B Michael has dressed celebrities from Cicely Tyson to Beyoncé to Brandy. He and his business and life partner, Mark-Anthony Edwards, run their luxury fashion business from a base in what used to be Manhattan’s Garment Center, before wanderlust and ever-escalating rents caused the exodus of so many fashion companies from the area. For 21 years, B Michael America has been a custom house, creating made-to-order clothes for a roster of tony clients, most U.S.-based but with a sprinkling of internationals. Now, Michael and Edwards are re-branding their company with an expansion into luxury ready-to-wear. They will employ a direct-to-consumer model, set to launch for fall 2021.
It’s not their first attempt at rtw. Over the years, Michael and Edwards, both of whom are Black, tried numerous times to go the wholesale route, but found they could not make inroads at the traditional bastions of American luxury retail. Meanwhile, an exclusive arrangement with Macy’s for a bridge collection ultimately failed. Throughout these efforts, Michael claimed to WWD, he and Edwards encountered “in-store personalities that were very clear to us were racially biased.” Edwards put it more succinctly, attributing the company’s problems with stores to racial bias, “100 percent.”
Discussing the specifics, the two men described disappointing encounters at what were for ages the cornerstones of flourishing New York-based retail — Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s — encounters they discussed in detail.
Yet they noted that retail isn’t fashion’s only seat of bias: They also named WWD and myself, which has made this piece difficult to write. (In other contexts, they referenced other journalists as well.) Our conversations resulted after Michael last month posted to Instagram an item calling me out for WWD’s anniversary book, “WWD 100 Years/100 Designers,” published in 2010. I wrote the foreword and worked with others on the edit (one arduous element of the overall arduous anniversary process).
After seeing the post, I e-mailed. Edwards responded and the three of us talked twice, at length.
Until recently, Michael has been relatively quiet on what it means to be a Black designer. But not anymore. Now he’s embracing a vocal leadership role in combating racism in the industry. “I’ve realized that I have to step up, that my silence is actually not good and that I have a responsibility,” he said. “I recognize that racism is an issue that is not one that I subscribe to or not one that I create. Therefore, it’s really not my problem. But I have to acknowledge its existence.”
Perhaps to keep me from feeling too uncomfortable, Michael chose to focus our initial conversation on his retail experience. We discussed the anniversary tome in a follow-up. “The fact that a book titled ‘100 Years/100 Designers’ only had one Black designer, I just found unacceptable as a historical account in terms of the designers who have contributed to the tapestry of American fashion or fashion,” he said. “I believe the only [Black] designer you included was Willi Smith…and so designers like Ann Lowe — you know who she is — Arthur McGee and others [were excluded]. You even mentioned a couple when we last spoke about this, that could have, from a history point of view, been in the book. I even daresay there are contemporary designers such as myself or such as a Tracy Reese or others. Because you include people like Zac Posen, whom, as an example, I consider [that] we are of the same era. Because of that, I just felt like it was a very biased perspective.”
“A biased perspective” — definitely a look-in-the-mirror moment. Michael was right; Willi Smith is the only Black designer featured in the book. I wish I recalled the process well enough to explain why Stephen Burrows, Scott Barrie and Patrick Kelly weren’t included. I can’t, nor can I defend their omissions. Michael was also correct in noting that the other designers he mentioned weren’t on the radar of those of us who worked on the book. Could one go through, designer by designer, and try to defend the lack of coverage? For example, some did mostly custom work, not WWD’s focus. Sure. Could one argue straight-faced against the premise that through WWD’s first 100 years and beyond, the most celebrated part of the fashion industry — and our coverage of it — was almost exclusively white? No. Nor can I claim that I or anyone else involved in putting the book together ever stopped during the process to say, “Where are the Black designers?” Michael said they just weren’t on our radar. I can’t argue that assessment.
Still, Michael and Edwards didn’t dwell on WWD’s and other media’s slights. Conversely, specific accounts of their retail encounters took up a good deal of time. Michael outright dismissed the contentions by those who worked for Saks, Bergdorf’s and Bloomingdale’s that his clothes were not right for their clients. “The women who buy my clothing, they buy Valentino, they buy Dior, they buy Chanel. I mean, I think those are [the stores’] customers.…They’re loyal, and they buy and wear me publicly…” he said, adding that his clients often accessorize his clothes from those stores. “How is it I’m not a brand that they feel is right for their stores? What about it is ‘not right?’”
