The Powerful Elegance Of Sergio Hudson

Meet the fashion designer behind Michelle Obama's inauguration look.

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After a year of panic buying sweatpants and spending all day in pajamas, the fashion world is entering a reckoning: what will it take to start dressing up again? Sergio Hudson, the 36-year-old designer who hails from Ridgeway South Carolina, is already creating clothing in anticipation of the pendulum swing towards elegance. This year, Hudson dressed former first lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Kamala Harris on inauguration day (all part of a normal work day he explains), but he's spent years building the brand his own way. Hudson started doing custom design work, competed on Bravo's Styled To Rock, a 2014 reality design show hosted by Rihanna, and had fans RSVP'ing to his NYFW show before he even decided to do one. Since launching his ready-to-wear label in 2014, Hudson has been a force bringing old-school glamour back to both the red carpet and to his loyal customers.

Reflecting on the current era, Hudson looks to similar periods of time throughout history where dressing up took a back seat to practicality and safety — including the 1918 flu and World War II — as eras followed by an artistic and stylistic renaissance. "When you take a break it comes back with more fury," he explains via Zoom from his home in Los Angeles. For now, the release of his Spring/Summer 2021 collection along with an upcoming Fall collection are challenging the designer to champion his aesthetic in the midst of sweeping changes in both the way people want to dress and the way the industry gets things done.

Below, learn more about Hudson's background and how he's come to create the label to watch right now.

TZR: You come from a fashion family — your mom worked in tailoring and your sister was a model. What are your early memories around fashion and when was it first interesting to you?

Sergio Hudson: My mom was the catalyst, just being a very stylish woman. The high heels, the suits, it was always an event to get dressed. It was planning out outfits for weeks in advance. It was making clothes for my sister and her modeling. And it was Vogue magazine constantly around the house, watching CNN's 'Style With Elsa Klensch' ... that's a really old reference and I'm not actually old enough to supposedly remember that.

TZR: Was your personal aesthetic aligned with your mom's?

SH: If I break it down, my aesthetic is a little sexier than what she would normally wear. I always say I'm a melding of my mother and my "fashion father" in my head, Gianni Versace.

I was very influenced at a young age by Gianni Versace, Gianfranco Ferré, Thierry Mugler, Azzedine Alaïa ... they were my patron saints. I worship those men and I wanted to be them. So you see that a lot in my clothing.

My mom is a minister and she preaches every Sunday ... so she dresses up and wears high heels, that's just her signature thing. Growing up, I thought every woman did that. And it was just when you come to realize ... Oh, people don't like their heels that high. It's good to look at, but people don't really want to wear them.

Sergio Hudson/Allen Cooley
Sergio Hudson/Allen Cooley
Sergio Hudson/Allen Cooley

TZR: That expectation of dressing up really defined an older generation ...

SH: I feel like women came out of that [way of dressing] because they felt maybe it was put upon them by men. But there is joy in dressing up. It gives you confidence. It gives you power. I can see when women dress up in my clothes and their posture changes, or they wear something that she thought they couldn't wear. I want to bring the joy of getting dressed up back to the forefront. Everything has gotten so casual and that's great, but let's not forget. Let's dress it up.

I think it's definitely a renaissance and glam time coming after the pandemic. It's almost like I can physically see it coming.

TZR: What prompted you to go to design school? How much training did you come in with from your mom?

SH: I didn't learn anything from my mom. Technically, she didn't want to teach me ... she was like, 'I'll pay for you to go to college and learn. I'm not doing that.' So I didn't sew a stitch until I went to college.

I learned everything in school from pattern-making to draping, to sewing all of that in college. I watched my mom growing up, so I knew ... OK, this is how you put this together, how you put that together, but I never got the opportunity to do it. Everybody says, 'Oh, I've been making clothes since I was five.' And I was like, 'No, I just had been close [to clothesmaking] since I was five.' And then I got the actual technical part when I went to school, which is crazy because a lot of the kids that were in school had known how to sew already.

