‘Empire’ costume designer Rita McGhee gets the hip-hop royalty look
As if fast-moving plotlines involving murder, music, lust, family dysfunction, power, betrayal and sexual orientation aren’t enough to keep viewers in thrall, credit fashion with adding another seductive layer to “Empire’s” runaway success.
The saga of a wealthy hip-hop family, Fox’s smash hit — which has experienced stunning ratings growth, from 9.9 million viewers for the premiere to 16 million just seven weeks later — has a large cast and numerous guest stars (Naomi Campbell, Courtney Love, Mary J. Blige among them) to keep clothed. But there’s no question who the style star is here. From the moment she strutted out of prison in a skin-tight tiger-print dress, full-length white mink coat and gold stilettos in Episode 1, Cookie Lyon (played by Taraji P. Henson) became an instant fashion icon.
“Cookie’s the queen of the jungle,” says “Empire” costume designer Rita McGhee, who often puts her leading lady in animal prints. “She’s a tiger mom, a lioness who’s waiting to pounce. Any kind of animal print or skin I can find really adds to the character.”
If you gleaned a retro vibe emanating from the talon nails, heavy gold jewelry and fedoras sported by Cookie, the ex-wife of a music mogul, that’s purposeful as well. “She’s been in jail for 17 years, she took it for her family, so she’s still wearing styles from before she went in — her old jewelry, her furs,” says McGhee, who uses films such as “The Godfather,” “Mahogany” and “Scarface” as inspiration. “She wears it now because for a long time, she couldn’t.”
Fan-favorite throwback looks include head-to-toe leopard, starting with a dress from the Red Valentino label, Christian Louboutin pumps and clutch, topped off with a Philip Treacy fedora; a fierce jersey knit Diane von Furstenberg jumpsuit with plunging neckline; and a vintage blue fur poncho and snakeskin boots ensemble.
Being able to pull off such a glitzy look isn’t easy, but Henson, who sashays through nearly every scene like an old-school catwalker, is up for the challenge: “Our fittings go so well because Taraji knows what she wants and what she looks good in,” says McGhee. “She has the kind of confidence needed to pull off these looks.”
As the season has progressed, with Cookie becoming more involved in the family business and starting to gain power, her look has evolved, and she ups the glam factor with more designer pieces. Standouts include a beaded silver and black zebra Balmain gown with thigh-high slit, Alexander McQueen sleeveless print dress and purple Adrienne Landau rabbit vest, and a white silk halter Gucci jumpsuit cut down to there (also seen on Beyoncé in December).
With a budget of around $15,000 to $20,000 per episode and so many characters to dress (Henson alone can require eight changes), McGhee has to be especially creative when it comes to sourcing. She and her team hit retail sales racks in L.A. and Chicago, where the series films, rental companies and vintage stores for much of the wardrobe. But she also has two secret weapons at her disposal: the show’s fashion consultant Monique Mosley, wife/business partner of “Empire’s” music supervisor Timbaland, and Janet Bailey, the former wife of Earth, Wind and Fire singer Philip Bailey.
“We call Monique our ‘couture angel,’” says McGhee. “She’s literally given us the clothes off her back on occasion. The Gucci gown Cookie wore to the family dinner was straight out of her closet — I don’t think she’d ever even worn it. She lends us things we wouldn’t have access to; she’ll literally take off her own jewelry and a designer clutch and just hand them to us. She’s been a godsend.”
“And I reached out to Janet Bailey — my sister is married to her son — because she lived in this world for a long time and dressed the part,” she adds. “We borrowed a lot of Cookie’s furs from her.”
While Empire’s male stars don’t display the same epic amount of flash, they too are some of TV’s most fashionably clad characters, with Terrence Howard’s Lucious Lyon leading the pack.
“When I researched, I looked at royalty because, as the head of the company, he’s a very regal presence,” says McGhee. “So there are a lot of blues and reds and purple in his palette.”
A mix of mobster John Gotti, rapper/music producer Diddy and JPMorgan Chase executive Jamie Dimon, Lucious usually wears expertly tailored suits by Prada, Boss and Burberry, adding edge with silk scarves, turtlenecks and hats. “Ascots and pocket squares are colorful and keep him refined,” says McGhee.
With the series, whose season-ender is Wednesday, renewed for fall, McGhee’s hope for the second season sounds more than reasonable.
“I’m working on getting more high-end designers to give us clothes,” she says with a laugh. “They said ‘No’ the first season, but I have a feeling they’re going to change their minds!”