When actress Cicely Tyson took to the stage last year to accept an honorary Oscar award, she became the first African-American woman to receive the honor. The 94-year-old, who has a recurring role in ABC’s “How to Get Away with Murder,” also became the first black Oscar winner to wear a look by an African-American luxury designer, B Michael. It was a red-carpet moment in fashion history.
“I’m honored, and it’s an amazing glass ceiling to break at this stage,” Michael said by phone from his New York headquarters. “I’m sure black designers have designed gowns that have been worn to the Oscars, but not under their own brand and label.”
Michael — who says he’s an “ageless 61” — and Tyson have been friends, in fashion and life, for many years, and he calls Tyson his muse. She even wore one of his elegant hats for Aretha Franklin’s funeral last year.
This month, Tyson appears on the cover of Time magazine’s second annual “Art of Optimism” issue, with guest editor and award-winning film director Ava DuVernay. Tyson is photographed wearing a stunning ruby-red dress by B Michael Couture.
A native of Durham, Connecticut, B Michael got his start designing hats for the 1980s TV hit “Dynasty,” then moved into couture, creating looks for Phylicia Rashad and Beyoncé, Halle Berry, singer Valerie Simpson, the late actress Lena Horne and more.
He talked about dressing Tyson, breaking into the world of luxury fashion and why he won’t be watching the Oscar red carpet:
Q: What is it like dressing an icon like Cicely Tyson?
A: Ms. Tyson started her career as a fashion model, so we have enjoyed working together now for many years. She’s only so tall, but she has this ability to wear and carry a dress of many yards. So as a designer, I have her as a friend and muse. It’s been a wonderful creative collaboration.
I never dress her as though she’s 94. I dress her because she’s Hollywood royalty and because she has an innate fashion ability to carry a dress. … As I say, Givenchy had Audrey Hepburn, and B Michael has Cicely Tyson.
Q: Why do you think it’s taken so long for a black designer to dress an Oscar winner?
A: The truth is black designers are not in the luxury space. I compete with designers that are like a Valentino, Versace and Chanel, and we are really kept out of that space. That’s the space where brands are built. … It’s about us having equity in the industry, and it trickles down to something like the red carpet of the Oscars.
Q: Do you think ethnic diversity in fashion has gotten better?
A: Diversity is not equity. I get excited when I’m looking at the newsstand, and I see all of the black celebrities on the cover. I think that’s fabulous, but many are not wearing black designers. I get excited when I see fashion campaigns and black celebrities are being used, but we’ve always been able to sell clothing, so it doesn’t surprise me.
The difference is equity. Equity requires capital. Capital gives you access, and it gives you the opportunity to really compete in a $3 trillion industry. What black designers really need is access to capital. That’s really what the focus needs to be.
Q: Did you always know that you were going to work in fashion?
A: I was doomed to be a fashion designer. As a kid, I was fascinated by Chanel and Halston and the likes of them, and read their biographies. Rather than looking at comic books, I was reading my mother’s fashion magazines, so I was always drawn to it. I always loved old films because of the fashion. It was definitely in my blood that I would be this. I never imagined anything else.
Q: How did you start designing hats?
A: One of the designers that really fascinated me was Chanel, and Chanel started as a milliner (hat designer). My grandmother wore very chic hats, and so I always was fascinated by millinery. It was an easy way for me to begin my career. Starting out as a millinery designer and then evolving to couture was what Chanel did and Halston did, and I thought, that’s a great club to join.
Q: Your first big job was designing hats for the 1980s hit TV show, “Dynasty.” What was that like?
A: Of course, it was a great part of my legacy. I reported to Nolan Miller, who was the costume designer for the show, and it really was about executing Nolan’s vision for the characters. … It was a great way to learn.
Q: You later worked with Oscar de la Renta. What did you learn from him?
A: I considered Oscar a master, but it was still about understanding Oscar’s vision for a collection and my ability to accessorize that vision, so when I got on my own line, I knew what to do. Oscar was not a designer that gave into trends. So I also consider myself a designer not moved by trend.
Q: How did you get into designing womenswear?
A: I was actually working with a very successful company designing millinery (hats), and I had my own millinery. A few friends had come to me to say, “Can you design a dress for me?” They gave me great exposure as the result of that. It convinced me that I did have a point of view.
Q: Did you have the support you needed to go off on your own?
A: I call myself the alchemist of fashion. You know the story goes, you fall seven times and get up eight. It’s really that kind of a journey that I don’t take personal because I recognize there’s a part of it that’s just germane to being in business, and particularly in fashion. Now, you put that on steroids when you’re a black designer.
I launched my first couture collection in 1999 with the support of publicist Eleanor Lambert, who started actually the CFDA. (She also started New York Fashion Week and The Met Gala ). She launched careers like Oscar and Bill Blass. I was really fortunate to be probably her last designer, her last client. At any rate, I launched that collection in 1999 and have not looked back. (Lambert died in 2003 at age 100.)
Q: Any piece of advice that she gave you?
A: My first collection was probably 80 pieces, and every thought I ever had about a look I created. She taught me a word that I have kept with me, and it’s called, “edit.”
Q: What’s in your future?
A: I’m proud to say that we are 100 percent black owned, and we got a great start with people who believed in my work. That allowed us to reach a certain point. Now, the idea for B Michael America is to grow globally.
Q: Where do you think the best-dressed women are in the United States?
A: Now, that’s a dangerous question. I would say the best-dressed ladies are sort of on the peripheral of the country. The West Coast, the East Coast, the southerly and northerly. But I really say you see a best-dressed woman on an average day because that’s when you know what a woman’s taste is. At events, everyone gets dressed up.
Q: Is that what you love about dressing women, like Cicely Tylson, Phylicia Rashad and others?
A: When you see Ms. Tyson, Phylicia Rashad or Valerie Simpson and you say they look beautiful, it’s not about the dress. It’s about the woman. For me, that’s important.
Q: What brings you joy?
A: Knowing I am fulfilling my destiny as a luxury fashion designer.
Source: Express News