Tracy Reese ranks as one of the fashion industry's most successful African-American women whose realm is not relegated to the runway. In a business where few designer labels seem to make it past their fifth anniversary, Reese has two clothing lines, TR and Plenty, which have been sold at Nordstrom, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale's, and other top retailers since the mid-1990s. Her company's sales topped $12 million in 2003, and it launched a Plenty-label home line that same year and a footwear collection the following. Reese has an unerring eye for what women will buy. "I don't want to design a skirt just because a skirt is needed to go with a particular jacket," she told Joy Duckett Cain in Essence. "The skirt itself has to make you want to buy it."
Reese was born in Detroit, Michigan, on February 12, 1964. Her mother, Pat, was a modern dance teacher and enrolled Reese and her two sisters in weekend enrichment classes at the city's art museum. The women in the family also liked to sew and would sometimes hold contests in which they raced to finish an outfit first. The loser had to pay for fabric, and it was here that Reese's future career direction first emerged. "Although I generally won," she joked in an interview with another Essence writer, Deborah Gregory, "I still spent every dime I had buying fabric."
Spent Summer in
Reese attended Cass Technical High School, the elite public high school in the Detroit system. Students there focused on either the arts or academics and, as Reese recalled in another profile in Essence, "I actually thought I'd be an architect or an interior designer," she told Vanessa Bush. Cass Tech, she continued, "had a fashion-design department, and I took a couple of classes, but I didn't take it as my concentration because I thought it was kind of flaky." But Reese was encouraged by a teacher to apply for a scholarship to a summer program for high-schoolers at New York City's Parsons School of Design, one of the top U.S. colleges for future fashion-design professionals. She won a slot and enjoyed her summer experience, as well as New York City. After graduating from Cass Tech, she entered Parsons full-time.
Reese earned her design degree in 1984 and found a terrific job right away, as an apprentice to the French designer Martine Sitbon in New York City. She was assigned to Sitbon's Arlequin line, and Sitbon encouraged her talents and even allowed her to sketch designs, a plum assignment for a novice. After two years on the job, Reese decided to strike out on her own, and her father Claud provided some of the start-up funds to launch her own line—a risky venture even for an experienced fashion pro. She produced two collections, both of which were well liked by store buyers, and the line was sold in stores such as Barneys New York, Bergdorf Goodman, and Ann Taylor. Reese was just 23 years old at the time. "I had the energy and the drive to run the company," she recalled in an interview with Julee Greenberg for WWD. "I thought I knew everything, but I learned quickly that I really didn't and knew I had to learn more about business." She could not maintain enough revenue to meet her production costs, and was forced to close her business in 1989.
A heartbroken Reese was able to land a job with Perry Ellis Portfolio thanks to Marc Jacobs, her former schoolmate at Parsons. At the time, Jacobs was the vice president of design for the Perry Ellis women's line, and working at a thriving design firm—one which also had its share of financial ups and downs—was instrumental in teaching Reese the business basics she needed to learn. She also teamed with sportswear designer Gordon Henderson, an African American who had worked for Calvin Klein before launching his own line in the mid-1980s. Henderson, Reese has said, was an important mentor who shared much of his own experience with her about running a successful start-up line.
Ready to Try Again
In the early 1990s, Reese won a head-designer job with new label called Magaschoni. It was owned by Magtague, a Hong Kong manufacturer that produced clothes for Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, and other well-known names. She was tapped to design Magaschoni's bridge, or mid-priced line, and it was not that exciting of a job, she later confessed in the Essence interview with Gregory. "It was definitely not my style, but I knew this was the kind of company that could provide me with major backing of my own label," she said, and once sales hit a respectable $4 million-mark for 1991, Magtague executives gave Reese her own label, "Tracy Reese for Magaschoni." She spent the next few years designing her collections, and even had a showroom in a building on Seventh Avenue, the center of New York's Garment District. The line had terrific sales at retailers like Saks Fifth Avenue, but Reese was still determined to run her own business again someday.
She stepped closer to that goal in 1995, when she struck a deal with mass retailer The Limited for her own line. That gave her some of the start-up funds for her new label, Tracy Reese Meridian, a contemporary sportswear line that was launched in the spring of 1996. She had learned much from her previous experience a decade before, but still struggled to meet production costs, and finally her lawyer introduced her to an accountant with ties to textile manufacturers in his native India. Om Batheja invested funds in Meridian, which eventually became just "Tracy Reese." They then launched a more informal, free-spirited line aimed at younger customers called Plenty. By 2002 Reese had opened a corporate showroom, and sales at her company had more than doubled over the previous year to $12 million. Her collections, which grew to include resort and swimwear lines, were shown during New York Fashion Week, the series of events at Bryant Park tents onto which the world's fashion journalists and store buyers descend to preview the next season's looks and place store orders. Reese's designs collections earned good reviews, and have been featured on the pages of Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and Lucky.
In late 2004, Reese's company launched Plenty Home, a line of bedding, curtains, and throws that used many of the same lushly patterned Indian textiles from the original Plenty line. It seemed a natural step, she explained to WWD's Greenberg. "When I'm designing the line," said Reese, "I always think about how I would love to have sheets in these fabrics, curtains in these fabrics." Shoes and accessories came next, both of which were launched in the fall of 2005.
