After seeing the success of the first season of Empire, I knew that Cookie Lyon, the show’s stylish star character, would inspire a fashion line. Cookie (played by Taraji P. Henson) set Twitter ablaze each week as viewers commented on everything from her quick, no-nonsense wit to her animal-print dresses, three-finger rings and fur coats. And sure enough, luxury department store Saks Fifth Avenue has launched a curated collection of looks by various designers that together evoke the hip glamour of Empire.
If you recall, Saks created a similar collection inspired by Scandal in 2013. And soon thereafter, fast-fashion retailer the Limited launched a Scandal capsule collection. I spoke with Emmy-nominated Empire costume designer Rita McGhee about the rise of television-show-inspired lines and why black actors are dominating the fashion retail market.
TV-show fashion lines are the latest craze in the world of retail. We are living in the age of fast fashion where chains such as Forever 21, Zara and H&M mass-produce affordable versions of the designs presented on fashion-week runways around the world. These retailers create a steady supply of cute, cheap and accessible clothes for everyday people who can’t spend a fortune on their clothes. Luxury designers, celebrities and stylists have begun partnering with fast-fashion chains to create capsule collections of reasonably priced items, using the designer’s brand reliability or the celebrity’s popularity to sell the items.
Television characters have become fashion companies’ new muses. One of the first television-derived fashion lines was Banana Republic’s Mad Men Capsule Collection, launched in 2011.
The company worked closely with Mad Men costume designer Janie Bryant to create retro looks that referenced the sharp tailoring and popular silhouettes of the 1960s. The period drama, with its predominantly white cast, proved to other fast-fashion brands that viewing audiences wanted to look like the stylish characters on their favorite shows.
During the reign of Shonda Rhimes, programs with dynamic black female leads have also garnered huge audiences, giving them the platform to showcase their fashion prowess. In 2014 Kerry Washington, who plays Olivia Pope on the hit show Scandal, became both the muse and the creative force behind the Limited’s Scandal Capsule Collection. Washington worked closely with the Limited’s creative director Elliot Staples and Scandal costume designer Lyn Paolo to develop the pieces for the line: luxe coats in muted tones, faux leather gloves, tailored trousers and sheath dresses. After the success of the first line, Washington and her team launched the 2015 Scandal Capsule Collection earlier this year.
McGhee had plans for an Empire fashion line before the first episode even aired. She stated, “When I went in for the job, I was thinking futuristically of what [Empire] could become … how there could be an Empire fashion line.” Surprisingly, McGhee did not originally imagine Cookie as the face of the line.
“I was thinking it could be Lucious. Men could be dressed in suits, ascots and scarves,” she continued, “but it was Cookie who was the breakout!”
In response to the Cookie fashion mania, McGhee and her team launched the Cookie’s Closet feature on the Empire website. Fans can scroll through Cookie’s weekly looks, peering into her Balmain, Valentino and Isabel Marant-filled world. Of course, the site provides links to “shop this look.” And for those who cannot afford items such as Cookie’s $2,000 haute couture Hervé Léger beaded jacket, there is a link to the $20 H&M version.
I asked McGhee point-blank if there would be an Empire fashion line. She replied, “It definitely needs to happen.” Cookie has the broad appeal needed to drive a fashion line, evidenced by the way #TeamCookie trends across social media platforms from Twitter to Tumblr. Retailers track tweets, Facebook likes and Google search terms to determine which stars everyday consumers want to style themselves after.
“Every woman, whether they have her experiences or not, can see themselves in Cookie,” McGhee said. “These are clothes that women want to wear.”
McGhee, who is currently designing for Brandy’s new BET show, Zoe Ever After, believes that black women on television are significantly shifting the fashion landscape. “TV reaches a broader audience. We come into your home, and people respond to that, and they want to emulate [the characters] and get as close to [their lifestyle] as possible.” Not only does she think that Cookie could have a line, but she also thinks that Brandy’s character, Zoe, with her “high-style, avant-garde” look, and Gabrielle Union’s impeccably groomed Mary Jane could also inspire fashion lines.
Black consumers know all too well how fickle and exploitative the fashion world can be when it comes to selling blackness. Fast fashion brands especially have been criticized for unethical production methods. But it is refreshing to see black women gaining the power to determine what we might find in our favorite retail stores.
Would you like to see a fashion line inspired by Cookie?
Tanisha C. Ford is the author of Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style, and the Global Politics of Soul. She is an assistant professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Follow her on Twitter.