Designer B Michael On Bringing Color To The Runway

Dec 2, 2013
Originally published on December 3, 2013 9:56 am

After a brief career on Wall Street, veteran designer B Michael followed his calling to the world of fashion. He got his start as a millinery designer for the '80s soap opera Dynasty. Soon after, he began designing couture gowns leading him to work with an extensive client list that includes Cicely Tyson, Angela Basset, Lena Horne, Whitney Houston, and Cate Blanchett — to name a few.

After spending decades in the business B Michael says, "Every successful story will tell you they've had to reinvent themselves."

He sat down with NPR's Michel Martin to share the wisdom he's gathered over the years and what it takes to break into the fashion industry as a person of color.

Interview Highlights

On the Lack of Mentors for Black Designers

We are the first generation in many instances—as we are in many industries that we're going into. We don't have Dutch uncles who open the door for us, and sit us down, and say this is what needs to happen, or this is the direction you should go in...I think it's about mentoring, it's certainly not talking about are you talented because that's subjective. It's about understanding the business of fashion and understanding you need to have the right team, and you need to be financially secure, and really understanding the relationships you have to have with retailers. Those are the lessons we really need to learn particularly as designers where we are creating our own generation in the business.

On the Controversy Surrounding Barney's Department Store in New York

I think a better question to Barneys would be how many manufactures or designers of color do you feature in your store? What equity are we getting out the fashion industry as a consumer?.. I would rather have that conversation and not be distracted by the ignorance of a security guard or a person working behind a counter. If we empower the manufactures and we own a store then perhaps you'll have a different experience because then that's a different playing field. If you have more black designers who are successful you'll have more black models on the runway.

On Ready to Wear Line

It really is about inclusion. So being in a Macy's or launching a ready to wear collection gives me the opportunity now to take my point-of-view and reach a broader audience. And reach young women and young men who may be just starting their game as well

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This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Now it's time for our Wisdom Watch. That's the part of the program where we speak to those who've made a difference in their work. Today, we're speaking with a man who's made his mark in fashion - the designer known as B. Michael. Even if you don't attend the Paris fashion shows or even fashion week in New York, you're likely to have seen his work. His hats were featured in the hit television show "Dynasty," his clothes in movies, including Whitney Houston's wardrobe in her last film "Sparkle."

His client list continues to feature an A-list of regular visitors to the Hollywood red carpet - Cicely Tyson, Nancy Wilson, Angela Bassett, Halle Berry, Cate Blanchett and Beyonce, to name just a few. But B. Michael has also made his mark as one of a handful of top-tier African-American designers, this at a time when racial issues in fashion and retailing are in the news again. So we thought this was an opportune time to speak with him, and he is with us now. B. Michael joins us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

B. MICHAEL: Thank you. I'm happy to be here.

MARTIN: So how did you get interested in fashion? I understand that both of your parents were in business. I think your dad was a CPA, and your mom, I believe, was a real estate...

MICHAEL: Correct.

MARTIN: ...Agent.


MARTIN: So I'm guessing they probably thought that you were going to do something in that realm.

MICHAEL: Exactly, but I will say I knew early on that I would be a fashion designer. It was one of those innate, you know, feelings that I had - and always sketched. And instead of doing homework, I would sketch over the anatomy charts and read my mom's magazines etc., etc. - her fashion magazines. So I knew that I had no choice.

MARTIN: How were they with that?

MICHAEL: Very supportive and very open. You know, my mom considers herself fashionable, and certainly, I was exposed to women with my grandmother and so forth who were very fashionable women. So I thought all women were born with great taste.

MARTIN: How did you get started?

MICHAEL: I was fortunate because I, as I stated, started doing millinery - or if I didn't state that, I started as a millinery designer. So locally, I was creating millinery, and it came to the attention of Nolan Miller, who was the costumer for "Dynasty." And fast-forward, I ended up being the milliner for the "Dynasty" millinery collection.

MARTIN: How have you stayed in the business? I mean, even some very big names have struggled when the economy has struggled in recent years. How have you managed to stay in business all this time?

MICHAEL: Certainly, as an artist and as a business, you go through ups and downs and reinvent yourself. But every successful story will tell you they've had to reinvent themselves, and they've had to find ways of keeping their point of view out there. And that's a challenge, but it's a determination at the same time.

MARTIN: You presented at the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in New York City this past September...


