Of Talley, Smalls told theGrio, “[He is] a very discerning and a tough critic. He has an incredible eye and memory and will give his honest opinion if something needs to be corrected, or suggest how to make it better. Mr. Talley is one of the most brilliant and iconic people in the fashion industry today.” She added, “I would not have had the courage to pursue this dream of my own collection, if it had not been for his encouragement to try.”

The collection of thirty cocktail and evening dresses she created for New York Fashion Week, presented with piano accompaniment by none other than Valerie Simpson of Ashford & Simpson fame, was well received. As she slowly built a following of high-placed fans, Smalls transitioned from solely designing outerwear for Amerex to going into business for herself.

“I still have a relationship with them,” Smalls explains, grateful for Amerex’s support, as well as her husband’s, when she decided to venture into executing her own line. Managing a new start-up has had its challenges. “The process has been both exhilarating and daunting,” Smalls admitted, “with so many issues as a businesswoman to take into account from finance, to shipping, manufacturing production, managing people to work with you, etc. It has not been easy, as for many small design firms starting out.”

For this reason, Smalls is less concerned about what celebrities are wearing than she is about growing her core customer base — though she does list some celebs whose personal style resonates with her own. “Zoe Saldana, Marion Cotillard, Halle Berry, Kerry Washington, [and] Angelina Jolie,” are a few names she shared of women who would likely be at home in her designs. Smalls added about her target customer that, “she has a level of self-confidence and, I believe, a shared aesthetic either [with] a color I chose, a fabrication, print, or a silhouette that I am presenting.”

Smalls’ aesthetic is classic with a retro sensibility, extraordinary details, and whimsical flourishes. Inspired by a mix of design legends and more recent fashion icons, she counts Dior, Vionnet, Balenciaga, Matsuda, and Azzedine Alaïa among her biggest influences. “When I see someone’s work I admire, I truly study and absorb the execution of it. I loved Romeo Gigli’s work years back, how he mixed color and pattern and textures. His silhouettes on top of that were always a bit odd, but sooooooo gorgeous!”

Her diverse tastes resound with a diversity of women. “Fortunately, I have attracted a customer base with a broad age range and demographic, which I love. Case in point: Kourtney Kardashian,” she told theGrio, referring to the September 2011 issue of InStyle in which the reality star was photographed wearing a Smalls design she had purchased.

Smalls has experienced the high of selling her first collection as an ingénue designer, the disappointment of temporarily abandoning her personal design dreams for the security of a 9 to 5, and the elevation of having none other than the first lady wear her designs. Yet, for her it always comes back to the customer. Looking back on the many years she spent juggling responsibilities as a wife, mother, and designer, Smalls believes it gave her “an element of practicality.”

As she begins to conceive her Fall 2013 collection, Smalls has no hints to share just yet.  “I am just starting the process… so I think it will be a surprise to me as well.” What will she say? “I am feeling a bit more tailored and elegant direction this time!”

Whatever the direction, Smalls reverts to her core design philosophy. “Even though designing starts with a dream… it has to work for [a] woman.”

We couldn’t agree more.

Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond is the author of the novel Powder NecklaceFollow her on twitter @nanaekua.