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Transcript: Designers Tracy Reese and J. Alexander Martin talk about their journeys as Black designers in the fashion world.

The full episode transcript for Celebrating Black Fashion.


Into America

Celebrating Black Fashion

Trymaine Lee: New York Fashion Week has come to a close with the highly anticipated return of the Met Gala earlier this week. The theme was In America: The Lexicon of Fashion. But you had to look hard to find designs by creators that truly reflect the diversity of American identity.

Fashion, like music and art, reflects who we are and where we are in a broader social and cultural context. Black designers especially have historically threaded these lines boldly, sometimes behind the scenes, often right in America's face in the mainstream and on the streets.

Their cultural influences have shaped broader American fashion culture, the same way that jazz and hip hop have shaped and recreated American music. They've taken swatches of our experiences, the pretty pieces and the grimy ones, and patched together a vibrant, complicated quilt that just keeps growing.

But it hasn't been easy. These Black fashion designers have had to wrestle with some pretty big ideas around race and access and pedigree. I'm Trymaine Lee and this is Into America. Today, a conversation with two fashion icons about their journeys and struggles as Black designers who've conquered and disrupted the world of fashion: high end designer Tracy Reese and street wear designer J. Alexander Martin, one of the co-founders of FUBU.

J. Alexander Martin: It came up by saying, "We need something for us, by us."

Lee: Tracy Reese is one of the biggest designers of her generation. She's designed for top brands, made her own lines, and dressed people like Tracee Ellis Ross, Oprah, and Beyoncé. Her love of clothes started young, growing up in Detroit in the '60s and '70s. Nobody wore Gators like people from Detroit. The green (LAUGH) and the yellow and the red. When I was coming up in the ni--

Tracy Reese: Stacy Adams. (LAUGH) Yeah. City Slicker's. They had it all, the suits to match. So, you know, (LAUGH) we used to love watching people you know, with their, like, four, five, six-button suits and, you know, brightly colored alligator shoes. It's pretty amazing. (LAUGH) We Detroiters, we love to dress.

We love to show out. We love to, you know, dress for events. And growing up, you know, we dressed for church. And my mom made a point of not buying us church clothes. We wore our good school clothes to church because she was annoyed that people had specific church clothes and (LAUGH) they were buyin' extra stuff to look good at church.

And so we were clean and wearing our best school clothes, but we dressed. You know, but I also grew up in a time where it was important, especially for people of color, to present themselves in a really cleaned up and appropriate manner, you know, when you're out there in the white world. My mom, she would tell us, "You want to make sure that you receive the welcome that you deserve."

Lee: When Tracy was young, her mother taught her how to sew.

Reese: We made clothes. We, you know, made looks to go to Ebony Fashion Fair. You name it.

Archival Recording: All that glitters is gold in this sleek disco dress with a cool, open back.

Lee: The Ebony Fashion Fair was started in 1958 by the publishers of Ebony and Jet magazines. It was a traveling fashion show, designed to bring big fashion names to the Black middle class. The runways featured Black models, Black designers. And the shows raised money for Black nonprofits. The Ebony Fashion Fair ran until 2009. And it was a place where we could see our creativity--

Archival Recording: (UNINTEL) glamor--

Lee: --and beauty--

Archival Recording: --with color--

Lee: --on the catwalk.

Archival Recording: --in special effect. And welcome back, the uneven hemline and the fabulous fan. Stalk your prey in this leopard jumpsuit, perfect for lounging and purring.

Reese: When the Ebony Fashion Fair show would come to town, you know, you absolutely had to be there. And I think I went to my first show maybe when I was about 11 or 12. I'd made my whole outfit. My mom had made something special for the occasion. I think she, like, had sewed a Yves Saint-Laurent jacket and skirt.

And then she had harvested, like, a fur collar from a coat and threw that around (LAUGH) her neck. And she had a little, tiny pillbox hat with the net over her face. The eyebrows were very thin. The lipstick was very glossy, and some snakeskin heels.

