One woman has made it her mission to connect Black-owned brands with today's top costume designers.

By Fawnia Soo Hoo
Feb 01, 2021 @ 8:15 am
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This Costume Designer Is Leading the Charge to Bring Black Fashion to Movies and Television
Credit: Design by Jenna Brillhart.

Sex and the City made Manolo Blahnik and Jimmy Choo household names, and, everyone knows what "an AlaÏa" is — and that the couturier is a "totally important designer" — thanks to Clueless. Even when a brand isn't name-dropped so bluntly, the impact of a pop-culture appearance can be a major launchpad for success. 

As a recent example, after Emily in Paris premiered on Netflix last fall, the titular lead's green python-print mini-skirt by Ronny Kobo sold out, while search for the New York-based Israeli designer increased by 22% on global fashion shopping platform Lyst, and interest in skirts by French label Ganni jumped a whopping 289%.

"TV and film have a huge role in both cultural currency and the visibility of designers for both emerging and established brands," explains Amiyra Perkins, Director of Mindset for trend forecaster WGSN, via email. She cites loads of Barbour in The Crown and the now-Instagram-ubiquitous Marine Serre moon print in Beyonce's Black is King. "Consumers continue to discover brands and track down the items of their favorite characters or artists merging imagined worlds into real life."

Perkins also points to Issa Rae's character carrying a Telfar Mini Bag on Insecure, but Black fashion designers have largely been left out of the opportunity for such exposure — especially small independent brands, which may not have PR teams to send free samples to costume designers, or host them in fancy showrooms, which is how many onscreen outfits come to be. In instances that aren't paid product placements, it's up to costume designers themselves to prioritize inclusive brand representation. More often than not, that effort becomes a personal commitment by members of the Black community.

"In general, when I'm designing stories about the diaspora, I try to weave that narrative of the clothing that I'm using because it just makes the story just feel more unique and also just more authentic," says costume designer and stylist Charlese Antoinette, over Zoom. "Because our community has a certain perspective in the way we design clothing.

Since starting her career over a decade ago, Antoinette has maintained a spreadsheet of Black-owned brands — some of whom are friends or designers she's personally bought from — to feature on her projects. During the summer of 2019, while costume designing Kenya Barris's Astronomy Club: The Sketch Show for Netflix, Antoinette received enthusiastic requests from the cast for more pieces by Black designers. She decided to expand upon her long-running list and put out a call on Facebook. "It caught on like wildfire," she says. "I was really surprised. Within the first 24 hours, I had a hundred entries and I was shocked."

She says the designers reaching out to her had an "overwhelming desire" for onscreen placements, but lacked the industry knowledge and access to secure them. Antoinette knew her spreadsheet had to become much more than that, and along with her assistant Coach Codes and web designer Kat Contreras of Creative Cloudworks, then spent the following year creating the Black Designer Database (BDDB). The resource, which launched in November 2020, creates easy access for costume designers, stylists, and industry professionals to search and filter for Black-owned brands. The database currently includes just under 300 Black-owned brands and designers, who pay a fee of $79 a year to be featured and for access to networking and training opportunities.

This Costume Designer Is Leading the Charge to Bring Black Fashion to Movies and Television

"I don't even know where to go to find out how to get into those rooms and I have to imagine that that's somewhat by design," says Maryam Pugh, owner and co-founder of Philadelphia Printworks, a Philly-based social justice brand and screen-printing workshop. She credits a grassroots, "organic" process for placements for the brand's graphic tees and sweatshirts on hit shows so far.

When sourcing contemporary clothes for film or TV in a fast-paced environment, costume teams often rely on efficient, one-stop shopping destinations, like a mall or big-name department store. "We're kind of at the mercy of what is in the marketplace, if you don't spend the time curating and finding other resources," says Antoinette.

While costume designing last May's See You Yesterday, Antoinette connected with Pugh through her sister and used Afrofuturist T-shirts by Philadelphia Printworks for the time travel film. "You just had to know somebody," says Pugh. "There wasn't really a point of entry for somebody who did not already have that type of network." 

