No one knew what First Lady Michelle Obama would choose to wear on stage at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. That decision is generally a secret kept from the public–and designers–until she appears under the spotlights. And when she stepped out onto the stage that historic night, the First Lady wore a custom design shimmering pink and gold brocade Tracy Reese dress.
“It’s probably my proudest moment,” said Reese, speaking from the Bahamas, where she was vacationing.
That night, Reese tweeted: “Thanks everyone for sharing this amazing moment! We are all so grateful and honored to have dressed Mrs. Obama for such a momentous speech!!!”
The First Lady had worn Reese’s designs before, but with millions watching and the media critics gushing, Reese has said that night her clothes were introduced to a new audience.
Today, she is arguably the best known Black designer. She has come a long way from the little girl in Detroit who made clothes for her doll out of socks and later, as a teen, made her own outfits.
“We wrote a budget for each school year. Being able to sew a few things, I could control my destiny and get extra pieces,” Reese said.
She calls it “fortunate” that she went to a summer program for high school students at Parsons School of Design in New York City.
“It was great exposure and I made up my mind to become a designer,” said Reese. “I learned it wasn’t just a hobby, but a big industry. It made (design) seem like a viable career.”
She graduated from Parsons in 1984, one of two Blacks in her class.
Her father, a Chrysler plant manager, saved $100,000 and gave it to Reese to start her first clothing line. She was 23.
“It was a huge vote of confidence and I worked my fanny off trying to make sure it paid off,” Reese said.
Nevertheless, the business had failed.
“I was a little too young and inexperienced,” said Reese, now 52. “There is value in experience, growing a base of contacts.”
She went to work for her friend Marc Jacobs at Perry Ellis. Some 10 years later, in 1999, she reopened her business. With perseverance, she attracted some of the larger stores such as Neiman Marcus, Macy’s and Nordstrom.
She has created five labels thus far, including her namesake Tracy Reese, a line of clothing worn today by Hollywood celebrities and First Lady Michelle Obama.
Reese said her brand’s aim is to “make women feel beautiful in everything we do.”
Robin Givhan, Washington Post fashion editor, said Reese’s designs appeal to contemporary customers without being so trendy that they are quickly outdated.
“Looking at her work critically over the years, there is a consistent point of view, which is important because it says she has a distinctive voice,” said Givhan. “There is a lot of noise in fashion. Those who rise above have a distinctive voice. Her sensibility has a subtext of vintage and retro in it. It has an almost southern lady- like aspect but it is fully wholly, rooted in contemporary styles. It makes it a very interesting sensibility because it has something that very much speaks to contemporary customers but makes you feel it is rooted in something more lasting.”
Reese is excited about what she sees as her opportunity to grow creatively in the future. For one, she plans to begin offering her clothes in larger sizes.
“I think you could run dry because it’s a demanding industry. You could dial it in or keep digging deep and finding something within yourself,” Reese said.
She is well aware that few Black designers reach her level of global success. Articles about the disparity of Blacks in the fashion industry have pointed to many reasons it exists–from Black parents not seeing the fashion industry as a viable career to cuts in public school arts programs and just the sheer difficulty of raising the finances needed to launch a collection.
“We have to keep pushing the issue (of racial disparity) so people will be conscious about making changes,” said Reese. “We have to direct people to proper education paths, whether it be in production, design or marketing research. We have to keep the conversation going.”