We Need Responsible Consumerism: Designer Tracy Reese Speaks On Sustainable Fashion

This piece from Tracy Reese’s 'Hope for Flowers' collection is available exclusively at Détroit is the New Black. Photo: Itaysha Jordan ('Hope for Flowers')

Designer Tracy Reese has been a leader in the global fashion industry. Long before diversity and inclusion were moves designers made for clicks, Reese was making it happen. In the early 2000s, she featured black women of all complexions on the runway. That’s no surprise: She was one of the first black women to truly make it in the world of design.

Reese continues to uphold her leadership in the world of fashion. Last month, she launched a 12-piece sustainable collection called “Hope for Flowers,” which is being sold exclusively in Anthropologie and Détroit is the New Black.

The clothing items are made with certified organic cotton and linen. The garments are printed by hand using silk screening, a process that uses virtually no water. The main use of water is in washing the screens afterward. The fabrics we use impact our environment. Synthetics — like polyester — can contribute to our microplastics problem; washing them can funnel the plastics into our water systems.

The fashion industry is the second biggest consumer of water and is responsible for about eight to 10 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, per the United Nations Environment Programme. What’s more, this new collection is being manufactured out of Detroit and Flint, Michigan, where an entire city was exposed to high levels of lead in the drinking water. In Flint, the St. Luke’s N.E.W. L.I.F.E. Center is helping put together the clothing, employing women who want to build new skills to change their current situation.

The way Reese sees it, sustainability isn’t just about the textiles that are used. It’s about where an item is manufactured and how the people who make it are impacted during that process. She spoke with Gizmodo to share some of her wisdom on where the fashion industry needs to go if it’s going to stop contributing to the global environmental crisis.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Gizmodo: Why are you taking on sustainable fashion now? Why is now the moment for this work?

Reese: I think it’s a huge question for our industry. It’s our responsibility, or I feel like it’s my responsibility to look forward and change the way that I’m working to be more responsible. We all need to make this change. And I think that each company, each designer, each individual has to look into their own heart and soul and decide how to transform our way of working and our approach to design and to existing in the fashion industry.

We can’t just keep taking from the planet and exploiting people for own purposes and for the purposes of making more and more products. There’s already so much product. There are so many clothes, and the reality that people throw away so much of their clothing is pretty mind-blowing for me.

Gizmodo: I’m curious to hear about the location of this collection and your focus lately on Michigan. I know you’re from Detroit. Why is it important to bring your work back to your roots as you’ve done with this collection, as well as the Flint Fit collection?

Reese: Like you said, I’m from Detroit, I was going home regularly. I always have over the years. About three years ago, I was struck by just how much change was happening in the city and how much building was happening, how much renovation is going on, new people moving to the city — just, you know, new energy.

Photo: Courtesy of Tracy Reese

And it struck me that I didn’t have a stake in the city, a personal stake, in terms of property. And I ended up buying a house. I wanted to have property in the city and be a part of this revitalisation. And I also wanted our family to have a home in the city that we could all go to because I’m in New York most of the time.

I have a sister in Chicago. I have a brother in Los Angeles. I have another sister who lives in Southfield, Michigan, and we didn’t have a stake in the city. And I thought that that was important since we’re all native Detroiters.

So I bought the house, and I knew I wanted to be able to spend more time in Detroit. And I started meeting people who were either fledgling designers or manufacturers or other makers in the city. Detroit’s always had a very rich cultural community — artists and singers and dancers and writers.

We grew up with that, and our mum was a big part of that, and a lot of my relatives were involved in the arts and arts instruction. So we always felt a part of that community and watching it kind of grow and seeing how even through the hardest times, that community was always strong was super interesting to me.

I was looking for ways to spend more time and be productive while I was there and enjoying my house and my family. So I actually was introduced to an organisation called ISAIC, the Industrial Sewing and Innovation Center. And also there’s a new sustainable state-of-the-art garment production factory being built in Detroit.

And I just absolutely love the idea of that as I’ve been producing overseas for decades, and I’ve been looking for ways to bring at least part of my production back to the U.S.

