Once upon a time (April), I walked into the downtown Nordstrom at the specified time and checked in with the store manager as told. She whisked me through the designer department and into a cozy dressing room with a fresh fruit platter, a bench and internationally acclaimed fashion designer Tracy Reese. The head of her own fashion empire Reese is an inducted member of the Council of Fashion Designers of America and has lines ranging from her namesake to offshoots for the home, hosiery, shoes, you name it.
Reese was as charming and sweet as you could possibly imagine which led to she and I parked on the dressing room bench chatting for ages. The downside to doing an interview in a dressing room full of intercoms and muffled noises is the recording was so hard to hear, it appeared our interview was lost forever. Nevertheless, my dutiful intern Rachel chipped away at it bit by bit by bit by bit and behold 5 months later I give to you snippets of our pages and pages of transcripts.
Eden Dawn: I’m so excited to meet you and talk to you. I’ve loved your clothes for so long, I’m an adjunct instructor in the fashion department at the Art Institute, and the students love your stuff too. Actually we should show your work in the sewing classes and say, ‘Notice how Tracy Reese uses elastic in her strapless dresses so you don’t have a ‘Janet Jackson’ moment?’
Tracy Reese: (Laughing and miming said moment) Hello! That’s stuff we do research on all the time because, you know, we have all the issues our customers have, you know when we’re wearing clothes. So we solve the problems as much as we can.
E.D: And they don’t know, they’re trying to make a strapless dress with no boning or anything in it, and they’re like ‘Why won’t it stay up!?’
T.R: Yeah, and pants with no crotch seam…that’s one of my favorites. I used to teach too, and the kids would come up with their work and you’re like ‘This is a really cute idea, but how are you gonna get into it? Part of the design process is figuring out these closures and how to get in and out and to walk.
E.D: Exactly. I didn’t know you taught. How long did you teach for?
T.R: You know when I first started my business, I taught at Parsons – I taught design. And luckily they had a system there of team teachers, so our class was ‘Design and Illustration For Juniors,’ and I taught the design part and my friend William taught the illustration. I did it for three years, and it was hard for me to give it up actually, I just started getting too busy at work. It was literally Friday mornings that I had to teach from 9-12, and it was perfect. I started doing it partly because I needed health insurance, you know, and it was perfect and it didn’t take too much time and I really enjoyed it.
E.D: It is addicting. Do you have any young designers that are coming up that you’re kind of partial to? Newbies?
T.R: Wow, there’s so many – I feel like there’s somebody new every day, you know what I mean? …But honestly it’s hard for me, I run into people who I think are new, and they’re not even that new, you know? They’ve been toying around and finally their names come to the surface.
E.D: Absolutely. Every time someone …gets nominated for a ‘Best New’ Grammy, I’m like ‘But they’ve been in a band for 15 years playing in clubs you’ve never heard of!
T.R: Right. But I think there’s a lot of talent out there, and you know, when the tides shift and tastes change and all of that, it’s a moment for young people to step up. And it’s interesting, you know, that they’re fascinated by the ‘90’s now. (Laughing.) Yeah, I’m like ‘I lived that, and it wasn’t that long ago!’
E.D: It doesn’t seem that long ago.
T.R: It wasn’t that long ago!
E.D: I still have some jeans that I was wearing then.
T.R: I’m sure I still have plenty of things.
E.D: Yeah. I know. I see a lot of boards – concept boards and stuff coming through of the ‘90‘s right now, and I’m like, ‘Really? Uh oh…we’re gonna be in the sunflower hats and all look like Blossom.’ So let’s talk about definitely your love of print, because it’s evident in everything that you do. Have you always loved print? Has that been something from when you were very young?
T.R: You know I think I’ve always loved it, but I think what draws me to it in terms of design over and over again is that it’s an opportunity to literally create something from scratch. You know, you can have any idea that you want, and in these days, the digital age, you can put anything on fabric. And it just seems so amazing – it’s still amazing to me 25 years in – that I can have an idea or a dream of a print that if we can execute it in artwork or a photograph, I can make a garment out of it, I can turn it into fabric and make a garment out of it. And I think that’s amazing. But I think a lot of times, too, the inspiration for the collection will start, you know, with the print, and I’ll build around it.
E.D: Really. So one kind of specific print?
T.R: It will kind of sum up what I’m feeling for the group, you know, if we’re feeling kind of tribal, or really romantic, or even when I’m wanting to do something, you know, really classic, the print becomes the cornerstone, you know? We had a buyer and she always said, ‘The print is the roadmap for the collection, and everything kind of works back to that.’ And it’s true.
