New York-based brand SMUCKY is on a mission to educate consumers about the current state of our planet while creating sustainable pieces that are equally fashionable.
At the helm is founder and creative director Danielle Koochembere, who began her interest in fashion design at the age of 10. Regarding SMUCKY, she tells us, “We want to give those options to people. We want everybody to feel confident like you’re in a different piece.”
The label’s “SACKS” collection debuted in May. Comprised of three pieces, it drew inspiration from Italian rice sacks and rice fields. Made from low-pill fabric, the RICE Top is a fitted ribbed tee with faded asymmetrical prints. Meanwhile, the ROMA Top can be reversed and tied in several ways with the chest strings. It features a contrast white hem and optional thumbholes. A personal favorite of Koochembere, the ALBA Top arrives in the form of a tank top with a secured under the bust and multi-use elongated straps.
To get to know the designer, we sat down with Danielle Koochembere to discuss SMUCKY’s origins, her latest collection, and what the brand has in store for 2023. Keep scrolling to read our conversation.
How did you come up with the brand’s name, SMUCKY?
SMUCKY was actually my childhood nickname. My parents called me that ever since I was a child. When I was in fourth grade, I was always an artist — my grandma was an artist — and I always would draw. I used to watch “Project Runway” as a kid, sketching anything that came to my mind. As a kid, I would always go shopping with my bigger sister and mom. I always wanted the clothes they had; I hated the kids’ section.
In school, we had this event where we were supposed to think about our future careers. I said I wanted to design clothes, and they told me that’s a fashion designer. I said then, “I’m gonna be a fashion designer, and I’m gonna own my own company, and it’s gonna be named SMUCKY.” I must’ve been about 10 years old then. Ever since then, that became my only goal.
I went to college for two and a half years. I was supposed to go four, but I knew what my goal in the end was. I felt like it was pushing me to be a designer for another company. After two and a half years, I felt I had everything I needed to start my company. So, I just dropped out and started right away. It was the best decision I ever made.
So like, reclaiming the word in a way?
Yeah, absolutely. My older sister had the nickname “Pippy Squeak.” They would call her “Pippy” as a short-term name. I never had a nickname, so I was jealous that she had one, and I didn’t. When I was about five, we were watching “That’s So Raven.” In one episode, Eddie has a girlfriend he called “Nucky.” I thought it was cute and said, “You guys should call me SMUCKY.” From then on, they did. It’s funny how it came about.
It was very stressful at first because I started out and I had no partnerships, no connections, and I didn’t have any employees—it was just me, myself and I. But, with my background in fashion and schooling, I had some knowledge about how to start. In school, they really focus on how you come up with a concept, how you design it, and then how you produce it. They don’t teach you about mass production or reaching out to manufacturers or fabric suppliers. It’s more about going to a fabric store, grabbing some swatches, and creating your collection. So, I didn’t really know how to mass produce or create in bulk. I was starting from scratch, but I was driven.
Can you tell me about the early stages of launching the brand?
I worked day in and day out, researched constantly, and watched a lot of videos. Then, I got in contact with an agent from New York City’s top clothing manufacturer. She was a lifesaver. She introduced me to all the fabric suppliers I know today and connected me with my sample makers. Essentially, she was my project manager, but she also worked closely on the product. With her guidance, I got in touch with a sample maker, and we got all the samples out for my first collection.
But, as I found out, everything doesn’t always go as planned. I had a fashion show on August 4 of last year, on what turned out to be the hottest day, and I had chosen an outdoor setting. When I picked up my samples from New York City the day before the event, I found that the fabric was off. It wasn’t the right quality, and it seemed the fabric supplier tried to pull a fast one on us with the wrong material. That experience taught me the importance of diligence, especially in this industry.
The entire process was a huge learning curve. Things don’t always go your way, and you need to be more on top of things than you might initially think. Not everyone is always honest, which is unfortunate. The beginning was stressful, but I’m learning every day. Now, I’ve grown more confident in navigating these challenges. Starting a business can make you feel naive, but I’ve learned to be much more vigilant.
What can you tell us about the creative process — where does the inspiration come from?
So, everything comes from nature. The first collection was based on farmers’ markets and especially in farmers markets in Puerto Rico because I often travel down there with my partner, who is from there. So it was all based on a farmers market, the comfort, the colors. So that was the first thing based on that. But everything I design is based on nature. We always say it’s “inspired by nature for nature” because it’s sustainable and eco-friendly. But yeah, everything is based on nature, inspired by it.
I always ensure that when I design, I picture the campaign at the end. Like our recent collection, it’s based on rice fields. I always imagine the campaign, the photoshoots when I’m designing so I can make sure everything is seamless and cohesive, even before I begin designing, ensuring I can see the end result. Because if I don’t see the end of it, I have a lot of collections that I’ve drawn but haven’t pursued because I don’t see them progressing.
So, I always hold our campaigns in nature since we are eco-friendly. And everything we do starts off in nature because there’s just so much to be inspired by on Earth.
What’s your favorite design from SMUCKY’s latest collection?
It’s probably “Alba.” It’s definitely unique. I’ve gotten a lot of feedback on it before even launching. It’s definitely my favorite. There are so many ways to wear it. Next would be “Roma” because it’s also super versatile.
Yeah, that’s a favorite of many people too. And both of those — the recent collections — use the same fabric we used for “Doxie” and “Ceiba” in our first collection because we had a lot left over and we don’t want to waste fabric. We aim to use as much as we can until we can’t anymore. So yeah, I’d say “Alba.”
On social media, you teased a new project in the works. Can you give us a sneak peek at what you’re working on next?
Yes, so I have another collection in the works. A lot of people have been begging us to do unisex. And I’ve always wanted to do unisex, but I’m such a women’s wear designer that it’s kind of hard for me. If I think of it as unisex, it’s easier for me to design. So we have a unisex collection coming. I haven’t announced the name yet, but it’s going to be “Isla.”
It’s based on the island life. So we have tiger lilies that were being inspired off of, you know, flowers, and just the flora of islands. And that’s coming, we hope. We hope we’re not sure yet. But we’re going to host maybe a fashion show during New York Fashion Week coming up in September.
That’s what we’re hoping for, but that’s only if we can get all the samples. But yeah, it’s going to be our first unisex collection. And we’re really excited. We’re gonna hope to have some crochet pieces, which we haven’t had in the past, and some woven pieces as well.
Moving forward, what’s next for you? Do you have any goals?
Yeah. SMUCKY, it is going to grow to the top. I always say that I would never let this ever fail because it’s been a dream since I was a child. So for the future, I’m just gonna keep working on it and working on it until we grow to be, hopefully, one of the biggest luxury brands in the world. We hope to change the game and the fashion industry and be more sustainable because the fashion industry is one of the top leading polluters in the world.
So, in order for something to change in the planet, we need to protect it and you know, it’s I understand that other companies, it’s not the sales point. So when people see it sustainable, that’s kind of just a plus. But it’s never the selling point for people. So I understand why people are like, Okay, we don’t care so much about it, but everybody just needs to be a little more educated about what the fate is of our planet. And that we kind of just have to take care of it a little more.
So I hope that SMUCKY, in the future, we can educate people and hopefully change the industry to be more conscious and Earth-conscious. I want to give back to the planet, and everything else living within it, because that’s what’s being affected.