Zadrian Smith does things differently. His projects consistently challenge expectations and demand more of his audience — which is why anyone who has ever doubted the intellectual rigour of the fashion industry needs to be introduced to Smith immediately. Whether it’s through working at the biggest name in fashion magazines, as a celebrity stylist, or through launching his own publication, PETRIe, Smith sees beyond the limitations traditionally imposed on the project at hand and jumps into a new paradigm.
Perhaps due to his unusual path into fashion, Smith seems unfazed by the expectations of the industry. “I am from a family of academics, so the expectation was for me to become a doctor,” Smith tells What We Seee. “However, after my first year of university at the University of Southern California, I found dance and a life-changing performance by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre saw me completely shift my career trajectory. I moved to NYC to train and become a professional dancer. I danced professionally for about 5 years, but realised that because my training had started so late I would not be able to reach a level of technique that would make me the best. This was a problem for me, so I started to look at other things I found interesting and after meeting Eunice Sanders in NYC, who had been working with Mary J Blige as her stylist, she showed me the world of styling and my interest was immediately sparked.” From then on, he’s tackled the industry from all angles.
Honesty, Transparency, And Communication
One of the reasons Smith has been able to move so seamlessly throughout the fashion industry — from his early work at British Vogue to styling and setting up his own publication — is his ability to connect. In all of his projects, but especially through styling, the relationship, the collaboration, is paramount. That means cultivating an integrity and candor in the relationship — something not always found in this industry. “For me, an authentic professional relationship is built on honesty, transparency, and communication,” Smith says. “Without these traits, I do think the relationship is false. In industries where the truth is often blurred, it is then important that the parties involved remain true to themselves — when we are authentic to our true self, then it is the hope that worthy relationships will prevail.” And the relationships he’s built are worthy indeed. His styling continues to make waves, from teaming up with Naomi Scott to conquer Paris Fashion Week to his continued work with Skai Jackson to his work’s endless catwalk appearances. One gets the sense that it’s not just an innate talent, but an authentic touch, that keeps these relationships alive — and the work blooming.
A Portal That Challenged These Notions
If Smith’s unique touch is apparent in elements of his styling, it’s written into every inch of PETRIe, his fashion publication. The imagery, the content — the entire package is at once arresting and engaging. “PETRIe was born as a final year university project at the London College of Fashion, where I received my undergraduate degree in Fashion Journalism,” Smith explains. “I was also simultaneously working at British Vogue whilst studying and my mentor, Francesca Burns, really encouraged me to push the publication to the eye of the public because its perspective was so special. Most journalism at the time was cascaded with messages that were masked with propaganda from advertisers and there was a space to create a portal that challenged these biased notions. So, I launched a publication and figured out how to get it printed, distributed and into the hands of a mass audience.”
And what he created is something completely different. Covering issues from inequality and indigenousness in Latin America to the architecture of the absurd, PETRIe challenges what it means to be a fashion magazine. Nothing about PETRIe is disposable, from its evocative content to its quality design. Instead, it demands more from its reader — curiosity, open-mindedness, and engagement. This unique combination of fashion and intellect is at the heart of all of Smith’s work — and PETRIe feels very much like their natural culmination.
An Interdisciplinary Form Of Art
Despite juggling — and excelling in — so many different projects, Smith doesn’t seem flustered by the scope of his work. Rather, there’s a sense of cohesiveness, that one is a natural extension of the other. “I definitely think that fashion is intrinsically an interdisciplinary form of art that takes inspiration from several disciplines including art, film, music, culture, etc,” Smith says. “My personal style is interdisciplinary because of my diverse background. I’ve worn a lot of hats in my lifetime — working as a professional contemporary ballet dancer, studying fashion journalism and working at Vogue, doing a postgraduate degree in 16th Century Italian Renaissance History of Art — all of these disciplines now inspire me with each project I work in, allowing me to tap into them as constant sources of inspiration.”
Despite running off of this interdisciplinary energy, Smith is also keenly aware of the necessity for the occasional balancing act. “The biggest challenges I’ve faced in my career have been mastering the art of compromise and understanding that the values you hold true to your heart are not the same values that everyone else will have as well,” Smith says. “So, you must learn when to push and when to accept things as they are — it really does become a well-rehearsed tango.”
But those compromises themselves have limits. “It’s not easy and you will have to compromise, especially at the beginning of your career, but the moment that you look in the mirror and you no longer recognise the person you’ve become is the moment you should, you must — stop.”
If you can keep that authentic relationship with yourself and rise above the rest, Smith is proof that fashion can be anything you make it, full of intellectual expansion and deep political and cultural resonance. “I don’t believe in an ‘average’ day, at least not for me,” Smith says. “Everyday presents new opportunities, new challenges and of course, new ways in which to become better than you were the day before. I live for the adventure.”