Tracy Reese has designed clothes through many of fashion’s rockiest shifts. Having launched her eponymous line in 1998, she was there for the boom of e-commerce; led the conversation on diversity and inclusivity (see: her early-’00s runway shows and the “real women” she began casting for lookbooks in 2016); and witnessed the ups and downs of department stores and retail in general. Perhaps most important, she’s kept up with the industry’s zero-to-60 increase in speed, effectively growing her business on a global scale and producing upwards of 10 collections a year.
But after Spring 2018, she pumped the brakes. Fans of her label may have noticed that she’s been absent from the New York Fashion Week calendar for a few seasons, and her Instagram page has been relatively quiet. (She’s been traveling and competing in the CFDA + Lexus Fashion Initiative, but has not shown new collections.) As it turns out, she had something up her sleeve: Last week she announced the launch of her brand-new label, Hope for Flowers, which is focused specifically on sustainable materials, ethical production, and handwork. It’s based in Detroit.
On a recent call, Reese said she simply couldn’t ignore the impact her original brand (and much, much larger ones) was having on the environment. Sustainability had been on her mind for the better part of a decade, largely thanks to a design assistant who left to earn a master’s degree in green sciences. But it wasn’t until her former business partners approached Reese about doing “volume production”—i.e., lower-priced, high-quantity collections—that she put her foot down. “The more I learned about fast fashion and cheap production in general, I just knew that was the antithesis to everything I was thinking about,” she says. “If you’re selling a garment for $10, let’s just do the math and understand what that means for all the people along that supply chain. It’s like slavery. I knew I didn’t want anything to do with that, so it made me get really serious about what I did want.”
Reese had always been confident that her factories had fair labor practices and wages, but found there was “zero transparency” in her fabric supply chain. “I knew it was time for me?to look at my career and my dreams, and rethink how I was going about the process and ask myself: How can I do better?” she says. “This many years into my career, I needed the challenge. I needed to shake things up and to recommit to my work in a fresh way and in a way that I felt good about. Not just the routine of designing collection after collection, but a slower, more thoughtful model where everything has intent. I’m getting back to all the things I love about design.”
On that note, Hope for Flowers is inherently Tracy Reese, with its feminine prints, floaty materials, and bright palette, but virtually everything else about it is different from her former brand. For starters, it’s very small and she intends to keep it that way. “I want to ship fewer collections, because the world just does not need so much merchandise,” she explains. “This is going to be a smaller, tighter ship.”?In lieu of polyester or blended synthetics, Reese is working with natural fibers like silk, Tencel, Lyocell, organic cotton, and organic linen, and the clothes are being produced in small quantities for select retailers not massive chains around the globe.
Anthropologie is her exclusive partner for the first collection, which arrived in stores and online last week, just in time for summer. (Reese stressed the importance of delivering clothes when it actually makes sense to wear them, as opposed to the three to six months in advance retail cadence she felt trapped in.) She also drew every print by hand. “I wanted to be more involved in all of the processes,” she says. “We were producing offshore for 15 years, so I would drape a few things for the runway, but I wasn’t hands on with the design. I wanted to be hands on again, and the idea of working domestically was really appealing.”
By domestic, she doesn’t mean the Garment District. Hope for Flowers is based in her hometown of Detroit, and Reese is producing part of the collection in a small factory in Flint, Michigan, which employs women who are reentering the workforce and want to learn new skills. (Those pieces made in the Mitt—local slang for “made in Michigan”—will be sold exclusively at Roslyn Karamoko’s store, Détroit Is the New Black.) “I love being able to go to Flint and work with these women and see the clothes being made,” Reese says. “They have so much heart and are really willing to dig in and learn.”
That ties into the collection’s name, Hope for Flowers: “It speaks to my hopes for the planet, but also when you think about creativity and the arts, it’s about nurturing those qualities in children and adults. Part of my mission is to make Detroit a creative space where people can come and create together. We all need that outlet and the community to do it with.” On that note, her next project is to establish an industrial sewing industry in Detroit (she’s on the board of a group that is currently spearheading this), and she wants to open an artisan studio for embellishments to further expand the possibilities of Detroit’s garment production. She’s also working with Detroit’s public school system to host workshops for kids, many of whom do not have art or music classes in their curriculum, and she has granted internships to high schoolers who are interested in art and fashion.
As for Reese’s peers in New York, the fact that she managed to dramatically pivot her business after two decades sets a galvanizing example. “I think a lot of us designers are asking, Why am I not doing better? We’re in a creative industry, so why can’t we create solutions? Why aren’t we moving at a faster clip?” she says. “Part of it is that we’re just stuck in this old structure that isn’t really serving us anymore. The reason it took me several years to do this is because—and this is typical of our industry—I was just so busy,” she continues. “You’re so entrenched in a schedule and the way you’ve been doing things, and all the deliveries you’re crunching out, all the product you’re making. To pause and say, should I do this differently? It can feel like too much.”
Her advice for those trying to make a change is quite simple: “Everyone can do a little bit, and then you can do a little bit more, and a little more. People are mystified about where to begin, but there are a lot of ways to approach it.” Now that she’s figured out her production and fabrics, her next mission is to partner with printing and dyeing facilities that use organic, nontoxic dyes and pigments. She’ll likely have even more news to share in September, when she comes back to New York to show her Spring 2020 collection to a small group of press and buyers; for now, you can shop the current collection at Anthropologie.