So I joined the board of ISAIC, and I’ve been on that board for a couple of years now and a lot of plans are starting to come to fruition. We’re actually building a factory as we speak with the support of Carhartt. So that’s really cool. And the purpose of the institute is to stay abreast of new technologies and garment production and to train people on new technologies to train in industrial sewing and really be at the forefront of sustainable manufacturing here in the U.S.

Gizmodo: I think that it’s incredible that there’s this focus on sustainable clothing in Flint given the environmental impact it’s seen — and also Detroit because Detroit also has its fair share of environmental issues ongoing.

Reese: When you’re suffering from the impact of all of that, it is more urgent to be a part of solutions.

Gizmodo: This new collection, “Hope for Flowers,” how would you say this collection takes your mission of sustainability further than your Flint Fit collection did?

Reese: Well, Flint Fit was really a finite capsule to celebrate Flint and Mel Chin’s retrospective. The pieces I designed for that were designed with an exhibition in mind. The pieces I’m designing now are much more accessible and wearable.

It’s like how do we take this concept forward of trying to work more responsibly and make more responsible decisions in the design process in terms of fabrication, which is a huge part of whether it is sustainable or not. How are the textiles produced? So using organic cottons and linens and textiles that do less harm to the planet and also to the people producing them, that’s been my place to start first.

I think — actually, not I think — I know also producing locally has a huge impact because all of the shipping overseas, that has a huge footprint.

And so we’re trying to also see how we can produce more locally. So what I’m working on right now is trying to control costs. We want to pay a fair wage. That’s really important. But when we do small batch production, costs go really high. So looking for ways to make the prices more attainable, more accessible.

Gizmodo: What is it that makes the “Hope for Flowers” collection sustainable?

Reese: Well, textiles are really at the heart of it. When we look at clothing, the materials, the components, are such a huge part of it. For me, the social aspect, community aspect, are also important. So trying to produce in a way that gives back to communities. And with that, you know the mission to work with schools and work with children and help other makers and designers along the way to give back locally.

So there are a lot of steps along the way, but the way I can make the largest impact is definitely through my choice of textiles.

This midi dress is exclusively available at Anthropologie. (Photo: Itaysha Jordan, “Hope for Flowers”)

Gizmodo: What do you love most about your “Hope for Flowers” collection?

Reese: The pieces that we made in Detroit and Flint, I think I love that we hand-printed the fabric with silkscreens right in Detroit with a local. We hand screened all of the yardage for that collection. And that was a really interesting process. And to be able to say that we painted the fabric right there in Detroit and that the styles were made right in Flint, Michigan, I’m really proud of that.

The other thing with those styles is they’re designed to fit a range of sizes. The pieces that we photographed, the model’s like a size zero. And I’m like a size eight or 10, and we can wear the same pieces. So that’s another way to design more sustainably. If more people can fit in the clothing, there’s just less waste all around.

That was just a happy project all around. I’d love to repeat it, but in a way that is more financially viable.

Gizmodo: I am a big fan of Anthropologie, but it obviously is one of those more expensive brands. Do you have plans for improving the access to your sustainable items of clothing?

Reese: That’s definitely a goal of mine, and we’re working together to get there. But it’s sort of baby steps because I don’t want to offer products that haven’t really been responsibly designed. Period. That’s not what I’m trying to do. I’m not greenwashing. And at this stage, it costs more. The materials that I’m using are more expensive.

Americans — or people all over the world, actually — we’re trained on these cheap prices. I don’t think people stop to think about what it means when you buy inexpensive items and what it means: How how were they produced? What were the conditions under which they were produced? What kind of textiles are those? What did it mean for the planet to produce those textiles?

Everybody wants a bunch of cheap stuff, and they want someone to wave a magic wand, but I think we need responsible consumerism right alongside responsible design. And if it means you’re buying fewer pieces, that they’re better quality, and you know where they came from, and that there was respect for the people and the planet along that supply chain, then that’s a responsible choice.

Gizmodo: What’s next?

Reese: Really just going further along the road with this, trying to do more and more domestic production, looking to get the ISAIC factory open in Detroit and begin producing there, as well. And partnering with more great makers and designers both locally and abroad to create responsibly designed clothing.

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