The famed designer has come back to her hometown to mentor students and help shape sustainable production practices.
By Stephanie Steinberg
Photography by Sacred Overstreet-Amos
Arranging flowers in a vase, Tracy Reese describes how grateful she is to find a studio with a kitchen — and natural light. Wall-to-wall glass windows overlook the Detroit River and offer a vantage point to watch children bounding out of buses for field trips to the riverfront.
For the fashion designer, the new studio to sketch and design feels like home. Because Detroit is home.
Reese has made a name for herself in the fashion industry over the last 30-plus years. A graduate of Parsons School of Design in New York, she launched her label in 1998, with contemporary pieces sold in stores like Nordstrom’s and Lord and Taylor. She’s appeared at countless New York Fashion Week runway shows; collaborated with actress Sarah Jessica Parker on a shoe line; and caught the eye of former first lady Michelle Obama, who rocked a custom dress for her 2012 Democratic National Convention speech.
Yet her success traces back to her beginnings in Detroit, a city she’s loved and made a commitment to return to after years in New York. Many of her pieces sold nationwide will now be designed from this exposed brick studio inside the Elevator Building in Rivertown. “I can sketch here as well as I can sketch anywhere,” says Reese, who also has a house in Detroit. “I call it our ‘family house,’ ” she says, “so when family comes to town we still have place to congregate.”
Sitting at her white desk, wearing a popping red dress with a matching shade of lipstick and black chunky necklace, Reese shares that she and her two sisters are products of Detroit Public Schools.
“We had a great education, which you don’t hear people say that very often, but my mom was super active in the schools and with us,” Reese says. “We were busy on the weekends because she didn’t believe in young people languishing the weekend away.”
On Saturdays, the girls completed chores and then attended artistic classes. Reese, the middle child, took classes at Marygrove College, the Your Heritage House on Ferry Street or the Detroit Institute of Arts to learn skills like oil painting. “We were always in museums, always in the libraries. That was our other favorite thing to do is just go to the library and see how many books we could read while we were there, and then we knew we could take out five,” Reese chuckles. “So, we were taught to really use the city and all that it had to offer.”
Her mom was a modern dance teacher at Wayne County Community College, her aunt a modern dance professor at Wayne State University. “That whole side of the family was in the arts,” Reese says, explaining she often attended concerts and recitals.
“We had a great childhood here,” she says, her smile washed away by distress. “Knowing that, now, only like 21% of Detroit Public Schools have a single art teacher is … oh, my God, how painful is that? And how sad is that for the children?”
Though her home base is in New York, the 55-year-old has resolved to spend about half the year in Detroit. She attended the 2018 Crain’s Detroit Homecoming for Detroit natives and heard the message to come back and use your talents to help the city become a hub for design, innovation and manufacturing.
“I need to be here more often, I need to try to be a service to schools where I can, try to make myself available to the community where I can,” she says.
Jen Guarino, Shinola’s former vice president of manufacturing, says Reese represents a leading voice in the need to bring manufacturing to communities that can produce, design and distribute in a more ethical and sustainable way.
“The way we’ve been making things is not sustainable … and (Reese) wants to be a part of changing that here in Detroit,” Guarino says. “She really offers this unique perspective as a woman of color born and raised in Detroit who went away, became a very successful fashion designer who understood that paying it forward by coming back to Detroit was key. It’s a very, very powerful leadership position she’s taking.”
In the past few months, Reese has made good on her promise to “be available,” particularly for the next generation of fashion designers. She’s mentoring students, like her intern majoring in fashion at WSU. Reese has led workshops with third- to fifth-graders at Detroit’s Duke Ellington School of Music & Art, teaching them how to use prints to make designs. They painted canvas bags many gave to their moms for Mother’s Day.
She also returned to her alma mater Cass Technical High School and connected with the textiles teacher to have three students participate in her summer capsule. She then reached out to Shayla Johnson, owner of the screen-printing company Scarlet Crane based in the makerspace Post on Detroit’s east side. “Everyone pointed me to her when I was like, ‘I need to have some fabric printed in Detroit,’ ” Reese says, explaining she wanted the capsule to be mainly Detroit-made. (A proponent of sustainably sourced fabrics, Reese got the organic cotton from the west coast.)
