For Tracee Ellis Ross, a childhood dream of becoming a designer has come true.
The star of ABC TV’s hit show “Black-ish” and the daughter of the legendary Diana Ross has become the face of, and the design force behind, the Tracee Ellis Ross for J.C. Penney limited-time capsule collection of women’s apparel, accessories and home decor, which will be available for one season at all 875 Penney’s stores and on jcpenney.com beginning Nov. 12.
“From the time I was a little girl, I wrapped myself in sheets and made dresses out of them and made my mom take pictures of me,” the 45-year-old Ross told WWD in an exclusive interview. “I am a child of glamour and clothing.”
Though she’s glamorous, she’s designing for all women — real women, she said, of different body and hair types, colors and ages. “Feeling great and looking great should be accessible to everyone and should be affordable. It doesn’t have to cost a lot to look incredible,” she said. “It was very important to me to have considered a diverse group of women.” Her collection reflects “the fabric of America in all different shapes, sizes and colors.”
Tracee Ellis Ross for J.C. Penney is positioned as a holiday collection, though Ross said the collection has a mix and match component and is suitable for different occasions, like work, going out with the girls or a holiday party. The collection has about 30 apparel pieces, as well as some home items, sleepwear and accessories. Apparel prices range from $29 for a top to $74 for a sequin dress. Handbags, totes and scarves are priced from $19 to $24; sleepwear, $17 to $34, and throw pillows, dessert dishes and highball glasses are priced from $12 to $19.
Among Ross’ favorites in the collection is a red robe coat. “You can wear that over an all black look and feel like you got sparkle.”
She said the tuxedo — consisting of a wide-leg high-waisted pant and a single-breasted jacket with gentle shoulder padding, is a “core” look. She also cited the sequined T-shirt dresses as fun and flirty, and a trim black sweatshirt, with the wording “Everyday Joy.”
“You can wear a tuxedo jacket over the sweat suits with heels and look really chic.”
Her high-waisted trousers “work on everyone, whether you have an ample rear or no rear.”
It’s her first fashion collection but not necessarily her last. “I would love to do something like this again, if the right opportunity arose. Definitely. This is a lifelong dream of mine. But it’s not like, oops, all of sudden, this landed in my lap. I have been collecting ideas in my head of what a collection would look like for a long time. This is a part of me.”
She’s said to be impressed by the style of Cher, Barbra Streisand and, of course, her mother, and she worked as a Wilhelmina model in her teens, making her runway debut in a Thierry Mugler show in Paris when she was 18. She was also a contributing fashion editor to Mirabella and New York magazines after graduating from Brown University.
Asked if she’ll wear her Penney’s designs on her show, Ross replied, “I don’t know,” and that it might or might not work with her character, Dr. Rainbow Johnson. “You’ll see me wearing it in my [real] life,” like when she appears on “Good Morning America,” “Live! With Kelly” and “The Late Night Show with Stephen Colbert” on Tuesday. “I have been itching to wear my clothing. I’m just waiting till it’s announced. It’s been hanging in my closet screaming for me.”
She said her J.C. Penney’s collection jibes with her personal style. “Effortless, colorful, empowered and joyful. That’s the way I would describe myself, how I dress, and Tracee Ellis for J.C. Penney — a mix of colors, strength and whimsy.”
Penney’s isn’t in the habit of partnering with celebrities. The store sells Collection by Michael Strahan men’s wear, but that’s it for the celebrity roster. Penney’s did team with Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen to create the Olsenboye juniors line which was discontinued awhile ago.
“Tracee was just one of those perfect moments,” said Jodie Johnson, Penney’s senior vice president of women’s apparel, jewelry, footwear and handbags. “If you think about a fashion icon, her level of humor, her background, that she’s so relatable and understandable, and her beautiful spirit, that’s really what drew us to creating a partnership. She’s very accessible to our customer.”
The collection represents what Tracee likes to wear, Johnson said. “She’s had a real passion for making sure the items were very versatile and can be worn by all shapes and sizes and still be incredibly comfortable, as individual wardrobe pieces or entire outfits.”
Li & Fung sourced, designed and manufactured the line, working directly with Ross and in partnership with J.C. Penney’s merchandising team.
Johnson described the line as wearable and classic, from tuxedo jackets and sequin dresses to casual clothes. “There is a simple dress in the collection, but if you put a tuxedo jacket over it, you have something red carpet worthy.…Tracee was so embracing of all body types and all ranges of people, that’s very much iconic to who we are at J.C. Penney. She was constantly talking about how it would work on real women, making sure fabrics were right, the draping was correct. She would try on every piece of the collection, come out to a full-length window and decide if she liked it. She was modeling everything. She was so passionate. She absolutely loved it. It wasn’t like work, it was like having a girls party.”
In the stores, the collection will be merchandised “in our number-one location at the front door, as a shop-in-shop, occupying 300 to 400 square feet.”
“I got to wear all of my hats in one,” Ross said. “I got to art direct, creative direct, design, style and model all in one. It was a ton of work but fun. But when you are doing something you love, it does not feel like work.”