It feels like the coldest day of the year on a January afternoon in Brooklyn. Snow is expected by evening and even the usually unflappable New Yorkers in the area are feeling the chill, clutching the collars of nylon puffer jackets closer to their chests, some ducking into a rustic, dimly lighted restaurant in the Cobble Hill neighborhood to escape the freeze.
Inside, seen through the crowd of neutral tones and wool coats, sits entertainer and rising fashion It girl Solange Knowles, a definite bright spot on a frigid day. She seems to warm up the postage stamp-sized eatery with her colorful ensemble, approachable demeanor and pouf of curly hair.
With her red M Missoni knit skirt, neon yellow Alexander Wang sweat shirt and a leopard print By Malene Birger coat, all punctuated with a pop of MAC So Chaud orange lipstick, it's no mystery why the 25-year-old recent Brooklyn transplant (she relocated from Los Angeles last summer) has become fashion's fresh face. We wanted to get to know her better.
Knowles has been the musical act and DJ du jour at a host of exclusive designer events, appeared in ads for Rimmel cosmetics, signed a contract with Next models this year, walked in Alberta Ferretti's demi-couture show in Milan, Italy, in January and landed a gig blogging for UK Vogue. She has caught the eye of indie designers such as Suno and Opening Ceremony as well as mass brands includingJ. Crew. They have dressed her, invited her to sit front row at runway shows and admired her sense of style.
"The first time I saw a photo of Solange, I remember thinking how beautiful she was," says Jenna Lyons, creative director ofJ. Crew. "Then I met her and I was blown away. She is not only chic and gorgeous, but she is kind, generous and down to earth — with the best hair and smile I have ever seen."
"Solange is a risk taker without ever taking it too far," says Erin Beatty, co-designer of Suno, a label Knowles says she wears often because of its strong prints and well-tailored silhouettes. "She's eager to experiment with colors and different cuts but somehow pulls it all together in an inspiring way."
Last year, Vogue magazine invited Knowles to attend the Council of Fashion Designers of America/Vogue Fashion Fund Toast to Red Carpet Rebels cocktail party, an event leading up to the annual Fashion Fund Gala. For the cocktail party, finalists for fashion fund awards were charged with creating looks for march-to-their-own-beat fashion plates. Knowles was the muse for Suno, which dressed her in a black and white sleeveless jacket with a mandarin collar over a pink, blue and purple watercolor print dress — a daunting combination of print on print for most people. But mixing and layering prints and making it work is something the singer has been doing since she was a child growing up in Houston.
"I had so much fun during the process," Knowles says of working with Suno. "And I was happy that it was with a designer that I actually wear and feel captures the vibe of my style in general."
Knowles started developing confidence early, singing and performing as a child and making a few appearances with sister Beyoncé's group Destiny's Child. She had a few acting roles in movies and on television, mostly before 2004, when, at age 17, she married high school sweetheart Daniel Smith, had a son and then divorced in 2007.
Since then, she's been a working single mom, whose cool, self-assured demeanor is seamlessly translated into her look, whether she's walking her 7-year-old son to school, laying down tracks in the recording studio (she's recently completed her third album, which is full of '70s and '80s soul-inspired numbers) or spinning in the DJ booth during fashion show after-parties and other events.
Her pop star older sister casts a large shadow, but Knowles has tried to stay out of it, forging her own music career as well as a fashion presence that leans more toward downtown chic than Beyoncé's va-va voom. Solange's song "God Given Name" is her anthem of independence: "I'm not her and never will be/Two girls gone in different directions/Striving toward the same Galaxy/Let my star light shine on its own."
Elements of style
Unlike many of today's popular celebrities, Knowles does not use a stylist except for a handful of red carpet events. It's her ability to meld traditional basics in highlighter colors, sporty knits and tribal prints with a refreshingly understated appeal that has drawn attention from the fashion set. When she arrived atJ. Crew's spring 2012 runway presentation last year with her sister, for instance, she wore a sleeveless shocking-pink shell paired with royal blue and gold Jacquard pants — creating quite a contrast with Beyoncé's gold sequin cocktail dress and nude peep-toe heels and showcasing her innate knack for putting together her own outfits.
