New York Fashion Week: Tracy Reese’s Afro-Cuban spree

REVIEW - The aura of Havana permeated the cat walk as flirty frocks in searing primary colors announced Reese's Afro-Cuban theme...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

The aura of Havana would soon permeate the cat walk, live drummers pounding to the syncopated steps of models walking in the Tracy Reese Spring 2014 show.

Reese’s latest collection, shown in New York City at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week on Sunday, took place under dim lights as booming Latin tracks announced the collection’s Afro-Cuban theme.

But before the first look appeared, Reese calmly chatted with reporters backstage, the eye of a storm of preparations at Lincoln Center.

“We’re super-excited. It’s going to be a really fun show,” Reese told theGrio. “We just want the audience to have a great time and we want the models to have a great time.”

The creative powerhouse whose fashions are available in 450 stores — plus her own New York City flagship boutique — spoke with a soft voice and open demeanor. She had been working until four o’clock in the morning on recent nights for these coming beautiful moments.

“We want the clothes to look really good of course  — and you know what? This is a lot of work, but you’ve got to have fun.”

Bright lights, beautiful clothing

And fun it was. You could feel a swoon of delight emanate from the head of the runway as the first ensembles went out. People whipped out their phones. And the approving coos didn’t stop until the last look disappeared behind a facade fashioned from picturesque tin roofing and Reese took her bows.

Her models looked joyous in shapes familiar to Reese’s aesthetic — flared, full skirts, sporty dresses — but, they seemed extra-energized by the hues and textures of the Afro-Cuban theme.

Searing primary colors — bright red, hot pink, turquoise blue, and spring green — drew the eye. Print mixing was prevalent, although the bold use of solid colors and many looks in pure white offered an aesthetic variation to the many graphic juxtapositions of black and white prints and floral patterns.

Reese’s perennially pretty dresses were made extra-sexy this season with floral appliqué lace overlays and lace cutouts accenting the body. Long skirts approached the floor. Hers was a fitted silhouette.

Forever re-imagining basic American staples, Reese accessorized her ensembles with big, colorful backpacks, evolved gladiator sandals, and heeled sandals that laced to the calf. Jaunty scarves tied about the neck gave the air of the carefree traveler.

Reese’s fashions popular with many

Added dashes of timeless femininity and breezy wear-ability were evident as well, key qualities that have made Reese popular with many women — most famously first lady Michelle Obama.

“Having the first lady’s seal of approval means everything for a designer nowadays,” John-John Williams, IV, fashion editor for The Baltimore Sun, told theGrio from the stands. “Two years ago, Tracy Reese had a following, but it wasn’t to this extent. Now this is one of the most packed shows of Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week. The Michelle Obama effect is definitely helping out.”

Ken Downing, the fashion director of Neiman Marcus, and June Ambrose, stylist to the stars, represented fashion royalty from the front row. Pulitzer-prize winning fashion writer Robin Givhan, writer and socialite Susan Fales-Hill, ABC News journalist Deborah Roberts and lifestyle expert Harriette Cole were among the black media elite present. Hundreds more packed around Reese’s runway, snapping photos and likely posting them to their social media accounts, as evidence of attending one of the hottest spectacles of the season.

“It’s a star-studded event. So she is definitely a designer to watch,” Williams added.

A designer beloved by multitudes

As a rare African-American woman who consistently headlines presentations to packed houses, Reese reflected on the questions of race in fashion circulating this season. Among those are the lack of diversity on the runways, and the visibility of black designers.

“All I can do is always do my best,” Reese said, “and put my best foot forward, and try to represent all of us as well as I possibly can. I try to think from our perspective, being a minority, how I feel when I’m not represented in some arena that I’m interested in.”

A humble icon of blacks in fashion to many, Reese also expressed gratitude for her ability to serve diverse multitudes.

“I sell to all types of women,” Reese affirmed. “Every shape, size, color. I’m an equal opportunity employer. It’s my pleasure to dress all kinds of people, and it actually excites me. When we’re casting for the show, picking models, it’s so cool what each person brings to the clothes. Trying to look at each woman and say, ‘this is what is going to flatter you.’ To me that’s part of the excitement, and that’s what my job is really all about. How can I be very inclusive, and make sure that I’ve got all of my customers covered.”

Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter at @lexisb.