Jerome LaMaar’s designs have been worn by many of fashion’s elite, including Beyoncé
Jerome LaMaar opened the door to his Mott Haven building with the words “Feeling Lucky” emblazoned on his hoodie and a gleaming smile on his face. Inside his studio, which he named The Dreamer’s Club, life-size ceramic tigers, framed beetles and butterflies are displayed among a plethora of plants — both natural and artificial – setting a majestic tone for his creative oasis. For the designer, whose work has been worn by trendsetters like Beyoncé and Tina Knowles, it’s both an atelier and a refuge.
“This space we are in now I consider a creative agency because it allows me to be creative, and allows me to have freedom and more privacy to create without interruptions,” said LaMaar, 32. He recently relocated to the warehouse-like building on Third Avenue.
LaMaar’s designs have been worn by many of fashion’s elite including Beyoncé, who wore the infamous purple coat he designed to the Billboard Women In Music luncheon in 2014. His looks have also been walked down runways in New York and Paris.
Despite the magnitude of his success, LaMaar, who grew up in Soundview, still resides in the borough and has always housed his studios in the South Bronx. Since childhood he always knew he was meant to succeed; his family even nicknamed him the “golden child,” which remains his nickname in adulthood. But no matter how high on the ladder he has climbed, it is essential for him to always stay true to his roots in the Bronx.
“I remember ‘Waiting For Tonight’ by Jennifer Lopez was on TV and my grandmother came in, I think she knew she was sick or something, and she was rubbing my head and said that she was going to give me her sewing machine and she said ‘You do everything you want to do,’” recalled LaMaar, as he sat at an oversized wooden table adorned with books and candles from a recent collaboration. He was 13 at the time.
“I remember just knowing that it was something magical and special and Bronx. Jennifer Lopez was on the television and she is from the Bronx and I knew there was something significant about that moment.”
Just weeks after, his grandmother, whom he considered to be his everything, died. And not long after that, LaMaar, who says he believes everything in his life happens for a reason, got his first break in the fashion industry at 15. He had been calling Phat Fashions seeking an internship obsessively when coincidentally, two representatives from Phat happened to come speak to him and his classmates in the honors art program at the High School of Art and Design in Midtown Manhattan.
“At the end of the class, I saw every portfolio and I saw his,” recalled Christina Lee, 38, who at the time worked at Baby Phat. “I looked at him and at the sketches and I thought it couldn’t be possible. It stood out like no other.”
Those designs that set LaMaar apart from the rest of the students led him to scoring the internship of his dreams and not long after, he found himself in Baby Phat’s studios training under Kimora Lee and Russell Simmons. LaMaar then went on to study at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and eventually started his own label.
During the early years of LaMaar’s career, he worked as a trend specialist for companies like Promostyl, traveling and predicting the next fashion trends for clients. Little did he know then that one wishful thought for a specific client would turn out to be much more.
“Outside of my office there was a billboard for Samsung and I kept saying that I wanted to have Samsung as a client,” said LaMaar. Instead, he was approached by the company weeks later to be the face of Samsung in an international campaign. His life and home would be featured in the ads, and he wanted to be sure his borough was too. “I told them they had to put that my apartment was in Bronx, New York, because they were going to be ‘New York, New York’ and they did.”
Creativity runs in LaMaar’s blood; his grandfather was an art professor and his grandmother was a seamstress. He attributes the freedom he felt to express himself and to be creative as a child growing up in the South Bronx to his family’s positive influence and standing in the community. His parents and grandparents knew everyone on the block, and regularly exposed the youth of the neighborhood to the arts.
“I grew up in a really creative family,” explained LaMaar. “The way that they created community in this hub being people of color that had it together and opened the doors to the community. I think seeing the way my family moved through certain situations in the neighborhood allowed me to see the world in a very optimistic way.”
In the same way that his family’s legacy protected him, the neighborhood also protected and supported him during the years he ran his gallery and boutique, 9J, on Bruckner Boulevard in Port Morris. He closed it last year, but having his own shop had been a dream since childhood.
With no staff, LaMaar ran the store on his own, selling items from his line combined with those of other up-and-coming designers along with art and various other trinkets. Although people came from all over to shop, he took the most pride in appealing to the locals.
“The people from the Bronx came to support,” he said. “What was cool about that was to see a person of color come from around the corner, and I’m a fashion boy so I look completely different from what they are used to seeing, and I would kind of break down things for them. I would have an antique from the 18th Century in there mixed with Jordan’s and people took a liking to it.”
After a slow year in 2017 with less foot traffic, however, LaMaar decided to close 9J. But with his strong belief in the idea that all things happen for a reason, the closure led to his next chapter – what he calls his “rebirth.” LaMaar remained close friends with Christina Lee throughout the years and she became his manager at the end of last year. Lee is helping him navigate this next phase by making collaborations that introduce his talents to other industries beyond fashion.
“Jerome has a natural gift for forecasting and design. It’s rare to have both,” explained Lee. “That’s what we see in him as far as going in more of that direction. To showcase him outside of a designer.”
He recently returned to New York Fashion Week but rather than presenting a collection, he worked on a collaboration with Tumblr and various other companies, conducted interviews and hosted events. LaMaar has also recently collaborated on everything from furniture to a unisex cologne that is produced by a Bronx company that has been around for 50 years.
“Working with him, I understand it’s empowering creatives in the borough and we want to take it to the next level,” said Lee.
Currently, LaMaar is blurring the lines as a designer by venturing into music; he now DJs events, a new side of the business that he fell into after randomly playing a set at a party at Miami Art Basel. He has also worked with Swarovski, Jonathan Adler and Scotch & Soda, and as a creative director, he is preparing to shoot a music video that he will direct as well as design the clothing for the following day.
“Jerome is really talented, which everyone already knows, but I’m able to see everything else in between creating designs and I don’t even know where he gets this stuff from,” said John Goodman, LaMaar’s fiancé whom he has known for 12 years, and is also a creative working in floral design.
LaMaar also wants to reach out and interact with more people by starting a YouTube channel. He is also striving to put himself out more by helping others reach their own level of success.
“The idea is always to have a bigger goal. If you don’t have a perspective, aspiration or motivation, you aren’t going to go anywhere. No matter what your circumstances are, you can do it, you just have to master your thoughts,” LaMaar said. “I use this term ‘if thoughts could glow and words have power’ because your thoughts can glow. Make them shine.”