The Originals: Tracee Ellis Ross
What does it take to be a true Original these days? A willingness to break the rules, of course; a strong sense of personal style doesn’t hurt; but most of all, you need to have a meaningful point of view.
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?
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.
One Of A Kind: 15 Creatives Who Prove What It Means To Be Original
You grew up in Connecticut. Do you remember your first trip to New York? My father commuted to Manhattan, so he would bring me in when I was a little girl for, like, Daddy and Daughter Day. I remember I had this little suit and tie, and he taught me how to tie a tie. I must have been like 5.
Do you still have moments now when you visit a certain area in the city and have vivid flashbacks or memories? Every single time I walk into Washington Square Park, I swear to God, I get a weird feeling of vertigo. I spent so much time there as a teenager, and I got cast for Kids there, and it was where I was kind of discovered by Sassy magazine. I just spent so many of my formative days in that park that I still get misty-eyed.
Do you think New York has changed for the worse over the years? It seems like what everyone is complaining about in New York is happening everywhere. With the Internet and the world becoming so much smaller, the specificity of “I’m going to New York to find something I can’t find anywhere else in the world” just doesn’t exist anymore. That’s what I mourn.
Chloë Sevigny wears a Fendi jumpsuit and bag; her own bracelet.
How would you describe being an Original? The main characteristic of an Original is an ability to think outside the box, to hold your ground, and to uplift others by your example. I’ve always felt different. And sometimes I’ve felt estranged from my peers because I was interested in things like the cosmos and history at a young age. I would talk about these things, and my friends’ parents would tell my parents that I was scaring their kids. So after a while, I learned to tone it down. I realized that there are people who accept originality and some people who are afraid of what it may mean to their lives.
Who do you think is an Original? Ani DiFranco. Octavia Butler, although she’s no longer with us. And my mom and dad.
Willow Smith wears her own clothing.
What does originality mean to you? Substance, authenticity, even irreverence. Originality rises above the fray.
Who was the first person who made you realize you could break the rules? I always felt that I could and should, though I always remember that not all rules are meant to be broken.
Aaron de Mey wears his own clothing.
Jewelry Designer, Photographer
How would you describe your signature style now? I think everything is personal. It goes back. I’m constantly going back to the world of the West. California or Wyoming. I’m a vintage girl. I hunt through lots of vintage stuff, so I’m not the biggest retail person. I also do not like so much of the retail experience. Going to a vintage show or vintage shop is a much more enjoyable experience for me than going to a retail store. It’s less expensive, the quality is better, it’s all unique and one of a kind. It’s totally different.
What are your most prized possessions? I’m not sure which thing I would take in a fire. In fact, we actually had to do that a couple of years ago, and I was like, Oh, my God. I value it all because I have weird shit. I have Sammy Davis Jr.’s suits. I have one of Elvis Presley’s TCB pendants and his original glasses. I have beautiful Tina Chow jewelry.
Do you feel confident? I think there’s a confidence you have to have being original. Believe me, I’ve had plenty of people laugh at me when I walk into places, but I never really gave a shit about that. It was just like, Well, this is who I am.
Lisa Eisner wears her own clothing and jewelry.
You’ve made history by playing Taylor, the first non‑binary main character to appear on American television, on the show Billions. At what point did you realize that you identify as nonbinary? In the first email I received from my agent about an audition, there was a character breakdown for Taylor that said “female gender nonbinary.” And I didn’t really understand. I thought, Well, how can you have a female gender, but not a gender-nonbinary identity? So I did some research and discovered that “female” referred to assigned sex at birth, and “nonbinary” was a term used by some people who experience their gender identity as falling somewhere outside of the boxes of boy or girl, or man or woman. That was the first time that it really clicked for me—that I had words to describe a feeling that I’d had from the time that I was very young, even though I didn’t experience gender or body dysphoria. So for me, encountering Taylor for the first time really helped clarify that I didn’t need to change my body to be valid as a nonbinary person, and that “they/them” pronouns are the right ones for me. It really was an incredibly freeing experience to finally be able to live in the full truth of who I was, and really gratifying and humbling to get to play a character who would have meant so much to me when I was younger.