E.D: The color palette for your Spring collection right now are my favorite colors in the world. When I saw it – when I was watching all of the videos from fashion week I was like, ‘Ah! Those are all of my favorite colors!’
T.R: Don’t you get so excited for spring?
E.D: So excited
T.R: …Being able to wear color…
E.D: Teal makes me happy when I see it at the end of winter. It really does. I don’t feel like I can pull it off in the winter, and when I see it in the spring, I’m like, ‘The sun is coming!’
T.R: You know, you’re outside…or you’re imagining being outside (I’ll put it that way) – and I think it’s a fantastic season to design for.
E.D: I completely agree. Can we talk a little bit more about your background into this world? So you went to dance school when you were younger, and you went to high school at an arts school?
T.R: I went to public school in Detroit, and actually my high school was called Cass Tech, and it has curriculums. And I was actually in science and arts because I thought I was going to be an architect or something like that. …It was an AP program, but you could take [classes] in fashion…there was a fashion department at my high school.
E.D: In a public high school? That’s amazing.
T.R: Yeah, in the 70’s.
E.D: You would never see that now.
T.R: But my mom worked at my school and she used to be the head of the art department, which was over the fashion department, so I started taking classes in that department and I took model drawing and figure drawing, and then gradually I picked up a couple of fashion classes because I was always sketching outfits, you know, that my mom and I always sewed. And we were always putting together our look, and she would decide what she was going to sew for the season and I would draw it out for her, and we would have our charts over our sewing machines. And then it all sort of started to make sense! And through my high school I was introduced to Parsons [School of Design] – they had, and still do have, summer programs for high school students, and I got a scholarship to Parsons for the summer – the summer before I graduated – and it was amazing and really opened my eyes to what the fashion industry was. Because I thought fashion was a hobby, you know, not something to take so seriously, just something to do with mom and with friends. But when I realized it was a business it became so much more interesting, so I decided to go to Parsons for college.
E.D: So you think taking that in school kind of what guided you in that way?
E.D: Yeah, that’s so sad that they don’t have that in school anymore.
T.R: It is sad. But what has happened, I’ve noticed, is that there are a lot of fashion departments in colleges now, you know, and I think that there’s been an explosion of that and it’s interesting to see that happening, but you want it to stay at a very high level so that the people who are coming through these programs have a real opportunity to get into the industry. But I think that because of all of the publicity about fashion and Project Runway and shows like this that there’s a misconception about what the industry really is. It’s important for people to understand that it’s not really all that glamorous. There are a lot of glamorous moments, but the day to day work of it is work.
E.D: And it’s hard work!
T.R: And you have to have a passion for it – it can’t be a fleeting interest – it has to be something that you really love and is in your gut – to hang in there. I mean, you work crazy hours – I’ve always worked crazy hours and that hasn’t really changed. You know, I think sometimes when we have interns coming in you kind of look at them like ‘Ok, this is the lay of the land – it’s good that you’re interning so that you have an opportunity to see what it’s really like and decide if it’s really for you.
E.D: You know half of the Project Runway winners have been from here.
E.D: Uh huh.
T.R: I didn’t know that.
E.D: Yup. We’re the little indie fashion capitol!
T.R: Go Portland!
E.D: Yeah! Um, interesting segue, but I was interested in talking about since you began doing this when you were, what a teenager? I’ve read your background and about your internships and getting started – when was the time that you really felt like this might work out for you? I feel like I see young designers and they’ve been struggling for so long and they never if they’re going to shut their doors tomorrow. Do you remember feeling like that?
T.R: Well this is the second time I’ve been in business. I mean I’ve worked for others obviously, but when I had my business the first time…I guess you never felt 100% secure because people were still going out of business every day, but the second time around I had a really good business partner, and he minds the ship, you know, and it’s important to have somebody taking care of all of the back end. I mean I think design in itself is more than a full time job and I think if you’re trying to run all of the business of your company – the finance and all of that – it’s almost impossible.
E.D: That’s the number one reason I see young designers who fail.
T.R: You need support, you need a team, you need people to bounce ideas off of. I don’t like working alone. I mean when I started my business the first time I was by myself – I had no choice. And you know I was doing everything myself and it was like…it was shattering, you know what I mean? Because when things would go wrong it would be like the end of the world. Or when things would go well, you didn’t have anyone there and you didn’t enjoy it as much and you were always just moving on to the next thing and concerned with the next thing. So I think starting the second time around I was a lot more confident, I had a lot more support…