Joan Smalls Talks True Religion, Being Name Dropped by Kanye, & Her Proud Puerto Rican Heritage

The model in the Joan Smalls x True Religion campaign.

She is Estée Lauder’s first Latina global face, and Chanel’s first Puerto Rican campaign star. Now Joan Smalls has scored another fashion coup as True Religion’s first model-designer. “I’ve always wanted to do a collaboration with someone,” said the 5’10 Smalls on Wednesday. “But it had to be right. When True Religion finally called, I said, ‘Hell, yeah, let’s do this!’ on the spot.”

“This” turned into a capsule collection of 16 athleisure pieces, including crop tops, leggings, and some super graphic sweatshirts. Available now and sure to sell out, the line is just another way Smalls is #winning the style scene—but as she’ll quickly tell you, that’s only part of her endgame.

We spoke to Smalls at True Religion’s downtown HQ about Kanye, Cindy Crawford, and the downside of flying in a private plane.

Yahoo Style: Joan, cool sweatshirt! Is that an “Uptown Funk” lyric on it?

Joan Smalls: “Don’t believe me just watch”? [Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars] did not create this lyric, first of all! Let’s get that very clear. Months ago, True Religion said, “Joan, when you’re back in Puerto Rico, just come up with sayings and words that mean a lot to you for the collection.” I’m such a true believer of positive reinforcement and affirmations, things you say to yourself, and say, “yeah, that’s right.” I was talking to my boyfriend [reportedly, businessman Bernard Smith] and I was like, “Yeah, don’t believe me, just watch.” It’s about the underdog. People don’t know if you can accomplish what you want or not, and so I’m like, “Just watch. You don’t have to believe me, because you’ll see it happen in due time.” Weeks later, I was listening to the radio. I heard [“Uptown Funk”] and I was like, “hold up!” It was a coincidence. I had no clue.

YS: Another of your pieces says “Sueña…”

JS: Sueña means “dream” in Spanish. We all have one. I had a dream to do a collection. I had a dream to be the face of Estée Lauder. I had a dream to be in the pages of Vogue, to come to New York City, to travel the world. But you don’t want to put the word “dream” on a sweatshirt because it’s been done. So I’m like, “Well, I’m Latina, let’s do it in my language…So not only do you learn Spanish from my collection, you look good!”

YS: You do some serious dancing in the True Religion campaign video. Did someone choreograph that for you?

JS: No! I just did it! Growing up in Puerto Rico, you come out dancing from your mother’s womb. There’s music and rhythm around you constantly, and the folklore of music is so strong, you just know right away how to sway your hips, feel the vibration of everything around you. So dancing is so natural to me. And my dad is from St. Thomas so we always listen to a lot of reggae growing up, so it’s always there.

A look from the Joan Smalls x True Religion collection.

YS: Speaking of traveling the world, you recently posted an Instagram photo where you’re on a private plane…

JS: I was like, “I usually don’t do this, but it’s real, it’s happening.”

YS: Whose plane was it?

JS: I can’t say yet. All I can say is, it was an opportunity for an iconic job that’s well respected, and everybody is like, “wow.” So I had to sacrifice my time [in the middle of Paris Fashion Week] to squeeze it in, because it meant a lot.

YS: In the photo, you’re still wearing your Givenchy hair and makeup…

JS: And on Instagram, people were like, “What’s with the baby hairs?” I’m like, “I just came from Givenchy straight onto the private plane. There’s no shower. There’s no makeup remover. I’m here in my little curls!” People are looking at me like, “Is she okay?!”

YS: Another Instagram moment: You hanging backstage with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, Kendall, Gigi…

JS: We have friends in common, and we enjoy the same stuff. It really stems from our love of fashion. You just bond with the people that you like, and it’s effortless. It just happens. You fall close to whoever you do, and you have fun, you like each other’s company, and that’s it.

YS: Fair enough. Do you get royalties every time Kanye performs “Christian Dior Denim Flow,” the song with your name the lyrics?

JS: No, I wish! I should trademark it, huh? You know, my mother told me, “Joan, you’re in a Kanye West song.” And I was traveling, and I was like, “Mommy, stop it.” Because she likes playing jokes on me. The first time I heard it, I was blushing like crazy. I’m like, “Seriously, this is Kanye West saying my name!” We hadn’t even met yet, and I was like, “This is my favorite artist and he is saying my name.” I was like, “Hey everyone at school! Hey all you boys who made fun of me! Listen to this!”

A look from the Joan Smalls x True Religion collection.

YS: The best revenge. And now Cindy Crawford says you’re her favorite model…

JS: I have never met Cindy Crawford! Not yet. She’s a freaking legend. What I love about her is that besides being beautiful, she’s so business-minded. I look up to women like that, because it shows empowerment. She shows that you don’t only have to be a model, or a face. You can also be a brand and a business. It’s a positive message to send to girls. She’s an idol because of her business sense.

YS: So what’s next for you?

JS: World domination!

YS: Clearly! You really should trademark your name. Joan Smalls… do you have a middle name, too?

JS: No! How sad is that? In Puerto Rico, in Spanish culture, you use both parents’ last names. So my mom’s last name until she got married was Rodriguez-Rodriguez. I was like, “Mom, were your parents cousins?!” She’s like, “NO!” But in school, because her name was so long, anytime she had to fill out school forms, there was never enough room—you know, you put your letters into those little squares, and she never had enough squares. So she vowed her kids would have short, simple names; five letters or less. And she didn’t want us to have middle names, either. So her name is Juana, and Joan—my name, my real name!—is the translated version.

YS: So in Puerto Rico, are you Joan Smalls Rodriguez?

JS: I am. But when I came to New York, my social security card only said Joan Smalls. And people are like, “Oh, she dropped her last name! She’s trying to not be Puerto Rican anymore!” And I’m like, “Guys, I will always be Puerto Rican. You don’t get it. When you come to the States, you’re only allowed one last name. You don’t use your mother’s maiden name! It’s part of the culture!” I didn’t drop anything!

Related: Joan Smalls Flies to New York For 24-Hours Between Givenchy and Chanel

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