.”

That authenticity came to play when Moet & Chandon proclaimed Smith one of its “Nectar of the Culture” ambassadors, along with other pioneers in music, art, and more, in honor of the Moet Nectar Imperial Rose. It’s the latest in a long line of collaborations as Smith continues to build his eponymous brand, staying close to home to produce his clothes in Queens.

“Once upon a time, New York was the premier source of clothing production and that’s something I wish we could return to,” Smith said. “Production in Queens is just something that happened organically.”

Some of Smith’s bad spots came early in life after his grandmother taught him how to sew when he was 13. After hosting a fashion show at his high school, he was excited to attend the College of Art and Design, to say goodbye to busy New York in the 11th grade when his mother moved the family to Delaware, a place held no allure. He was later diagnosed with bone cancer, which is a “really humble experience”, he said. Smith recovered and continued to pursue her fashion dreams, desperate to return to New York, but was turned down by both the Fashion Institute of Technology and Parsons School of Design.

“I was a bit devastated and lost. I didn’t know how to get my head off the ground,” he said.

He was then offered an internship at BlackBook, an arts and culture magazine, working for then fashion director Elizabeth Sulcer. She was in demand for parties and industry events, and Smith took advantage of those contacts, sometimes appearing uninvited wearing his own designs. He started giving his pants to whoever took them. In 2010, the effort paid off when he spotted Lady Gaga in a pair while flipping through a tabloid with her mother at a supermarket.

“My mom said, yeah, that’s fine,” he said. – I don’t think she really understood that.

That same year, Smith first appeared at Fashion Week and was chatted up by former Vogue editor-at-large Andre Leon Talley. Additionally, Rihanna wore his gold chain-mail bodysuit in her “Rude Boy” video and then gave him a shout-out on Instagram for his “money green,” a barely-there net dress she wore over a bikini in Brazil.

“I was 21 and had incredible support from industry insiders, then a few years later it was like everything had crumbled and burned, where reality started to hit me,” Smith said. “I had no business infrastructure, no money. It was just popularity… It took me a while to focus, to perfect myself, to run a solid business.”

It took time and the help of his business partner Jacqueline Cooper to stick with him.

As an African American designer, Smith is a fashion rarity. Diversity and involvement in the industry is an ongoing issue, he said.

“I’m still prone to feeling, I don’t know, maybe pigeonholed sometimes,” Smith said. “I like to be portrayed as a designer, not as an African-American designer. That doesn’t mean I’m ashamed of who I am. Only when it comes to my job, why is skin color the first?”

As a company, it’s a doer, relying heavily on Latino, Black, Asian, and curvy models to walk its runways. His bespoke work remains strong and he brings the same inclusive zeal to a range of bodies owned by his private clients.

“My goal is if you want to feel sexy if you want to look fantastic if you want to be the center of attention, it’s LaQuan Smith,” he said. “It’s something I want to continue to accept.”

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