In 1997 Tracy Reese launched her eponymous clothing collection and embarked on a journey that would see her become an internationally celebrated designer. Countless women from around the world, as well as Hollywood starlets like Gabrielle Union, Tracee Ellis Ross and Kelly Rowland, wear her bold, beautiful and ultrafeminine ensembles. And as we know, former First Lady Michelle Obama is also a Reese devotee.
In fact, the moment Mrs. Obama stepped onstage at the 2012 Democratic National Convention wearing a sleeveless pink and teal silk–jacquard frock by Reese, the New York City–based designer became a household name. And Obama's penchant for wearing Reese's work continued to make history. The red and black floral dress Obama donned during the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington is now on display at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History & Culture. Mrs. O has also donated several of her favorite Reese creations to the National Archives.
That is certainly enough to solidify the type of legacy as a fashion designer that some only dream about. And after two decades Reese shows no signs of slowing down. "I've really gone with the flow for much of these 20 years," she says. "Now that I'm the grand old age of 53, I want to plan the next 20 years."
The Parsons School of Design alum says she will continue creating, of course, but also intends to carve out more time for her other passions such as getting more into activism, spending time in her hometown of Detroit, and helping to push the industry into the future by focusing on sustainability and empowering women designers and designers of color.
"Tracy's aesthetic point of view is her own. Her business sense is uniquely hers. She is simply one woman succeeding," says Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and Washington Post fashion critic Robin Givhan. "But she moves through her professional life with the recognition that her presence on the board of the CFDA [Council of Fashion Designers of America], her support of Planned Parenthood, her joyfully diverse runway shows resonate beyond her. They resonate beyond the Black community. They mean that a broader audience is more fruitfully engaged in fashion."
Sadly the lack of diversity in the fashion industry is underscored when you consider that Reese is one of the few Black designers who have sustained a high level of success for such a long time. Thus it's essential to celebrate the significance of Reese's presence in fashion as well as in the Black community.
"You feel proud in a Tracy Reese dress. You feel confident in a Tracy Reese dress. Most important, you feel pretty in a Tracy Reese dress—and making Black women feel pretty for decades is pretty radical," says Reese's friend and image activist Michaela angela Davis.
Reese is optimistic about the future for designers of color, thanks to the democratization of fashion through social media and e-commerce. She also knows it takes a village: "It's important to stop and look at what you've accomplished, where you come from, and all the people who were there for you and with you along the way."
That squad of close friends—who are stars in their own right—includes fellow fashion designer Byron Lars, fashion activist and founder of the Diversity Coalition Bethann Hardison, fashion journalist and author Teri Agins, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem Thelma Golden and philanthropist and author Susan Fales-Hill.
If the past 20 years are any indication of what's to come, then Reese and the women who love to be wrapped in her wares are in for a beautiful ride.
20 Years & Moments With Tracy Reese
This feature originally appeared in the September 2017 Issue of ESSENCE Magazine.