The star of last night’s InStyle Fashion Week kickoff party at Bar Nana was Alice Smith — a statuesque woman in a skintight green-sequined dress who looked like a gorgeous human disco ball. Smith is the fashion world’s latest musical darling, having appeared in Vogue, Elle, and, most recently, InStyle. The Grammy-nominated songwriter says she’s been influenced by the likes of Nina Simone, Dinah Washington, and Björk — but, with the recent release of her 2013 album, She, Smith has gained attention for her unique personal style, a blend of 1930s chanteuse and modern-day hipster. Before the show, Smith talked to the Cut about her music, her love of fashion, and her feelings about diversity on the runways.
What are some of the rewards and challenges of being an independent singer-songwriter right now in the music industry?
The beauty is the freedom. The freedom is what you need. Saying what you want, how you want to say it, having the ability to try and feel out and create. And the absence of a lot of ridiculous conversation from people who don’t have the knowledge of or the interest in your work.
People come to my shows — and I have a really great audience, and they’ve been very supportive of me — but as far as the business of trying to get music out or make music, it’s very hard. There used to be a time, I think, when people would come together and make something — a movement, a piece of art, the space for that art to happen — that doesn’t happen. Well, maybe it does, but it’s hard to come by. You have this thing of beauty, this piece of art, and you want to share it.
What was it like to move from a Grammy nomination (for her 2008 single “Dream”) with your label to being an independent artist, starting from scratch?
It was great! I was glad to be moving on. My being in that structure wasn’t very efficient for what I was trying to do. I was happy to be free and really happy.
Are you looking forward to performing at the InStyle party to kick off Fashion Week?
I’m excited. I love to do shows in New York, because I love New York. I was here for like 18 years. It’s like a second home. I love performing here because the crowd is so nice. It’s really comfortable. I feel really lucky that this is my comfortable place.
[I know you’re friends with Bethann Hardison], advocate of the Diversity Coalition. How do you feel about the organization’s goals of bringing diversity to the runways?
Well, I’ll tell you, I think it is troublesome that we need it. But I’m glad that somebody did something. It’s good they’re making an effort to make that change happen. It’s hurtful to say that you can’t find anybody of color who you think is beautiful enough to wear your clothes, to represent your line. I’m so glad that Bethann stepped in to get that going. She’s such a trailblazer.
The fashion press has shown you a lot of love recently. Why do you think that is?
I think that really has a lot to do with Stefan Campbell, my artistic director and my friend. I’ve been plugging along, doing my little homemade thing, trying to get by, and I realized that in order to get to a different place, I needed to do something differently. And I love fashion, of course, but I didn’t realize what it does to me during a show. It makes it feel more “show” for me. For me personally, it becomes a meditation into that space. Actors are always talking about that, they’re putting on their costume and they’re their character. It’s special, it’s like going to work. I’m putting on a show; I’m putting on my show clothes.
I realized I wanted to give more and make more of an effort for my people. Me and Stefan, we just talked about it for a long time. I really hope [my look] gets to be more “fashion,” so I can wear more fashion, get more fashion in my closet! [Laughs.]
Well, with eight pages in InStyle …
I’m not a very excitable kind of person, so sometimes something doesn’t sink in for me at the beginning for me to get excited with it. They told me about it, and I thought, Oh, that’s great! Everyone was really nice. I am excited, but I’m more just like, this is so nice! I really appreciate the support. That’s what it translates into to me. Eight pages! Who is this girl? That’s the whole point, though.
How would you describe your personal style?
It’s about function and comfort, but it’s very body-conscious. I like to feel my clothes on my body. I like to wear tight stuff! I do. I like wearing tight clothes. Because, you know, as long as you can. I realized it’s not going to get any better, so I’m more comfortable when I can feel my clothes on me. Support! Again, support. I like things to be effortless.