The Originals: Tracee Ellis Ross

In an era where seemingly everything is mined for inspiration—or, let’s be frank, appropriation—what does it take to be truly one of a kind? A willingness to break the rules is essential; a strong sense of personal style certainly doesn't hurt; but most of all, you need to have a truly meaningful point of view. At W we are all about celebrating originality, which is why we’ve rounded up some of our favorite people who are constantly pushing boundaries, and asked them to share valuable insights. They may be just starting out or in the prime of their careers, but they are all leading the conversation in their chosen fields—whether it’s fashion, art, film, music, photography, or even skateboarding. The bottom line is that, regardless of their differences, they all share one very important trait: for them, standing out, rather than blending in, is not an option but a necessity.

Tracee Ellis Ross is an actor, activist, and entrepreneur, with a starring role on ABC's hit sitcom Black-ish and a new hair-care brand for natural curls called Pattern.

How would you describe your style?

This morning, I decided I wanted to look a little like a skater chick. So I put on sweatpant shorts, black Balenciaga sandals with a lot of straps, and an oversize David Bowie T-shirt, and my hair is in cornrows. I look like I’m going to a rave. Tomorrow I might look like I’m part of corporate America, in a suit and heels. Every day is different: How I dress on any given day depends on what person I want to reflect to the world.

As a child, were you always into clothes?

There’s a photo of me as a toddler: I’m stark naked except for a pair of my mom’s [Diana Ross] high-heeled pumps, standing on a shag carpet in front of her closet. For my entire life I’ve been trying to get back to being that little girl! From the age of 11 or 12, I’d steal clothes from my mom’s closet. Most of my ideas about dressing came from that closet. I also loved my grandmother’s style: Her hands were covered in beautiful rings, and her closet door was long strings of beads hanging down—no actual door. From an early age, I was attracted to the idea of decorating myself, becoming an object or a character. And I’ve never lost interest in seizing that daily opportunity.

What was the first item of clothing that you bought for yourself?

I worked at Ralph Lauren all through high school, and my biggest purchase there—even with my employee discount—was a pair of chestnut suede button-fly jeans. They cost $620. It was a great extravagance. I could maybe wear them on one arm now, they were so tight. Then, when I was on the show Girlfriends, I had a tradition of buying myself a gift when we were renewed for a new season, and my favorite one was a pair of Vivienne Westwood pirate boots. They were expensive—about $800 or $900, which was generally out of my range. What I really, really wanted was a Stephen Sprouse Graffiti Louis Vuitton bag, but I couldn’t justify the cost. I would go to the store and visit that bag. Recently, I bought one at a resale boutique. My obsessions endure!

Since you’ve been on Black-ish, you have been a major presence on the red carpet. Do you have a philosophy for red-carpet dressing?

I’ll be honest: Even when I was in high school, I always thought I was on a red carpet. I was on the runway of my life! But when I was asked to be on the real one, I said to my stylist, “We’re not playing this safe!” So I try to wear the most amazing gown I can imagine.

The giant, gorgeous Valentino Couture extravaganza you wore to the Emmy Awards last year springs to mind…

Yes! It was a lot of fabric, a lot of sleeve, a lot of pink! And midway down the carpet, I thought, for a split second, Maybe this is too much dress! But that thought quickly vanished. There has to be joy in fashion. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Top left and far right (2): Tracee Ellis Ross wears a Givenchy dress and boots; vintage belt. Bottom left (2) and top center: Fendi jacket, blouse, skirt, and tights.

Photograph by Maripol. Hair by Nai’Vasha at the Wall Group; Makeup by Lottie for Tom Ford Beauty at Lowe & Co.; Photographs shot with SX-70 by Polaroid; Background art by Lino Meoli; Fashion assistants: Nadia Beeman, Madeleine Issa; Makeup assistant: Nicolette Fernandez.

Now you’ve launched a hair-care line called Pattern, for curly, coiled, and dense hair textures. How long have you been working on this line?

My whole life? Actually, I’ve been dreaming of this for 20 years. Our culture now sees a broader spectrum of beauty, so a line like this is possible. I want women to find their most beautiful hair in their own bathrooms, just like they find their style in their own closets.

What does being an Original mean to you?

Originals are bold, clear personalities who know who they are. When you meet or see a true original, you know immediately. To me, Nina Simone is an Original. Michelle Obama is an Original. And without a doubt, my mom is an Original.

Related: Tracee Ellis Ross Launches New Beauty Line for Natural Hair