B Michael on Whitney Houston and Macy’s

The designer discusses creating dresses for Houston in the upcoming musical film “Sparkle” and launching his first ready-to-wear line.

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B Michael's designs for Whitney Houston in the upcoming musical film "Sparkle." Here, a double-faced wool jersey demi-cape and matching eggplant sheath.

Sketches by B Michael

NEW YORK — In September, on the Detroit set of the upcoming musical film “Sparkle,” Whitney Houston wasn’t about to do a church scene with a sleeveless dress — or shy about clueing in the designer, B Michael.

This story first appeared in the June 12, 2012 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“Come on B. My mother would never wear a sleeveless dress to church,” Houston said.  “If I’m in church singing, I am going to raise my hands high. I need something dramatic for the sleeves.…You’re the designer, B. You go create these sleeves.”

Michael met the challenge, designing exaggerated trumpet sleeves for effect, but from the way he describes the exchange with Houston, he never felt his talent was being compromised or pressured by the late superstar. “Absolutely not. She wasn’t like that. She was fun,” said  Michael. “What I appreciated was she gave everyone the opportunity to bring their own artistry and craft to the project.”

In his showroom on West 38th Street in the Garment District here, Michael, a milliner at Oscar de la Renta and Louis Féraud before launching his first couture collection in 1999, describes what’s so far been a pivotal year for his firm, B Michael America. In addition to creating the dresses Houston wears in “Sparkle,” Michael is creating his first ready-to-wear line. It’s a collection of dresses, called B Michael America Red, to evoke the red linings, and a bit of Old Glory. The collection is entirely made in America, produced in the Garment Center, Michael said, to create jobs, for quality control and to flow in new looks frequently. Ten deliveries a year — eight to 12 new styles per delivery — are planned. B Michael America Red will be launched exclusively at Macy’s Inc. the first week of August, with additional department store distribution expected subsequently. For 2013, Michael is developing a bridge collection, called B Michael America Blue, and an accessories collection, called B Michael America White.

He’s got a clean, modern, constructed style, and a clear sense of how to generate some business. “There’s a void. Women in their 40s and 50s need a dress to go to work in, and later have a nice dinner,” Michael said. “Everything tends to be young, sexy and pretty to look at, but who can wear it?”

Among the looks launching at Macy’s: a $190 high-waisted printed dress, with rear-front tie and jersey sheath bottom; a $320 antique gold silk two-piece dress and jacket, and a ponte jersey dress with a full sweep, priced at $220. The collection is inspired by the B  Michael couture, which is offered at such stores as John de Medeiros in Palm Beach, Fla.; Mark Ingram in Manhattan, and Saks Jandel in Chevy Chase, Md.

Last fall, he was handed the script for “Sparkle,” a story inspired by The Supremes, and asked to collaborate with costume designer Ruth Carter to create dresses for the late Houston, who stars in the movie. It’s a remake of the 1976 film with the same name, with some alterations in the script. Houston plays a single mother of three daughters, and “American Idol” winner Jordin Sparks plays the lead role.

“It’s a massive film with lots of sweeping scenes in church and clubs, meaning a lot of cast to clothe. Ruth was pleased she could off-load the task of dressing Whitney,” Michael said. “Whitney’s character has changed from a housekeeper in the original, to an owner of a dress shop, so she gets to wear pretty dresses. I did nine.”

For one church scene, Michael dressed Houston in a Champagne-colored silk wool two-piece suit with a mink collar and the dramatic sleeves. In another scene with the choir, Michael created a double-faced wool jersey demi-cape and matching eggplant sheath. “She wanted to go glamorous,” Michael said. “She had a beautiful body. She had height — carriage. Whitney was excited about working on the film. I was excited to work with her. It was a once-in-a-lifetime moment.”

Michael wanted to have another moment with Houston, so he invited her to his Feb. 15 fashion show at the Museum of the City of New York. She died the Saturday before the show, which was three months after the “Sparkle” filming ended. “It just didn’t seem possible,” Michael said. He left her front-row seat at his show unfilled.

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