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Photos: Gabor Jurina (Cicely Tyson); Akbar Santosa (Michael B)

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In ‘Muse,’ New York Designer B Michael Salutes Cicely Tyson

'We exulted in our creative audacity,' he writes in his book, which details the 16-year collaboration with his 'devoted friend' / BY Ashante Infantry / February 15th, 2024


Cicely Tyson certainly had her share of leading men. The trailblazing actor, who died three years ago at 96, shared the big screen with titans James Earl Jones, Richard Pryor and Paul Winfield, and was once married to jazz great Miles Davis. But in the last 16 years of her life, the revered Hollywood monarch’s dashing consort was American fashion designer B Michael, who “sometimes dressed to complement Cicely’s look with a pop of colour or similar palette.”

Their close friendship and rewarding professional relationship are detailed in Muse: Cicely Tyson and Me: A Relationship Forged in Fashion. The glossy coffee-table book – part memoir, part fashion mag – is rife with photos of them together, on red carpets and behind the scenes, often accompanied by Michael’s husband and business partner, Mark-Anthony Edwards – the threesome Tyson dubbed “the Thirds” who were always clad in his stunning creations. 

 

Michael B

 

Their fraternity endured until the grande dame’s demise shortly after the Jan. 26, 2021 release of her autobiography, Just As I Am. That day, after she had been coiffed and tended by Michael for high-profile Zoom interviews with CBS Mornings co-host Gayle King and film mogul Tyler Perry, the Thirds enjoyed a cosy dinner at the couple’s Harlem home, toasting the book launch with champagne, he recalls in Muse.  

It was the culmination of a “rigorous schedule of photo shoots, virtual appearances and filmed, in-person interviews” to promote the vibrant screen icon’s memoir. “Fashion, wigs, and makeup were back on the agenda and we couldn’t have been happier,” Michael writes of the bustle that enlivened their pandemic bubble. 

In conversation with Zoomer Michael disclosed that, after hopping a 10-minute cab ride to Tyson’s Upper East Side apartment when she missed her car-service pickup on the 28th, he was the one to discover she had died. It was a shock given the nonagenarian’s vitality.

 

MUSE
Michael with Tyson at his New York atelier for a  Zoomer magazine shoot in 2020 to promote her memoir, ‘Just As I Am.’ Photo: Gabor Jurina

 

She had “slept in our guest room” after the meal, and “on the 27th, she and I went in [to Michael’s Garment District atelier], because she had a morning filming for Live With Kelly and Ryan,” he says. “Then she went to her home to relax, because we did not have another call time until the morning of the 28th. And when she did not respond … I went to her apartment and found her.”

Devastated, Michael still can’t find the words to recount his emotion. He takes comfort in the peaceful passing of the diminutive beauty he describes in his book’s dedication as “my muse and devoted friend, the world’s legend, Hollywood’s icon, cultural queen, and so much more.” 

The award-winning actor was a cinematic force: Tyson was the first Black woman to star in a TV drama, the first Black female character to appear on a soap opera and, after debuting a low-cut Afro, the first Black woman to wear her natural hair on TV. She inspired Black audiences and performers, and used her status to support the civil rights movement. 

For her lying-in-state and private funeral at the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church, Tyson’s faithful couturier concocted a brilliant violet dress that combined her favourite elements – floral pattern, draped collar, fluted-cuff sleeves and laser-cut Mikado silk.

The grief lingered, and for a long time, he did not remove the third placemat on his dining room table from their last meal together. So, he found it “cathartic” to write about their bond and sartorial collaborations, and sift through thousands of captivating photos to choose those he wanted to include in Muse. “Before she passed away, we shared with her that I wanted to do this book, to put on pages all that we had done in terms of designer and muse, and she was excited about the idea, but said to me, ‘first help me finish my book.’ And then, with her untimely passing, I put the project on the back burner. And maybe a year or so afterwards, the publisher came back to me to see if I was ready to get started on the project.”

Muse showcases a winning alliance that began in 2005 when the chisel-cheeked, 5-foot-4 octogenarian, who began her career as a catalogue model, gave him a week’s notice to outfit her for Oprah Winfrey’s first Legends Ball – a three-day affair honouring 25 Black women in art, entertainment and civil rights. “Cicely and I exulted in our creative audacity,” he writes of that first ensemble. “The very idea of wearing a blouse and skirt to a white-tie ball!”

 

MUSE
For the Zoomer, Tyson modelled the B Michael hat that went viral when she wore it to Aretha Franklin’s funeral. Photo: Gabor Jurina

 

The partnership continued through more galas, charity events, award shows, White House state dinners and even the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, until she was wearing his glamorous designs exclusively.  Michael considered the star of films like The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Sounder and The Help Hollywood royalty and dressed her accordingly. Highlights include the sculpted, indigo masterpiece in which she accepted her 2013 Tony Award; an autumnal red sheath dress and matching coat, with fluted hemline and flared cuffs, to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2016; a massive statement hat that went viral when she spoke at Aretha Franklin’s 2018 funeral; and a standout ruby silk-wool dress for a 2019 Time magazine cover. He retains ownership of the many fabulous outfits and hopes to put them on public display. 

Michael likened their symbiotic relationship to that of another celebrated designer-muse duo, Hubert de Givenchy and Audrey Hepburn – a pairing they conjured for a December 2020 Zoomer cover shoot. “We were pretending that we were on the set of Funny Face,” he says, referring to the 1957 film starring Hepburn as a shy bookstore employee who winds up modeling spectacular Givenchy gowns. Tyson swanned through the photo shoot in confections of amethyst, coral and fuschia, playing the ingenue for lensman Gabor Jurina. 

 

Cicely Tyson
Cicely Tyson on the February-March 2021 cover of Zoomer, styled by Michael. Photo: Gabor Jurina

 

Tyson may have been his most notable client, but the Connecticut native who studied at the New York Fashion Institute of Technology and apprenticed to Oscar De La Renta before making his debut as a milliner, and then with an eponymous line, also dressed luminaries like Halle Barry,  Beyoncé, Nancy Wilson, Lena Horne, Phylicia Rashad and Mary Wilson.

“My signature really is about very timeless glamour: well-constructed, beautifully made clothing out of beautiful fabric, and that’s the truth of what sustainable fashion should be. I am not into trendy. I have no interest in what the skirt length should be, or the color of the moment.”

Edwards, the global CEO for B Michael is sitting in on the call, and reveals imminent plans for an inaugural “designer ready-to-wear collection which will be offered through our very own branded e-commerce.” Michael, a self-admitted fashion snob, has been reluctant to pursue mass sales, but technological advances now allow for accuracy in digital sizing to bring the sensibility of haute couture to the almost off-the-rack. “That’s how he talked me into it!” laughs Michael. 

 

MUSE
With his muse at the B Michael America show in the Plaza Hotel during 2011 New York Fashion Week. Photo: Courtesy of the author

 

At 66, he is excited to break new ground: “One of the things that Cicely and I represented was anti-ageism. When Cicely came to me, she was 80 years old, and I never approached her as, ‘you’re 80 or 85 or 96.’ Her ability to negotiate a 12-yard sweep on a ballgown was because of her, and never because of an age. The big takeaway would be to not be afraid of growing in age, which is very different than aging, and to continue to live and to continue to present yourself in your most magnificent way to the world.”

 

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