Redesigning a Fashion Label
Designer Tracy Reese has reinvented her fashion in a new sustainable way
Thirty-three years after her first steps in the fashion industry, designer and entrepreneur Tracy Reese is starting over and is busier than ever. Not only did she launch a new fashion collection, Hope for Flowers by Tracy Reese, in her hometown of Detroit last year, but she was also just named executive vice chairwoman of the new Black Advisory Board of the Council of Fashion Designers of America and is advocating for inclusivity, diversity and equal rights in the fashion industry.
“We hope to see real systemic change, rather than just a trend,” for ridding fashion of racism, explains Reese. “Our industry is known for trends…Every year something gets called out and people start thinking about it. It’s great to see people recognize where they fall short, but where is the measurement of change?”
The creation of the Black Advisory Board was announced in September shortly after the CFDA tapped CaSandra Diggs as its first Black president and first female president of color. Diggs is chairing the advisory board with Reese as her number two, and Reese says the first step toward change is education. To that end, the CFDA began anti-racism workshops earlier this fall. She notes that member companies have committed to more diverse hiring practices and to making sure that Black people are part of corporate and creative hierarchies. For example, fashion and associated companies such as those in beauty or fragrance could be more actively recruiting from Historically Black Colleges & Universities for C-suite managers, Reese suggests.
“We want to be about action and have a real impact. This is not about politics,” Reese states. As a Black woman, she’s experienced racism during her tenure in fashion, from being shunned at booths at fabric trade shows to getting limited attention from financial lenders. “Our industry runs on exclusivity. We need to examine that word. When it plays out in your business, it means you are leaving some people out. If you don’t see diversity [in your company] it doesn’t seem modern.”
Reese is warm and engaging. Her thoughtful demeanor is dotted with exuberance — much like her fashion, which is imbued with color, bold prints and lots of fabulous dresses. Celebrities and VIPs including Michelle Obama, Tracee Ellis Ross, Geena Davis and Sarah Jessica Parker are Reese devotees. Duchess Meghan Markle recently wore a Hope for Flowers maxi dress for a video interview about the toxicity of social media with Fortune Magazine during their Most Powerful Women Next Gen Summit, which kicked off mid-October.
The year-old Hope for Flowers collection remains steadfastly Reese in its designs, but this line is slow and sustainable fashion, the opposite of where her previous label was heading.
“They wanted to put out volume products for TJX or Costco and I had no interest in that,” Reese explains, referring to how her former partners — and former majority owners of her signature label “Tracy Reese” and variations thereof — wanted to increase Reese’s sales revenues by making larger quantities of lower-priced apparel, the business model for “fast fashion.”
“At the same time, I was learning more and more about fashion’s footprint, sustainability, and that made me more adamant against doing low-end, high-volume, throw-away clothing. We have got to educate consumers about the damage that it does.”
Reese’s solution was to start over, and Hope for Flowers is the result, with designs that run from flirty and romantic to practical and chic. She wants women to wear and keep her pieces from one season and one year to the next, compared with the fast fashion model from companies like Zara that make cheap, trendy clothes that can be worn and tossed after one season.
But why the new name?
“When I launched Hope for Flowers I thought long and hard — I could have used my name — but it’s a different product and stands for something different, and I do want people to be aware of that difference,” Reese explains.
The name also reflects the emotion that Reese wants to evoke by designing and manufacturing fashion in a way that’s better for the planet and workers. Thus, Reese is spending more time and effort searching out earth-friendly fabrics including Tencel and Cupro, and factories that can guarantee its workers a living wage, a departure from how fashion manufacturing has been outsourced in recent decades in Asia, where Reese’s collection is made. And to offset the environmental impact of Hope for Flowers production, ten percent of sales are being donated to Detroit Dirt, a foundation that recovers organic waste and converts it to compost.
The first pieces for fall 2020 include a flowy tiered skirt in a black and white polka dot print or green and black floral print ($198). Tops include a tie-front short sleeve top or a puff sleeve blouse, in some of the same color ways in addition to a green and black polka dot and orange and black print (both $188). There is also a simple slip dress that can be worn alone or over a top ($325). These pieces are all made of Tencel, a cellulosic fabric with fibers made from wood from sustainable forests. The collection is sold on the label’s website in addition to in Anthropologie, a longtime sales partner for Reese with her previous collections. And remarkably, Reese somehow worked with suppliers to get the summer and fall 2020 collections available for sale during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to Reese diehards, Reese hopes to attract a new generation of fashion consumers who are looking for sustainable options.
“I’ve been used to accessing anything I want to create products coming out of my imagination,” Reese says. “Now, I have to work with a smaller pool of materials and textiles. It’s challenging to find things that are certified, or that have transparency [about provenance] but every season there is more to choose from and more people on board,” for doing business this new way.
Reese attributes her ease in navigating this new way of doing business in part to having been chosen to participate in the Council of Fashion Designers of America – Lexus Fashion Initiative, which is basically a crash course in sustainable fashion design. While she wasn’t the main winner, she did receive a $5,000 social impact award.
Currently, Hope for Flowers is made by high-quality manufacturers in China, thanks in large part to working with Anthropologie, a retailer with whom Reese has worked for years. The fashion chain is large enough to guarantee minimum production orders, which many factories demand from clients. Reese will start making part of her collection in Detroit, where local manufacturing is on the rise. Reese has been part of this local production surge as the founding board chairman of the Industrial Sewing and Innovation Center and now as a board member of Nest, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the handworker economy. Last summer, Nest launched its Makers United program in Detroit, an initiative that connects and empowers artisans and fosters entrepreneurship. Re-shoring the fabrication of her collection to Detroit will result in higher production costs, but the locally made fashions will boast more details, embellishment and handwork, allowing Reese to expand her creative boundaries.
“We designers need to remember why we got into this. I love making beautiful things but after decades of producing off-shore, meeting delivery deadlines, being a slave to a schedule, you feel like you’re cranking a product out. It’s such a creative industry but one that is stuck in an outdated playbook,” Reese says, convinced that she’s doing the right thing for herself. Hope for Flowers is “challenging and exciting,” she adds. “I feel free.”