Yet there’s far more to the B Michael story than retail rejection. As they focus on their rtw launch, the two men see a potential silver lining to the coronavirus quarantine, during which many consumers, including luxury types, have become more accustomed to online shopping than in the past. Michael’s aesthetic approach will remain the same. “This is the collection that we wanted to be in Saks and in Bergdorf’s a long time ago,” Edwards said.
B Michael America rtw will range from day to high evening, with frequent drops to ensure freshness of the site. While the partners wouldn’t divulge price points, Michael placed the collection as competitive with the major names of luxury: “In this country, you could compare us to Carolina Herrera or Oscar; if it’s a European designer, maybe Valentino…in that price range.” Prices for B Michael America’s custom offerings start at about $3,200 for a simple wool day dress — reasonable, by made-to-order standards — with evening ranging from $6,000 to upward of $20,000.
That collection, launched in 1999, was not Michael’s first fashion venture. He found entrée into the industry as a milliner, a path shared by Coco Chanel and Halston. Michael had been bitten by the fashion bug as a student at the University of Connecticut (he grew up in Durham and West Haven), and so moved on to FIT. There, he studied millinery under Prof. Ann Albrizio, who became his mentor. He was soon working with Oscar de la Renta, who eventually sponsored him for the CFDA, and with Louis Féraud. Michael also caught the attention of Nolan Miller, costumer of television’s legendary “Dynasty.” Miller enlisted Michael to craft the hats that helped define Krystle Carrington and Alexis Carrington Colby as the good diva/bad diva archetypes of Eighties power glam. During that period, Michael was creative director at Aldo Hat Corp., which he eventually left, starting his own millinery business, B Michael New York, in 1989.
Soon thereafter, the famed p.r. doyenne Eleanor Lambert approached Michael about a project. (Lambert, long a fashion institution, founded the CFDA in 1962, and was instrumental in establishing the Coty Awards, forerunner to the CFDA Awards. She died in 2003 at the age of 100.) The project for which she recruited Michael was in collaboration with the Plaza Hotel, then run by Ivana Trump; he was to design Easter hats. He accepted the gig, and recalled it fondly. “What I remember loving about it is that I did a wide-brimmed gold hat that was shown with a Carolyne Roehm [suit]; she did an orange silk shantung suit. I remember that so well. I also did a hat, I think, for the designer John Anthony.” Alas, no pictures exist that he knows of. “Unfortunately, no,” Michael said. “It was before the time we ran around taking pictures all day long.”
Michael remained close to Lambert, who encouraged him to make the crossover to a full fashion collection for fall 1999. He and Edwards launched B Michael America as a custom house, making everything in their atelier. Despite that model, with Lambert’s support and encouragement, Michael immediately started showing at New York Fashion Week, first at the Bryant Park Tents, and then as part of the migration to Lincoln Center. Over the years, he also showed at various other venues, including the New York Public Library, the Museum of Natural History and the Museum of the City of New York, always on the official calendar.
In the realm of event dressing, Michael’s clothes have made it onto the Oscars stage twice, both in 2019, when Cicely Tyson won an honorary Oscar and Ruth E. Carter won for Best Costume Design for “Black Panther.” Obviously, ladies who know a thing or two about expressing personality through clothes appreciate Michael’s work. Colleen Atwood also wore B Michael America to the Oscars in 2010, when she was nominated for Best Costume Design for “Nine.”
As for the B Michael aesthetic, it’s about round-the-clock polish. “I’m into a very architectural kind of construction,” the designer offered. “I like using lots of seams to create detail. For me, seams and structure would be the detail more so than, say, frills and beadings and things like that. So it is very modern, it’s very timeless.”
The re-brand and the development of a rtw collection will be expensive, and the partners said they have sufficient financing in place. As the company’s majority stakeholders, they are joined by a small circle of angel investors — four women, all of whom were clients first, and one man. Kathryn Chenault, wife of former American Express chief executive officer Kenneth Chenault, their initial angel, helped bring in the others. While all of the investors are Black, Michael and Edwards consider retaining 100 percent Black ownership less important than building a company that will endure.
