Designer B Michael and Cicely Tyson: Fashion and Friendship

B Michael and Dr. Brown sitting in white armchairs on stage
Dr. Joyce F. Brown in conversation with author and fashion designer B Michael for the launch of his new book, MUSE: Cicely Tyson and Me: A Relationship Forged in Fashion, in the Katie Murphy Amphitheatre on Jan. 31. Photo by Lorenzo Ciniglio.

Designer B Michael has dressed Beyoncé, Lena Horne, and Whitney Houston. When the alumnus came to FIT Jan. 31 to discuss his new book, Muse: Cicely Tyson and Me: A Relationship Forged in Fashion (Harper Collins), the interviewer also wore a look of his. That interviewer, of course, was President Joyce F. Brown, who sported an elegant red dress with satin ribbon woven into the skirt. The book, Dr. Brown said, “is about the power of fashion to forge relationships.” B Michael replied, “Not unlike us.” (Dr. Brown has worn his styles for years.)

The pair discussed Michael’s professional partnership with Tyson (1924–2021), legendary star of Roots, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, and many other films and plays. Among her numerous awards were an Emmy and a Tony. When she won an Academy Honorary Award in 2018, Tyson made history as the first Black Oscar winner to wear a look by an African American luxury designer: B Michael. The following year, she wore a resplendent red gown of his for the cover of Time magazine. 

B Michael in a suit gesticulating in a white armchair with a flowy purple-gray dress behind him
B Michael with a dress designed for Tyson. Photo by Lorenzo Ciniglio.

The designer studied millinery at FIT, and his training came in handy at a key moment. Tyson, Michael said, was game for all his creations. She only balked once, when he created a gigantic chapeau to wear at Aretha Franklin’s funeral, in 2018. “I’m not wearing that,” she said. “Someone behind me will say, ‘I was blocked by Cicely Tyson.’”  Michael insisted: “No one would dare.” The gambit paid off when the look went viral. One Twitter user wrote, “Cicely Tyson’s hat is what all the other hats want to be when they grow up.”

Michael said, “It was the first time in my career I was upstaged by a hat.”  

Tyson first came to B Michael’s atelier—a mutual friend made the connection—at age 80, to be dressed for Oprah Winfrey’s 2005 Legends Ball. Star and designer forged a friendship that lasted until her death. Her fortitude and work ethic inspired him: In her late 80s, she appeared on Broadway in The Trip to Bountiful and never missed a performance. (She also won a Tony.) Her personal style tended to be eclectic, he said, “but I saw her as Hollywood royalty, and she embraced my vision.” By the end of her life, she wore him exclusively.

Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of The Museum at FIT; B Michael; and President Joyce F. Brown in front of a step and repeat.
Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of The Museum at FIT; B Michael; and President Joyce F. Brown. Photo by Lorenzo Ciniglio.

Bridget Foley, former executive editor of Women’s Wear Daily, asked Michael about dressing Tyson for the red carpet, eliciting a manifesto of sorts. “I selected a neutral color” when she appeared with other stars at events, he said. Fashion, he said, “should be in good taste and appropriate for the setting.”

Though a day early for Black History Month, the event drew several boldface names from fashion, including designer Jeffrey Banks and industry veteran Audrey Smaltz. Elizabeth Way, associate curator at The Museum at FIT, introduced the evening, saying of Michael’s designs, “Fashion on this level is art.”