Manicures + An Interview with Designer Samantha (Sammy B) Black

March 8, 2013

Words by Emily Shapiro
Photos by Kevin Ornelas

Project Runway Sammy BThere’s no doubt, when watching an episode of Project Runway’s season 11, that Samantha Black is the one to know. Along with her fresh design aesthetic and unique choices, especially in the unconventional challenges, this rude gyal with roots in Jamaica radiates style with her own fashion choices in each episode. Whether she’s rocking a leopard headband or an oversized military coat, she stands out from the others and, if you ask her, it’s at least in part due to her West Indian upbringing.

In addition to her talents, Samantha has shown during this season of the popular show (and in our interview) that she is a positive, confident individual who knows who she is and represents it well. We haven’t heard her speak badly about the other designers and, in each episode, she stays true to her style, even stating “I’m a Jamaican girl” in defending one of her designs. So far, it’s paying off. She has already won a challenge and has been in the top for many others.

We had the pleasure of catching up with Ms. Sammy B and managed to find a setting that was worthy of her all-around funkiness. We met at MoMa’s P.S. 1 annex in NYC, at their striking Confetti System installation (see the pics for the general idea), where we got our nail game turned up by celebrity nail artist Naomi Yasuda. We got to talking about Samantha’s career pre-Runway, her twin lines Sammy B and Samantha Black, and yardie style in general. Check out the interview and tune in to The LargeUp Sessions on RadioLily this Thursday night for more Sammy.

Large Up: Let’s start with the basics. Where’d you grow up and all that?

Samantha Black: I was born in the Bronx and I lived in different parts of the city until I was 11 and moved to Connecticut, so I kind of call that home. I grew up in Fairfield, a small beach town in Connecticut, completely random. I used to spend my summers in the Bronx with my dad’s side of the family.

LU: I don’t know about the diversity in Fairfield, but in the Bronx did you live in a West Indian community?

SB: My family is Jamaican so I’m the first born here in the states. When I go home, I walk into a Jamaican household. My mom just kind of chose Connecticut because her friend lived there and she was like, “Oh, it’d be good schools.” Only my immediate family live in Connecticut. Everyone else lives in the Bronx. So we would come down every summer to the Bronx. Parties, holidays— Bronx. My dad’s side of the family, who I’m closer with is, very like “Jamaicans in America.”

LU: Were you always into the arts growing up?

SB: I started art lessons at age five in Queens, and I’ve always taken art lessons. I would always be in the arts and crafts class, making things with lanyard and stuff like that.

Project Runway Sammy BLU: At what point did you decide, fashion is something I want to do with my life.

SB: In middle school, I took Home Ec. Half the year you do sewing, half the year you do cooking. My mom got me a sewing machine when I was 11 and I just did it for fun. Doll clothes, pillows, stuff like that. When I got into high school, I didn’t really know what I wanted to go to college for and the guy who was giving me art lessons then.—I did sculpture, painting—was like you should really look into fashion design because all my doodles were fashion figures, clothes. And I was like really? I had never even thought about that. At that time fashion wasn’t really cool. So I was like I don’t know about that. I took a pre-college program in Brooklyn at Pratt in fashion design and I was like yes, fashion is it! This is exactly what I want to do. It’s art and clothing, I love to dress. It’s all the things I love mixed together. So then I applied early acceptance to Pratt and got in for fashion. So that’s what I went to school for.

LU: For a lot of West Indian families, the arts is not always supported as a profession. Was your family supportive the whole time?

SB: I lucked out because my mom never wanted to be that parent who told her kid no. I was the only one who was really into the arts. She let me do it but, in the back of her mind, she always kind of hoped that I did something else. My grandfather was like you’re wasting your money sending your kid to school for art, that’s crap. You know West Indians, Jamaicans— they’re like lawyers, doctors, nurses, that’s what you do. I was always kind of in my own world and my mom went with the flow and it kind of just worked. By the time I was a senior, Project Runway came out and my mom was like, “Oh Ok, like peope are into fashion now, oh Michael Kors, he’s on Project Runway.” My senior year, while that show was on, I interned for Michael Kors. After I graduated, I moved to London and worked for Alexander McQueen. So my mom is like “oh ok, she’s on the right path. She’s working with some cool people who actually have some clout in the industry.” Then I came back to the States and worked for Aeropostale’s new company. Aeropostale was a company people knew. So my mom could say “My daughter designs for Aeropostale” and people knew it. My family didn’t mind so much.

Project Runway Sammy B

LU: You had some security and did things on the traditional route.