I mean, she used to put it together. And it was a ritual to go to that show, which was such a crowd-pleasing event. And at intermission, you would sashay in front of the theater. It's the Fisher Theatre here in Detroit, and you would talk back and forth, showing your looks. And that was a big deal. It was definitely a big fashion moment here in Detroit.

Lee: Do you remember what you made? So your mother was all decked out looking glamorous, and you said you made your outfit too. Do you remember what you made?

Reese: I think I made a navy blue suit, cardigan jacket and pleated pants. And I wore that with a fuchsia, tie-neck blouse. And I had some sensible, navy blue, Pappagallo flats. (LAUGH) And probably--

Lee: Wow.

Reese: --a headband. You know, it was actually the dawn of the preppy era. So this was, you know, (LAUGH) the look I wanted to have at the time. (LAUGH)

Lee: At that point, did you realize that, like, "This is what I wanna do," at that point? Obviously, you--

Reese: Nope.

Lee: --grew into it. But no?

Reese: Nope. Thought it was a hobby. Thought it was a hobby. By the time I got to high school, I was, like, "Oh, and I can, you know, draw some of these outfits me and Mom are making." And I loved it. And one of my instructors, she was, like, "You know, you have a flair for this and perhaps you should consider going to Parsons School of Design in New York because I think you could have a career in fashion."

Lee: So Tracy applied to Parsons and got accepted. She moved to New York in the early '80s. As classes started, she got a taste of what the world of fashion looked like.

Reese: There were three Black women, which was probably a first, in that there were three out of 43.

Lee: And three--

Reese: So--

Lee: --was a big deal? Three was, like--

Reese: That was huge.

Lee: --breaking ground? Like--

Reese: Massive. (LAUGH) Massive. But they also did not like our class. There were only, like, 12 guys. And there were, like, 31 females. And the industry is very much biased against women designers. That's a whole other trip and conversation, since 75% of consumers are women.

But if you really look at fashion history and you call out all the names that you know now and the heads of big brands, it's still very much biased against female designers. But, you know, I was raised not to dwell on what I don't have, you know, and to be thankful for what I do. And there was definitely a acknowledgment of my talent and my work.

Lee: After graduating from Parsons in 1984, Tracy followed a pretty traditional path for an emerging, talented designer. She apprenticed for influential French designer Martine Sitbon, tried to start her own line, and eventually became the head of women's wear at Perry Ellis, a job she got in part thanks to her fashion school friend, Marc Jacobs. Tracy says during these years, she felt her bosses treated her pretty well.

Reese: They were just, you know, regular people. But the '80s were still a little bit different than, you know, the chasm between the '80s and, like, say, you know, last year.

Lee: But bein' a Black women in high fashion wasn't easy.

Reese: I mean, I would go to fabric fairs and I'd be in France and I'd, you know, have an outfit on. I'd have on my Prada shoes, my Patricia Underwood hat, my (UNINTEL) suit, whatever, and I would walk into, you know, a booth for an Italian mill and get completely ignored, you know?

Couldn't find anybody to take my notes on the qualities that I wanted. No one would even recognize me. I remember one time, you know, a fellow designer, white guy, actually South African, was in a booth and he noticed me being ignored. And he was being served, you know, left and right. And he called somebody over. He was, like, "You need to help this woman. She's a very good designer. And you need to give her service." But they were happy to just ignore me, you know?

Lee: Uh-huh (AFFIRM). Well, let me ask you this though. So it's one thing to manage the biases and prejudices and all the racism being projected at you, right? But how do you manage, as Black people sometimes, that internal conflict of, like, "Do I conform here? Do I be quiet here? Do I project my Blackness and take up as much space with my Blackness?" How do you manage that kind of pressure? And I'd imagine in fashion these white beauty standards, and in fashion how do you manage that side of it?

Reese: That's a real challenge, you know? And, you know, I'm sure I conformed most of my career. That's how we kept our place in the second rope behind the people at the actual table, you know? And that's how the industry functioned. So it was, like, are you in or are you out?

