A Detroit Designer Works From Home.
Tracy Reese, a clothing designer whose clients include Michelle Obama, went back to her hometown to rethink her whole way of making clothes.
Tracy Reese knew she had to do things differently when she started her sustainable fashion brand, Hope for Flowers, in 2019. Before she closed her namesake line, she would usually put out at least 10 collections a year, not counting Plenty, her capsule collection, and other projects. That meant that each year, about 30 collections had to be made.
Hope for Flowers puts out about five collections a year, with 15 to 25 pieces in each. Her colorful dresses, tops, skirts, and pants are in these collections.
During an interview at her office in Detroit, she said, “It had to be a completely different way of doing business than what we were doing before.” “And it’s not that the old one was so bad; we just overdesigned, overdeveloped, and overproduced it.
Ms. Reese’s office is in the city’s YouthVille Center, which is a busy place full of kids taking part in educational and cultural programs. Here, she has a team of five full-time workers who do everything from design to marketing to making clothes. The room is full of colorful furniture with different patterns, collage boards propped up against the walls, and clothing racks.
Ms. Reese moved back to her hometown in 2018 after living in New York City for more than 30 years. She knew she wanted to make a fashion line that was good for the environment and would make clothes more slowly. She asked herself, “How do you make a product that’s responsible, accessible, and profitable?”
Ms. Reese said, “You can either try to compete with fast fashion, which is almost impossible, or you can try to offer something that fast fashion can’t and that the customer knows is different from what she’s getting.”
The change from her first label, which she started in 1996 and which helped her dress Tracee Ellis Ross, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Michelle Obama, host runway shows at New York Fashion Week, and sell her clothes in stores in the U.S. and Japan, wasn’t easy.
Ms. Reese noticed more and more how fast fashion was affecting the contemporary market in the years leading up to spring 2018, when she released the last line from the original label. The contemporary market is the middle lane of retail that attracts shoppers who like to keep up with fashion but want to buy clothes at prices that aren’t too high.
With its low prices, fast fashion caught the attention of the average modern customer, who sees it as a way to keep up with the latest trends without breaking the bank, despite the way it is made and the materials it uses. Even though the industry was changing and her two business partners tried to get her to do the same, Ms. Reese still said no.
Ms. Reese said, “A lot of retailers came to us and asked us to sell our products at lower prices.” “It went against a lot of what I was learning to believe and understand about the way our industry works.”
Even though her name was on the label, Ms. Reese only owned 30 percent of the shares. Her business partners owned the other 70 percent, which was sometimes hard because she didn’t have the final say in many things, especially when it came to money. This, along with the fact that fast fashion “decimated the sector,” led her to start looking for a new job.
She said, “I felt so free.” “I just couldn’t stop smiling. And I don’t say that to hurt you. It was a huge weight off my shoulders.”
Ms. Reese is from Michigan, and she wanted to be closer to her family. She also thought that being in Detroit, which has become more known as a fashion hub, would be good for her. Now, her production is done in China, but the plan is to move it to the Midwest in the future.
“It’s a less dog-eat-dog environment. She said, “New York is very competitive, and everyone tries to keep up with the Joneses.” “There are so many talented people here who have been able to show off their work, work together, or learn more about how to make and sell things. That part is really, really good.
A sustainable fashion brand isn’t just about using materials that are safe for the environment, though that is a big part of it. Elizabeth Cline, the head of advocacy and policy for Remake, a nonprofit organization focused on climate and gender issues in the fashion industry, said that it’s common for organizations and brands to look at sustainability “in a silo” and focus on materials, but that’s not the whole picture.
Changes can be made to shipping methods that leave less of a carbon footprint. Recyclable and safe packing materials can be looked into, and workers can be paid a fair wage.
Remake rates companies based on their environmental and social impact and puts the ratings in a brand directory. It hasn’t rated Hope for Flowers yet, but Ms. Cline said that small companies that make better products and don’t make too many of them tend to get better ratings from Remake.
Ms. Cline says that Tracy Reese is a good example of a slow fashion label. She said, “It’s not about making as many styles as possible every season.”