I was just so determined to be Azzedine Alaïa that I knew I had to be a master at making my own clothing. It was important to me that I knew how to physically do it. I'm not that old ... I'm only 36 years old, I graduated from college in 2005, but the industry has changed.

You can probably count on your hand the number of designers that can actually make clothes now, it's really weird to me. But when I was in college almost 20 years ago, you couldn't get out of design school without knowing how to make clothes.

Courtesy Sergio Hudson
Courtesy Sergio Hudson

TZR: So you gain the technical knowledge, you graduate, go home and you start designing — how did the Styled To Rock opportunity first come to you?

SH: They scouted me and I didn't want to do it, to be honest with you. I didn't want to do reality TV. I even went through the first round of casting for Project Runway one season, and I didn't show up to the call-back in Atlanta. I felt that when you end up on TV, you become more of a personality than you are a designer.

At that time when they approached me with Styled To Rock, I was in a moment where I felt stuck, I didn't know which direction I should go in ... they caught me at a vulnerable moment. So I went out to L.A. for casting, two weeks stuck in a hotel room ... couldn't talk to anybody. They sent me home and said they weren't picking me for the show.

I got home [to South Carolina], I drove to Atlanta [to visit friends] because I was devastated. I'm like, now I'm stepping out on faith, going to do this thing, and they tell me, 'No, we don't want you.' It was my first big rejection.

While I was sitting at dinner with my best friend and his sister, [the show] called me and said, 'We want you to come back.' And I was like, 'This is an emotional roller coaster.' So I drove back [home] to South Carolina, got on the plane, flew to L.A., and the next day we were on set and I was joining the cast. It was crazy.

TZR: Did the show serve as an intro to what the pace of red carpet dressing or the fashion calendar could be? Did you enjoy it?

SH: Doing the show conditioned me for working with celebrities because the premise was that you designed the outfit for Miley Cyrus ... she was one of the people on the show ... you presented it to Miley and she picked which one she liked, and that's who won the challenge. And it's actually really kind of how it works in the industry. The stylists pull from different designers, they bring it to the celebrity, the celebrity says, 'OK, I like this and will wear this.' You're winning a competition when J.Lo walks out in your dress. It was conditioning me and getting me ready for what I experienced now on a daily basis.

I didn't do a [runway] show early on because I just didn't feel I was ready or had the clout. I definitely didn't have the money. After [my team] dressed Mrs. Obama for the second time we started getting RSVPs to a show that we weren't doing. They just assumed that I was having a show at New York Fashion Week. And I was like, 'Sorry we're not having a show,' and the next season I called my PR and I was like, 'I think we need to do a show.' So that's how the show came about last year, because I wasn't intending on doing one at all. And it just kind of happened.

TZR: Did the exposure and the prize money put a certain amount of pressure on your shoulders in terms of growing the brand?

It wasn't pressure winning the show, it was just, 'OK, now I can do what I really want to do with this thing.' Because, before that, I was just doing custom designs. I wanted to do a collection, but I had clients in South Carolina that I had to make clothing for. And it was just like, 'This is not really what I want to be doing.'

After that, I went full [steam] ahead and started putting out collections. But the time between the show and when I really started getting some traction in the industry was a couple of years. The show gave me the experience that I needed and it gave me some funds to start doing collections, but it didn't give me the entry into the industry that I thought it was going to give me. That came from grinding, getting out there, getting PR, and making relationships with these celebrities.

TZR: We're in the midst of this funny era where — excluding red carpets — people see clothes as protection or comfort, or making life easy, but aren't necessarily putting attention into dressing up. What has that experience been like for you?

Creating clothes for the red carpet and creating clothes for Bergdorf [Goodman] is kind of the same thing because the woman that I dress wants to look like J.Lo on the red carpet. I don't make outlandish, crazy clothing — what you see on the red carpet is what I make in my collection most of the time. I'm very keen and conscious and I irritate my PR sometimes because I'll turn down a request if I feel it's not in the lane that we are in.

