A funny thing happens when Michelle Obama wears something you made, according to Sergio Hudson. The Los Angeles-based designer discovered this after dressing the former first lady twice last summer.
Obama wore two jumpsuits by Hudson, one in royal blue and the other in amethyst, both decorated with varying amounts of glitter, and bam—“We were getting RSVPs for a September show that I wasn’t doing,” Hudson, 35, told The Daily Beast. “People were asking, ‘Who do we reach out to for your show?’ I was like, ‘I’m not having a show, but maybe we will next season.’”
Now, it is next season. True to his word, Hudson held his debut presentation on the first official night of New York Fashion Week. The theme was unabashed glamour in the style of Hudson’s childhood icons, R&B heavyweights like Tina Turner, Sade, Anita Baker, Toni Braxton, Whitney Houston, and Pebbles. Models with Cindy Crawford bouffants walked slowly, dripping in fur, rhinestones, lamé, or a healthy combination of all three.
“I feel like the fun has gone out of fashion,” Hudson said. “It has to be wearable, a woman has to go from here to there. I’m like, ‘Can’t we just make beautiful clothes? They can figure out where they go later.’”
You might imagine the man uttering those lines would show up to breakfast dressed in a full-length mink or embellished motorcycle jacket. But Hudson doesn’t dress like his women do, in skintight leather and/or corsets. He has a uniform of sorts, one that makes him look more like a backstage assistant than the man running the show: black sweatpants and an Adidas sweatshirt.
“It’s easy,” Hudson said. “I always tell people: I don’t have time to care about how I look, because I’m too busy caring about how other people look. But I know I have to be presentable, and I know black is chic. That’s what I wear all the time. I do put on a little something-something every now and then when I try. But trying is a lot.”
Again: you might imagine the man uttering those lines to be haggard or frenzied, on his third cup of coffee, a human manifestation of millennial burnout. But that’s not the case, either. Hudson speaks slowly, with a laconic southern drawl, and even when he describes an overwhelming experience (getting ready for his NYFW show) or the best day of his life (his NYFW show), he’s measured and focused.
The theatrics are in the clothes, not the person. He has no reason to be dramatic in person. If you want to know Sergio, just look at his dresses.
Hudson’s show was scheduled for the same night that Tom Ford, the chairman of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, opted to present his fall collection at a star-studded event in Los Angeles. Jeremy Scott, a longtime New Yorker, also jumped across the pond to Paris for his runway.
“When we got the news that Tom wasn’t showing in New York, it was a ‘Really?’-type moment,” Hudson said. “But the team and I were like, ‘OK, it is what it is.’ New York has been the hub of fashion since forever. I’m American, so I want to show in my country. I want the energy of New York. These are my people, and I want to represent here. You can leave, but I’m not.”
If Hudson seems determined, it’s because he has been waiting for this moment for much of his life. It began in Columbia, South Carolina, where his father worked as a plant manager for a company that makes diamond-edge saws and his mother was a tailor. He was the youngest of three siblings, and his sister Tonya worked as a local model.
“She had pictures of Beverly Peele and Naomi Campbell,” Hudson remembered. “She was obsessed with modeling, so of course her being my big sister, I was obsessed with the things she was obsessed with. And my mom is just a fashion person, so it was no choice.”
At 14, Tonya was in talks to sign a contract with a New York modeling agency. An elementary school-aged Hudson watched helplessly while those plans fell apart, as they tend to do sometimes.
“She was affected by it for a long time,” he said. So, of course, he was disappointed too. “I always felt like, I have to make this happen, not just for me but for her as well. She had a lot of big dreams, and she was one of the reasons I really, really got into fashion.”
Another reason Hudson got into fashion: he wanted a way out of South Carolina. “I grew up in a farming town,” Hudson explained. “My granddad had acres and acres of corn where he grew up.” Idyllic for some, perhaps, but not for the boy who watched CNN Style in his spare time. “I ate the corn,” Hudson offered. “But I wasn’t into it.”
So his mother, Sheldon, would take him on the two-hour drive back to her hometown of Charleston to get a bit of culture. They’d go shopping in Charlotte, or five hours away in Atlanta. Sheldon also took him to church, especially after she became a theology professor and pastor when he was in middle school.
“We always went to church, but before that it was just on Sundays, and that’s it,” Hudson said. “Then all of a sudden, we go to church on Sunday, we go to church on Wednesday, and on every special occasion. I’ve been to church enough for you, me, and somebody else.”