Lee: In 1996, Tracy got a step closer to that table when she relaunched her own line, Tracy Reese. And because she was finally in control, she was able to make some concrete changes, like using more Black models compared to most brands, even when it raised eyebrows.

Reese: The salespeople would be a little uneasy. Like, "How is this gonna be received," you know? And--

Lee: Wow.

Reese: --you know, when we runway, we would have to hire, you know, anywhere between 12 and 20 models. And I would want to have at least 25% of them be Black.

Lee: Tracy felt that it was important to hire a diverse group of people behind the scenes as well. But that got pushback too.

Reese: I have definitely found in my career, especially in the past, too my representation did not lead to a successful outcome at all times. I had one Black sales rep, you know? We were gonna have a business together. And we were so excited, meeting of the minds.

We could not get the time of day together. And once we split up and I ended up having a white sales rep, and then she was repping some other lines, white designers, both of us, everything just took off, you know? It's just, like, they didn't like seeing us together. It was just too much.

I've had so many amazing opportunities. It would be ingracious (SIC) of me to sort of focus on what I didn't get or what I perceive that I didn't get, you know? It's important to fight for our rights and stand up for ourselves. I didn't let any bias stop me from pushing for my goals and making sure that I was ready to receive the blessings.

Lee: When you think about whatever making it means in your industry, was there a moment when you said, "I've arrived"? Like, "I've made it"? Have you experienced that moment? Is it around the corner? What does (LAUGH) it look like for you?

Reese: I think, obviously, a huge moment for me was having Mrs. Obama wear our clothes. You know, that was a feeling of making it.

Lee: Michelle Obama. Tracy says it so casually, but this was obviously a huge deal. The former first lady often wore Tracy's designs. But the big, big moment Tracy is talkin' about here is when Mrs. Obama wore a silk pink and gold Tracy Reese dress to deliver her speech at the 2012 Democratic National Conventional.

Michelle Obama: Over the past few years as first lady, I have had the extraordinary privilege of traveling all across this country. And everywhere I've gone and the people I've met and the stories I've heard, I have seen the very best of the American spirit.

Lee: Here's Tracy talkin' about--

M. Obama: I've seen it in--

Lee: --that moment on The Today Show.

Natalie Morales: Did you have any idea she was gonna wear your dress that night?

Reese: We had no idea. We were warned that there was a possibility. But so until she stepped out on the stage, we didn't know. And we were still at the office. And I got a phone call from our controller, Eudora, and she was, like, "Mrs. Obama's wearing our dress." So we got online immediately and streamed the whole speech. So we were all, like, crowded around, like, listening to every minute. It was such an amazing night.

Reese: But, you know, in the fashion industry, you can never rest on your laurels, you know? You're only as good as your last collection, you know? But we're always striving for the next thing.

Lee: While Tracy Reese said she often had to conform to the industry, especially early on in her career, J. Alexander Martin had a very different and much less conventional path into fashion. You might not know his name, but you've probably heard of the brand he co-founded, FUBU, that's F-U-B-U, For Us, By Us.

Martin: We never really put it out there. It was kind of a, "Oh, if you know, you know," you know? Or, "If you down, you down." And if you did not, then hey, that's on you.

Lee: J. Alexander has been FUBU' creative director and lead designer for nearly three decades. And I can't front, I was really excited to talk with J. because I grew up on brands like FUBU, but to keep it all the way real at a time none of us could really afford it.

I'm gonna admit somethin' to you, brother. I done stole money from y'all because I had bootleg Karl Kani, (LAUGH) bootleg (LAUGH) FUBU. We had no money, man. We went threw somethin', they called it The Auction. And you go there, man. You get all your fake stuff. So I apologize. I'm a grown man now. I got some bread. (LAUGH) You know, I'll buy somethin' now. Not every brand gets so popular that they have to deal with counterfeiters. FUBU was that cool. And its cool factor partly came from its founders, who refused to play by the fashion industry's rules. J. Alexander tells us this way.