And labels without that network are missing out on more than just connections. Buzzy pop-culture placements go straight to their bottom line. To help out brands she sees as deserving of the spotlight, costume designer Ayanna James Kimani also maintains a list of Black designers. She's used it to dress up projects such as the Ava Duvernay-produced Queen Sugar and Insecure.

She recalls Issa's navy "FBI Killed Fred Hampton" sweatshirt in the season two episode "Hella Blows." The top (calling out the 1969 shooting death of the activist and Chicago Black Panther Party chairman) made by musician and visual artist Dijon Samo immediately went viral. "Once the word got out, I remember seeing his Instagram over the next couple weeks and he had just stacks and stacks and stacks of sweatshirts that were going out, as a result of that episode airing," says James Kimani. (Antoinette's latest film project, Judas and the Black Messiah, out Feb. 12, revisits the story of Hampton's death; LaKeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya, who star, are already receiving awards buzz.)

On The CW's Black Lightning, the titular superhero (Cress Williams) wore a hoodie from the Philadelphia Printworks "Panther's Legacy" collection, which honors the Black Panther Party's People's Free Food Program. Laz Alonzo's superhero adjacent-character, Mother's Milk, also wore a T-shirt from that line in season two of The Boys. Pugh recalls sales of the collection, which contributes proceeds to the L.A. non-profit Feed South Central, spiking after those onscreen moments.

This Costume Designer Is Leading the Charge to Bring Black Fashion to Movies and Television
Credit: Design by Jenna Brillhart. Image: Courtesy.

In addition to a sales boost, these brands benefit from bonus word-of-mouth publicity via social media. "Every time we're featured somewhere, I get a million emails," Pugh says. "People take screenshots of it and send it to us on our Instagram. People who already are aware of us feel really validated and find it really cool to see us somewhere else."

In See You Yesterday, Antoinette included a graphic tee by FWMJ, a line by artist and hip hop's go-to graphic designer Frank William Miller Junior, for a scene that ultimately became a poster and larger-than-life branding moment. "His T-shirt ended up on a billboard in Times Square — next to a Nike T-shirt," she says proudly.

Social media has also become a tool for brands to secure placements, especially with the easy — and free — option to slide into DMs. An avid fan of Queen Sugar, Pugh spotted director DeMane Davis wearing a Philadelphia Printworks shirt during a post-show segment and excitedly posted a screenshot. "I tagged her and was like, 'Oh my goodness, this director is wearing our stuff on Queen Sugar. It's amazing!' And she reached back out," says Pugh. 

Since then, the brand has been featured on the OWN series three times. Davis then brought Philadelphia Printworks on board for the Octavia Spencer-starring Netflix series Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker. "She got us to design something for the cast and we released that as a design," says Pugh.

The late 2020 launch of BDDB capped off a year of racial reckoning, following the murder of George Floyd, Jr. by police. The ensuing national discussions pushed the fashion industry to look inward in terms of creating equal opportunity for Black-owned brands to reach consumers. Hollywood also faced a reckoning in front of and behind-the-camera, including with costume designers discussing how they fill out their teams and wardrobe closets. (Antoinette is part of the Costume Designers Guild Diversity & Inclusion Committee, which began a series of "Cultural Conversations" to showcase and provide a platform for BIPOC members.)

"If we're gonna talk the talk, we walk the walk, you know?" says Pretty Little Liars and BH90210 costume designer Mandi Line, on a call. Over the pandemic lockdown, she began an Instagram Live interview series featuring a diverse set of costume designers starting with Ruth E. Carter, who, in 2019, made history as the first African American to win an Oscar for Best Costume Design for Black Panther. When preparing for a new project starting in 2021, rather than rely on costuming go-to destinations, like "Nordstrom and Holt Renfrew," Line says she reached out to Antoinette.