While the students got firsthand screen-printing experience, so did Reese, Johnson says.
“Tracy was really hands-on the entire way, which was really cool. She was right in there printing and wanting to also learn herself,” says Johnson, 42, who’s been a textiles designer for 20 years, but has never worked with a big-name fashion designer. Designing three prints with Reese, “you would never know” she’s famous in the industry, Johnson says, “because she’s humble and very down-to-earth and really believes in offering as much help as needed and getting her hands dirty.”
The screen-printing experience only motivated Reese to continue working locally.
“I’ve been producing offshore exclusively really for the past 15 years,” she says. “So it’s important to me to begin what we call nearshoring again, making something in the U.S.”
Made Sustainably in Detroit
Manufacturing textiles in Detroit is about to become more feasible thanks to an initiative Reese is involved in with the Industrial Sewing and Innovation Center led by Guarino.
In January, the sewn goods institute plans to launch a manufacturing factory to teach Detroiters traditional skills and emerging technologies in the fashion industry. Carhartt donated the third floor of its Midtown retail shop for the initiative.
“The idea is to build a factory here in Detroit that is very worker-centric, a very positive environment, (offers) opportunities for growth for the employees and opportunities to learn new technologies so that you’re not in a trade that’s going to diminish over time. You’re on the cutting edge of what’s happening in the industry,” says Reese, who’s on the ISAIC board of directors.
Reese says a factory like this is needed now more than ever, when the industry is “polluting the planet and exploiting the workforce all over the world.”
The factory will offer Detroiters equity and career opportunities, Guarino says, adding that Reese has been a key player in its development. “She’s ensuring that as we attract the industry here, that Detroiters get to be the beneficiaries of that industry,” she says.
One Size for All
For now, Reese is focused on incorporating more domestic production into her work and ensuring her collections are designed with all women in mind — no matter their size, shape or race.
“I’m a minority. I hate to not see myself represented in the work of people that I admire,” she says.
Reese started producing larger sizes about three years ago, after fans said they loved her clothes, but they didn’t come in their size. Lord and Taylor was the first major retailer to put them on the floor. It wasn’t easy, Reese says, explaining retailers “are not used to catering to the average American.”
She’s now looking at how to design clothing, like her Hope for Flowers collection sold exclusively at Détroit is the New Black on Woodward Avenue, that’s more flexible size wise. “Most of the pieces we put into this collection, you can wear it if you’re a size 2 or up to a 10 within the one size because there’s elastic in the back and it’s more flexible styling,” she says, eyeing her flowy sundresses on a rack. For the collection, Reese partnered with St. Luke’s N.E.W. Life Center that trains women re-entering the workforce how to sew.
Another capsule collection designed in Detroit is hitting Anthropologie this October.
While she’s making sizes more inclusive, the average dress is still $400-$500. “That usually means the woman buying it is over 40 easily, because who can afford a $400 or $500 dress?” she says. “The reason it costs that is because it’s made responsibly, and it’s made to last.”
Figuring out how to lower costs while producing sustainably is a challenge Reese is ready to take on, especially if it means more Detroiters can be spotted wearing her dresses on the riverfront.
“It’s great to be back home and meeting amazing people, great artists here who have been at it for decades. A lot of unsung heroes and heroines are here, and I believe in native Detroit and native Detroiters,” she says. Yet she points out there’s still a lot of work to be done to unify the city.
“I’m happy for all the people that have chosen to make Detroit their home these last few years, but I’m hopeful that we can all enjoy the new Detroit together because it seems to be quite segregated. That’s kind of painful to see, and it just feels so last century. … So there has to be some bridging, and we all have to come together and take this walk together.”
To fellow expats considering coming back, Reese has one message: “If you have something to offer and you’re from Detroit, it’s great to come back and make yourself available.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the collection in partnership with St. Luke’s N.E.W. Life Center.