As a favorite of Michelle Obama and a host of other celebrities ranging from Sarah Jessica Parker to Tracee Ellis Ross, Tracy Reese is a notable designer in her own right. Known for her flattering, occasion-ready dresses, the designer has made a name for herself as a black woman in an industry dominated by people who don't look like her.
This unique position is just one of the many topics she touched on in a talk on Wednesday night at FIT, where some of her pieces are currently on display in the Museum at FIT's "Black Fashion Designers" exhibition. In a conversation hosted by exhibition co-curator Elizabeth Way, Reese opened up about everything from hand-packing her own orders to industry discrimination to being college besties with Marc Jacobs. Read on for the highlights of Reese and Way's chat.
On peer pressure and being besties with Marc Jacobs
After graduating from Parsons, Reese cut her teeth working for French designer Martine Sitbon. When asked what gave her the courage to first start her own line so shortly thereafter, Reese noted that all her peers were doing it at the time.
"My friends all had businesses," she said. "I went to school with Marc Jacobs; we were best friends all the way through school. He had his own business almost immediately out of school. Almost every night, there was some midnight fashion show — it's just what we were all doing."
On the hustle of the early days
Even though the shared community she experienced in her early days as an independent designer helped, Reese asserted that it was still incredibly difficult. "It was very hand-to-mouth," she recalled. "I can't tell you how many times I was in tenants' court fighting to keep my apartment, because I would use my rent money to buy sample fabric or pay a pattern maker."
Part of the stress came from doing everything on her own, whether with the design or the business side of the label. She went door-to-door looking for manufacturing partners in the days before the internet, and she remembers picking and packing her own orders in the back of the van she used to drive. She would then take the boxes to the post office, arriving just five minutes before the office would close. "There would be at least five other designers there shipping at the last minute," she said. "But there was a community of people who were in the same boat, and we were in it together."
On the failure of her first business
Despite some very impressive accomplishments for a young label — like having items sold in Barneys New York very early on — Reese's first attempt at starting a brand ultimately failed. Because the Barneys buyer she worked with threatened to drop her if she didn't stay with Barneys exclusively, she put off selling in Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman for the first year. But even after she added the other two department stores to her roster (and discovered that the Barneys buyer was more bark than bite and didn't drop her line after all), it still wasn't enough.
"I learned that I was too young and I was still inexperienced," she said. "Those were the key takeaways from that first failure. I was 23 or 24 years old, and you think you know everything; you're impatient. I wasn't strong enough at the time to handle the stress and manage the business by myself."
On experiencing more discrimination as a woman than as a person of color
"Getting into the industry at the time that I started, it was an industry full of old-school garmentos who would kind of look at you like, 'You don't know what you're doing and you're a girl,'" Reese claimed. "And the people holding the pocketbooks weren't eager to open them up to women."
She speculated that she's seen more discrimination for her gender than for her race in part due to her "ignoring" some of the discrimination aimed at her, and acknowledged that people of color are "extremely underrepresented" in the seats of power outside modeling, journalism and design.
"I think as a woman of color and person of color, I have never sought out discrimination," she said. "If I want to do something I'm going to figure out how to do it, and if you don't like how I look then that can't be my problem." Still, she stuck to her statement that being a woman in her corner of the fashion industry is particularly tough. "I think that women editors are not as charmed by female designers," she said.
On clothes designed by and for women
That said, Reese wasn't all doom and gloom about the role of women in the industry. "I think a lot of the powers that be still think that a man has better ideas of how a woman should dress than a woman does," she noted, but she believes that when female designers are given a chance, they can address the wardrobe problems of female customers in a unique way.
"I think that most women designers are really thinking about function and flattering, and they're not as much in fantasy zone," she said. "I would not presume to design men's clothes, just because I'm not a man. I'm not in a man's body everyday feeling what it feels like to wear these clothes and facing whatever challenges arise in a man's life that I would need to consider when I'm designing."
On figuring out what customers really want
Reese says that her goal when designing is always to create clothing that "actually works in people's lives rather than looking pretty in the closet." Part of what that means to her is that she should be addressing a wide range of customers, regardless of size and shape.
"I would love to see a change in how extended sizing is displayed," she said, noting that she is working with retailers to ensure that the extended sizing she has recently added to her offerings will be displayed in the same spaces as straight sizing. "I don't believe that a size 18 should have to go to the basement or the attic to find her clothes," Reese remarked. "She wants to shop with everybody else."
Reese noted that understanding the customer's wants is important when it comes to licensing, too, even when those desires might be surprising.
"The woman buying a $400 dress actually wants a $2,000 bag," Reese claimed. "She wants a luxury handbag where everyone knows what it is." Adjusting to those expectations, she said, is key to managing successful licensing deals and creating multiple lines that work.
On what's next for her line
Reese noted early on in the talk that growing up in Detroit influenced how she thinks about dressing up and claimed that she's proud of her heritage in the city. As manufacturing in Manhattan gets more difficult, she admitted to toying with the idea of moving some of her production to her hometown. "There's so much happening in Detroit," she said of the city's attempts to grow its garment sector. "This is manufacturing coming back to what's been a essentially a manufacturing city. So it makes perfect sense to me."
Regardless of where she's making her pieces, one thing's clear to Reese: that she'd rather be making things that she likes, rather than things that are overwhelmingly popular. "I'm not really interested in world domination," she said. "I don't want one single product to be in every single department store."