Martin: Prior to, just to have a job, I worked at Macy's. And that's another way, it's a reason why I kinda learned the department stores by workin' there and understanding it. It was part of the tie department. I worked there. And one day, one of the managers said, "Hey, you know."

They saw a tie sittin' on the floor somewhere. And he kind of said that, you know, insinuated that I was gonna steal, I was tryin' to steal it. I was, like, "I'm not tryin' to steal it," like, you know? So long story short, I quit. And I said, "The next time I come back to this place, I'm gonna sell to you." And the next time we were in Macy's, next time I walked back in Macy's, I was actually sellin' to them. And we did a event. And we were in the actual Macy's windows. And that was the next time--

Lee: Wow.

Martin: --I actually stepped foot in Macy's.

Lee: Wow.

Martin: So we let them come to us and beg us. You know, people always say, you know, "What's a great deal?" A deal is when they come to you.

Lee: But to understand how J. got there, having Macy's come to him, we have to go back to the 1970s, when he was growin' up in Queens.

Martin: I had a inclination that I always liked fashion because I always liked to get, you know, dressed. You know, I would change my clothes three or four, five, six, seven times a day, things like that.

Lee: J. couldn't afford college out of high school, so he joined the military.

Martin: I finally figured out what I wanted to do. I wanted to be in fashion. So I asked the recruiter. I said, "Hey, do you have anything in fashion?" And he's, like, "Well, not really, (LAUGH) but you could go to school--"

Lee: He's, like--

Martin: --you know?

Lee: "--You have green or beige or greenish beige--"

Martin: Yeah, yeah, right? (LAUGH)

Lee: The Navy took J. around the world before he was medically discharged after serving in the First Gulf War. When he came back to Queens, he had a whole new perspective.

Martin: So, you know, with that, you're comin' back to the states. And, you know, in my head, I'm sayin', "What am I gonna do with myself? I'm not gonna sit around on the block." So I said, "Well, you know what? I'm really good at fashion."

Lee: So in the early '90s, J. decided to use his GI Bill money to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology, a public university in New York City.

Martin: It spoke to me more in a practical sense, versus if you went to, like, a Parsons. I wanted to go for buying and merchandising 'cause I appreciated both sides and most people and designers, they just design. But you could make something, design it, and it's, like, "Wow, that's really great," but you can't sell it.

Lee: J.'s time at fashion school was different from Tracy Reese's. It had those practical elements that he mentioned, but he also says he had a lotta Black classmates.

Martin: And we all hung together.

Lee: Where J. struggled was conforming to some of his professor's ideas of success and good design.

Martin: Some of the teachers were great. Some of the teachers were, you know, they stuck to their book. And the book said A. The book said A, book said A. But those are the classes I failed because I was actually doing it, and it was working.

Lee: While he was at FIT, J. reconnected with his childhood friend, Daymond John. Daymond had started developing the concept of FUBU in 1989. His first product was a ski hat tied at the top. He sold them on the street out of the back of his car for $10 apiece.

Martin: And I said, "Hey, Daym, you know, I'm goin' to fashion school. Let's create a line." And he was, like, "Well, how are we gonna do that?" And I was, like, "I'll show you."

Lee: That's how J., Daymond, and two other friends, Keith Perrin and Carlton Brown, founded the FUBU line. J. eventually dropped out of school to become FUBU's lead designer full-time.

Martin: Do I know that, you know, looking back on those things that, you know, me tellin' him and him believin' that I can actually take this and turn it into a line, I probably did believe somewhat in myself, but not that much, you know?

Lee: Wow.

Martin: And again, you know, I'm young. You know, so I'm, like, throwin' a baby into the water. It's just gonna float. And that's all we were doin'. Plus, the fact, of course, him being a shark, said that we don't have any money, I happened to have about $5,000, $6,000 from the accident when I was in the military. And I gave him $5,000. Said, "Hey, let's start."

