Why Michelle Obama Wearing Tracy Reese at the DNC Was So Important to Me

In my graduate-level fashion program, the majority of the students are, in fact, black women. There are seven of us in a class of 12. But that ratio changes drastically when we look at the industry.
Publish date:
September 12, 2012
Michelle Obama, tracy reese, black women in fashion

When I saw Shelly O. giving her speech to the Democratic National Convention last week, I looked at her gilded-pink dress and thought, “Ooh. Nice color.”

But then when I found out the dress was a custom piece by designer Tracy Reese, I jumped up off my bed with a fist pump, “Fuck yeah black girls wearing black girl designers!”

It’s a funny thing, in my graduate-level fashion program, the majority of the students are, in fact, black women. There are seven of us in a class of 12. But that ratio changes drastically when we look at the industry.

Of the many high-end designers who will be showing at Fashion Week in the coming days (and subsequently, selling in stores and showing up in magazine pages), the number of black female designers is distressingly small. There’s Tracy Reese. There’s Carly Cushie of the duo, Cushnie et Ochs. Then there’s -- well, I’m not sure who else there is.

And, as a black woman, when you look at the landscape of fashion as a whole, it’s easy to wonder if you belong at all. We’re talking about an industry that worships the thin, white and moneyed; in which designers comfortably say they only use white models because they sell better or because adding brown skin will “distract” from the clothes; in which a black woman appears on the cover of the monthly fashion bible, Vogue, maybe once a year, if we’re lucky.

One would expect to find more inclusivity in the seemingly more democratic realm of “the interwebs.” But now, even fashion blogging is being called out for gravitating to the lithe ideal. Though there is a veritable rainbow of style bloggers, the ones who draw sponsorships, invites to fashion shows, collaboration opportunities, book deals and television appearances are often not “of-color.” And there was a bit of an uproar last month when the IFB (the foremost community for fashion bloggers) suggested non-thin (and likely by extension, “other”) bloggers don’t receive the same attention because their content simply isn’t good enough.

And I’ll be honest -- when you don’t fit in with what is considered “ideal,” you do start questioning whether you’re good enough.

It’s the quiet battle I’ve been having with myself ever since I started this journey. I’m a middle-class black girl who grew up in Pittsburgh, who just happens to love drawing, designing and sewing things. More times than I’d like to admit, I’ve wondered if my sensibilities were up to par with contemporaries who grew up with arm-length access to designer wardrobes. And sometimes, seeing the “merchandising girls” -- the students who love fashion but don’t want to sew, who are overwhelmingly tall, thin and white, who wear designer sunglasses to class and take trips to New York for sample sales -- is enough to make me question what I’m even doing here, shopping for wools on a budget, looking to thrift stores for old clothes I can use in my design projects.

In other words: Could I really be a designer?

Fashion is tough enough with the amount of creativity, historical knowledge and technical know-how that’s required to be considered good. Feeling like an outsider can test your mettle even more.

After one particularly brutal critique of my work, I had a full-scale breakdown in the pizza shop near campus. My friends hugged me and assured me that my critique wasn’t as bad as I thought it was. My instructors actually had good things to say about my garment. But all I could replay in my head were comments pointing out how my work was not up to par. I guess that’s what happens when you suffer from latent insecurities and a lack of sleep.

Which brings me back to Michelle and Tracy -- both middle-class black girls from Midwest towns (Michelle, from Chicago, Tracy from Detroit) taking on worlds foreign from their own. Michelle left the South Side for the Ivy League; Tracy left Cass Technical High for Parsons. It had to be scary, right? It had to be daunting, to prove that you’re enough, not only to outsiders, but also to yourself. I fully own that, at this point, I am projecting, but considering what I know (Tracy’s first business failed when it didn’t pull in enough revenue; Michelle’s widely-circulated undergraduate thesis detailed the ways she felt alienated as a African-American woman on an Ivy League campus), I couldn’t have been the only one to have an epic meltdown over trying to find my place in this world.

Still, something clicks. You can’t stay melancholy and mopey when you obviously set out on a course to accomplish something. I don’t know exactly how Michelle and Tracy bounced back, but I know for me, there are plenty of late nights obsessively perfecting patterns, devouring Cristobal Balenciaga books and practicing couture construction techniques.

There was the 24-hour cycle where I stitched more than I ate or slept. And at the end of it all, I had a garment that still makes me giggle when I see it -- a dress that is the first true manifestation of “Veronica, the designer.” It got glowing critiques from instructors and industry professionals on my final day of class, and that finally made me feel like I knew exactly what I was doing.

And then there was that first night of the Democratic National convention.

There they both were. Michelle, in her poised and passionate speech, and Tracy through her expertly tailored frock. Suddenly, all feelings of being other and othered melted away. I grew even more confident watching the end result of two women, not entirely different from me, who worked, worked hard, stumbled, got up and worked hard some more, eventually becoming respected for their craft and capturing the attention of millions for one awesomely brilliant moment.