If you ask Marci Rodgers how she became a costume designer, her answer is simple: “God.”
To the believers, it’s a perfectly credible answer, while the more spiritually skeptical might raise an eyebrow. But there is something undeniably divine in Rodger’s career trajectory, which began as a style-obsessed teenager in Evanston, Ill., just north of Chicago.
“I think I always had it in my heart that I wanted to do it,” she tells The Glow Up.
While Rodgers had an early affinity for fabrics and silhouettes—even earning the “Best Dressed” title as a graduating high school senior—she didn’t even own a sewing machine until well into college, gifted to her by her father, soon after transferring from local university Chicago State to black creative mecca Howard University.
“[T]hat’s when I realized that he took my dreams seriously,” she says.
But even at Howard, which boasts some of the best arts curriculums in the country, Rodgers chose a more strategic lane, obeying her father’s insistence that she forego a design major in favor of a business degree—she has an MBA.
“I tell people you can’t teach someone the gift that God gave you, but you can’t teach them business, because you have to be taught business,” she says.
As a result, during her years at Howard, the closest Rodgers got to design was a fashion marketing class and a few fashion clubs and shows. But she became an avid observer of personal style, noting how fellow students on Howard’s stylish campus expressed themselves through clothing—and how that differed from region to region.
“We were the premier campus of fashion and style next to FIT,” she tells us. “Me being from Chicago and never [having] really been exposed to people of my color and race from different states—as well as different countries—I started to pay attention to how they dressed.”
That keen eye for detail would later prove essential in Rodgers’ career as a costume designer, but it would still be years before she’d step into the field, first becoming assistant director of admissions at Howard’s Law School and later taking a year to study abroad at the world-renowned art school Central Saint Martins in London, England.
Knowing that costume design was her passion, Rodgers prayed for a mentor—and found one right on Howard’s campus in the late Reggie Ray, an acclaimed costume designer and professor with connections that stretched from local theater to Broadway. Working both her full-time job in admissions and spending her off-hours apprenticing with Ray, Rodgers got a crash course in costume design at the feet of a master.
“I reverted back from being a 30-year-old to a 20-year-old assistant,” she laughs.
Ray’s mentorship would also end up being the conduit for her future career when he asked her to assist him on “Holler If Ya Hear Me,” the Broadway show inspired by the life and music of Tupac Shakur. At an afterparty for the show, Rodgers spotted director Spike Lee.
“I saw Mr. Lee there, and I worked up enough nerve to go talk to him. And I thank God that in me working up enough nerve to talk to him he had an ear to listen.”
While God may have had something to do with it, so did Rodgers’ tenacity, as demonstrated by another chance meeting when she “randomly” walked onto the campus of the University of Maryland and introduced herself to the head of the costume design department, Helen Huang. Within weeks, she was enrolled in the school’s acclaimed MFA program, despite having no prior educational credits in the field.
“At the time I had no background—I had no formal background training in costume design,” she says. “I had to catch up to my peers because they had gone to undergrad in theater just four years prior. So I would stay late; I pushed myself; I pretty much gave up my social life—just to get on the level of my peers.”
Rodgers finished the three-year program in only two-and-a-half, and right before graduation came a surprise call: Lee, who’d by now become familiar with Rodgers as a costume assistant on 2015’s Chi-Raq, contacted her school to request her to design the costumes for Season One of the Netflix reboot of She’s Gotta Have It.
It was Rodger’s first credit as lead designer, and the beginning of what is becoming a fruitful collaborative relationship with Lee, who famously also launched the career of Oscar-nominated designer Ruth E. Carter when he hired her to design 1988’s School Daze. After also designing costumes for 2018’s Amazon Prime Original Pass Over, Lee hired Rodgers to design the looks for his next film, BlacKkKlansman, adapted from the book Black Klansman by former police officer and KKK infiltrator Ron Stallworth.
When asked what attracted her to the script, she tells us:
What excited me the most was the idea that it was a true story, and that Ron Stallworth, who was a part of the African-American community, took it upon himself to try to infiltrate hate. And it’s really just as simple as it was; like, there was no gag to it. The story is what it was, and I think for me in knowing that, I got really excited about being a part of the project and helping to retell this story, particularly in the ’70s—you know, the colors were vibrant and there was so much happening then. Self-expression was happening.
To research the era, Rodgers delved deep into not only the style of the ’70s but the history of the Ku Klux Klan. She visited the Library of Congress, poring over Colorado newspapers and studying photos of KKK rallies. She even watched Gone with the Wind and (the original) Birth of a Nation, because “they’re important to the foundation of why the organization started—or the idea of it [at least].”
Significantly, Rodgers also returned to her alma mater, relying on Howard’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center for historical data, specifically information on Kwame Turé and the African-American community during the seventies. As Rodgers tells us, the experience was invaluable:
I sat [at Howard] for at least two days and I went through archived magazines of Essence, Jet magazine and pretty much anything I put my hands on within that I would say five to six year era ... particularly in the ’60s and the ’70s, it was starting to make this transition and then the silhouettes were changing for men’s clothing; the lapels start off smaller, then they were getting bigger and the some of the fabric choices were the women are starting to change a little bit.
And then, also I did research on Kwame Turé (also known as Stokely Carmichael), who was an alumni of Howard University, and followed his trajectory while he was at Howard and then when he started to do his movement.
And again, it was Rodgers’ attention to detail that would guide her process.
“I literally was just like a sponge,” she says. “I just soaked up as much information as I could because I knew I had to then bring that back to New York and run with it.”
And run with it, she did, helping Lee recreate the era with such nuance and authenticity that the film, which premieres in movie theaters today, Friday, Aug. 10, won Grand Prix at the 2018 Cannes Festival.
But Rodgers barely has time to stop in the moment; even as we speak, she’s outfitting the cast of the second season of She’s Gotta Have It, telling us, “people see the end result, but there’s a lot that goes into it behind the scenes.”
But as a now full-fledged designer with an already-acclaimed first feature film under her belt, Rodgers is simply grateful for it all. And though her path was unpredictable, and, at times, improbable, to be building her career crafting stories with one of the world’s most prominent and prolific directors is nothing short of a miracle.
“Being able to revive this story ... to be a part of that is beyond an honor,” she says. “And to make it youthful—and the story still be the same but still relate to today, in many aspects—I think it’s brilliant.”