Lee: Soon, FUBU was getting popular in New York. And then in 1994, they took FUBU to MAGIC, the biggest fashion trade show in the U.S. They received hundreds of thousands of dollars in orders. That's a major move for a new company. But they needed cash to fill those orders. So Daymond's mother stepped in to help. She remortgaged her house for around $100,000 and gave FUBU the money to expand the business.

Martin: So that was actually Daymond's brain child, to just say, "Hey, let's, you know, actually risk to be able to stay." And that's when we decided remortgage the house. So that was our second infusion of cash. (LAUGH)

Lee: Thanks, Mom. They turned the house into a mini factory, with sewers, an office, and a shipping center. The guys would sleep wherever they could find room. Like, what did that actually look like for y'all? Like, you're remortgaging the house, you're sellin' out the trunk. Like, what did it look like? What were y'all doin'?

Martin: That means chicken wings and pork fried rice and a $0.50 beer once a week. That's what that means. The fact that your stomach has shrunk. You only eat once or twice a week 'cause if you do, your stomach starts feelin' like needles pinching you almost like, you know? But you have to grind and the stick-to-itiveness to keep goin' because you know that this path is a better path than probably you doin' somethin' else, easy 'cause if it's hard, it's worth it.

Lee: And that hard work was paying off. FUBU was blowin' up. But then in 1996, things went left. It ran out of money. They had orders to fill, but no banks would lend to them. And closing down would mean giving up the house. So Daymond's mom had another idea.

Martin: So his mom said, "Hey, you know what? Maybe we thinkin' too big. Why don't we just put a ad in the paper and let people come to us?" So we put an ad in the paper. And one group that came to us was a representative of Samsung. And Samsung had a textile division.

Lee: Technology giant Samsung has a textile division. And they said, "Hey, (LAUGH) we're in."

Martin: We wound up doing a deal with them and not doing a deal with anybody else. And then they came in with all their distribution and financing. And then we wind up wipin' out loan and paying off his house and everything. And then we went forward 'cause I've never had to look back again.

Lee: When we come back, FUBU makes it big.

Lee: By the mid-'90s, the hustle was paying off for J. Alexander and the FUBU team. But if there's one moment that changed everything, it's when LL Cool J repped FUBU in a 1997--

Ll Cool J: I know you like your outfit stylish--

Lee: --Gap ad.

Ll Cool J: --any other line but the Gap is childish. Everybody workin' here's your personal stylist. You're fallin'--

Lee: In the commercial--

Ll Cool J: --once you hear the Gap callin'.

Lee: --LL is freestylin'--

Ll Cool J: You can't resist this.

Lee: --wearing a white T, jeans, and a denim work shirt tied around his waist and a gray baseball hat with the letters FB--

Ll Cool J: Ballin' non-stop and yes-yallin'--

Lee: --styled like the WB--

Ll Cool J: --jeans poppin' in every--

Lee: --in Warner Brothers.

Ll Cool J: --mall in town and city. G-A-P, gritty, ready to go, For Us, By Us, on the low. G, that's for gettin' it, A, for always--

Lee: The hat starring role--

Ll Cool J: --P, that's for power and the--

Lee: --was years in the making.

Martin: His brother was my best friend. So LL used to kinda try to help me, teach me how to rhyme and teach us. And kinda, right? Long story short, he knew us back then. So when we approached him and said, "Hey, listen, you know, can you wear this in a hat," he was, like, "Ugh," you know?

It was, like, he wanted to 'cause he just wanted to help 'cause it was, like, neighborhood people. But then again, you know, he's becomin' a big star. It's gonna stop him gettin' other endorsements. But he wound up saying, yeah, he'll do it. A reason why I'm tellin' that backstory is because the actual thing that he wrote in there, he did that on his own.

Lee: Wow.

Martin: We just thought he was just gonna wear a hat. We know he's gonna rap, but we didn't know he was gonna say, "For Us, By Us, on the low." We didn't know it till it came out.

Lee: For those who don't know this commercial, it's a Gap commercial, LL's rappin'. And he slides in, "For Us, By Us." It's almost like in a Coke commercial, somebody slidin' a little Pepsi (LAUGH) tagline--

Ll Cool J: Poppin' in every--

Lee: --in there.