"I think a lot of people want to be allies, but they don't really know how," says Antoinette. A big way those in the industry can show support is by purchasing the clothes they use for their projects, rather than borrowing or requesting free samples for the costume closets. 

"If you're not putting money in their pocket, then nothing is changing. You're just going to the huge department stores and clicking on the brands that you know, then what is changing?" says Line. "I think that's what 2020 showed us: 'Sorry, white people: Put a little bit more effort. You want to bring our communities together? It's actually going to take a little more work on everyone's part.'" 

Antoinette and her team even offer personalized consulting services to help costume designers to access new and diverse designers. For Line's current fashion-filled job on The Bold Type, she presented customized lists with shoppable links based on character mood boards, story arcs, and scripts provided by the costume designer. A service she's happy to provide to anyone who may not know where to start on their own. "Like, you have no excuse now because there's a list and also someone here to be like, 'Hey, we'll curate a list for you,'" Antoinette says.

Pugh says she understands the routine costume designers and studios fall into by repeatedly buying "proven" labels, such as, oft-featured Gucci, Chanel and Prada. However, "I also think that becomes a little bit dated and fatigued when you're constantly using the same thing over and over again," she says.

Studios and networks vying for the coveted Gen Z and Millennial demographics should also consider the cohorts' evolving consumption behaviors and emphasis on social responsibility. Trend forecaster Perkins points to the 2020 Gartner Consumer Values and Lifestyle Survey, which found that "equality" replaced "loyalty" as the "number one value Americans identify with" after a decade. "Inclusion" and "diversity" also shot up in rank. "Brands who do not align with this value will be left behind," she says. 

With endless streaming options at our fingertips, it stands to reason that the same could be said for film studios and television creators, too. Perkins also warns that drastic change won't hit costume closets overnight, but needs to be "an ongoing process of learning, listening, and adapting, with regular and public accountability over time." She adds that incorporating Black voices into the costume brand mix shouldn't be just ticking off a box, either. Empowerment — and opportunity — needs to come from the top. James Kimani gives credit to Insecure executive producer and season one director Melina Matsoukas. "She was really supportive of reaching out and working with smaller designers," says James Kimani. "Just having that environment allowed me to explore what designers I could work with."

This Costume Designer Is Leading the Charge to Bring Black Fashion to Movies and Television
Credit: Design by Jenna Brillhart. Image by Netflix.

On the brand side, Pugh agrees a personal connection to this mission is what's made the biggest impact. "Most of the places we've been featured are because of people who wanted to be intentional about making sure that Black and brown voices were being heard," she says. 

With initiatives like Aurora James's 15 Percent Pledge and The Board Challenge gaining traction, Perkins says "people will expect to see systemic change, not just social pledges. It is not about a rolodex of Black designers, and instead it's about empowering the studios to support Black, brown and Indigenous designers."

During the tumultuous year leading up to the debut of BDDB, Antoinette found herself rightfully exhausted with "racism fatigue" and felt discouraged from reaching her end goal. "It's a unique experience when you're a person of color and particularly when you're a Black person. It's just so layered. It was really causing me to shut down and not be able to finish this project in a timely manner," she says. And now that she has, she plans to grow the database, including offering educational support for what happens after a viral placement, or even expanding to include other BIPOC communities. 

Starting with a focus on Black designers — "because that is my community" — and establishing a pathway to success for more of them is exactly what inspired her work in the first place. It adds to the textural experience of a television show or movie, creates excitement in fashion for new design talent, and gives viewers a sense of discovery to find, and wear, something they otherwise wouldn't have seen. All of which Antoinette knew from the start. 

"I just had to push through and just recognize this is important," she says, "and it's needed."

Whether fashion, beauty, or culture at large, the arts in America have one commonality keeping them afloat: Black creativity and excellence. In this package, called State of the Arts, we examine the leaders — those unsung background players and celebrated 'firsts' — who are the best at what they do. The state of the arts? We'd have to say they've never been better.