Let's take for example what we did for First Lady Obama for the inauguration. That was directly out of my collection, it was not even a thought of doing or changing anything, because it's something that I would do. Even what we put Vice President Harris in for the evening event following the inauguration, it was my seamstress' sequin dress and a tuxedo coat, something that I would make on a Tuesday. I just feel like any woman can look like that, so it's not a big deal to me.

Michelle Obama wearing Sergio Hudson to the 2021 Inauguration.Pool/Getty Images News/Getty Images
Kamala Harris wearing Sergio Hudson.Pool/Getty Images News/Getty Images

But as for the time right now, especially with the Spring collection, we did pull the clothes away from the body a little bit and use more comfortable fabrics. I really thought about what would this woman want to wear when she's stuck at home on Zoom. It was actually kind of fun, but I feel like with Fall and what's coming up next, people are going to want to return to fashion, but in a more comfortable way.

[My Fall collection is] going to be packed heavy with a lot of knitwear and accessories because I feel like people want to express themselves with accessories ... with an amazing belt, an amazing purse, an amazing shoe. [I'm] keeping the clothes simple, because it's a simpler time.

Throughout history, there have always been times when fashion had to go on pause. Like if you think about World War II when all of the Couture houses in Paris had to shut down and start making clothes for the military. But right after that, you had the great renaissance of fashion, which was the Christian Dior new look, right? It's always going to come back, and when you take a break it comes back with more fury.

TZR: Actually jumping off of that, your belt was one piece that I wanted to talk to you about. It's been worn by Michelle Obama, Amy Poehler, Tracy Ellis Ross, whether it's a belted suit or belted gown. Why are you drawn to the belt particularly?

I remember my mom had this particular red dress that had a huge gold buckle and the belt was made out of the same fabric as the dress. It was my favorite thing that she ever wore. I found this other Donna Karan cashmere dress that she wore that had a covered belt as well. It's like putting jewelry on a dress to me, it's the finishing touch. That particular belt [that's been worn so many times] I did for a collection a couple of seasons ago. It was a '70s-inspired collection, and I wanted a big gold buckle. So I went looking, found the buckle that I wanted, and got it developed.

The buckle was supposed to have a three-inch belt attached to it, but I didn't really want a huge belt, I wanted the belt to be an afterthought of the buckle, so I made the belt two inches. I wanted to make it smaller, but my belt manufacturer was like, 'That's crazy. It won't be able to hold the weight of this solid brass buckle.' So we made the belt two inches and it kind of, when you put it on, it kind of looks like you just have a buckle on. And that's what I wanted.

It wasn't intentional for it to be a continuing thing, it was just for that collection. But after First Lady Obama wore it with the purple suit, and then Beyoncé wore it with the orange suit in 2019, it became a thing and we started getting requests for it. And then [stylist] Karla Welch was like, 'I need all of those signature belts that you have.' I'm like, 'What is a signature belt?' And she was like, 'The belt that you do, it's your signature belt.' I said, 'OK, it's my signature belt.' And that's kind of how it became the signature belt.

Jennifer Lopez wearing Sergio Hudson, May 2018.Araya Doheny/WireImage/Getty Images

TZR: Do you have any celeb moments that really stand out to you as a personal favorite?

One of my favorite moments was when Jennifer Lopez wore my leopard print dress. That collection was a last-minute one. I had a completely different [one] that I was designing, and then Azzedine Alaïa died right before [it] was coming out. I canceled and redesigned it, I kept very little from the one I designed before. And it was a tribute, so that's where the leopard print came from. I'm not a print person, but I felt I needed to do something to show how much he meant to me. So I designed this [season] inspired by him and when he did the leopard print in his [Fall 1991] collection.

Azzedine Alaia Fall 1991Guy Marineau/Conde Nast Collection/Getty Images

That was [when things] changed for me, it really put me out there. Jennifer saw the collection and she wore several looks from it on her press tour she was doing at the time. And that dress was the first moment that I really was like, 'This is going to work.' It was touching gold for a minute. But when she wore that, it was like, 'It's official, J.Lo wore your clothes. So now you need to get up and go and make sure this thing happens.'

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