MARTIN: ...But you and Tracy Reese, as I recall, were the only two African-Americans helming your own brands who presented. Why aren't there more B. Michaels?

MICHAEL: We are first generation in many instances as we are in other industries that we're going into. We don't have Dutch uncles who opened the door for us and sit us down and say this is what needs to happen or this is the direction that you should go in.

MARTIN: And what is a Dutch uncle mean? Like a kind of a mentor? Do you mean a financial...

MICHAEL: Well...

MARTIN: ...Advisor? Do you mean more of a kind of advice?

MICHAEL: I think it's all of that. I think it's about mentoring. It's certainly not talking about are you talented because that's subjective. It's about understanding the business of fashion, and understanding you need to have the right team, and you need to be financially secure, and really understanding the relationships that you have to have with retailers and all of those layers. Those are the lessons that we really need to learn, particularly as designers who do not, you know - where we are creating our own generation in the business.

MARTIN: You know, it has been suggested, though, that things are actually going backward for African-Americans in the fashion industry. For example, the model Naomi Campbell, former models Iman, Bethann Hardison sent out a letter in which they condemned the fashion houses for not showing black models, for using just one in the whole collection. There are collections that hadn't used a black model in years. People are saying fashion is global. Some of the most important style...

MICHAEL: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...Icons in America and around the world are people of color. And they're saying, when you don't acknowledge that, it's almost like you're making a statement by not using models of color. So the question I have to ask you is, do you think it's true that in some ways African-Americans in the industry as a whole are going backwards?

MICHAEL: I think there are some people who do think that way, and certainly people in power, who, perhaps, that might be an agenda. We have to see it as an opportunity to see - you know, view it as a challenge, but certainly not be crippled by it. For me, I think what we want to overcome, for instance, is being labeled an African-American model or an African-American designer. One of the things that's important is that we are an American designer or an American model or whatever it is that we're doing. Certainly, when we're listing other models or talking about a designer, we don't necessarily put their ethnic, you know - their ethnicity in front of what it is that they are. We don't say...

MARTIN: Calvin Klein, the white designer.

MICHAEL: Correct.

MARTIN: Donna Karan, the white designer.

MICHAEL: Precisely. Precisely.

MARTIN: We don't say that. What do you look for in a model?

MICHAEL: For me, it's about fit. It's about walk. It's about a certain attitude. And from collection to collection, that may change. But I do think, at the same time, it is important that within my - what it is that I'm looking for - that it's broad because as an American brand, we see America as being many faces. And so our commitment as a brand is to really be inclusive, to embrace everyone.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with B. Michael. He's one of America's premier fashion designers. He's also one of a handful of top-tier African-American designers. We're speaking with him as he's launched a new ready-to-wear line...


MARTIN: ...As well...


MARTIN: ...In Macy's, and talking about whatever else is on his mind. You know, speaking of Macy's - and Barneys has been in the headlines recently...


MARTIN: ...Because there are two African-American customers who say that they were wrongly - and were wrongly accused of shoplifting or not - basically, the implication was they couldn't afford the items that they were buying and they were then followed out of the store by an undercover - or police officers. Anyway, so it was kind of an ugly scene, made - has made the news. It occasioned some high-level interests. I mean, for example, the Reverend Al Sharpton - the civil rights activists and talk show host - had a meeting with Barneys' CEOs as a consequence of this. And I just wanted to ask, what's your take on this whole scene?

MICHAEL: When something like that happens, we have to use it as an awareness opportunity. I think we need to be very candid when we describe what happened so that we do understand that there is still that attitude, perhaps, or that thought in terms of what people might experience. And, you know, so I think it's important to showcase and bring to light whenever such an experience happens to anyone.

MARTIN: Has that ever happened to you? Have you - my suspicion is that you shop...


MARTIN: ...In high-end places, my assumption. That would be my working assumption.

MICHAEL: Good assumption.

MARTIN: And so has that ever happened to you?

MICHAEL: Well, I cannot say that I've had that happen in such a blatant way. But whether it's in a restaurant or in a hotel, we have all - many of us, I should say - have had similar experiences. And I have, you know, with maturity, found ways to respond to it so that it's effective because you can never let it just happen and not call it out. But you also don't want to be on the level of the person that inflicted that on you. You want to take it as an opportunity to say, you know what, this is what you just did, and this is what this means.