She approaches getting dressed with the keen eye of a stylist, taking into account balance, texture and the right mix of masculine and feminine pieces. For instance, she strongly favors tailored, mannish pieces cut from luxurious silks (Alexander Wang is a favorite) because the strong lines balance the more rounded shape of her cropped hair as well as the bright and bold prints she tends to pair them with. "I think that once I started wearing my hair more natural, I've been more attracted to masculine cuts and lines," Knowles says. "Something more refined with something more wild."
She loves fine fabrics, such as silks, and knows that by wearing similar fabrics together she can mix prints so they look chic, not crazy.
"Everything I have is so colorful, so expressive, when you see it all in a closet it looks nuts," she says. She favors bold and colorful patterns from designers such as Dries Van Noten, Marni, Opening Ceremony and Diane von Furstenberg. Knowles manages to temper the mix of prints by adding strong, solid, structured pieces or a bright lipstick.
She's known to rock a variety of metallic or tribal-print turbans while performing. The wrap, which she says helps combat bad hair days, has become something of a personal style hallmark, a simple accessory she often makes herself. "I just buy fabric from the fabric store, cut it into a rectangle, twist it really tight around my head and tuck it either in the back or the front so it stays. The key is that the fabric has to be really stiff," she says.
The colorful turbans are partly inspired by the Fela Kuti Queens — the 27 women in African musician Fela Kuti's entourage to whom he was married at one time. Knowles counts them as style inspirations and credits them with her introduction to African prints. She also name-checks Icelandic singer Björk and Diana Ross as her major fashion influences. Ross "has been the iconic image of so many decades," Knowles says. "And she's always been able to transform in a non-costumey way. It's effortless and easy."
Even as she is being heralded as a fashion iconoclast, Knowles keeps her approach to style easy too. "I don't have a different persona from my regular life to when I DJ or perform," she says. "I like to be comfortable onstage and in the booth. It's not like I say to myself, 'Oh, I need to step it up.' It's about what I can move in and be comfortable in."
Despite her celebrity among the fashion crowd and her presence at some of the industry's most coveted parties, Knowles is reluctant to immerse herself in a world where the importance of air kisses and front row seating is paramount. "I do have my moments where the fashion world is just too much for me," she says. Knowles made the rounds of runway shows during New York fashion week last season but says she goes with the sole purpose of finding something to wear to an upcoming appearance. For the current New York fashion week (which ends Thursday), she was scheduled to DJ the after-party for BCBG Max Azaria on Saturday night but planned to mostly take it easy.
"Even as I'm navigating through this journey of getting so much love from the fashion world, I'm kind of still tiptoeing around, checking things out," she says. "I haven't just fully dived into the scene, because it's kind of a scary world."
That's one reason Knowles has not yet taken any of the numerous offers to create her own clothing line, saying that she's opposed to the idea because she respects the design process too much to simply slap on the designer title.
"I've seen my mother and sister produce their line [House of Deréon] and know how much work and politics goes into it. So it's not something that I just want to jump into," she says. "I always say, in terms of putting products out there, I really don't feel like there's a purpose unless you feel like there's something missing that you can contribute."
But she adds that she is brimming with creative ideas, including turning some of the photographs she's taken during her travels into textiles. "The right collaboration with the right person would be amazing," she says. "But I have to have a really solid idea before I even go that route."
In the meantime, she's leading a relatively low-key life in her new Brooklyn digs, stepping out occasionally for select fashion parties and usually home in time to cook dinner for her son. And after several years spent on the West Coast, she's anxious about tweaking her style to suit the seasons.
"Once the snow comes, I think I'm going to have a real wake-up call, because I haven't really mastered the art of layering," she says pointing to the ivory Alexander Wang silk shirt dress, green Opening Ceremony silk pants and color-blocked Fendi sandals she's just changed into for a photo session. "What I'm wearing now is not gonna work tomorrow. But I know my cold-weather look will be the same as this. It will be my same aesthetic, my style."