A Rags-To-Riches Story

Tracy Reese knows how cut-throat couture can get. Fresh from Parsons School of Design, Reese expected to storm the runways. "I was only 23 years old, and I thought I knew everything," she says."It didn't take long to realize I didn't know much at all." Her business flopped.

Sixteen years later, her designs are on the racks at Bergdorf's and Saks and on the backs of Julia and that other Reese. In the process, this 38-year-old Detroit native is doing something no black woman in America ever has--she's thriving atop the fashion world. "It's wonderful to see this chocolate girl doing her thing with the big guys," says celebrity publicist Marvet Britto, who'll be under the tent in New York City when Reese unveils her spring collection Sept. 14. The designer's two sportswear lines--a high-end Tracy Reese label and the funkier Plenty line--racked up sales of $12 million last year, up from $5 million in 2001, Reese says.

It's not that Reese's designs have changed radically since her first time out--she still favors her signature "feminine chic" look of clingy silks and prints. But Reese now knows she needs more than fashion sense. After Reese's first business collapsed, former classmate Marc Jacobs helped her get a job at Perry Ellis. Working there, Reese found the elements that were missing in her first business plan. "I learned that you had to focus both on the creative and the business side," she says. Armed with the details of inventory and accounting, Reese launched a small dress collection in 1994 that got Seventh Avenue talking. Later, an accountant from India turned her on to the country's fine fabrics and cost-effective production. The two became business partners and launched Plenty. In 2001 Reese brought in private investors, providing her the capital to open a Manhattan showroom and join Jacobs in the big leagues. Slipping into her favorite black lizard Manolos, Reese says she's planning handbags, perfume, even a shoe collection. Carrie Bradshaw, make room in your closet.