On the Fashion Front: These designers are making waves

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Today’s Black fashion designers may not have as much visibility as 1970s and 1980s visionaries Stephen Burrows, Patrick Kelly, Byron Lars, Willie Smith and Gordon Henderson, but a handful of them are making advances with spring 2008 collections and are poised to reap the same multimillions in revenue as their mainstream counterparts.

Financial muscle
Tracey Reese is among them. For the past several years, Reese has ranked as one of the industry’s most successful African-American women. She has two women’s lines, Tracey Reese and Plenty, which have been sold at Nordstrom, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale’s and other top retailers since the mid-1990s. Her sales topped $12 million in 2003 and that very year she launched a home design and accessories collection. In 2006, in a triumphant move, she opened her first flagship store in Manhattan.

Asked once if she had ever encountered racism in the industry, Reese recounted an experience in Paris, when she had taken a booth at a fabric trade show. She was having a hard time with the event managers, she recalled. “I don’t know the exact reason they initially ignored me,” Reese told the writer. “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.”

Reese is the only Black designer with the financial muscle to consistently present collections at New York Fashion Week, a presentation that easily can cost a designer more than $40,000. Her spring 2008 Tracy Reese collection did not disappoint, exuding the feminine playfulness for which she is known. Full, striped skirts, glossy dresses and purple bathing suits accessorized with fringed umbrellas prevailed alongside red cropped jackets worn with high-waisted, wide-leg pants and knee-length cocktail skirts.

Visionary talent
Women’s ready-to-wear designer Malcolm Harris seems to be the new visionary talent that major financial backers are clamoring for and who can bring in the type of net profit and take-home pay associated with mainstream designers like Ralph Lauren. Lauren ranked number one on Women’s Wear Daily’s “Boys’ Club” list of top vendor executives based on the value of their annual compensation package. In 2006, Lauren’s base salary was a reported $1 million; stocks and options, $8.2 million; “other” income, $16.6 million.

With a spring/summer 2008 collection themed One Dress—All Women—One World, Harris blends relatable thought with great style by creating one dress in variations of levels, lengths and silhouettes that would look beautiful on every woman. The theme and the dress reflect the mood of women living and working in the real world, he says. “I got the idea after Diane von Furstenberg saw a girl at an event wearing a dress I had made. She called the girl over and asked, ‘Who made this dress?’ And the girl said, ‘[Harris] did.’ So she called me over and said, ‘This is your [equivalent of my] wrap dress,’” Harris said. Furstenberg’s wrap dress was an important influence on women’s fashion in the early ’70s.

Harris understands that his client base—women aged 25 to 45—are lovers of fashion, art, music, politics and humanitarian efforts, and they “don’t want to fuss over dressing any more.” He notes, “A zipper is annoying at this moment. You just want to slip into something and head out the door.” His ready-to-wear collection label, Mal Sirrah, consistently attracts the attention of celebrities and the glitterati.

Harris started his career in fashion as an apprentice at various Paris houses,  including Paco Rabanne, Yves Saint Laurent and Jean Paul Gaultier. He first took the industry by storm more than a decade ago with a start-up collection backed by Madonna, the singer. His spring 2007 women’s collection was backed by costume designer Patricia Field and debuted at Chez Patricia Field in New York to the elation of discerning fashionistas.

Technology has changed his approach to his work, he says. “A key difference is being able to reach my customer base by way of different networks on the Internet, with their being able to give me direct feedback that I would normally have to gather by running around to huge trade shows. I can now get from his office,” says Harris.

He has both a MySpace page and a blog, Cut, Sew and Blog. “If I am toying with a silhouette, I do a focus group online. I send it out to my trusted family on Myspace, or a network called a Small World and I ask them, ‘Is this something that you as a woman would wear?’ Sometimes, women write back immediately, saying “Not in a million years,” he concedes.  

The next stop for Harris is Dubai, to show his spring 2008 collection. On the homefront, building bigger partnerships are a priority. He anticipates finalizing a deal with a major brand that when launched, he predicts, not only will ring in a lot of belles, but also “will herald the future as to what we can do as designers, especially as we build huge brands.”

Best-kept secret
When it comes to exquisite American ready-to-wear and couture, B. Michael is heralded as the industry’s best-kept secret. His client list is a who’s who among artists, elite socialites and red carpet celebrities. His coveted designs have landed him on the pages of Vogue, WWD, Town & Country and The New York Times.

Michael unveiled his spring 2008
B. Michael Homme collection alongside his expanded women’s collection. He is inspired by a vast color palette and renders alluring silhouettes ranging from sophisticated daywear to stunning eveningwear. “I am excited about my new men’s collection,” he says, explaining that it will take the B. Michael label, which is currently sold at Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus, in a new direction. The company also is launching strategic retail partnerships, the first of which is with Saks Jendals and just opened in the Washington, D.C., area.

There are the normal challenges of getting the word out to the qualified market and customer, he admits. While he is sure that the challenges he faces as a Black designer differ from those of his white counterparts, he declines to focus on that. “It becomes another issue,” he says.

Behind the scenes
Most people are familiar with names like Chanel, Giorgio Armani, Donna Karan and Anne Klein as some of the world’s leading designers. Gifted Black designers Patrick Robinson and Edward Wilkerson have chosen to preserve senior positions at prominent fashion houses like these in order to hasten their success in the industry. GAP Inc. hired Robinson this year as executive vice president of design for Gap Adult and Gap Body, making him the overseer of design for Gap’s apparel, accessories and intimates lines in North America.

Robinson came to Gap from Paco Rabanne in Paris, where he had been artistic director since 2005. He is a graduate of the Parsons School of Design and has been a member of the Council of Fashion Designers of America since 1994. Prior to his tenure at Paco Rabanne, Robinson held senior design and leadership roles at Perry Ellis and Anne Klein and was the design director at Le Collezioni White Label by Giorgio Armani. Most recently, he designed a limited-edition collection for Target’s GO International initiative.

Wilkerson has been the design director for the women’s wear company Lafayette 148 New York since 1998.  Prior to that he held design positions at Anne Klein & Co., Calvin Klein and Donna Karan. He, too, is a graduate of Parson’s School of Design and a member of the Council of Fashion Designers of America.

In the global arena
Black designers in the global arena are beginning to make themselves more visible. One of the newest additions to London’s fashion industry calendar, for example, is an annual event called Kulture 2 Couture (K2C), aimed at helping African and Caribbean designers to position their products, gain exposure and access new markets. Since it inception in 2005, K2C has secured the support of supermodel Alex Wek as its first ambassador, established a partnership with Parsons School of Design, increased participation by 65 percent, and established it’s home at the prestigious Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Marlene Worrell, K2C’s project officer, notes, “The annual event attracted 150 to 200 designers and the 3,000 tickets for last year’s fashion show sold out in a record two weeks.”