“What is important for us as a Black designer and brand is that we are able to build a business that will live beyond us,” Michael said. “And so for us to make an absolute statement [insisting on all-Black ownership], and negate that, I think we won’t do.”
He noted that no fashion house established by a Black designer has survived its founder’s death. “You can still go buy Oscar and…Dior.…They are legendary. They have lived beyond the founding designer. That has not happened yet for a Black designer. I mean, Ann Lowe should be a brand that is viable right now but she isn’t. Patrick Kelly?”
As for whether Michael and Edwards would be open to additional investment now, the ceo responded directly. “All companies are always [looking for investment] as they scale and grow,” Edwards said. “So the answer is yes.”
The vertical, d-t-c structure of the upcoming foray into rtw makes sense in light of the dismal state of traditional retail and because of the unwelcome mat the men maintained major stores laid out for B Michael America over the course of 20 years. The problem, Michael stressed, was never with the consumer. “Ninety percent of my clientele are white,” he said. Rather, “the decision-makers who place those dresses on the rack is where the issues lie, OK?…It’s the decision-makers who decide, ‘Who are the brands we are going to support? Who are the brands that we are going to promote?’ That’s where the problem lies.”
Asked what a retailer would gain from withholding an appropriate collection from the consumer based on the designer’s race, Michael circled back to the WWD anniversary book. “When you did the book, ‘100 Years,’ what was in it for you to not include a Black designer?…The point is it was not on your radar. It’s not the way you think.”
Michael considers luxury a particularly tough arena. “As a Black designer competing with the likes of a Dior or a Valentino or Oscar, where do you put me?” he queried. “I’m not doing streetwear; I’m not doing accessories or things that are cute. I mean, I’m talking the luxury sector. And you and I can agree that there are no Black designer brands in the luxury sector.”
He drew on parallel examples from beyond fashion. “It’s a bigger picture,” he said. “It’s this concept that, as a Black artist, I can sing R&B and I can sing the blues or I can sing gospel, but I can’t sing opera. Or, if I’m a dancer, I can do hip-hop, I can do jazz, but how about ballet? So as a designer, to do a luxury collection is just — ‘What do we do with this guy?’ So I can’t answer your question because it’s not my problem.”
Another devil’s advocate query: In 1999, as B Michael America was launching, fashion — particularly American fashion — was on the front end of what, with hindsight, seems like an overzealous youth obsession. The industry was enamored with a generation of prodigies (now mostly 40ish, and many struggling) who emerged from fashion schools or other formative cocoons to immediately found their own brands. (Also with hindsight, it was an obsession the WWD book did nothing to temper.) As he was a generation older, could Michael’s age have worked against him?
“Given the fact that I started 20 years ago, I was younger and a new name, and I had an Eleanor Lambert [supporting me] — come on,” Michael answered. He continued that today’s young people frequently stop him in the street, both those who recognize him, and those who don’t, but are struck by his personal style. “So your question, I get it, but I think your question doesn’t apply to me. I don’t think that Bergdorf’s said no to me because they said, “‘Oh, [he’s] not young enough.’ So I don’t think so.”
All of that said, Michael doesn’t think racial bias is the fashion machine’s only systemic negative. He was proud to become a member of the CFDA but ultimately found it wanting as an organization. He converted his membership status to “non-active” because “I felt, and feel, that I have not as a designer, or brand, really benefited.” Even after supporting the 2014 CFDA Awards at the “Patron” level (along with companies including American Express, Condé Nast, Hearst Magazines, Dior, HBC/Saks and Tom Ford), he found that “there was absolutely no benefit to us at all. It was as if we never did it. OK? It was as if we never participated at that level.”
One of Michael’s problems with the CFDA: Anna Wintour’s influence on the organization and the greater industry. “Anna is not a designer, and yet she is part of the decisionmaking process of the CFDA and the sanctioning of who gets in and not and so on and so forth. I mean, I don’t get that,” Michael offered. “The CFDA should be a club for designers, and it should be a place where designers go and where we can meet, etc., etc. And now that is under the influence of the same system. I don’t get it.”
Edwards noted that while social media is helping to diffuse fashion’s power structure a bit, “these are just some of the experiences that we have had leading up to this moment.” He mused that such experiences are even worse for other designers, those with less structure and capital to fall back on. As a result, many “give up and walk away.”