Were you ever worried that Taylor would not be the multidimensional character they’ve come to be over the course of the series? When I got the part, all I knew was that I was going to be in the first episode of season two. If it had been a one-off episode where the character’s gender identity was the butt of a joke, or the only thing you learned about them, I certainly would not have been interested. Now, one of the things that really excites me about playing Taylor is they are a fully fleshed-out human being who’s complicated and integral to the plot of the story.
What have you heard from viewers about Taylor? I’ve heard from people from all over the world, of all different ages, who say, “I’m nonbinary and I never knew that there was anyone else like me”; some say, “I’m a parent of someone who’s just come out as nonbinary and/or trans, and I now know what that means”; and I’ve even had people reach out to me and say, “I’m a right-wing conservative who was homophobic and transphobic, but I love your character and it helped change my heart and my mind and create understanding within me.” I don’t think any of us anticipated that Billions would be a teaching tool, but it’s a silver lining that’s been really, really cool.
Asia Kate Dillon wears an Hermès jacket and pants; Charvet shirt; Dior socks; Converse sneakers; their own earrings.
You got started as one of fashion’s most prominent set designers by sending the stylist Nicola Formichetti a message on Myspace in the mid-noughties. If you hadn’t, what do you think you’d be doing instead? I would have figured out a way. I was determined, and the timing was right. Still, I was absolutely delighted when Nicola messaged me back. He kept me busy for a couple of years, and I couldn’t believe the stuff I was getting away with when I first started out.
Do you remember your Myspace name at the time? Everybody had a kind of club-kid name, but I’ve always been Gary Card. I didn’t ever need a pseudonym, because my name was already so ridiculous that it just fit. To this day, people still think that it’s made-up.
Gary Card wears his own clothing.
Who was the first person who made you realize you could break the rules? My mother, right off the bat. She’s how I got into skateboarding. There are four of us. She just let me and my siblings take our imaginations and let us be.
As the first woman signed to Supreme, do you feel a sense of responsibility to represent other women who skate? I’m just doing me, but if somebody can see themselves in me, I’ll try to do my best to show them that things are possible.
Beatrice Domond wears a Comme des Garçons Comme des Garçons shirt and skirt; The M Jewelers B necklace; Falke socks; Marni shoes; her own necklace and rings.
Actor, Activist, Entrepreneur
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!
Bottom row from left: Tracee wears a Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello blazer, tights and shoes. Center and far-right: Alberta Ferretti blazer, blouse, and hat.
Writer, Director, Actor
How would you describe your style? I often think I’m two different people in a lot of ways, and that is reflected in what I wear. One day I’m tie-dye and bucket hat and pink shorts and Adidas slides, and another day I’m all black or all navy The Row and dress shoes. I never know which day is gonna be batshit or monochromatic and adult.
Who are your style icons? Francesco Risso, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, Miuccia Prada, Henry Rollins, Charlie Feldstein, Jack and Laz, photos of old Jews in Miami in the ’60s, Raekwon, Q-Tip, and the Beastie Boys.
Jonah Hill wears a 45rpm T-shirt; Marni pants; Adidas sneakers.
Creative Director of Marni
What is originality to you? The most original thing is the way everyone invents their own version of reality and all of the games we create to keep busy and then share with other people. All forms of play, distraction, construction, making, and destroying…the way we construct and deconstruct reality.
Describe originality in three words. Originality is subversive. It is an impulse, and it is rare.
What’s the most original item in your apartment? A paperweight of my partner Lawrence Steele’s testicles cast in bronze by the artist Sarah Lucas.
What is the most original item in your closet? The leftovers of all the clothes that I cut and destroy every day.
Francesco Risso wears his own clothing.
Is there a moment or work in particular you think of as your creative breakthrough? People say it’s when I started to do figures on flat ground. Willem de Kooning liked them. Philip Guston called me up. Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns called me up. I was in shock. Poets liked my work too. They were all superbright people, so it made me feel I was okay, the world would follow. But I also got a ton of bad reviews. Bob Hughes [Robert Hughes, then the art critic of Time] really pissed me off—he called me the Norman Rockwell of the intelligentsia. But the worst one was Hilton Kramer, the art critic of The New York Times, telling me how I had lost my way, how I used to be a good painter, and how it was a moral decline. I called my mother up and she said, “Oh, you finally got someone interested in you.”
