By Steven Barboza
America’s cultural and political landscape is a kaleidoscope of bright colors, and black is prominent among them. We have had African American Academy Awards winners every year lately. Black singers and rappers rule the charts. Black chefs just might be cooking your chicken cordon bleu regardless of whose name is on the restaurant sign out front. Oprah is queen of TV land. And a black family occupies the White House.
But when it comes to who is dressing America, 30% of whose population is nonwhite, the issue isn’t so clear. Fashion runways and photo spreads are overwhelmingly white. And black designers are hardly common figures in leading fashion houses.
African Americans alone spent $27 billion on apparel in 2008, according to Target Market News. While that is a hefty sum, it pails when compared to the total spent by all Americans. Last year, Americans spent $326 billion on clothing and footwear last year, according to the University of Michigan.
Still, are we getting good value in terms of diversity in fashion? And what of black designers? If Americans can celebrate black actors on the screen, why aren’t we honoring blacks’ pursuits in couture?
The heroes of black fashion are few and far between. But they do exist.
Tracy Reese perhaps ranks as fashion’s most successful black female designer. Of course, it always helps when the First Lady models your designs, as Michelle Obama has done for Reese. The whole world witnessed Michelle deplane Air Force One in a Tracy Reese blue and white dress, and she opted for a $395 Reese dress for the cover shot of People Magazine.
New York Magazine called Reese’s style “unabashedly girly.” She has a namesake label and has garnered recognition in many areas, from clothing and shoes to nail polish and hosiery.
She perhaps succeeded because she always knew what she wanted. “From a young age I knew I wanted to create
beautiful things,” Tracy told the Atlanta Post. “I was influenced by the femininity of women like my grandmother. After growing up in Detroit, I moved to New York to attend Parsons School of Design. Once I received my degree, I decided to move to Paris where I apprenticed under designer Martine Sitbon while working for the small contemporary firm, Arlequin. A few years later, I returned to New York and started working for Perry Ellis as the design director for Women’s Portfolio.”
By age 23, her collections were being sold in Barneys New York, Bergdorf Goodman, and Ann Taylor. Her company’s sales topped $12 million in 2003. Still, she is engrossed in every detail of her clothes, right down to the stitching. “While I have a wonderful team to assist, I continue to build my brand with my own hands,” she said.
Was dressing the First Lady the pinnacle of her career? Not really. “While seeing my dress on First Lady Michelle Obama was one of the proudest moments of my career, I still design for the everyday woman,” she said. “I design because I want women to feel good in what they wear and to help solve their wardrobe problems. Nothing is more satisfying than seeing a woman walking confidently in one of my frocks. It is also nice for the everyday woman to see the First Lady wearing something that they can also obtain.”