Ll Cool J: --mall and town and city, G-A-P, gritty, ready to go. For Us, By Us, on the low.

Lee: This was a big deal. How did that change what was happenin' for y'all, 'cause that was a bit moment?

Martin: That blew us outta the water.

Lee: FUBU was mostly known for their hockey and football jerseys, t-shirts and those FB hats. As the creative director, J. thought carefully about the look and feel of each piece.

Martin: We used Coca Cola red. Now, people are, like, "What do you mean, used Coca Cola red?" Yes, we used the actually pantone for Coca Cola red. And that was our main color. So when you looked at it, you always saw this red. And you're, like, "Well, it's just synonymous, it's just embedded in me," in your psyche, that you just have to have that. You have to have this. And then our FB logo was similar to the cartoon's logo. So it's, like, you grew up on seein' this, but you don't know why you like it so much, but you like it.

Lee: Hidden in the back--

Martin: And we would tap into--

Lee: --of your cerebral cortex. As you're sittin' there like, "Do I like it?" (LAUGH)

Martin: "I like it." Like, you don't know (LAUGH) why you like it. I know why you like it. But I'm not gonna tell you.

Lee: Beyond the colors and logo designs, FUBU was successful because they provided what young Black people wanted in their clothing.

Martin: It's authentic. It's not like I'm tryin' to chase anything else. I'm doing what is ordained as naturally to do. But we knew what everybody wanted. We put different things, secret pockets and things like that. You know, we'd make it a little bigger here and a little smaller there because we knew how we wanted it to fit.

We knew that if we did a black, the black had to be jet, jet, super, duper, duper black 'cause you're gonna wear something, you know, nine times outta ten, the average younger guy, he's gonna wear it, and wear it, wear it, wear it, wear it. That's his favorite jeans. That's probably (LAUGH) his only jean he has, you know what I mean?

So it had to be stand up, it had to be quality. It had to be, you know, super duper dark because, again, if it started fadin', oh, you got your old pants on. So these are things that we grew up on just knowing and grew up and doing. That's why it was just so easy for us. After a while, the streets loved, and the people loved it. They loved the name and all that. And then it matured to the department stores 'cause they had to have it because, "What's this line that everybody keeps talkin' about?"

Lee: You know, I was comin' up as a young person in the '90s so we had all this stuff. And I started to see Hilfiger and Timberland. Then all of a sudden, the whole aesthetic, Ralph Lauren, the whole aesthetic started to become what y'all had been doin' and what we had been creatin' in the community. Did you feel that was a sense of, like, "We made it because they're payin' homage 'cause they have to bite"? Or were you resentful that, "Now these big brands who might look down on us in one way, but they're bitin' our whole style"?

Martin: Well, yeah. That's 'cause that's the nature of the beast. They had to convert because that's what everybody was buying.

Lee: I mean, obviously, when you're feedin' the streets, the people will always be there with you. But was there somethin' long along the way because sometimes I think we have a measure of success. It's, like, "When I get the big check, when I get into the department stores," which is great, I'm sure, right, as a fashion designer. But is there somethin' lost when you see the white folks now wearin' it, it's in Macy's?

Martin: Yeah. You know, consumers do feel after a while, okay, I mean, you do get to a point where it's saturation. And I guess that's sorta what you're speakin' of. So we tried to be, I didn't say "Everything for everybody," because For Us, By Us originally is just For Us, By Us, the culture.

You know, the culture of hip hop. And that's the underlying really truth to it. If you go to a concert today, it's 90% white. I mean, to be real. So, you know, people will turn their back against you if it's too much out there. You know, you do have to keep some level of somewhat exclusivity.

Lee: But by the mid-2000s, FUBU felt pressure from investors to produce cheaper clothes for lower in stores. And J. felt like that hurt the brand.

