There are a handful of people who choose their dream profession in college, find a job in that field after graduation, and live happy, fulfilled lives. The rest of us broadly fall into two camps: people who have no idea what they want to do and people who know what they want to do but have no idea how to get there. Coco Smith ‘11 fell into the second category.
Time and time again Smith tried to rationalize her way into pursuing a “normal career.” She came from a family where law school, medical school, or business school were the expected post-college steps. Becoming a fashion designer was too hard, not stable enough, and too competitive – especially for someone without a degree in design. She tried marketing, PR, and advertising – but none of them felt right. Finally, with no job and no prospects, Smith decided to give her true passion a chance. She got an internship with a designer in New York and has not looked back. Three years removed from graduation, Smith continues to work full-time for the same designer she interned with but has also launched her own line, called Rum + Coke. With no formal training, she has built a name for herself relying on creativity, intuition, and hard work. Far from a glamorous tale of instant fame and fortune, Smith’s story illustrates the challenges and promise of pursuing a less traditional career.
From the time she was a young girl, Smith was in love with fashion. When she did well on tests, her mother would take her to Macy’s and tell her to pick out any dress she wanted. “My eyes would get all big, and I’d pick out the most hideous dress – I still have some. I’d wear the dress to death and then cut it up and make headbands and shoelaces out of it.” Smith’s style was edgy and unique, “not too weird,” but always intentional.
At Williams, Smith initially signed up to be a theater major for the sole reason that there was a costume design class offered for juniors. When the department cut the course her sophomore year, Smith switched her major to history and tried to move on. “I thought fashion was a hobby – something that I loved, but not something that could be a full-time job… So many people are sucked into this mindset of ‘you have to make the money and get a “good job.” You have to stay within this box.’ I never thought about stepping out of that box.”
During winter study of her junior year, Smith took a class on creating yourself. For her final project, she organized a photo shoot. “I called all my friends and told them to bring the craziest clothes they had. I styled everybody and teased their hair out. It was so fun, and I realized, ‘this is what I want to do. I don’t know why I’m fighting it.’”
For Smith, however, knowing what she wanted to do was just the first step. No one she talked with seemed to know how to help her get started in fashion. When she went to career services, Smith was given information on marketing jobs with Pepsi and Coke. “I would reach out to five alumni in the marketing/advertising field a week, and I was asking all the wrong questions because I wasn’t really into it.”
When graduation rolled around, Smith headed home to New York without a job. She got an internship with an advertising firm, but the CEO – a Williams alum – sensed that her passions lay elsewhere. “He took me to lunch and said, ‘this isn’t for you – you don’t really want to do this.’ Then, I did a PR internship, and the owner of that company said the same thing.” Instead of getting discouraged, Smith took these setbacks as signs that she needed to keep searching.
Back home with little to do, Smith reached out to friends to see if they knew of any open positions. Her college roommate told Smith that she knew of a solo designer who was looking for an intern. Smith decided to give it a try. “I started interning as an errand girl and that whole world blew my mind. I said, ‘this is what I want to do. Let me stop acting like I need to be in this corporate world when I don’t fit there.’”
For her first few months, Smith worked as an assistant, fulfilling shipments, performing odd jobs, only helping out here and there on the actual design process. After failing for a few weeks to find a suitable seamstress, however, Smith volunteered to try her hand at sewing. “[The designer] gave me some instructions and set me loose. At the end of the day, she said, ‘you sew better than all the people I’ve tried. Do you want to work with me?’” Smith had finally found her way into fashion.
A year and a half later, Smith launched her own line, focusing on the plus-size market. For someone with no formal training, Smith’s can-do attitude has been her biggest secret to success. “It’s a lot of Youtube watching, book reading, and trial and error. For my first collection, all the dresses were sleeveless because I had no idea how to make a sleeve.”
In addition to her own business, Smith continues to work 9-5 for her original designer, and has even started modeling – something she never dreamed of doing before. In the last year, Smith has been featured in numerous design blogs, including recent appearances on Glamour, eonline, and People. Though sales vary by month – “some days I’ll have 40 orders to do and others I’ll have 2” – the general buzz around Smith’s work has been overwhelmingly positive.
As her business has grown, Smith has started to trust herself more, and the fear of bucking convention that prevented Smith from pursuing fashion in the first place has disappeared. “Now that I have some sales under my belt and have gotten the negative comments, being scared of how someone’s going to perceive my work doesn’t faze me anymore. There are 7 billion people in the world, someone’s going to like it.”
Reflecting back on her journey from history major to fashion designer, Smith offered three pieces of advice: “Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Try new things. And know when something’s not good for you. Don’t just take a job because the money’s good or because your parents are pressuring you. If it doesn’t feel good, say no.”
You can read Smith’s full interview here and view her designs and purchase clothes from her line at www.shoprumandcoke.com.