When Cicely Tyson started crafting her 2021 memoir Just As I Am, her longtime friend and fashion designer, B Michael, began to conceptualize an idea for a book of his own, cataloging their working relationship together from the day the barrier-breaking actress first stepped foot in his atelier in 2005.
“She loved it and said that would be great and amazing, but [told the designer] ‘Help me finish my book first,’” B Michael recalls, laughing.
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When Tyson passed away on Jan. 28, 2021, just two days after her memoir was published, B Michael put his book idea on the back burner.
Now three years later, MUSE Cicely Tyson and Me: A Relationship Forged in Fashion, has come to fruition from publisher Harper Collins. In it, B Michael pairs the looks he created for Tyson over the last 16 years of her life with both the historical context and personal emotion tied to each event. Those moments include Tyson choosing him to design her a red dress for the national Heart Truth show during Fashion Week in 2009 — rather than choose from the list of suggested designers when she walked the celebrity runway — or how she would tell reporters who asked what she was wearing on red carpets, “Why, it’s B Michael.”
Among the high-profile events where Tyson wore designs by B Michael were when she won an honorary Oscars in 2018; to the Emmy Awards in 2017; and to the CFDA Awards in 2014.
One of the most talked-about B Michael looks the actress wore was to Aretha Franklin’s funeral, a design that included an enormous black hat. In an interview with THR that ran in 2021 when her memoir was released, Tyson said of working with B Michael: “Sometimes I don’t get [a dress] until the day of the event. But when I get it, you can bet your bottom dollar it stops the show.”
Explains B Michael of working on the book, “The original thought that I had was that the book would be a chronological narrative with captions on the looks and so forth, however the publisher felt that I needed to dig deeper. And I will say that I loved digging deeper because that process became cathartic. It really was a wonderful journey to relive all those moments and to feel Cicely’s presence and cope with her transition.”
There are also passages that speak to Tyson and B Michael’s connection as muse and designer from individuals who were large parts of both of their lives, including Lenny Kravitz (Tyson’s godson), famed fashion journalist André Leon Talley, Pauletta Washington, and Mark-Anthony Edwards, B Michael’s personal and professional partner, who joined him for the conversation with The Hollywood Reporter below.
As part of the pair’s commitment to ensuring the economic success of other Black entrepreneurs, Harper Collins will donate a percentage of the sales from the hardcopy version of Muse to Girls Write Now and the Boys and Girls Club of America twice a year.
“We wanted to have this extension of the book that goes beyond the iconic-ness of accomplishing it,” Edwards explains. “We wanted to make sure it continues to pay forward and do amazing things in young people’s lives.”
Let’s go back to that day in 2005 when you first met Cicely Tyson and dressed her for Oprah’s Legend Ball weekend. Did you imagine that meeting would turn into this decades long friendship and working relationship?
B MICHAEL I could not have known that the first day she appeared at my door. You know, we think we’re doing one thing and then there’s a divine order that is long term. So when she appeared at the door, she nor I could have foreseen the journey that we would take. I will say that it evolved organically. It was a very natural progression of the relationship and I think we woke up and realized we’re in this relationship, and it wasn’t calculated. It was just very natural and very honest.
That comes across in the text, particularly when you mention how at the Governor’s Ball after the 61st Emmys in 2009, Cicely Tyson casually told you, “You know, B, I have to start wearing you exclusively.” What was that moment like for you?
B MICHAEL First of all, we’re at the dinner that followed the Emmys so there’s lots of activity around us and then she just sort of spontaneously made that comment to me and it was very surreal and very emotional, but I also took it seriously. I recognized that with that, there is an excellence and a responsibility that I need to make sure I bring to that relationship. And I think that she trusted that I would.
How unique is it for an entertainer to suggest an exclusive arrangement like that?
B MICHAEL It’s very rare in our industry first of all, particularly, if I can be candid, as a Black American fashion designer to have that kind of muse-designer relationship. That was already sort of a very different thing for us, and from that moment we adopted the phrase “Givenchy had Audrey Hepburn and B. Michael has Cicely Tyson,” and that really became our mantra.
In the book you talk about how some of your history-making moments as a Black fashion designer— dressing two Oscar winners at the 2019 Academy Awards, for instance — were overlooked by the press. How did that make you feel then? How does it make you feel now?
B MICHAEL Then I recognized that red carpet is an industry unto itself, and it requires a massive machine to operate it at big dollars. It’s an area that independent designers, and particularly Black independent designers or Black designers period, have been left out of. So the fact that Ms. Tyson had the vision and the desire to do every red carpet together was felt. But at the same time, my role was to make her feel like Hollywood royalty. She’s shared that there was a time in her career when even Black actors were not approached by designers to dress them. She stems from those experiences. So what we shared and accomplished and enjoyed together was very, very special and very monumental.
Have you seen progress in this area for Black designers?
B MICHAEL I would say not especially. There are some Black designers now, fortunately, who are dressing actors on the red carpet and I’m happy to see that, but it’s not on the scale where it means the same thing.
