Up Close with Los Angeles Fashion Designer Santino Rice

LOS ANGELES—A bicycle zooms around a corner in downtown Los Angeles’ fashion district looking out of place amongst the array of cars waiting at the stoplight. This is the mode of transportation for fashion designer and reality television star Santino Rice, who often avoids L.A. traffic by taking the metro downtown and then riding his bicycle to work.

Rice drops off the bicycle at his studio and heads out to the many fabric shops lining nearby Ninth Street. Today, he’s looking for inspiration for a line of clothing he’s been working on for a commercial project. Running his fingers over a bright pink and black checkered bolt of fabric, he says, “I like the geometric pattern here. This could be something.”

At 6’5” and wearing one of his signature hats and dark glasses, Rice stands out among the regular folks shopping at the market. He’s recognized occasionally but overall, people let him do his thing.

As he heads back in the direction of his studio, he waxes on about the state of fashion today. “It’s about the mix of the things that are more couture with things that are simpler. Layering pieces—that kind of is what fashion is about today. It’s about the high and low.” The high and the low—that’s Santino style in a nutshell. It’s also a big theme in his life, which becomes more apparent as the day goes on.

Rice has been an L.A. resident since moving here from the small town of St. Charles, Missouri, 16 years ago. He thought about moving to New York City back then but was and still is inspired by all that is L.A. “Everything from the weather to the palm trees and the beach and the ocean and even hip hop music coming out of Los Angeles,” he says. For Rice, the high and low, the haute couture and everyday street culture, is part of his inspiration in L.A. “It’s about all these little pockets that you can basically jump from one to the next even in a night and see a whole different vibe and feel a whole different culture and overall just get these different pictures that some are so completely extreme. But you can get them all within a 30 mile radius.”

Sampling a bit of the high culture in the midst of downtown L.A.’s old buildings and grit, Rice grabs a bite at a favorite Brazilian restaurant, where he orders an extra plate of collard greens. “I love collard greens. I like things that are pungent,” he says before taking another bite and talking about the odiferous durian fruit he had on a trip to Asia. He takes a sip of water flavored with cinnamon sticks and it seems quite fitting that Rice with his sometimes larger-than-life persona would enjoy intensely flavorful food.

After lunch on this summer-like day, Rice makes a wardrobe change, discarding a navy-colored jacket for a bright T-shirt and flared khakis. It’s time to leave the stuffy heat of downtown for the comforts of a breezy beach. Rice leaves the bicycle here for another day and fights through traffic in a luxurious SUV before landing at one of his top L.A. inspiration points—Venice Beach.

He strolls along the Ocean Front Walk, which is a path situated between high dollar homes and the sandy beach that’s filled with people from all walks of life. “Santinooo,” someone calls from a second story deck at one of the nearby homes. It’s not a fan; it’s one of his friends, who promptly invites Rice upstairs.

“See, things just happen in Venice. Doors just open and we see Maynard waving,” Rice says as greets his friend Maynard, a local artist and consultant.

“Honey, you’ve only got one life and you’d better live it,” Maynard replies before attending to other guests sunning on the second story deck. Rice takes in the view of sparkling water beyond the beach before saying his goodbyes. Back outside, Rice explains that he makes clothing for some of the people who were upstairs and has since become friends with them. “It’s again about living that high/low life. I feel like a renaissance artist sometimes making things for kings and queens,” he says before adding that Maynard would be the court jester in that scenario.

In reality, Rice often seems like the jester with his infectious, booming laugh and ability to do spot-on impersonations of just about anyone. But don’t be looking for Rice to jump into the acting world anytime soon. Fashion is his first love. “In this day and age, fashion designers are the new rock stars,” he says.

When it comes to fashion, he has a lot of opinions about the status quo. “The thing I dislike most about fashion today and the way that people subscribe to fashion is that most people in America at least have an all-you-can-eat mentality about fashion and they think more is better or quantity over quality is better. And it’s unheard of to actually be seen twice in the same dress…So, it leaves a lot of women and men with a closet full of really mediocre clothes that don’t last and are overtly trendy.”

Rice’s designs don’t ascribe to that quantity over quality mentality and fall more into the category of “investment” type pieces that will last many years. They’re all about the fit and quality. “Ultimately, I want my clients to feel comfortable. I want the woman to feel expensive. I want her to be able to feel the quality of the fabrics, the linings, feel the foundation, the inner lining, basically the insides of a garment, which aren’t able to be seen by the viewer. But you can feel it when you’re wearing it.”

Beyond the luxury of his works, Rice also sees a great deal of artistry in the designs he creates for his clients. “Overall, I think you see in my work the sexiness, the luxury, the quality and just the overall fantasy of what it is that I’m doing because ultimately, I’m trying to create beauty in the world and that’s really my job. I’m a fashion designer but ultimately, I’m creating beauty in this world.”

As Rice wanders into the Muscle Beach area and back out among the tourists in the Boardwalk-like part of Venice, it’s apparent he’s taking everything in from colors and patterns to sounds and smells. He actually gets quiet for a moment. This is where he can draw inspiration from. “It’s about being a sponge and being open to receiving a certain idea that pops into my head,” he says. “I feel like because I listen to current music and I’m always observing everything that’s around me from car design to furniture design to buildings, architecture, art, everything is constantly going through my filter in my brain and I basically just am kind of a conduit for these ideas and for understanding the consciousness of what’s going on right now in the world.”

As the sun begins to set over the graffiti wall near the beach, blue-collar types out having picnics and tourists out indulging in ice cream and popcorn begin to make their way to their vehicles. Before long, Rice is heading back to his SUV where he’ll grab clothes for another wardrobe change before hitting up a party later tonight. From downtown L.A. to Venice Beach and a beachside mansion, Rice is drawing upon it all today, both the highs and the lows.