At a Glance …
Born on February 12, 1964, in Detroit, MI; daughter of Claud (a manager) and Pat (a dance teacher) Reese. Education: Parsons School of Design, BA, 1984.
Martine Sitbon, New York, design assistant, 1984-87; started own company, 1987-89; Perry Ellis, designer, 1990; Gordon Henderson, freelance designer, 1990; Magaschoni, design director, 1990-95; designed exclusive line for The Limited, New York, 1995; Tracy Reese Meridian (became TR, Plenty, and Plenty Home), founder and designer, 1996–.
Office—Tracy Reese, 275 W 39th St., Fl. 10, New York, NY 10018-3199. Web—www.tracyreese.com.
Reese lives in the Murray Hill area of Manhattan, and is one of a handful of African-American women designers to run their own label. When asked if she had ever encountered racism in the industry, she did tell Essence writer Teri Agins that once she had a booth at fabric trade show in Paris, and was having a hard time with the event-management people. An American colleague saw what was happening, and stepped in to help. "I don't know the exact reason they initially ignored me," Reese told Agins. "It could have been racism or maybe it was just the French way. You can spend your whole day wondering about racism, but in most cases I find it is just better to ignore it—rise above racism."
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Born: 12 February 1964, in Detroit, Michigan. Education: Cass Technical High School; Parsons School of Design, graduated 1984. Career: Design assistant, Martine Sitbon, New York, 1984-87; started own company, 1987-89; designer for Perry Ellis, 1990; freelance designer for Gordon Henderson, 1990; design director, Magaschoni, 1990-95; designed exclusive line for The Limited, New York, 1995; started own company, Tracy Reese Meridian, 1995.
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Fashion brief, in Essence, September 2000.***
Tracy Reese's designs have been inspired by a wide variety of sources: a piece of music, a painting, a book, a vacation spot, or a particular city. Reese is known for combining unusual textures and colors, often with a touch of vintage. She claims that she designs for "a smart shopper," but actually designs for shoppers who want no-nonsense sportswear. "My clothes are not basics, and they're not really classics either, but they are, hopefully, essentials." Reese has further stated that she would never design anything she would not wear herself.
Reese hails from Detroit, where as a youngster her mother enrolled her in art classes on the weekends so she wouldn't be bored. Reese's mother, a modern dance teacher, would challenge Tracy by staging sewing contests to see who could finish an outfit first—the loser had to pay for the fabric. Reese attended the well-known Cass Technical High School, where she took her first fashion design class. While she was in high school, she was encouraged to apply for a scholarship to a summer program at the Parsons School of Design. After receiving the scholarship and participating in the program at Parsons, she realized clothing design was the career choice for her, "That's when I knew I wanted to be involved in every aspect of this business, not just stuck in some back room sketching and draping for days." Reese later earned her B.A. from Parsons, graduating in 1984.
After Parsons, Reese was an apprentice to French designer Martine Sitbon for the Arlequin line of clothing. While working at Arlequin, Reese became more than an apprentice, as Sitbon allowd her to sketch designs. With encouragement from friends and family, and financial backing from Reese's father, Claud, she started her own company in 1987. She designed and manufactured a full line of clothing shipped in the autumn of that year, but after the release of her fall 1988 line, the company folded. Her designs were well received and sold at boutiques and specialty stores, as well as upscale stores such as Barneys New York, Bergdorf Goodman, and Ann Taylor. Although Reese was successful as a designer, she did not have enough capital to keep up with the demand, and like many other designers in the late 1980s, her company failed.
Reese moved on to design for the Perry Ellis Portfolio line with Marc Jacobs. She also worked as a consultant with the sportswear designer Gordon Henderson, from whom she learned several key elements about how to succeed in the fashion design business. After about a year, Reese sought a job designing for Magaschoni, the company owned by Magdalena Lee. At first, Reese continued to work on the company's existing line of clothing, which was "not my style," but Magaschoni was a new company with an open mind and growth potential, and after two years, Reese was designing her own label. Lee, who had worked with several prominent designers, said of Reese: "What really impressed me so about Tracy is she knows how to make a better garment." One of Reese's friends, Ellen Greenberg (president of Magaschoni), who offered moral support in Reese's early career, called her line "the jewel in the crown."
Reese typically sketches her design ideas late at night while at home listening to music, and has admitted she cannot "put paper to pencil unless I'm listening to music." She is very impressionable and gets her design ideas from a variety of sources, including fashion designs from previous eras, films, different cities. A recent trip to New Orleans was incorporated and reflected in a subsequent collection. Her eclectic taste in music and her passionate desire to experience new things and visit new places continues to pervade her designs.
After several successful years designing for Magaschoni, Reese left the company to work on her own. She designed an exclusive line of clothing for The Limited in 1995, which funded her first contemporary sportswear label, Tracy Reese Meridian. The Meridian line debuted in the spring of 1996 and the following year she established a second sportswear line, Plenty, inspired by a trip to India. Her collections have been shown at Saks, Nordstrom, Fred, Segal-Ron Herman, and Anthropologie.
—Christine Miner Minderovic