Pret-a-Reporter

Why 'Aaliyah' Costume Designer Felt Comfortable Creating the Looks

Christos Kalohoridis
'Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B'

Having grown up during the late musician's rise to fame and being a huge fan herself, Michelle Lyte had no trouble re-creating Aaliyah's sexy tomboy ensembles for the Lifetime original film

It's been 13 years since Aaliyah's untimely death, but come Saturday evening, fans will be able to worship the princess of R&B once more via Lifetime's biopic of the late singer. The TV flick, starring Alexandra Shipp in the title role, follows the performer's rise to stardom before the tragic plane crash that cut her life short at age 22. While Aaliyah was best known for her soothing, sultry vocals, she was also recognized for another talent: possessing a cooler than cool street-style vibe. The film's costume designer, Michelle Lyte, had no trouble re-creating the singer's sexy tomboy style.

"What better research for me to go through than actually living it out. Coming from that period … and having a chance to go back and re-create this icon I had so admired 13 years later was a dream," Lyte, a longtime Aaliyah fan, told Pret-a-Reporter over the phone. "I designed a lot of pieces myself that were in the film because the producers didn't want to necessarily copy anything that she had done, so they wanted to re-create it."

Having admitted that she once emulated the musical icon herself, the Toronto-based designer knew exactly how certain pieces needed to look in order to truly capture Aaliyah's style. Specifically, this meant her 1998 Oscars dress she wore during her "Journey to the Past" performance.

"There's no way I could find that dress,so we definitely had to create it. Because I come from that period, I knew exactly what it looked like, so I made that dress," said Lyte, sharing that from the waist up, the black gown was made of a transparent type of knit fabric.

But beyond awards show attire, it was, of course, the singer's risque, masculine style that always stole the show with her bare midriff looks and oversize baggy pants. "I just remember her style being completely impressionable. I look at style mavens from today — Rihanna being No. 1 — and she's definitely evoked some of Aaliyah's style," said the designer, who recalled making Aaliyah-inspired pieces for friends and neighbors as a teen. "Before she passed away, she then comes from sexy tomboy into like a combination of this sort of edgy, grunge, groundbreaking sophistication. … But the baring the midriff was always present all the way through."

Despite the Lifetime original going through a major casting change (Zendaya was originally attached to the role), Lyte shared that Shipp "practically morphed into Aaliyah, and the number of times that you saw her — you had to just stop in your tracks because you would look at Alex, and it was almost like something of Aaliyah would pop up." It was having these unexpected reminders of the late R&B artist that led the designer to commit to this project, despite all the criticism and controversy surrounding the TV movie.

"The day I got the job, I was pulling into my driveway, and her song 'Try Again' was playing on the radio. She kept popping up in the most unlikely places, and it was always her music," said Lyte. "It was very eerie. It was like she was really there. And me saying this — I wasn't the only person that felt it. So that's how I knew we were doing right by her." A journey to the past, indeed.

Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B airs Saturday, Nov. 15, at 8 p.m. ET/PT on Lifetime.

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