Was the public at all negative? When I showed my first painting in an avant-garde gallery, an older artist came over to me and said, “Figuration is obsolete.” I just said, “Terrific.” Twice I had people screaming in the gallery: in Provincetown in 1960 and in Paris in 1975—actually screaming. I was embarrassed, so I told the gallerists, “Jesus, I thought my paintings were pretty pleasant, I’m sorry about this.” They said, “No, that’s why we brought you here.” They were trying to engage the public.
Alex Katz wears a Marni sweater; Linder pants.
What’s the worst fashion trend that you’ve participated in? Maybe the iPhone. It’s just a trend that you can’t really leave.
Who is your style icon? Prince. He was very daring—he knew the right silhouettes for a man to look sexy.
What was your style like as a teenager? A bit of everything. My parents are Nigerians who lived in Europe for a long time, so it was a mixture of a bunch of things—from African prints to cute schoolboy looks. My parents really loved clothes. As a teenager, there was a time when I started buying vintage clothes. I guess everyone had that phase. I don’t think I ever picked a style. I just loved being elegant and relaxed at the same time.
Kenneth Ize wears clothing of his own design.
Global Creative Makeup and Color Designer for Chanel
Who is your beauty icon? I’m attracted to women who have strength of character. Whether it is kindness, confidence, wit, mystery…it is about them being unapologetic about who they are. The strength of Monica Vitti’s eyes and voice inspires me. Or the perfectly unusual beauty of Isabella Rossellini.
What’s the worst beauty trend that you’ve participated in? I plucked my eyebrows really thin in the ’90s. Like one line—it was really sad.
What’s your secret skill? I sometimes like to paint simple little watercolors, but I don’t know if it’s a skill—it’s just an interest. I like the medium because the paint kind of directs you, and you’re not in control so much. Literally—sometimes it goes its own way, and you have to try to work around it. But I’m not an expert at all!
Lucia Pica wears a Chanel jacket, skirt, and shoes; her own T-shirt and watch.
When you stage yourself with other people in your shoots, they’re actually mannequins. What’s the appeal? I grew up loving dolls. Mannequins kind of upped the ante. I think they served as a way for me to be more comfortable performing. I didn’t have to worry about how the other person was feeling, or even about my own discomfort in an intimate narrative.
Does originality mean going someplace totally different? A part of me wants to take my image out of my work. I honestly feel the worst that could happen is that I’m nailed down somewhere—like, someone puts a pin in me and I exist on a mood board forever. This work is not allowed to be my best work.
Martine Gutierrez wears her own clothing.
Graphic Designer, Photographer, Illustrator, Director
You’ve worked in so many different mediums over the course of your career, from fashion photography to advertising to directing. Is there a common thread among all your work? Since I realized very early in life that, whether I liked it or not, I could only dance and draw, I decided to incorporate those two skills in all my projects, whether they are advertising, fashion photography, theatrical events, even museum exhibitions. To me, they’re all the same.
When you look back at your career, do you have any regrets? Sort of…it was the ’70s, and it was Halloween night in a gay disco during a show that I not only conceived and directed but also photographed for the invitation. Disguised as a tiger, Grace came onstage crawling on all fours while a live tiger in a cage was rolled onstage by two chorus boys. As Grace approached the cage, taunting the beast, all the lights went out, and when they came back on a few seconds later, the tiger had disappeared: Alone in the cage, Grace was munching on a big piece of fake meat as she glared furiously at the audience. We all knew that this was no Shakespeare in the Park, and that the show was meant to be pure burlesque and lots of fun; but stage shows die and pictures stay. Looking back, the whole performance was indeed in the worst taste possible, even if it perfectly suited the spirit of the time.
Jean-Paul Goude wears his own clothing.
Related: Tracee Ellis Ross Launches New Beauty Line for Natural Hair