Courtney “Coco” Smith ’11, left behind a potential career in finance to kickstart her own fashion line, Rum+Coke, several years after her graduation from the College. She and her small business have been making headlines recently, as Smith attracts the attention of news sources and magazines, such as Good Morning America, Melissa Harris-Perry, Glamour, Daily Mail and others. Why all the fuss? Rum+Coke is most notable for exclusively employing plus-size models of color, a standout exception in an industry that is often criticized for its lack of diversity and representation. Smith was on campus the other day to speak on a panel, so we talked to her about her role in the fashion industry.
When she scrolled through the College’s 2007-08 course catalogue as a first year, Smith immediately fell in love with the description of a theatre class focused on costume design. Realizing that it required theatre prerequisites, Smith set her heart on becoming a theatre major. However, when she had finally fulfilled the prerequisites, the course was cancelled. Her fury at this turn of events first led Smith to reevaluate her passion for designing and fashion. After her graduation from the College with majors in history and women’s, gender and sexuality studies and a concentration in africana studies, Smith went against the advice of her family and plunged into the fashion industry. After working as a design assistant, however, Smith became dissatisfied with the current industry.
The industry has major issues, especially with the way they market towards the women,§ Smith explained. You have wrinkles? Buy this cream! They make you view things from a place of lack. I’m trying to tell women ＆no, you have everything you need. You’re fine with the body that you’re given. You’re perfectly fine the way you are.
I’ve been surrounded by women from all walks of life, from different ethnicities, different regions, but they always have issues with how they look. There is always something that stops them from wearing certain things, Smith continued.
Rum+Coke sells dresses ranging from size two to size 24, but only uses plus-size models. Smith’s explains that plus-size models are drastically underrepresented by the industry, and that she wants to help women to be confident with the way they are. You need the confidence in yourself to think I’m me, regardless of what you say or what you think.
Smith’s idea of creating her own fashion line began when hundreds of her Instagram followers commented on her designs and asked to buy them. Now, with almost 10,000 followers, Smith’s fan base only continues to grow. One of her recent customers is singer Mary Lambert, who wore Smith’s dress to a Grammy afterparty.
Smith’s path into the fashion industry has not always been smooth, however. When she first decided to be a designer, her family opposed her choice, wanting her to pursue a more financially secure route. Smith, however, was firm about her decision. If I work at a company like, say, JP Morgan, I will be making a lot of money, but I will be miserable.
It was only after months of work and frequent all-nighters that Smith’s family began to understand her passion. Sometimes you just have to stand up for yourself and what you believe in. Now they are fine with me working as a designer. Now they are fully supportive. By the way, pulling all-nighters is something I learned at Williams, Smith said, laughing.
When asked for advice for current students at the College who may be considering a career path in similar industries, Smith acknowledged that the road has never been easy. You see me being interviewed and all the glamour, but there is ugliness as well. Smith mentioned being left and emailed hate messages, especially about her choice in using plus-size models. I am actually surprised at the amount of hate I get, but they are just people spewing their hate on the Internet, and I am not going to let it affect me.
Smith admitted that with cerain career choices there would be occasional difficulties balancing between the pursuit of passion and financial security, but also emphasized the importance of following one’s heart. People do their best work when they’re happy. If you’re not comfortable with where you are, do something about it. Citing that her self-awareness and confidence that first led her to start Rum+Coke, Smith believes that these qualities will continue to motivate her on the road to future successes.