It was, in his words, “a lot.” He’s since split from religion, but not from his family: his mother sat front row at his show, and is just as much a muse as Whitney or Pebbles. “If you look at the way I styled the women, that is my mom pretty much. She had five-inch heels, that’s her life.”
A preteen Hudson decided his own “patron saints” would be a holy trinity of ’90s fashion icons: Gianni Versace, Azzedine Alaïa, and Gianfranco Ferré. “The whole era I grew up in, fashion was its own celebrity,” he recalled. “It was not just the supermodels, but the designers and the clothes, it was its own world.”
One steamy summer day in mid-July, a preteen Hudson tried to stay cool by watching TV in his family’s living room. “In the south, you stay home in the summertime,” he explained. “I was not an outside kid. It was hours of TV watching.” A news bulletin flashed across the screen: Gianni Versace had been shot dead outside of his Miami Beach mansion. He was 50 years old.
“I was devastated,” Hudson said. “I’ll never forget it. I immediately broke down, but I was home by myself. Then my mom came home and told me, because she knew I was obsessed. You always have dreams of meeting people and telling them you love them, so yeah, it was tough. Especially as a child, I didn’t understand what was going on or why he was killed or why anyone would hate him.”
But Hudson, not yet out of middle school, understood one thing that many adults at the time did not. “I knew who Donatella was when no one else knew who he was,” he said. Hudson first saw her in photos at the Met Gala with her brother, wearing her infamous leather “bondage dress.”
“Everyone wondered who was going to take over Versace. I was like, ‘Donatella.’ I knew it, because when you watch his interviews, he would always reference her,” Hudson explained.
After the assassination, Hudson knew he wanted to “follow” his icon’s footsteps. “I jokingly call him my uncle, or father,” Hudson said. “Donatella, I call her auntie. On birthdays, I’ll post on Instagram. To me, literally, Gianni was an unknowing godfather. It’s like a vein in fashion to me, and one of the veins that we need.”
“What do I have to do to dress Michelle?”
Hudson left Columbia for Bauder College, a small design school in Atlanta. It was tough transitioning from creating for fun to creating for work. “At first, I was a little flighty and headstrong,” Hudson said. “I didn’t realize that when you went to design school, you had to learn how to make patterns and sew, you couldn’t just make your own stuff. It was rough in the beginning, because I came ready to design my own clothes.”
Hudson watched other kids drop out or switch majors. He stuck it out, for the most part, though he cut class to watch a livestream of the Spring 2004 Dior show by John Galliano. But by the end, he emerged a “star student,” winning the senior fashion show.
The next step should have been accepting an internship in New York, and he had a few offers, but Hudson didn’t want to do “the thing you were supposed to do.” He thought he might get lost in the “big pond” of New York fashion. Project Runway scouts reached out more than once to see if he wanted to be on the show, but he turned the offers down.
He ended back in South Carolina for a few years, doing custom work, trying to figure out his next steps. Hudson set his sights on Los Angeles, but didn’t know how to get there. By the time he reached his mid-20s, he felt a little stuck. So when he got an invitation to audition for Styled to Rock, a reality show where contestants designed outfits for pop stars, he decided to try out. He still wasn’t sure about TV, but he didn’t have much else to do. Plus, the show was produced by Rihanna. Hudson packed a suitcase and headed to California.
During the audition process, producers quarantined Hudson in a hotel room for a week, calling him into rooms when they needed him. “You couldn’t leave without permission, because they didn’t want you to run into other people that they’re casting,” Hudson said. At the end of the week, they sent Hudson home. Thanks, but no thanks.
Upset and adrift, he went to stay with a friend in Atlanta. One night at dinner, a producer called out of the blue and asked if he would consider being an alternate. Once again, he found himself heading to Los Angeles. By the third episode, Hudson was a contender, and he moved into the studio where contestants lived, sewed, and filmed.
“We were isolated from the outside world,” Hudson remembered. “We filmed in the studio where they filmed the movie Saw.”
Styled to Rock wasn’t exactly difficult for Hudson. “I was used to making clothes constantly,” he said. “It was not a huge deal for me. And I was used to making clothes for real people. That’s when I first learned that everybody doesn’t make clothes for real people. They’d be complaining, ‘This model’s shape is like this, she’s so big.’ I’m used to making clothes from 0-26, so it wasn’t anything to me.”
For the finale, Hudson had to create a gown for Rihanna. “When she walked into the room, we were behind this partition,” he said. “But I smelled her before she walked in. She smelled so good. It radiated throughout the whole room. Then I heard her voice, and I thought, that must be her. I walked out, and I was so country at the time, I had never seen somebody like that in person.”