Martin: I literally couldn't take it because I had to dumb down a lotta my items 'cause, yes, we were makin' a whole lotta money because, as you get put in those stores now, you get more and more volume. But for me and authenticity of it, I felt like a lotta people don't want us there. They didn't want us. They always wanted us to be that premium brand that we were, you know, back then. They wanted some type of aspiration to it.

Lee: Today, FUBU is still making clothes. And J. And his fellow co-founders are always looking for ways to expand the For Us, By Us brand.

Martin: You know, we don't stop. We did what we wanted to do and how we wanted to do it, period.

Lee: These days, Tracy Reese is taking a page from the FUBU playbook and taking that For Us, By Us mission to heart.

Reese: Today is a new day. And I think we have an opportunity to be as Black as we wanna be and have as many of us at the table and in the room as we deem necessary, you know? And that's a very beautiful thing.

Lee: She's a member of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, an influential trade group. And her main goal is to pave the way for more young, Black designers.

Reese: You know, we're demanding a seat at the table. So it'll be interesting to see what the next few years hold. But I think that, you know, we have to stay very active on our behalf. And, you know, as a people though, we have to support Black brands.

I mean, everybody wants to rap about all of the big, gold, you know, houses and how they've got this watch and those shoes and that designer, blah, blah, blah. It's, like, you're perpetuating this, you know? You're setting up all these next generations to think that those are the only worthy brands. And we have to be supporting our own Black businesses.

Lee: And to see true value in ourselves, right?

Reese: Yup.

Lee: And Tracy isn't just advocating for Black designers from within the system. She's making her own system. A few years ago, Tracy moved back to her hometown of Detroit and started a new, sustainable fashion line called Hope for Flowers, right there in the D.

Reese: I was just, like, "You know what? I want to be able to employ Detroiters in my business. But there are a lot of people here who are interested in fashion, who have great skill, who are wonderful craftspeople and artisans." And I was thinking, "How can I create opportunities for, you know, talented people right here in Detroit? And how can I train people here in Detroit into some of the positions that I need to operate my business and brand?" So that was a big part of the mission.

Lee: Tracy also started free art classes for young Detroiters, focused on blending creativity and sustainability.

Reese: Because we're importing everything from overseas, I would like to it's making products here in the U.S., specifically, in Detroit. And then it was part of our social mission, I wanted to offer Saturday art classes for young people. And it's something that I always benefited from and loved. And it made me who I am, you know, those experiences.

Lee: Uh-huh (AFFIRM). Where do you think things stand in terms of diversity kinda writ large in the industry? Obviously, you created space and you keep widening the lane. But just in general, are you seeing more white fashion houses and brands being more inclusive, more diverse? Are you seeing any evolution?

Reese: No, but I'm seeing more space for Black brands to have a seat at the table. I think if you look inside of a lot of traditionally white brands, there hasn't been any seismic shift internally, where there are more Black people working in these ateliers and businesses. You know, they might be using Black models in their advertisement. But when you go into the houses themselves, they're still quite white, you know? And so there's much that still needs to be done.

Lee: When you reflect on what you've already done and what you continue to do, what legacy do you hope to leave?

Reese: Wow well, you know what? I can say with quite a bit of sureness that I'm the first Black female designer to have, like, a, you know, $50 million brand. I am. I've sold probably $1 billion of merchandise in the course of my career. And I think that this next phase that I'm entering into or that I'm at the dawn of is even more exciting because it's not just a commercial enterprise, it's also a social mission. And everything about it excites me, you know? I feel like it's a wonderful time to be me.

Lee: Before we go, get in touch. I want to see pics of your favorite, most memorable, or more embarrassing fashion moments. You can tweet me at Trymaine Lee. That's @TrymaineLee, my full name, or write to us at That was IntoAmerica@NBC, and the letters U-N-I, .com.

And you can see some photos of Tracy and J.'s designs on our website. Head to to check those out. Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Bryson Barnes, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Aisha Turner, and Lushik Wahba. Original music is by Hannis Brown. Special thanks to fashion historian Tianni Graham for her help on this episode. I'm Trymaine Lee. Catch you next Thursday.