It was Thursday, September 6, 2012 when Laura Smalls received a voicemail from her mother that would ultimately have fashionistas and fashion bloggers alike frenziedly Googling her name.
“I think Michelle Obama has your dress on!” her mother reportedly gushed, having spotted the FLOTUS in a full-skirted, printed aubergine dress with a bateau neckline as she watched the closing night of the Democratic National Convention.
Smalls, who wasn’t home at the time, contacted her husband. “Take a picture of the TV!” Fashionista.com reports she told him. “My head was spinning.” Suddenly, Smalls had been catapulted into the mainstream on a very big stage.
The private designer expressed to theGrio via email of the heady moment, “I am highly honored and truly blessed that our first lady has chosen to wear my designs,” but wouldn’t say more about the process that led to her creating the custom piece for Mrs. Obama, citing “the utmost respect that I have for the Obama administration.”
In spite of the overnight spike in her brand due to national attention, Smalls is not new to the fashion industry.
In 1976 she graduated from the Parsons School of Design, promptly sold a small spring collection to Bloomingdale’s and Henri Bendel — and then nothing. In the season that followed, Bloomingdale’s opted not to buy her subsequent collection, and a new buyer had replaced her contact at Bendel’s. “I couldn’t even get an appointment,” Smalls told the Huffington Post.
Sobered by the experience, Smalls turned her attention to being a wife, raising her three children, and working as a staff designer. She spent the bulk of her career designing outerwear at Amerex Group, which owns the Jessica Simpson, Jones New York, and Nicole Miller lines, among others. Ultimately, Smalls rose from assistant designer to design director. “[Amerex] had become like family,” she said.
Ironically, it was the historic year that President Obama was elected the first African-American president of the United States that Smalls again took up her sketchpad for herself. With her children grown, Smalls began designing one-off pieces.
She was wearing one of her own designs at a gala event that Vogue’s editor-at-large André Leon Talley also attended. Talley’s interest was piqued to say the least. After showing him a few sketches, the influential fashion personality suggested that Smalls show at New York Fashion Week.
Talley does not get enough credit for the role he has played in bringing sunlight to young and unknown designers. His push has also brought attention to emerging designer Mimi Plange who has also dressed the first lady, collaborates with Manolo Blahnik, and recently was named “Designer of the Year International” during Mercedes Benz Fashion Week in South Africa.