Hudson won the show’s $100,000 prize. At the time, he considered it his invitation to the big leagues. “I had really high expectations from it,” he said. “That didn’t quite go the way I thought it was going to go. You think after the show, ‘I’m on Rihanna’s team. Let’s go. Let’s do this.’ But no. You have to start over.”
He added that he and Rihanna have a very supportive texting relationship. “Ri and I still talk, and she still encourages me,” Hudson said. “She texted me about the show saying good luck and she hoped it went well. When she got her deal with LVMH, I messaged her. It’s all love.”
Styled to Rock was originally supposed to air on the Style Network, which got sold while the series was being edited. It ended up in a Friday night death slot on Bravo, getting little promotion.
“I’m thankful for that, to be honest,” Hudson said. “I feel like it’s hard to be taken seriously in fashion when you come from one of those reality shows. I have friends who have done Project Runway, and they get ‘Oh, you’re the guy from that show,’ all the time. People don’t know much about Styled to Rock, and I kind of like that. It was a good experience for me, but I’m glad it’s not the biggest thing I ever did.”
That cash prize was pretty clutch, though, and helped to fund the first official Sergio Hudson collection. He signed with StylePR, a Los Angeles PR showroom. He still called South Carolina home. Until Kendall Jenner turned 20.
In 2015, Jenner bid goodbye to her teenage years, as one does, by throwing a star-studded celebration at a club in West Hollywood. She showed up to the affair in a black flare leg jumpsuit cut down to the waist, designed by Hudson. “That moved me out to LA,” he said. “When I first signed with my showroom, I was in South Carolina mailing samples out there.”
Hudson describes the pace his career picked up once he moved west by snapping his fingers. Suddenly he was dressing Britney Spears, Jennifer Lopez, and a few more Kardashians. Michelle Obama was still the first lady. He “furiously” tried to find out who styled her.
“They kept it secret,” Hudson remembered. “It was really hard to get to her. They had to reach out to you.” After the Obamas left office and Michelle began a series of speaking gigs and a book tour, the stylist Meredith Koop became a visible figure, even earning a New York Times style section profile.
One day, Hudson noticed Koop followed him on Instagram. “She liked one of my photos,” he remembered. “I was like, ‘OK, I got her.’” He messaged her with a blunt question: “What do I have to do to dress Michelle?” Koop replied that she had some events coming up, and would be in touch.
“They all say that,” Hudson said. “But she actually did.” Koop requested samples for a 2018 Elle cover shoot, and Hudson sent a few looks to set. None fit, and he assumed he’d blown his chance. But a few weeks later, Koop was back in his DMs, wondering if he could rework an orange suit originally worn by Queen Latifah. This time, the size worked.
“Dressing people like Michelle Obama and Beyoncé, I feel like they transcend color,” Hudson said. “That’s what I like about it. They’re women, they’re powerful, and they’re smart.
Hudson wears a gold-plated necklace shaped into the continent of Africa nearly every day, and when he doesn’t he wears a similar earring. “I feel connected to my homeland,” Hudson said. “I don’t know what part of it I’m from, but it’s a daily reminder that I have another homeland.”
Still, Hudson is hesitant to let others define him solely by his race. “When I do interviews, it’s like, ‘black designer Sergio Hudson,’” he said. “It’s like, yes I am that, and I’m proud to be that. But I’m a human, it’s not ‘black human.’ It’s just, ‘human.’ We have to be more inclusive, but we have to start looking at black people in fashion like they’re just people.”
Hudson was happy to see Christopher John Rogers, a 26 year-old Brooklyn-based designer, win the prestigious CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund last year. “He’s an avant-garde designer who just happens to be a black man,” Hudson said. “If you take the most successful brands right now who are led by African-Americans, they have an urban or a streetwear type of vibe.That’s us, we do that, but that’s not the only thing that we do. When we do something else, a lot of times it’s not celebrated or lauded or thought that we should do it.”
Hudson works with Nate Hinton, the founder of a young PR company championing some of fashion’s most exciting up-and-comers. A few of those designers, like Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss and Jason Rembert of Aliétte, happen to be black. Hudson is thrilled to be a part of the team.
“There is a community of black designers, but we don’t have a community at the same time,” Hudson said. “I support them at a distance, but I’m not personal friends with them. I’m in LA and they’re [in New York], but I support them. Romeo [Hunte], I sent him a message and congratulated him on his Tommy Hilfiger deal. Kerby [Jean-Raymond, founder of Pyer Moss] is the GOAT, we all love him.”