Edwards noted, too, a lack of respect shown to Michael by retailers during various encounters over the years. “When I [would] sit in meetings and listen to buyers who are transient, who come and go, who [would] sit in front of a veteran designer like B Michael, a CFDA member, his association with Eleanor Lambert, being handpicked by Nolan Miller to work with him and so forth and so on, and Oscar de la Renta, to then be told that ‘You’re not ready’ after decades of work and decades of partnership with the likes of Cicely Tyson and Phylicia Rashad and [others], just on and on and on and being told, ‘You’re not ready…’” he said.
At the same time, literal perceptions of luxury are changing. Alessandro Michele has brought an idiosyncratic oddness to Gucci. At LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, in choosing to fully back a new designer for the first time since Christian Lacroix, Bernard Arnault went not with someone skilled in the art and craft of fashion creation but with one of the most famous and coolest people on the planet, with great style and a zillion followers: Rihanna. More recently, LVMH’s Givenchy replaced a traditional designer, Clare Waight Keller, with Matthew Williams, a guy who made his name on the strength of a polished streetwear sensibility, even if he now deflects that characterization.
“[Those moves] are great in terms of conversation,” Michael said. “I’m all for it because it heightens fashion. But at the core of luxury, where the consumer lives, it’s still going to be about beautiful clothing that resonates for women with luxurious taste. I think that is what’s longstanding, I think that that is what will save the business and what will sustain the business.
“The true brands that have long-term meaning, like Chanel — a Chanel handbag, the original Coco handbag is still worth something,” he continued. “So I think it’s about that kind of luxury that I represent…I still appeal to women who are very modern, women who run businesses and run corporations and run philanthropic organizations. So it’s still about a modern-minded person, but it’s the true core of luxury that will sustain luxury.…At the end of the day, the people who live the lifestyle and have the income to support luxury, they are still looking for true luxury.”
In fact, with all of fashion talking about recalibration and slowing down, Michael said the moment is right for a company like his, with an emphasis on high quality, personal service and really knowing the customer. “The luxury consumer [today] — and even more so now that we are in a new world in real time — is a customer that is much more conscientious, who’s not just buying for the sake of buying because it’s some landmark brand. I think the customer now wants to understand the narrative of a brand. I think the fact that I am authentic and that I am a real heritage brand is what they view now as luxury.”
Central to that heritage is Michael’s role as a Black designer. Asked what the industry can do right now to encourage and support Black-led fashion businesses, he said that editorial support is essential, “in terms of getting our story out and getting our point of view out and our narrative. It’s very important. Because that then gives us the kind of collateral for a retailer to recognize us, and that retailer has to see us and look at our product and understand.”
As for retailers, “there has to be a commitment to say, ‘We’ve got to give you this chance.’ And if you feel like I’m not ready, tell me what I need to be ready, what am I missing? In other words, ‘I want your brand, but this is what I need from you.’ You have to have those kinds of conversations.” Finally, investment capital, “but capital that allows us to keep equity in our businesses.…Capital is everything, and that gives us a seat at the table. I read something the other week where 1 percent of Black businesses receive venture capital. That means it doesn’t even exist. That’s nonexistent.”
Despite what he and Edwards claim have been years of dismissive treatment by the fashion industry, Michael’s spirit is robust. He feels newly invigorated, not only to make a success of the B Michael America business as he and Edwards expand its focus to include luxury rtw, but also to take a leadership role in speaking out against racism within the industry, to inform, enlighten and keep the pressure on.
“We’ve been using the word ‘platitudes,” he said. “A lot of initiatives are taking place…a lot of people are now coming out and saying, ‘We have been wrong, and we have to do things differently.’ I am espousing that; I am embracing that. There is this moment now where we can all, myself included, say, ‘OK, let’s wipe the slate clean,’ so to speak, and, ‘What we can do differently?’ But that’s what exactly has to happen.”
The day after the deaths of legendary civil rights activists Congressman John Lewis and C.T. Vivian, Michael sent me a text. It included a photo of a handwritten note Lewis sent to him in 2000. Under the printed line “Walking With the Wind,” Lewis had written a thank you to Michael for his help on something. He finished the note, “With faith and hope, keep your eyes on the Prize.”
Michael embraces that advice. “’Walking With the Wind…keeping my eyes on the Prize!” his text read. “A cherished lesson!”