SB: After working for higher end designers like Michael Kors, McQueen and Jill Stuart, I was like I don’t really love the higher end of it all.  I freelanced for Aeropostale a little bit after Michael Kors and it was fun. It wasn’t so mean. I was like ok, this is the route I kind of think I like. When I got back to the States they were hiring for their new company and I worked there until they closed the division. I had started doing fashion shows at colleges, just to do some fun things, because it was like denim was cool and I was learning a lot but it wasn’t all that creative. When the company closed I got a really good severance package—I got paid for a couple of months as if I was working—so I was like I’m going to work on my own line.

LU: That’s like one of those moments. If you had worked for a company that didn’t shut down, maybe you’d be making jeans right now instead.

SB: I don’t think I would have ventured off and done my own thing. I started speaking to some people that I knew from Jamaica that were models, and they were like you should come. Jamaica does Fashion Week with the two modeling agencies. Pulse does Caribbean Fashion Week [and]  Saint International does Style Week Jamaica. I did Jamaica Fashion Week in May [2009]. Me and my brother were like lets visit family and I’ll do the show. And I met a bunch of people there. When I came back to the States, the company that did PR is based in New York, so I bumped into them at an event. They actually did PR for Ashanti and other people so they started pulling my clothes for photoshoots for their artists. Then I went to a party [for] my friend Damon, he used to style Kelis. Someone who was there told me she loved my dress and when I told her I made it, she was like I have to introduce you to my friend, she’s a stylist. We exchanged contact information and she e-mailed me to say I’m about to start working with Keri Hilson, I think she’d be great for your clothes. Her first appearance on 106 and Park,  she ended up choosing my stuff out of the whole rack and I worked with Keri and her stylist Kim a lot after that. My stuff kept ending up in her videos. She wore my dress to the American Music Awards red carpet and to present, and then they flew me out to Cali to do VH1 Divas and I did a custom jacket for her.

My friend Damon, who’s besties with Kelis, was like she’s going on tour, I think this would be a good opportunity, do some tour outfits for her. Once people see you do something, they’re like oh I want to work with her. This whole time, I’m trying out for Project Runway. I was a finalist three times in a row. The producers have the final say on the absolute last people. They have to pick their characters. Finally, I got the call and then I get there and they’re like it’s season of teams and I’m like F this. I’m getting punked. Can I just be on a normal season? It was hard for me because with teams you have to please your teammates. I didn’t mind. I actually handled it well, working with a team, I was very helpful for a lot of my teammates but it’s trickier. Something about it just didn’t mesh well with me, I didn’t love it. I never loved the whole team aspect.

Project Runway Sammy BLU: One of my favorite moments from this season is the episode with the flower challenge, when you won. I think Leyana or someone, the day of the runway show, was questioning you and checking to see if you’ll be good. And you [said]  “I know what I have to do, I’m going to get my shit done. Don’t worry about me.” You weren’t nasty, you were just very calm about it.

SB: Yes. Homegirl, please do not dream about my stuff. I got this. That was the first challenge where they gave us two days. It kind of sucked that they gave us a lot of one-day challenges because you don’t really have the time to think about it or come back to it. And that’s how I work. I’ll work on stuff and I’ll change things. With that, if you try to change things you can run out of time and not be able to finish. So it’s like let me try and make this horrible thing happen. Mine looked so different from everyone else’s on the team. Everyone’s is so feminine, all these flowers, and mine is metal. I was spiraling because I was so caught up with the fact that mine looked different from everyone’s but that is also what made me win. The fact that it actually stood out from my team’s. It’s a mind game. You try to please these judges because every week their opinion changes and it’s like, “what are they going to think this week?” I spend a lot of time choosing my fabrics when I design. We only get thirty minutes to sketch and choose fabric so for me, it was hard doing that.

LU: As far as I could see, before Project Runway you were already doing really well. So how come you felt like you still wanted that experience?

SB: Honestly, I almost didn’t try out [this last time] because I was like I don’t need Project Runway anymore. I’m on my own little path. My brother and my roommate were like you should just try out one more time. I wasn’t going to at all and then I was like fine let me just do it and then of course, that’s when they call me back. I was like alright, if I’m doing this, why am I doing it? And I was doing it mainly to branch out to a new audience and I figured it can’t hurt to get a new audience, meet some new people. Maybe Nina Garcia would never know who Samantha Black was. Now she knows. You know what I’m saying? You know, it’s worldwide now. Even though not as many people watch Project Runway like they used to, still, you never know who is watching, or who a guest judge is going to be.

LU: I read you talk in interviews about being a black woman and the struggle of not being labeled an urban designer. Maybe one reason Project Runway could help is with that.

SB: Definitely. That’s why I was like well let me find some new people to be interested in. Because I have been with music videos and artists and things like that, but maybe now I might have some actors and actresses interested. My clothing is definitely funkier than most. It’s not for everyone but that doesn’t automatically make me an urban designer, you know what I’m saying? It’s just really annoying. I figured why not take the opportunity to be more, and have some more exposure.