Hudson hopes to set his brand up for success, so that, in the familial tradition of Versace, his elementary school-aged daughters could run the business someday. He lives with them in Los Angeles (and just them—he didn’t want to talk about his romantic life). The collection was for them, but they did not attend the show. They were in school.
“I want a legacy for them,” he said. “When I’m gone, I want them to have something. Like how Fendi is, the daughters all run it now. I tell people all the time, as an African-American, when you look around, there are none of us who have that in fashion.”
But he doesn’t just want to build a dynasty, or a self-serving empire. “I want to make it easier for someone else coming up behind me,” Hudson said, even if that someone else isn’t a relative. “I want a company where, if you’re a black designer and you do well, I want to fund you. I don’t want to do this just to be rich and famous, that’s just not my jam. That’s weird. You can live the lifestyle and do whatever, but I have a purpose in life.”
Sergio Hudson, the brand, is entirely funded by Sergio Hudson, the person, though he is currently looking for investors. “It takes so much money to work in this business,” he said. “And, to be honest, people don’t want to give money to African-American people. African-Americans don’t want to give us money, and white people don’t want to give us money. Nobody’s going to say, ‘Here’s a million dollars to infuse your business, we believe in you, let’s go.’”
Celebrity stylists do believe in Hudson, though. Only two months into this year he’s already dressed Demi Lovato for her Super Bowl performance of the National Anthem, Regina King in a Cadillac commercial aired during the Oscars, Tiffany Haddish for a film premiere, and Amy Poehler at the Golden Globes. Women of varying ages, sizes, and races—just the way he likes it.
Hudson’s fashion week show did not feature any plus-size models, though there were a few who did not fall into the infamously tiny “sample size.”
“A lot of the girls on my runway were not a size two,” he said. “I picked them on purpose because I like curvy women. I don’t think that deep. People have made everything so deep now. Life is so complicated already, I don’t have time to be deep about fashion.”
The day after his show, a plus-size fan reached out to Hudson on Instagram to vent. “She said, ‘I love your clothes but I don’t feel like you represent us well,’” Hudson explained. “I said, ‘Well, you’re a woman. Just because you’re a different size doesn’t mean that you can’t wear my clothes.’”
He went on, “I personally don’t feel like I have to put someone on my runway who looks like you to feel like you can wear my clothes. That’s in your head. It’s not my responsibility to make you feel comfortable.”
Hudson concedes that it is his responsibility to make sure his garments look great on all his clients, regardless of their measurements. “Look at this: when Queen Latifah wore that orange suit, it is the same suit that I put on a size two model in my look-book,” he explained. “I changed nothing about that look. I just made it in her size.”
Easy enough, if you take Hudson at his word. So what’s next? With a devoted Rolodex of celebrities who rep him on the red carpet, Hudson said his ultimate goal is for one of them—it doesn’t matter much who—to wear one of his looks at the Oscars.
“The dream gets bigger,” he said. “We have to build a brand now. I feel like, even though I worked so hard to get to this place, now it’s a new beginning.”
And the ending, of course, of a childhood dream come true. “[NYFW] is not just something that came about,” Hudson said. “I had visions of my first fashion show when I was a child. To achieve it now, at 35 years old, that’s a big moment for me.” Right after he took his bow on the runway, he went backstage, and began to cry—loudly.
“It’s awful,” Hudson laughed. “There’s pictures and I’m so embarrassed, but I literally collapsed on the floor. I was so overwhelmed. Models were on my back, I was like, ‘Who are these people touching me?’”
So you can bet he’ll have another show next September. “You can’t start fashion week and not stop. February is not as big as September, so it was valuable to do it in February first. I’m glad we made our mark in February, so September will be easier.”
Hudson already has his inspiration for the next time around. It came when he was on a plane sitting near a group of Hasidic Jewish men. “One of them dropped their hat on me, and I looked at the hat.”
It was a shtreimel, made of fur and worn for special occasions. For Hudson, “This is the most fabulous hat I’ve ever seen. Have you ever looked at their hats? I just stared at them the whole time on the plane, then I started designing clothes around that in my head.”
That may be a big jump from a fall line dedicated to his R&B heroes, perhaps, but not too out there considering the first look sent down his runway was a gigantic black and white fur coat. As Hudson put it, with a shrug and a sigh, “I’m just a very glamorous person.”