Fashion designer Tracy Reese returns to Detroit to re-create her brand
This article is part of a series of investigations Responsible fashionand innovative efforts to solve problems facing the fashion industry.
DETROIT – When Tracy Reese launched her sustainable fashion brand Hope for Flowers in 2019, she knew she had to do things differently. Previously, for her now-defunct eponymous line, she released no fewer than 10 collections in an average year – not including Plenty, her capsule collection and other project developments. This meant that a total of around 30 collections had to be produced each year.
Today, Hope for Flowers releases about five collections of 15 to 25 pieces each, including their colorful dresses, tops, skirts and pants.
“It just had to be a completely different business model than what we worked in before,” she said during an interview at her Detroit office. “And it’s not that the old one was that bad, but we designed too much, we developed too much, we produced too much.
Ms. Reese’s workplace is at the city’s YouthVille Center, a facility where many children participate in academic and cultural programs. Here, she has a team of five full-time employees who handle everything from design to marketing to garment manufacturing, surrounded by colorful furniture with mixed prints, collage boards leaning against the walls, and clothes racks.
After more than 30 years in New York City, Ms. Reese, 58, moved back to her hometown in 2018. Knowing she wanted to create an eco-conscious clothing line that takes a slower-paced approach to making garments, she asked herself: How do you make a desirable product that is responsible, accessible and profitable?
“You either have a choice of competing with fast fashion, which is almost impossible,” Ms. Reese said, “or you try to offer something that fast fashion definitely can’t do, and that the customer recognizes as different than what they are.” receives. ”
The move from her first label, which she launched in 1996 – and which has seen her dress Tracee Ellis Ross, Sarah Jessica Parker and Michelle Obama, host runway shows at New York Fashion Week and appear at retailers in the US and Japan – did it doesn’t come without its adjustments.
In the years leading up to Spring 2018, when she released the original label’s final line, Ms. Reese increasingly noticed how quickly fashion was influencing the contemporary market — the middle lane of retail that attracts consumers who follow fashion, but within consume relatively affordable price points.
Fast fashion, with its cheap price, has caught the attention of the typical contemporary customer, who, among other things, sees it as an opportunity to keep up with the latest trends and, despite its manufacturing and material methods, it hardly breaks the bank. But despite these changes in the industry and pressure from her two business partners to follow suit, Ms. Reese refused.
“We’ve had a lot of retailers come up to us and ask us to knock us down 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.”
Although her name was on the label, Ms. Reese only owned 30 percent of the shares while her business partners owned 70 percent, which was challenging at times because she didn’t have the final say on many, particularly financial decisions. This, coupled with how quickly the fashion was “decimating the sector,” helped her explore the transition to a new opportunity.
“I felt so free,” she says. “I couldn’t help but smile. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. It was just a huge relief.”
Ms. Reese, who is originally from Michigan, also wanted to be closer to her family and saw advantages in being in her hometown of Detroit, which has recently garnered more attention as a fashion hub. And although their production will be done in China for now, the goal is to eventually move them to the Midwest.
“It’s an environment less likely to be eaten by dogs. New York is very cutthroat and everyone is keeping up with 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 actually produce and distribute. That part is really super positive.”
To have a sustainable fashion brand, the focus is not only on eco-friendly materials, although this is an important factor. Elizabeth Cline, the head of advocacy and policy at Remake, a nonprofit that focuses on climate and gender issues in the fashion industry, said it’s common for organizations and brands to view sustainability “in a silo” and focus 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 be paid fairly.
Remake, which ranks companies based on their environmental and social impact and logs the ratings in a brand directory, has not yet rated Hope for Flowers, but Ms Cline said small companies that make higher-quality products that don’t overproduce tend to do better in his assessment.
According to Ms. Cline, the Tracy Reese label is a good example of a slow fashion line. “It’s not focused on releasing as many styles as possible every season,” she said.
Ms. Reese, who was a CFDA + Lexus Fashion Initiative grantee in 2018-2019, now works primarily with organic cotton, linen and various types of cellulosic fibers derived from wood from sustainably forested trees.
“Shifting to a more responsible way of working and using only eco-friendly materials has been a huge transition for me as a designer, as we no longer just choose what’s beautiful, we now use a very short list of safe materials,” said Ms. Reese. “Then we try to find the suppliers within this shortlist who are at least somewhat transparent about the origin of their fibers.”
At the top of her list, Ms. Reese says, are simple natural fibers like linen. She also uses organic cotton, which falls somewhere in the middle.
“There is a lot of debate about cotton and organic cotton, but cotton is the most commonly used fiber in the world,” she said. “I would rather use organic cotton and know that the people harvesting this crop are safer than those harvesting a crop that has been treated with pesticides. So that is a choice.”
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 used for stretch. It’s an imperfect choice that she makes with some deliberation.
“It’s no joke to find responsible spandex,” she said. “I look at percentages and have to weigh the utility of the garment. So I say: ‘OK, I will agree to using that 4 percent spandex in this organic cotton blend because this garment will fit better. It will fit more people than if it didn’t stretch.’”
In the past, it was common for her previous label to ship sales and fit samples, color charts and fabric swatches back and forth to factories in China and India for testing a few times a week, which costs $30,000 to $40,000 a month via FedEx would cost . The arrival of Covid-19 was an extra layer of pressure. During the worst of the pandemic, Ms. Reese had to figure out how to delegate the work so it could be done digitally.
That meant using digital color matching systems to get the exact hue in the lab that she had struggled against for years. Ms. Reese had always collected yarn and fabric samples for inspiration. The digital color, she said, just isn’t as vibrant.
But there were advantages. It’s actually easier for the factory to work with digital color. Otherwise, she said, they take a physical swatch of fabric and cut it up into pieces, “for yourself, one piece for the printer, one piece for the dyer.”
This switch, she said, results in less waste and a smaller carbon footprint. Now, the average FedEx shipping cost for their sampling and production in China varies, but it’s in the $1,500 to $3,000 range.
Ms. Reese’s goal is to move her manufacturing to Detroit, which has historically been a manufacturing hub, though not for textiles. Small series production takes place in the offices, but is still in its infancy. For example, in April, the company launched its first batch of t-shirts made from organic cotton fabric from Japan.
It was Shibori-dyed by one of Ms. Reese’s apprentices, using a Japanese hand-dyeing technique that involves bundling fabrics. She sold about 30 units for $150 each and estimates that a shirt probably cost “triple” what she sold it for.
Consumers aren’t always clear on what goes into making a $250 pair of pants, a $400 dress or a $150 T-shirt, and many would find $150 too expensive, but Ms Reese explained, that she also pays attention to the price of paying her team appropriately and everything that goes into a well thought-out production.
“The coloring was definitely manual work, and there was trial and error,” she said. “Our fabric has changed from pattern to production. Developing the color formulas alone took a week. So we’re thinking about a week of salary to develop color formulas and then another couple of weeks to meticulously hand color all those units.”
A global fast fashion market currently valued at $99.23 billion has pressured many companies, especially smaller ones, to achieve similar prices by working with harmful materials and factories that don’t have a viable wage to count.
“They don’t compete as equals,” Ms. Cline said. “The companies that cheat their workers strive for low prices at all costs. They are the ones that the market and the fashion industry will 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 works with art educators to teach children about art and design. Her workshops in June 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 in a leafy building in the city’s historic Sugar Hill neighborhood. There she wants to expand her production and continue the workshops.
“It’s so important that we show young people in particular different examples of how to live more responsibly,” she said. “Because every bit of marketing, everything they see on social media tells them to consume and throw away and get more.”