Cicely Tyson’s honorary Oscar was more than 45 years in the making when she received the award at the 2018 Governors Awards in Hollywood last fall. The 94-year-old Hollywood legend is the first Black woman to receive such an honor.
But her lifetime of achievement wasn’t the only thing that stood out that night.
On the red carpet, Tyson wore a long-sleeved silver gown detailed with stripes, complemented with platinum opera gloves. It was an elegant and impeccably refined look created by American fashion designer B Michael. As Tyson made history that night, so did the designer who became the first Black American to dress the recipient of an Academy Award.
For Michael, making Oscar history was bittersweet. On one hand, he felt honored as any designer would be. However, he knew that space for Black designers in the Oscar arena was still too small.
“It’s an amazing glass ceiling to break,” Michael said. “But Black designers are not in the luxury space. That's the space where brands are built. We’re welcomed in streetwear but not in the luxury world. This is about us having equity in the industry, and it trickles down to something like the red carpet of the Oscars. I'm sure I have designed gowns that have been worn to the Oscars, but not under our own brand and label.”
Michael’s fashion career has spanned more than four decades. His B Michael America collections have garnered legions of fans, including Tyson, Phylicia Rashad and Beyoncé. The late jazz singer Nancy Wilson and actress Lena Horne wore his designs. He also created singer Whitney Houston’s costumes for the 2012 movie, Sparkle. And Michael’s Red Collection has sold at Macy’s.
Born in 1957, Michael was raised in Durham, Conn. As a child, he was captivated by the style of his mother and grandmother. And while his peers devoured comic books, Michael was drawn to his mother’s fashion magazines. He grew up fascinated by designers like Chanel and Halston.
“My mom always had the little black dress with the strand of pearls. My grandmother always carried gloves,” remembers Michael. “I always saw fashion as being very polite and feminine. Clearly, that influenced me in my later years, although at the time I didn't realize that.”
Michael studied at the University of Connecticut and at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology. His first job was as an account executive on Wall Street, but he soon found footing in the world of fashion as a millinery designer. Chanel and Halston both started out as milliners and served as role models for Michael.
Michael went on to design hats for Oscar de la Renta, French designer Louis Feraud and Nolan Miller for the 1980s television soap opera, Dynasty. In 1989, Michael launched his own millinery line. By 1999, he had unveiled his first couture collection.
Even today, he continues to create dramatic hats and accessories. He designed the stunning ruffled and wide-brimmed black hat Tyson wore at Aretha Franklin’s funeral in 2018. In fact, Tyson’s hat was a trending topic on Twitter.
But the road wasn’t easy to get to this point. African-American designers face undeniable challenges in the fashion industry and Michael’s journey had a few bumps.
“I call myself the alchemist of fashion. You know the story, where you fall seven times and get up eight. It's really that kind of a journey,” said Michael. “I don't take it personal because I recognize there's a part of it that's just germane to being in business, and particularly in fashion. You put that on steroids when you’re a Black designer.”
While there have been some, like B Michael, Stephen Burrows and Jeffrey Banks who have had celebrated careers, few make it to the heights of Ralph Lauren or Calvin Klein. Capital is the biggest issue, Michael said.
“Diversity is not equity,” Michael said. “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.”
This year, he is focused on building his e-commerce business and growing his brand globally.
Michael lives in Harlem, with his longtime partner Mark-Anthony Edwards, who is CEO of B Michael America. He also has two grown daughters. (He’s coy when asked what the B in B Michael stands for.)
Michael is proud that his company is 100-percent Black owned. He travels the country visiting historically Black colleges and universities to give students the real deal about being a fashion designer and entrepreneur.
“It's exciting to share with students, and to learn from them. They're very eager,” said Michael. “We want to be very candid with them about what it means to come into any business, particularly our industry. [We want to] promote the idea of having equity, promote the idea of what it means to position yourself to raise capital and to build that because that's what's important.”
— Joy Sewing