Fashion designer Tracy Reese returns to Detroit to recreate her brand

This article is part of a series examining Responsible Fashionand innovative efforts to solve problems facing the fashion industry.

DETROIT — When Tracy Reese introduced her sustainable fashion brand, Hope for Flowers, in 2019, she knew she had to do things differently. Previously, for her now-closed eponymous line, she released no less than 10 collections in an average year – not counting Plenty, her capsule collection and other project developments. This meant a total of around 30 collections to be produced each year.

These days, Hope for Flowers releases around five collections, 15-25 pieces each, which include her colorful dresses, tops, skirts and pants.

“It just had to be a completely different business model than what we operated in before,” she said in an interview at her Detroit office. “And it’s not that the old one was that bad, but we were over-engineering, we were over-developing, we were over-producing.

Ms. Reese’s workspace is located in the city’s YouthVille Center, a facility teeming with children participating in academic and cultural programs. Here, she has a team of five full-time employees, handling everything from design to marketing to making clothes, surrounded by colorful furniture in mixed prints, collage boards leaning against the walls and clothes racks.

In 2018, after more than 30 years in New York, Ms Reese, 58, returned to her hometown. She knew she wanted to create an eco-friendly fashion line that would take a slower approach to making clothes, asking herself the question: how do you create a desirable product that is responsible, accessible and profitable?

“You either have the choice of trying to compete with fast fashion, which is almost impossible,” Ms. Reese said, “or trying to offer something that fast fashion absolutely cannot, that the customer recognizes as different from what he gets.”

The change from her first brand, which she introduced in 1996 – and which saw her dress Tracee Ellis Ross, Sarah Jessica Parker and Michelle Obama, host shows at New York Fashion Week and appear at retailers in the United States and Japan – did not come without its readjustments.

In the years leading up to spring 2018, when she released the last line of the original label, Ms Reese noticed more and more how quickly fashion was affecting the contemporary market – the middle lane of retail that attracts consumers who follow fashion but consume indoors. relatively affordable prices.

Fast fashion, with its low-cost appeal, has captured the attention of the typical contemporary shopper, who, among other reasons, recognizes it as an opportunity to follow the latest trends and barely break the bank, despite its manufacturing methods and its materials. Yet even with these changes in the industry and pressure from her two business partners to follow suit, Ms Reese refused.

“Many retailers have come to us asking to please us at lower prices,” Ms. Reese said. “It kind of went against everything I was learning to believe in and understand the footprint of our industry.”

Even though her name was on the label, Ms Reese only owned 30% of the shares, while her business partners owned 70, which was difficult at times as she didn’t have the final say on many things, especially financial decisions. This, along with how fast fashion “decimated the industry”, helped her explore transitioning into a new opportunity.

“I felt so free,” she said. “I couldn’t help but smile. And I’m not saying that maliciously. It was just a huge relief.

Originally from Michigan, Ms Reese also wanted to be closer to her family and saw the benefits of being in her hometown of Detroit, which has recently gained more attention as a fashion hub. And although its production is currently managed in China, the ultimate goal is to move it to the Midwest.

“It’s a less cannibalistic environment. New York is very ruthless and everyone is following the Joneses,” she said. “There are so many talented people here who have had the opportunity to see their work or collaborate or learn more about how to manufacture and distribute. This part is really super positive.

To have a sustainable fashion brand, the focus is not only on eco-friendly materials, although this is a major factor. Elizabeth Cline, head of advocacy and policy for Remake, a nonprofit focused on climate and gender issues in the fashion industry, said it’s common for organizations and brands to consider “siloed” sustainability and focusing on materials, but that’s not the whole picture.

Changes can be made to shipping methods that have a low carbon footprint; recyclable and safe packaging materials can be explored; and employees can receive fair wages.

Remake, which rates companies on their environmental and social impact and records the scores in a brand directory, has not yet rated Hope for Flowers, but Ms Cline said smaller companies that produce higher quality products that don’t overproduce tend to perform better. in his assessment.

According to Ms. Cline, the Tracy Reese label is a good example of a slow fashion line. “It’s not about creating as many styles as possible each season,” she said..

