Tracy Reese On The Future of Retail

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.