Once dominated by fair skin, fashion is an industry that is growing into a multicultural world embracing all nationalities, (although it may seem like a slow embrace). African American designers are among those moving toward the front of the fashion equality line.
These designers have proven they have what it takes to rise against the odds, and stand firm in a world driven by glamor, luxury, beauty and crossover appeal to the contemporary market.
Additionally, African American designers are no longer being labeled “urban” as a result of their race but are becoming increasingly recognized for the quality of their work.
Tracey Reese, Plenty by Tracey Reese and Frock.
A graduate of Parsons School of Design in Manhattan, Detroit native Tracey Reese has created one of the best known contemporary feminine chic women’s wear lines. Combining classic cuts with floral and girly patterns, this brand has reigned supreme since its introduction.
In the spring of 1998, Reese introduced the world to her dream-turned-reality, an ultra feminine brand combined with vibrant colors and cuts designed for women. Now a name synonymous with style and grace, Tracey Reese has captured the hearts and closets of fashion icons, from the likes of Sanaa Lathan and Jennifer Lopez all the way to the ultimate fashionista of our day–Michelle Obama.
Reese recalls that in her early 20s, the business was not always glamorous, because she would rent old vans and drive from to store to store making sure her product was delivered. She learned the ins and outs of how to obtain and maintain distribution by apprenticing and interning with some of the major designers.
However, in 2007 the fruits of her labor got her inducted as a board member to the Council of Fashion Designers Association, and this honor gave her more name and brand recognition.
Additionally, she opened her flagship boutique, in Manhattan, New York, which gave the designer a solid foundation from which to operate.
But all of this was just a portion of what set her apart. It is also Reese’s eye for detail and extensive knowledge of color and fabric that allows her line to be consistent and timeless season after season. The girly silhouettes, bright colors and intricate patterns are the foundation and have grown to be exactly what her customers want.
Over the years, in addition to her signature collection, Reese also developed Plenty by Tracey Reese and Frock, all of which have expanded into mulitifaceted collections that include footwear, items for the home, and even candles. This has widened her mass-market appeal and pegged her as a designer prepared to stay in the fray.
“Many of my customers are surprised that I am African American,” Reese commented, and when asked if she still gets labeled as an urban brand she responded, “Yes, but it’s OK. At the end of the day, my customer is all types of women. At the end of the day, I am a designer who is Black, (but) I want to reach all types of women.” One news source described Reese as a woman who designs for many different types of women with her average customer being a working woman in her 30s.
They are attracted by Reese’s love for detail, bohemian patterns and vibrant colors. Her desire to remain affordable and her deliberate design approach of staying true to her specific point of view are other aspects that make this Motor City native unique.
This has helped her develop a line that is now viewed as not just an urban brand, but an American brand. And while many times African American designers get categorized based solely on the color of their skin, Reese, has successfully transcended that pigeonhole to break into the contemporary market, and she is successfully owning that space.
As a little girl, Alexis Phifer always wanted to make something to wear. When it came time to get a formal education, she decided “there is nothing better than fashion,” and headed to design school at the Fashion Institute of Merchandise and Design in Los Angeles.
Years later her girly brand Ghita was born. Ghita, a Middle-Eastern name that means “special jewel,” began as a dress line and has now come full circle as a lifestyle brand.
Phifer moved in that direction because she knew that both the line and her customers needed separates. Consequently, she revamped the line and created a ready-to-wear collection. Drawing inspiration from nature and all the beauty she sees around her, Phifer created Ghita as a line comprised of feminine touches, soft gentle fabrics, shapes and sizes for all women.
“I want to make something for every woman; you have to be able to tap into all women because women are always going to want to shop and you are going to definitely want to make this important.”
Phifer says, “I have been very fortunate and blessed that I am able to do something that I love. I am still on a journey, but I have an amazing team and that is one of the most important parts of being successful, having an amazing team.”
Ghita, which can be found in Kitson, one of L.A.’s most popular boutiques, has become a go-to brand for every woman.
Phifer, ultimately intends to continue designing the women’s collection and is interested opening her distribution to online sales, making it easier for her customers to obtain her product. “It is all a process; we learn everything from experience but it is definitely a process,” she believes.
From the moment she graduated college at Clark Atlanta University, Crystal Streets hit the ground running. For two years, she worked as an assistant for a number of noted stylists. This included Essence magazine and then working her way up the ranks to wardrobe styling (dressing) for Jay-Z, Jermaine Dupree, Usher and Mariah Carey.
“I had my hands in the business for a long time before I started to brand myself,” said Streets, a 10-year veteran stylist who has worked with many of her favorite celebrities. “As I began to transition my career to a wardrobe/stlye expert, I wanted to create something that was mine; develop a client that wasn’t going anywhere. Something that no one could take from me.
“After becoming a mom, I finally had the time to settle down and be creative.”
Streets took this time to design LyraLoveStar, which is a combination of her daughter’s name and an ancient Greek star constellation. “I have been obsessed with moons and stars since forever, and I wanted to create something that was dreamy and affordable. That was my inspiration for the line. It was my daughter, it was my love for moons and stars. A lot of stylists or designers come out with lines and they are very avant-garde (but) nobody gets them; (they’re) way far left. I didn’t want to do that. With the recession happening, I wanted people to be able to buy it, and I didn’t want to break the bank. I wanted to do something that was affordable and wearable.”
LyraLoveStar consist of bracelets, rings and necklaces many of which have inspirational quotes inscribed on them.
In order to drive awareness of her brand, Streets premiered on the Oxygen reality show “House of Glam,” which followed the lives of several celebrity stylists and hair stylists. “It was a great experience . . . I feel like it really got me in the door; the show really gave light to what I had been doing all this time,” explains Streets, who admits she probably would not go the reality television route again.
LyraLoveStar was motivated by Streets’ own inspiration. “I love accessories. I love designing. I feel that (jewelry) is the icing on the cake, it can make or break a look,” she explains.
After the “House of Glam,” the line debuted at fashion week in New York City in 2010 under tents, which is every designer’s dream.
Streets believes one of the most important factors in developing a brand is consistency. “Who you are, what sets you apart from other jewelry designers, who is your customer–you have to know these things.”
While there are ups and downs in every dream in progress, the designer does admit that the most challenging part of becoming a designer is funding. LyraLoveStar is a brand that is independently funded by Streets to the tune of about $100,000. She admits often waking up thinking, “Did I really just spend my daughter’s college fund?” But it is her faith in God and in her dream that let her know she is going to make it.
Streets, who currently sells at Foley & Corinna, plans to show her newest collection this fall at New York’s fashion week.
From vision to reality these designers started with a dream and the faith of a mustard seed and have transported their dream from existing strictly in their imaginations to sitting on the shelves and taking floor space in several department stores, boutiques and in the closets of some of today’s hottest celebrities, socialites and even the first lady. They have proven that regardless of ethnicity, achieving the dream is possible, if the focus is consistently on producing a product that keeps the needs, wants and desires of the customer in mind.
You must also understand where you want to position your brand, and work to build the connections that will take you there.