Ms. Reese was a fellow in the 2018-2019 CFDA + Lexus Fashion Initiative. She now mostly works with organic cotton, linen, and different types of wood-based cellulosic fiber from trees that are grown in a way that doesn’t hurt the environment.
Ms. Reese said, “It was a big change for me as a designer to start working more responsibly and only using materials that are good for the environment. We used to just pick whatever was pretty, but now we have to choose from a very short list of safe materials.” “Then, from that list, try to find the suppliers who are at least a little clear about where their fibers come from.”
Ms. Reese says that simple natural fibers like linen are at the top of her list. She also uses organic cotton, which is neither too expensive nor too expensive.
“There is a lot of debate about cotton and organic cotton, but cotton is the most used fiber in the world,” she said. “I’d rather use organic cotton and know that the people who pick it are safer than the ones who pick crops that have been treated with pesticides. So you have a choice.”
For fall and winter, she is also using recycled wool and nylon fibers, as well as organic cotton with a small amount of spandex, a synthetic material that is often added to make clothes stretchy. It’s not the best choice, but she gives it some thought.
“It’s not easy to find responsible spandex,” she said. “I’m looking at numbers and figuring out how useful the garment is. So I’m saying, “Okay, I’ll let you use this 4% spandex in this organic cotton blend because this item will fit better that way.” It will fit more people than it would if it didn’t stretch.'”
For her previous label, it was common to send sales and fit samples, color cards, and swatches to factories in China and India for testing a couple of times a week. This would cost $30,000 to $40,000 a month via FedEx. When Covid-19 showed up, it added to the pressure. Ms. Reese had to figure out how to transfer work so that it could be done digitally when the pandemic was at its worst.
To get the exact shade in the lab, she had to use digital color matching systems, which she had been against for years. Ms. Reese had always saved small pieces of yarn and fabric to give her ideas. She said that the digital color was just not as bright.
But there were some good things. Digital color makes it easier for the factory to do its work. She said that if they don’t have a computer, they take a piece of fabric and cut it into pieces: one for themselves, one for the printer, and one for the dyer.
She said that making this change led to less trash and a smaller carbon footprint. Now, the average FedEx shipping costs for her samples and production in China vary between $1,500 and $3,000.
Ms. Reese wants to move her production to Detroit, which has been a center for making things for a long time, but not textiles. Small-batch production is happening at the offices, but it is still in its early stages. In April, the company put out its first batch of T-shirts made with Japanese organic cotton mesh.
One of Ms. Reese’s apprentices used the Japanese method of hand-dying called Shibori, which involves bunching the fabric. She sold about 30 shirts for $150 each. She thinks that a shirt probably cost “three times” what she was able to sell it for.
People don’t always know what goes into making a $250 pair of pants, a $400 dress, or a $150 T-shirt, and many people would think $150 is too much for a T-shirt. However, Ms. Reese explained that she takes into account the cost of paying her team fairly and all the work that goes into making thoughtful products.
She said, “The dying had to be done by hand, and there was a lot of trial and error.” “Between the sample and the real thing, our fabric changed. It took a week just to figure out the color formulas. So we think it takes about a week’s pay to come up with color formulas and another two weeks to carefully hand-dye each unit.”
With a current value of $99.23 billion, the global fast fashion market has put pressure on many companies, especially smaller ones, to meet similar price points by using harmful materials and factories that don’t pay a living wage.
Ms. Cline said, “They’re not competing on a level playing field.” “Companies that rip off their workers will do anything to get a low price. The market and the fashion industry are set up to reward those people.”
One of Ms. Reese’s favorite things to do is work with other artists and designers in her community to create small-scale opportunities. She works with art teachers most weekends to teach kids about art and design. In June, their workshops focused on how to take care of and fix favorite clothes by replacing buttons and finding alternatives to dry cleaning to make clothes last longer.
Ms. Reese wants to move her office in the fall to a large space that is being built in a green building in the city’s historic Sugar Hill neighborhood. There, she plans to make more things and keep the workshops going.
“It’s so important to show different ways to live more responsibly, especially to young people,” she said. “Because all of the marketing they see and everything they see on social media tells them to consume, throw away, and get more.”