Ms. Reese, who was a 2018-2019 CFDA+ Lexus Fashion Initiative Fellow, now works primarily with organic cotton, linen and different types of cellulosic fibers from sustainable forest trees.

“Really changing to working more responsibly and using only environmentally friendly materials, this was a huge adjustment for me as a designer, as we go from just picking out what’s beautiful to having a very short list of safe materials,” Ms Reese said. . “Then, within that shortlist, try to find suppliers who are at least somewhat transparent about the source of their fibers.”

At the top of her list, according to Ms. Reese, are simple natural fibers like linen. She also uses organic cotton, which falls somewhere in the middle.

“There’s a lot of debate about cotton and organic cotton, but cotton is the most widely used fiber in the world,” she said. “I would rather use organic cotton and know that people harvesting that crop are safer than people harvesting a crop treated with pesticides. So it’s a choice there.

She also works with recycled wool and nylon fibers for fall and winter as well as organic cotton with small amounts of spandex, a synthetic material typically added for stretch. It is an imperfect choice that she makes with some consideration.

“Finding responsible spandex is no joke,” she said. “I look at the percentages, and I have to weigh the usefulness of the garment. So I say, ‘OK, I will be fine with using this 4% spandex in this organic cotton blend because this garment will fit better. It will fit more people than it would if it didn’t stretch.

In the past, for its previous label, it was normal to send sales and fit samples, color cards and samples to factories in China and India for testing a few times a week, which cost $30,000 to $40,000 per month via FedEx. . The arrival of Covid-19 has been an additional pressure. At the worst of the pandemic, Ms Reese had to find a way to transfer the work so it could be done digitally.

That meant using digital color-matching systems to get the exact shade in the lab, something she had resisted for years. Mrs. Reese had always collected yarn and fabric swatches for inspiration. Digital color, she said, just wasn’t as vibrant.

But there were benefits. It’s actually easier for the factory to work with digital color. Otherwise, she says, they take a physical fabric sample and cut it into pieces, “for themselves, one piece for the printer, one piece for the dyer.”

This change, she said, resulted in less waste and a lower carbon footprint. Now, the average FedEx shipping cost for its sampling and production in China fluctuates, but it is between $1,500 and $3,000.

Ms. Reese’s goal is to move her production to Detroit, historically a center for manufacturing, but not for textiles. Some small batch production takes place in offices but is still in its infancy. For example, the company launched its first batch of organic cotton knit t-shirts from Japan in April.

It was shibori-dyed by one of Mrs. Reese’s apprentices using a Japanese hand-dyeing technique that involves twisting the fabric. Selling around 30 units for $150 each, she estimates that a shirt probably costs “three times” what she was able to sell.

For consumers, it’s not always clear what goes into making a $250 pair of pants, a $400 dress, or a $150 t-shirt, and many would consider $150 to be too expensive, but Ms. Reese explained that she also looks at the price of paying her crew appropriately and everything that goes into thoughtful production.

“The dyeing was definitely homemade, and there was trial and error,” she said. “Our fabric has gone from sample to production. Even just coming up with the color formulas took a week. So we’re thinking about a week’s pay to come up with color formulas, then another two weeks to meticulously hand-dye all of those units.

A global fast fashion market that is currently valued at $99.23 billion has put pressure on many companies, especially smaller ones, to achieve similar prices by working with harmful materials and unpaying factories. not a living wage.

“They’re not competing on a level playing field,” Ms Cline said. “Companies that defraud their workers are looking for low prices at all costs. They are the ones the market and the fashion industry are supposed to reward.

One of the things Ms. Reese finds most rewarding is collaborating with other artists and designers in the community to create micro-level opportunities. Most weekends, she teams up with art teachers to teach kids about art and design. Their June workshops focused on caring for and repairing beloved garments by replacing buttons and finding alternatives to dry cleaning to extend the life of garments.

In the fall, Ms. Reese hopes to move her office to a large space currently under construction inside a green building in the city’s historic Sugar Hill neighborhood. There, she plans to expand her production and continue the workshops.

“It’s so important that we show different examples, especially to young people, of how to live more responsibly,” she said. “Because every piece of marketing, everything they see on social media, tells them they should consume and throw away and get more.”

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