EDWARDS I agree with what B is saying, that it is wonderful to see that happening more.
But what we focus on, and intend to continue to focus on, is to make sure that those opportunities translate into economic dollars for those individual independent designers and their own fashion brands so that they become sustainable businesses. It’s not simply just a moment on a red carpet. We have to be very careful that we don’t equate that moment with the strength and economic viability of that individual independent designer’s actual company.
What kind of work goes into doing that?
EDWARDS One of the things that we are very focused on when we travel together to visit colleges and things is financial literacy. What we say is that when you graduate, if it’s truly your passion to be an independent designer, what you need to make sure that you move forward with is an actual business plan and a financial model. A lot of universities offer programs and can help you build these things so that when you sit in front of a retailer saying you want to partner with whomever, you’re able to explain to them, in the terms that they understand, how your product will sell, who your demographic is and so forth and so on. Fashion has always been a fabulous thing — everybody wants to be on the front row — but at the end of the day, it’s still a business. Fashion is a $3 trillion industry, so you want to make sure that you’re getting a little piece of that economically, not just simply trying to get your dress on a Ms. Tyson, for example.
Did Cicely Tyson ever give you any pushback on any of your designs?
B MICHAEL Remarkably, I had free rein. She never second guessed, she never pushed back. Often, she didn’t even know what was being created until it was time for the event. But that was her level of trust, and it allowed her to focus on whatever her agenda was knowing that I had her that way. At times she would call me just to say, “Can you at least tell me the color of the dress so I can have my nails done?” That was it.
The one time we had almost a pushback was when we attended Aretha Franklin’s funeral. In the suite getting ready that morning, she resisted the idea of the hat, thinking that people sitting behind her would complain they can’t see. I thought, “No one is going to have the nerve to tell Cicely Tyson, ‘I can’t see because of your hat.'” But it also seemed like the right occasion for her to make that statement because she really is the queen of the culture. When we stepped into the church, it was like royalty truly had arrived. There was a hush that was just chilling and I knew instantly that it was the right choice. Then after the seven hours of sitting in church, we got into the car and I turned my phone on and it just never stopped chirping. We realized that the hat had gone viral.
Where are the pieces that you created for Ms. Tyson now?
B MICHAEL At the moment they are stored with us so they’re in safekeeping.
Kim Kardashian wearing one of Marilyn Monroe’s dresses to the Met Gala in 2022 sparked a great debate about archival fashion and whether it should be worn at all. Would you allow another entertainer to wear any of the designs you created for Cicely Tyson?
B MICHAEL That’s an interesting question. Off the cuff, I would say no, but then I would also say it would have to be someone very special and that I know would mean something to her. I wouldn’t do it just for the sake of publicity. It would really have to be meaningful and would have to consider Ms. Tyson. And anyway, I don’t think anyone is her size (laughs).
You mention in the book that she called you to talk every day at 9:30 am. Do you ever think about any of those conversations in particular?
B MICHAEL There is a conversation that stands out. It’s very personal and, actually, it’s a conversation where she addressed Marc-Anthony and I. This was earlier on in our relationship and Marc-Anthony was feeling like he’d had enough of the fashion world and all that jazz.
She said, “You guys come over here to my apartment and if you don’t, I’m going over to yours.” And we did. Later that evening, we went to her apartment and we walked around outdoors. It was late, maybe 11 o’clock, but it was summer and we walked around for two or three hours with her explaining that this is not just about us, that we have a mission and that there’s a charge that’s been given to us, and that was a conversation that really allowed us to pivot back to what was important.
EDWARDS That was actually a very unique moment because, to the earlier questions, when you look at an industry that you would think would be so lovely, the behind the scenes of it all can be a bit treacherous. And so, because it wasn’t my world, B and I are not only business partners, but we’re actually partner partners and we’ve been together now for 17 years, and of that we have now officially worked together for 14, coming from a world that’s just about numbers, fashion felt annoying. I didn’t want to deal with it anymore. But she inserted herself and said, “What people don’t realize in general about their lives is if you’re truly on the path you’re supposed to be on, you realize that what you do is not about you. It’s your mission here on earth.” And that resonated so loudly.
B MICHAEL And the funny part is that right until the end, on occasion, she took much joy in reminding us of that (laughs). She took a lot of credit for it.
What has life been like for the past few years not having her here?
B MICHAEL Every now and then I’ll sketch a dress with her in mind and it gives me great satisfaction just thinking, “Cicely would wear this dress.” That’s one of the things that I do that sort of keeps that alive. The book has certainly been a huge distraction in a great way and that has helped, but she’s in our lives presently every day. She’s where we work and where we live; she’s all over the place. That brings us great comfort in a really uplifting way. It doesn’t make us sad because our relationship was just so wonderful that to be sad would be dishonoring what we really shared. It’s just a wonderful and continuous understanding of what transition means. That means her energy is still with us.
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