MARTIN: Does it surprise you, though, that we're still having these conversations at a time when, you know, we have - as we've said - an African-American president. The first lady is - has been renowned for her style and her look. So many major figures in pop culture are African-American right now. I'm thinking of Beyonce, who's one of your clients - if you don't mind my mentioning that - Halle Berry, people of that sort. And yet, what's going on that these are people who are in the public eye every single day, and yet people are going into stores who look like them and are being told that they can't afford X, Y or Z. In fact, Oprah...


MARTIN: ...You know, who does not know Oprah - has said that she's had the same experience.

MICHAEL: Much of it, I think, becomes a distraction because while we are happy to talk about it and the media certainly has a responsibility to report about it, it is still a distraction because what's really - I mean, I think a better question to Barneys would be, how many manufacturers or designers of color do you feature in your store? I mean, what equity are we getting out of the fashion industry as a consumer, I think is a better question. And I'd rather have that conversation, and not be distracted by, you know, the ignorance of a security guard or of a person working behind a counter because that really is a distraction.

MARTIN: Why is that? Isn't that the way most people engage with these stores? Most people engage with these stores as consumers. Doesn't that affect a lot more people?

MICHAEL: Well, that is very true. But if we empower the manufacturers and we own a store, then perhaps you'll have a different experience because then that's a different playing field. And so I really would rather - you know, if you have more black designers who are successful, you would have more black models on the runway. So I think, you know, let's not always talk about the effect, and really go underneath and talk some about - some more about the cause because if someone at the top is running a Barneys, then it will filter down to the people who work in Barneys on how to respect all kind of people.

MARTIN: So talk to me - for the couple minutes we have left - about your line that you're opening at Macy's. Has this been a dream of yours? I mean, you've been in the business for - do we want to say how many years now?

MICHAEL: We don't want to say exactly.

MARTIN: Well, if it goes back to "Dynasty," we know that it goes back...

MICHAEL: There you are, yes.

MARTIN: ...To the '80s. So...

MICHAEL: I could've been 5, but anyway.

MARTIN: You were 5. I'm sure you were 5 years old...

MICHAEL: Yes, Michel.

MARTIN: ...When you were lining those hats. But - so has this been something that you have longed to do?

MICHAEL: What I am loving about the vision that I now have, and it's in a vision - it's a vision that has evolved - is that it really is about - to say it again - the word inclusion. And so being in a Macy's or launching a ready-to-wear collection gives me the opportunity now to take my point of view and reach a broader audience and to reach, you know, young women and young men who, you know, maybe just starting their game as well. And I can be a part of that at Macy's. And then they're going to catch up with the couture at some point in their lives as well. But it's - of course. But it's really the opportunity to be a lifestyle brand, to be an American lifestyle brand. And for certainly a designer and a company such as ours it's a historic opportunity.

MARTIN: Does the inclusiveness include people of larger sizes because that's another...

MICHAEL: Of course.

MARTIN: ...Another point of pain that many people have with your industry is that people who are above a size 12 are basically invisible to many designers.

MICHAEL: Well, first of all, as a couture designer, and - I never think in terms of size. I think in terms of measurements. And believe me, there are women who are not size 12 who can afford couture. So I certainly love them. And on the scope of ready-to-wear, we carry, for instance, at Macy's up to size 16.

MARTIN: OK, I have to ask you this.


MARTIN: I know designers always hate this question, but I'm going to ask it anyway, which is, what's the one item you really should have for fall if you want to be fresh?

MICHAEL: The one item you should really have for fall...

MARTIN: And I mean men and women.

MICHAEL: You know, I'm so into spring, by the way, that I'm thinking fall? That was last year.

MARTIN: That's true. You're ahead. I know. That's true.

MICHAEL: Yes. Yes.

MARTIN: In your world - in your world, you're already in spring. So let's look ahead to spring since...

MICHAEL: Thank you.

MARTIN: ...You're already there.

MICHAEL: Thank you. Yes, OK. So the one item for spring should be from the B. Michael collection, of course. And, you know, at Macy's, I'm excited because we're working on these wonderful long kind of toppers and a dress inside, sheath inside. So I would say for a woman, that should be the one item. And for a man, it should be a seersucker suit from the couture collection.

MARTIN: A seersucker suit? I love it.


MARTIN: OK. Bringing it back, huh?

MICHAEL: Absolutely.

MARTIN: B. Michael was kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Thank you so much for joining us.

MICHAEL: Thank you, Michel. I enjoyed it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.