LU: Could describe what your aesthetic is, in your own words?

SB: I say my aesthetic is feminine with an eclectic edge. And I say that because everything that I do has a feminine aspect to it. Whether it’s  body conscious or just making the woman feel very feminine or sassy or sexual, sensual all those things, I feel like I have that in what I do always. I also add an artistic edge. I like to add things like this braiding detail. You know, when chain became so popular? I was trying to do chain but with fabric and so that’s how the braiding came from, because it kinda looked like chain to me, and then it just kind of became its own thing. I do things like that that become kind of 3D. I like to work with a lot of shapes, prints and patterns. I like funky things. And I just add that into what I do day in and day out.

Project Runway Sammy B

LU: Do you think your woman that you design for matches your personal style?

SB: Exactly, to the tee. I like to change my style. You know, probably one day I’m funky one day, rocker the next.

LU: I know I feel like every day, based on my mood, I could re-do my entire wardrobe.

SB: Right and I don’t feel a person has to go to different people. You can go to one designer to be all those things. I feel that’s what I offer. It’s still cohesive, it’s still one person, but it’s different aspects of her and that’s kind of what I do, I mix it all together. I feel like you shouldn’t have to go to different stores, or one designer to get this and another to get that.

LU: So is that where the distinction between the Samantha Black line and the Sammy B line is?

SB: I started off with Sammy B, just being creative. The Samantha Black line has more expensive materials, more details where as the Sammy B side is more like color, print and pattern, a little more simple silhouettes, like it’s really easy to wear. It’ll have like a really crazy print and pattern or fringing, it’s just fun and easy.

LU: What kind of music do you like?

SB: I like a lot of different types of music actually. Of course, dancehall is my favorite. That’s my number one. I like hip-hop, R&B, I like a lot of alternative music as well. I probably listen to music from any genre as long as I like the song. I grew up in Connecticut, the music I was exposed to out there was just random and different.

LU: So there wasn’t much dancehall in Fairfield?

SB: No, except for everyone was into Beenie Man when “Sim Simma” came out. And everyone knew Sean Paul, and Bob Marley, but real dancehall no, absolutely not. Actually, when I was working for Aeropostale, I used to co-host for a reggae TV show. It was called “Yard Rock” and I used to go to all the summer fest concerts and host. I interviewed Beenie Man, Sean Kingston, Attitude, with the Dutty Wine when [it] first came out. I used to go to the Bronx every summer, and when I walked into the house it was a Jamaican household, no matter what was going on the streets. So I always was very in touch with “I’m a Jamaican girl” always.

LU: Well, I was actually going to ask you about that because in the Miranda Lambert episode you said “I’m a Jamaican girl” and so I’m wondering what does that mean in terms of your design. Like how do you think it has influenced you?

SB: I think it influenced me a lot. I think that’s why some of my clothing is so much riskier. Like crazy colors? Jamaicans are no holds barred. And some of my stuff being like a little risky or showing more skin, that is nothing new to me. I’ve seen it my whole life. And it’s strongly influenced me. I tell people Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, what’s so risky about them is what comes natural to them. Those are West Indian girls, it’s nothing new, it’s part of the culture and it’s the same for me and my designs.  I read all the crazy blogs and stuff from Project Runway and people are like Oh my god, what was she thinking?! And I’m like you just don’t get it. Some things, like my neon orange jacket that I wore, I made that, it’s part of who I am and just so normal to me. It doesn’t shock me. Some of things, I wouldn’t even see it like that.

LU: Is there anyone that you really wish you could dress?

SB: Rihanna! I love her, I think she’s awesome. Cassie, they’ve pulled my stuff for her a lot of times but I don’t think it’s made it into the print or whatever. Nicole Richie, I really like her and I really like the Olsen twins.

LU: New projects? Are you just going to continue working on Sammy B/Samantha Black?

SB: I am trying to just build my brand, get into boutiques. It’s just so expensive and I don’t have any backers or investors, it’s like hell. I sell things online [and to] random boutiques, and I want it to be really strong boutiques and more consistently. It hasn’t been consistent just because you need a lot of money to have it consistently.

LU: You know the expression “Fashion Ova Style?” What does that mean to you?

SB: I think it’s dumb. It doesn’t make sense and when that was huge and everyone was like “Fashion ova style” I was like no, my people, you’re not understanding that that’s wrong. It’s supposed to be style ova fashion because fashion is just things that are just shown to you and style is what you do with it. I think they were trying to interpret it the other way around but they’re saying it wrong. “Fashion ova style” does sound nice but it’s incorrect, it’s style ova fashion. Me and my sister are always like they are so wrong. And you know, West Indians are stylish people, they have their own thing. It’s what you do with it.

For more Sammy B, check out her website: