First Lady of Fashion
Oprah loves her. Michelle Obama does too. How Seaside’s own Rachel Roy became one of the hottest names in New York.
Thursday, March 22, 2012
Minutes before Rachel Roy presents her Fall 2012 collection to the public, models take their positions atop metal podiums lined with moss, stones and wood chips. Editors, stylists and socialites wait in the cold beyond the dramatic three-story windows of Alice Tully Hall in New York.
Backstage, there’s a stillness that’s unusual for Fashion Week, a famously harried event. Roy is poised at the foot of a line of reporters, taking the time to answer each question with confidence. Models stand tall above the crowd, dressed in shades of eucalyptus, willow, soil and winter rose.
Film crews, photographers and writers surround the acclaimed designer throughout the presentation, recording her every word and move. Interview after interview, followed by celebrity greetings, photo ops and more interviews, Roy discusses her latest collection with the same calm she exuded backstage. Once a conversation begins, the presence of boom mics and TV cameras seem to fade back, as if that single interaction were the climax of a film.
The designer reflects on her humble Seaside upbringing. “I love the idea that you can be so much more than any environment you were born into,” she says.
With little money and limited resources, young Rachel dreamed through magazines and old movies. She longed to dress like the images in Vogue, but would walk outside and see men sagging their pants.
Having grown up in a Seventh-Day Adventist household, Rachel and her brother Rajendra were discouraged from going out to movies. Yet their father was a huge Marx Brothers fan, and they had one of the first VCRs on the block. Because of this, Rachel and Rajendra were introduced to classic cinema at an early age.
“The cinema we watched had very classic, ladylike roles, where fashion was not disposable,” Rajendra says. “Rachel’s embrace of the classics is evident in her work now.”
Rachel recalls a back-to-school trip at Mervyn’s in Del Monte Center. “I knew what I saw in magazines, and I knew what was in the store,” she says.
When Rachel asked why they sold such boring, mass-produced merchandise, her mother replied, “Well, you need to become a buyer and put different clothes in here.”
At that moment, Rachel decided to pursue a career in fashion.
That career started a few stores away at the trendy, teen-friendly Contempo Casuals, where she worked part-time while attending Seaside High. “At the time, they dressed how I imagined people in big cities or New York dressing,” Roy says, “and I was quite inspired by the girls there.”
“Rachel has always been great at helping to guide my style,” Rajendra reflects. “She helped me escape total nerddom.”
After graduating from Washington Adventist University (previously Columbia Union College) in Washington, D.C., Rachel moved to New York, where she dabbled as a wardrobe stylist and interned at Rocawear clothing. She worked up the ladder through various departments, eventually becoming creative director.
She also met and married the co-founder of Rocawear and Roc-a-Fella Records, Damon Dash, now her ex-husband and father of their two daughters, Ava and Tallulah.
After launching the Rachel Roy New York collection in 2005, she propelled into stardom. In 2006, Oprah Winfrey dubbed Roy “the next big name in fashion,” and by 2007, she was inducted into the Council of Fashion Designers of America, an invitation-only association of America’s top designers.
In 2008, the Jones Group approached Roy to create RACHEL Rachel Roy, a secondary clothing line available exclusively at Macy’s. The partnership would bring her designs full circle – back to Del Monte Center, where her career began.
While the higher-end Rachel Roy collection is carried at retailers like Bloomingdale’s and Neiman Marcus, RACHEL is sold exclusively at Macy’s for a fraction of the price.
“What is unique about her clothes is that her designs are feminine but with a slight edgy vibe, so you instantly feel pretty, sexy and cool,” says Jane Black, a wardrobe stylist who has collaborated with Roy on both collections. “Most people cannot afford her signature line, so the RACHEL line has been a great way for the everyday woman to get a slice of her clothes at a fraction of the price.”
Roy says the pieces from her signature line reflect her own changing styles. “As I grow, my collection grows with me, for my needs as a mom or my needs professionally,” she says.
While Rachel Roy New York is aimed at the person she is today, RACHEL Rachel Roy is designed for the person she once was. “With my secondary collection, I just have fun,” she explains, “because I can meet so many more styles at such a cheaper price point.”
Roy’s latest venture is the Rachel Roy shoe line, which will be sold at luxury department stores and boutiques this August. The collection was inspired by her footwear mentor and famed shoe designer Manolo Blahnik, and presented at Fashion Week as part of the Fall/Winter 2012 collection.
Roy often seeks inspiration from film, mostly at the recommendation of her brother, Rajendra, now chief film curator at MOMA (see sidebar, p. 20). Her fall 2012 collection is inspired by the documentary Women in the Dirt.
“It’s about female landscape architects who take natural elements and create environments of nature in urban settings,” she explains. “The women are soft and feminine, and yet just as hard, strong, and powerful” – a fitting description for herself.
Despite growing up “quite poor” in Seaside, Roy now recognizes the unique styles of her home county.
“Very chic hippies choose to live on the Monterey Peninsula, because it’s not necessarily the most inexpensive place to live.”
She elaborates: “I think that growing up there gave me a relaxed attitude towards fashion, and yet I definitely love chic silhouettes and I think it’s the balance that works for me.”
Roy, a New Yorker since her early 20s, applies that same balance to her work. “I don’t just resonate with uptown or downtown,” she says, “and I design for the woman that’s the same way.”
Praised as a designer for the modern woman, with accessible styles that exhibit both beauty and strength, Rachel Roy clothing seems a natural fit for the First Lady. What started with Michelle Obama spontaneously wearing an off-the-rack Rachel Roy design has evolved into the creation of several custom Rachel Roy dresses, which Mrs. Obama wore at events like the State of the Union address last year.
“She has been extremely supportive of my collection,” Roy says. “I love seeing my designs become a part of her everyday life and style.”
Michelle isn’t the only Obama woman to rock Roy designs. The president’s daughter, Sasha, accessorizes with the RACHEL collection, which Roy describes as the “younger sister” of the Rachel Roy line.
The Obama support is mutual. In 2008, Rachel was invited by her childhood inspiration, Vogue magazine, to join its “Runway to Change” campaign promoting Barack Obama’s run for president. She describes the opportunity as “inspiring and empowering.”
For the 2012 campaign, Roy joins a team of 23 American designers including Tracy Reese, Jason Wu and Diane Von Furstenberg in the “Runway to Win” campaign, creating fashion-forward, U.S. made, pro-Obama merchandise to support his re-election.
Roy feels the natural urge to pay her good fortune forward, from wrapping books for Ghanaian children at her staff holiday parties to spearheading the “Kindness Is Always Fashionable” initiative to raise funds for charity.
“It’s become a tradition on my birthday for me to give rather than receive,” she explains. “Through giving back, I find that you gain clarity, peacefulness and happiness in your own life.”
For her 36th birthday in 2010, Rachel raised funds for a drinking well in the Kuya Village in Ethiopia, providing clean water to 750 people for 20 years. For her 38th, she’s helping send and keep Ghanaian children in school.
Her team raises funds with sales of the “Kindness is Always Fashionable” clutch, emblazoned with the Amelia E. Barr quote; 100 percent of the proceeds benefit OrphanAid Africa.
Roy has also provided a platform for Haitian artisans. After the 2010 earthquake, the CEO of Macy’s invited Roy and Martha Stewart to visit the devastated country as part of the “Heart of Haiti” effort to sell Haitian products in Macy’s stores.
That trip inspired Rachel to launch the RACHEL Haiti Jewelry Collection, a selection of hand-made items, providing job opportunities in Haiti and giving mass exposure to its artisans.
“The biggest thing that sets her apart from other designers is that she is just as beautiful on the inside as she is on the outside,” says cosmetics maker Bobbi Brown, Roy’s friend and collaborator for 12 seasons of New York Fashion Week. “Every time I work with Rachel, it is truly inspiring. Her energy and passion are contagious.”
When asked who influenced her to be so driven, Rachel brings up her father, a first-generation immigrant from India and the eldest of 13 kids, who “never stopped working.” Juggling three jobs as a sociology professor, a psych-ward nurse and a carpenter, she says, “He got up before any of us got up and went to bed before everyone else went to sleep.”
Her mother, Ruth Roy, worked as a computer programmer at the Naval Postgraduate School for 30 years, coding high-security programs. “Needless to say, she is very trustworthy and honest, two traits I value in a person and myself,” Rachel says. “Together, my parents set the example of patience and never stopping what you love.”
Her parents broke the mold themselves with their biracial relationship. Ruth Roy was Dutch and from a Kennedy-conservative household, but “married a dark-skinned Indian guy in the 1960s, which was frowned upon at the time,” explains Rajendra. “Together they made their own life.”
If you follow Rachel Roy on Twitter or like her on Facebook, you’ll read quotes like: “If you believe in something and believe in it long enough, it will come into being,” and “Dwell upon what you want, instead of what you don’t want.”
She follows the methods of spiritual teacher Deepak Chopra by meditating every morning. “I find it gives me great clarity and energy to go about my day to the best of my ability,” she says.
She reached out to Chopra recently via Twitter, which led to a collaboration: the “Law of Attraction” button, a pin that headphones can be plugged into to hear a guided meditation. Roy is also designing a collection of T-shirts bearing the author’s quotes.
“Deepak has so much to give,” Roy says. “It makes me want to pay it forward and help tell his story, particularly to the customers of my secondary line, RACHEL Rachel Roy, because many of those girls might not be familiar with him.”
Roy uses her love for fashion to inspire those inspired by her. How a person presents herself, in her view, has a direct connection with how she feels about herself.
Her advice: “Dress in ways that make you feel strong, comfortable and beautiful. Because when you achieve that with what you choose to put on your body, that will come out in your spirit.”