NEW YORK — “I didn’t think Michelle would come,” Tracy Reese said, laughing. “This is way too frivolous for her.”
Reese was right. Michelle Obama didn’t attend the African American designer’s Cuban-themed Fashion Week extravaganza. But as the ready-to-wear specialist’s most important fan, the first lady’s spirit was evident, as was a distinct diversity that permeated the designer’s show, both onstage and backstage at the Studio at Lincoln Center. And as Reese suggested, there were quite a few things Obama might like: “Mainly dresses.”
Models of every hue got prepped for the Afro-Cuban-inspired collection — think textured, easy hair; defined Brooke Shields eyebrows; soft, glossy lips; and black stick-on tattoos elegantly placed on backs and shoulders to complement the Latina femininity of the clothes. The combination made it impossible to miss the mixed-ethnic zeitgeist of it all.
As the only African American woman showing at Fashion Week, Tracy Reese is singularly significant. Michelle Obama has often chosen Tracy Reese designs for key events, such as last month’s 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the Democratic National Convention last September.
You wouldn’t have guessed Reese has never been to Cuba. (“Too complicated,” she said. “Plus, I’m not a planner.”) Every detail was based on research from this side of the Straits of Florida, from the three-piece Cuban band warming up at the entrance of the stage to interns placing little bags of salted plantain chips on the chairs for the audience.
“I’m attracted to tribal spirit, rhythmic sound and sensual movement,” Reese continued, displaying her nails freshly painted in minty green “Mojito,” overlaid with a black windowpane pattern. She created the colorful look for her show, as she has for many seasons, with nail-care giant Sally Hansen.
“There are grid patterns in the collection and every detail is important,” Reese said. “There’s a synergy between all of it, always.”
In the flurry of pre-runway preparation, QVC’s beauty queen Mally Roncal, who’s Philippine American, did the models’ makeup along with her pink-clad team.
“This is our 16th season with Tracy Reese,” Roncal said, adjusting the outer tip of a model’s thick black eyeliner. “Tracy’s woman is, as we all know, a lot like Michelle [Obama]: urban, young and fierce, but relatable. So the makeup is pretty, modern and simple; something any girl could do with three eyeliners and a lipstick.”
Roncal fine-tuned another model’s lower eyelids’ inner corners with a sleek silvery pencil.
“When my three little daughters wake up in the morning,” she said, “they have these cute, puffy eyes. They look so innocent and fresh. That was my inspiration, to reflect that.”
Underlying the upscale frivolity was an awareness that girls in Cuba have little access to such makeup.
“I love Cuba and its history,” Reese said. “Its people, its street, the blending of the old and the new, the black and the white, the ballet, the mambo, the natural, untortured quality of wavy hair. . . . It gives me lots of things to play with.”
Speaking of things to play with, that was exactly what Ouidad’s creative director and lead stylist, Morgan Willhite, and her curly-haired team were doing with models’ hair.
“The style now is effortless, touchable texture,” Willhite said. “Perfect messiness. We’re really excited to embrace natural texture, from the straightest to the kinkiest. Everybody wants to do it themselves — easy styles that look great with healthy, nourished hair.”
“The clothes are so chic,” said Ouidad stylist Jessica Scott, “that we’re balancing them out with messy knots for the hair.”
She wrapped an anchored elastic band around the back of Brazilian model Suzane’s thick black locks.
“It’s a textured look,” Scott said, “but still polished. I’m dying to get my hands in Michelle [Obama’s] hair. ”
Already made up and waiting for her runway walk-through was Tanzania-born model Flaviana Matata, a 2007 Miss Universe finalist. In a sea of long hair, black clothes and huge floppy black leather bags — the typical model’s off-duty look — Flaviana stood out with a nearly bald head, a fitted sleeveless dress in black and aqua that Reese had given her as a present, and a structured Hermes purse that was little and tan.
“As an African woman, it’s crazy, lonely, and very hard fighting for jobs year after year,” she said. “I’m 23. Not young by model standards. I wish I could see more diversity in our industry’s mentality.
“The designer has the final say,” she continued. British designer “Vivienne Westwood does a good job, as of course does Tracy. They don’t show black models for the sake of showing black models. They represent reality.”
Like the occupants of the White House.
Anders is a freelance writer.