For Designer B. Michael, Mentoring Is Key To Diversifying The Fashion World

B. Michael is one of a few top-tier African-American fashion designers whose designs are worn by some of Hollywood's top names. Host Michel Martin talks with the designer about his inspirations.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now we want to talk about the freedom to create. We're talking fashion here with designer B Michael. Even if you don't attempt the Paris fashion shows or 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 Hollywood royalty and red carpet stars including Cicely Tyson, Angela Bassett, Halle Berry, Cate Blanchett and Beyonce. But B Michael has also made his mark as one of a handful of top-tier African-American designers. When we spoke he told me how he got his start as a fashion designer.

B MICHAEL: 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 - 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. If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE form NPR News. Top-tier fashion designer B. Michael. We spoke at the launched a new ready-to-wear line in Macy's. Speaking of Macy's - and Barneys has been in the headlines because ...

MICHAEL: Yes.

MARTIN: ...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...

MICHAEL: Yes.

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...

MICHAEL: Right.

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: B. Michael is one of America's primer fashion designers, we caught up with him on a visit to Washington, D.C., when he stopped by our studios. Coming up a diva returns to the center stag. The original dream girl herself, Jennifer Holliday, talks about redefining her self decades after she first made it big on Broadway.

JENNIFER HOLLIDAY: Well, Dream Girls was 33 years ago, so if you weren't there, then I guess a lot of people only remember me now since my "Ally McBeal" years.

MARTIN: Memories and music with Jennifer Holliday. That's ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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