Tracy Reese On The Future of Retail
January 20, 2022
Tracy Reese is an American designer whose signature rich, daring colors and unique prints are crafted into joyful, feminine clothing for modern women. Tracy Reese’s design philosophy is rooted in a commitment to bringing out the beauty in women of all shapes, sizes and colors.

She continues to evolve and has pivoted her business strategy to a more sustainable, slow-fashion model. Tracy Reese serves on the Board of Directors of the Council of Fashion Designers, a member since 1990, as well as on the boards of NEST Artisan Guild, College for Creative Studies Fashion Accessories Design Program, and ISAIC, where she served as president. Tracy recently moved her design studio to her hometown, Detroit, plugging into the resurgence happening there while actively participating in plans to make Detroit a modern, sustainable garment production hub. In the following discussion, she offers advice to both designers and consumers on how to make the future of retail planet-friendly.

How has growing up in Detroit shaped your sense of fashion?

I feel like fashion has always been important to Detroiters. It's funny. I've always loved dressing up. My mom loved dressing up. My grandmother loved dressing up. I think it's a Detroit thing. We dress to go to the theater, we dress to go to a concert, we dress up to go to church. In New York you can run into a church in your sweatpants and nobody looks at you funny, but you don't do that here. Here, you still dress respectfully for the occasion. So I think Detroiters naturally love fashion. And that's how I got the bug.

You came to New York to pursue a career in fashion, what was that early start like for you?

I was lucky I went to Parsons and did well. I had a full scholarship all the way through. A month before I graduated, a friend who graduated the year before me was leaving her job, remembered my work, and called me to be her replacement. She got me an interview for a contemporary company called Harlequin, which no longer exists. But the designer was Martine Sitbon, who is French and is just a genius. Sitbon was in town for the interview, we hit it off and I got the job. I was super fortunate to have a job before I graduated, and it was such a great first role for me.

What was the difference between launching your company the first time vs this time?

Having an income. The second time around I consulted with other brands while I was launching, so I had money. That income helped pay for my sample yardage and my rent. My dad was also still helping me, bless his heart, because he knew I wanted to try again.

Maturity was the other huge part. I had experience and was more familiar with everything. The second time around I decided to pace myself by staying in one category, literally just dresses. I couldn't afford a pattern maker so I had to make my own patterns. I couldn't make complex patterns so I only made dresses. That was a really smart decision at the time because dresses were exploding. Experience was a huge part of it being able to make that call.

Lastly, name recognition. My name had been on the label at my previous company so that helped a lot. My name was better known so people were willing to take a chance on the brand because I had a reputation.

The structure and dynamics of the relationship between independent designers and retail buyers means it can actually be very hard for those designers to make the numbers work. What would you like to see change?

Wow. There's just so much, and it all stems from overproducing merchandise. We're making too much product, and we're shipping too often. A lot of that started at the behest of department stores, they wanted newness every 30 days to bring customers back over and over again. But it's challenging to sustain that with tons of vendors. Plus the merchandise doesn't get to stay on the floor at full price for the whole season; thus customers are trained to wait for the sale.

Another symptom of the overabundance of merchandise is fast fashion. It is killing the industry. People don't order things in advance anymore because they know they can get something right away, wear it for the occasion, and then be done with it. People don't value clothing the way that they used to. The idea of throwing away clothing is blasphemous to me, but Americans throw away 70% of our clothing. In an industry built on creativity, we need to spend more time looking for creative solutions to these overarching issues.

As a black designer, what were some of your experiences navigating the fashion world?

Racism in fashion, just like other industries is a very systemic thing. Our industry is actually built on the idea of exclusion and elitism. That keeps a lot of people out and it keeps a lot of the stakeholders and power brokers protected and in place.

Being a black woman, it's hard to put your finger on exactly why something didn't happen for you, because it's often somewhat cloaked. You wonder if it was just because you weren't good enough, or you weren't talented enough and it plays on your self-confidence to a certain degree.

However, I wasn’t raised to believe that I couldn't overcome obstacles. I was raised to figure out a way to make it happen regardless, to just keep going. I was very focused and didn't want to dwell on any perceived - or real insults. I was focused on building my brand and my business. Sure. They were there. We've all experienced negative situations where we've been passed over and made to feel like we should be grateful just to be in the room. Whatever. That's their problem. It's not my problem. I don't carry that baggage.

I was not raised to believe that I couldn't overcome obstacles. I was raised to figure out a way to make it happen regardless, to just keep going.

For creative, investors bring support but also a loss of autonomy. What’s your advice to young designers on whether or not to bring in outside financing?

First of all, we all have to understand that an investor is just that, they invest funds and expect a return. I think a lot of people have this view that an investor is going to come in and you know, make everything right but at the end of the day, they want to make money. And if that means they take your intellectual property, or saddle your company with debt and take their payments out, or perhaps don't have the same vision or mission for what the brand can be, there are a lot of scenarios.

My advice would be to take your time. Partnering with an investor is like getting married, you have to go into it with your eyes wide open. It's not an easy relationship and there has to be trust on both sides. I think it's wise to hold off until you find a good fit and in the meantime to be conservative, in terms of expenditures. Find creative ways to go forward and protect your own bottom line.

What does the switch to being a sustainably focused designer look like? And can you describe responsible design?

It's a total 180. It's a completely different design process from what I've done for 30 plus years. I had to really re-train myself. That was challenging, but also exciting. It’s a necessity to keep learning. The number one switch has been how I select fabrics. All fabrics aren't healthy for the planet, for all kinds of reasons. So I had to narrow my focus in terms of textiles. Now I only work with textiles that I know cause less harm to the planet in their production.

Looking at supply chain in general, was also a big change. What most people don't realize and what was a revelation to me, is that 80% of all clothing is made by women, and mostly women of color. So when we are trying to find the least expensive labor in the world to produce products - because people expect cheaper and cheaper prices for everything - I'm seeing what that really means. We're keeping people below the poverty line, we're making it impossible for them to feed their families. In so many ways we are buying into a system of modern day slavery.

As consumers, we have to check our habits. We can afford to do better, to be more thoughtful in our purchasing, and to use our power as consumers to demand that brands are more responsible in their processes and more caring for all the people in the supply chain. Responsible design is trying to address all of that.

Additionally, designers must offer products when people actually need them instead of months in advance. Let it stay full price for as long as possible. Don't overproduce, to avoid being left with extra merchandise.

As consumers, we have to check our habits. We can afford to do better, to be more thoughtful in our purchasing, and to use our power as consumers to demand that brands are more responsible in their processes and more caring for all the people in the supply chain.

Where do you see the future of retail? How do you see retail rebounding?

I think DTC is going to be even more important. As brands, we have to protect ourselves. We can do that by building direct relationships with our customers and letting them into our world. No one can tell the story of our products better than we can. We have to take on that ownership.

This period has been devastating for small retailers. What’s their role in this new paradigm?

I'm a shopper. I love an amazing retail experience, going into a store that is beautifully curated where you can tell from being there that whoever is buying, or whoever owns the store is a real merchant, and they care about about product, and they care about customer service, and they care about creating an incredible experience. I love that I will buy something just because I love the store and I love what it stands for. I think there are a lot of people that feel that way. I hope and pray that these great stores survive and that we as customers support them. They bring a different perspective and a unique point of view where you can celebrate your own personal style and not have to look like everybody else.



/*video overlay play button*/