When First Lady Michelle Obama stepped onto the stage of the Democratic National Convention wearing a pink silk jacquard Tracy Reese confection, nobody was more surprised than the designer.
“When she walked out, we found out,” Reese told the Daily News last week. “We were still at work preparing for my show, and we all gathered around the computer and watched. We were just so excited and incredibly proud. Her speech was just so great, and she looked amazing.”
The moment was a pinnacle in a career that Reese, 48, has assembled stitch by stitch since growing up in Detroit near Eminem’s famous 8 Mile Road. She fashioned her first garment at the age of 8 — a pair of elastic-waist pants. The sloe-eyed beauty with a solar-powered grin filled a sketchbook with chic, cosmopolitan women she called “The Girls.” Yet her muses were not from a haute couture salon, but at home.
“My grandmother was always so well put together, from head to toe,” Reese recalled. “She’d have the pillbox hat, the open-toed shoes, the perfect purse. And my mother loved to put her looks together. That’s all I knew of — my icons were within my family.”
Mom Barbara sewed her own clothes, and mother and daughter tailored dresses, skirts and blouses together side by side. “We had a little sewing area in the basement,” Reese said. “When my father bought her an Athena 2000, she sold me her old Singer.”
Did she say sold?
“Yes, I was about 10 years old, and she sold it to me for $10,” said Reese, and you begin to see where she gets her business savvy from. “At the time, I wondered why, but my parents wanted to teach me the value of working to earn the things I want. She would put a price on chores — I remember I got 35 cents to clean the downstairs bathroom — and my sisters and I could do as many chores as we wanted and we would get paid.”
Reese also saved for her first designer piece — a Liz Claiborne sweater she bought at age 11 — and she was ecstatic when her mother brought her to Detroit’s famous Hudson’s department store while Claiborne was making an appearance.
“She was the biggest designer I knew,” Reese recalled. “I did not have a big view of many designers until I got to high school.”
Teachers at Parsons saw her talent even then and gave her a scholarship. An aunt and uncle in New Jersey put her up and — once again with the Reese family work ethic in play — she baby-sat for them after classes. But Reese was enthralled, and she returned to Parsons for college.
“It was soooo exciting, the hustle and bustle of being at Parsons,” Reese said. “I always thought sewing and sketching were hobbies, but at Parsons, I learned about the industry in New York, and it really opened my eyes to the possibility of doing it as a business.”
In 1984, Reese graduated early and immediately began working at Arlequin — where Moroccan-French designer Martine Sitbon mentored her — and then worked at Perry Ellis. After just three years, Reese’s father, Claude, who had run a Chevrolet factory as one of the first African-American plant managers in the country, told her it was time to start her own business.