Beyonce's 'Black Is King' Costume Designer Unpacks Cultural References, Favorite Style Moments

Beyoncé in “Mood 4 Eva” from the visual album BLACK IS KING- Publicity - H 2020
2020 Parkwood Entertainment

Beyoncé in Kujta and Meri dress, Eric Javitz hat, Anlexandre Birman ankle strap heel, and Poppy Lissiman sunglasses in Black is King. 

Veteran stylist Zerina Akers talks to The Hollywood Reporter about the biggest project of her career, how many outfits the music superstar wore in the Disney+ film and what's up next for her.

Zerina Akers is surrounded by flowers. 

It's Monday morning, and the world had the weekend to digest the Disney+ debut of Beyoncé's Black Is King, the visual album that serves as the companion piece to her music release, The Lion King: The Gift. While a weekend is plenty of time for peers, fans and fashion houses to send colorful arrangements Akers' way, it's far from enough time to dissect the cultural references, hidden meanings and fashion pairings of her work as the film's costume designer in a project hailed as "visually stimulating," "impeccably styled" and "dazzling, but also carefully calculated" by Vogue, The New Yorker and The New York Times

"The weekend has been overwhelming," Akers explains to The Hollywood Reporter by telephone. "I'm so humbled by everything, that it was well-received, that people got it, and we were able to provide a much-needed escape and reality check with everything that's going on. It was this burst of joy that we all needed as one collective of people, of humanity."

Akers is quick to give credit to Beyoncé and her collective of collaborators — including creative director Kwasi Fordjour, tailor Timothy White and their team of stylists and assistants — as she explains the massive feat of pulling off the year-long project. It gave her the opportunity to outfit Beyoncé in a parade of looks from couture houses to upstart designers while also dressing family members (Jay-Z, Tina Knowles Lawson, Blue Ivy and twins Rumi and Sir), supermodels (Naomi Campbell and Adut Akech), Oscar winners (Lupita Nyong'o) and African superstars (Yemi Alade, Shatta Wale, Wizkid, Tiwa Savage, Busiswa, Mr. Eazi).

Akers opens up to THR about her biggest challenges, favorite ensembles and all of the cultural references — from money and status to marriage and family — that are woven throughout Beyoncé's latest artistic offering. 

Let’s start at the beginning with the first vision of Beyoncé on the beach in the Wendy Nichol dress. On Instagram, you wrote that it’s the perfect way to start with the right amount of nothing…yet everything. Why that dress?

Wendy Nichol designed the beach dress on "Drunk in Love," this very sheer, languid, slip dress. This started out as the nude version of that same dress. I wanted her to feel kind of stripped down, where everything was sort of falling apart, sort of falling away, where it meant nothing, where it almost wasn't about the clothes. Wendy was able to do it in a way where it still very much felt like a couture trend. We added silks, organzas and charmeuse strips on top of it, and built on top of that as a base. For that look and that designer to end up back on the beach in a very different way on this album now — two albums past the Beyoncé album — I thought was really quite powerful. She's a mother of three now, and it’s a full-circle moment with that designer. It’s really beautiful.

From there, the film explodes with fashion with dozens of looks. I know this is might be a silly question, but what was the most challenging sequence to create?

I'm trying to comb back through all of the looks in my head. The largest singular project I've ever done was "Mood." So to digest all of those looks...we had 70 people on set. It wasn't dressing a mob of 70 people and they're in that one look; it's then we have the club scene, and then we have the tea party and the dinner table. That was a huge undertaking like creating a chess board. That, in and of itself, that entire song, that entire video, was, I'd say, the most challenging.

I also wanted to create leopard and animal-print ensembles that spoke to the real woman while trying to strip away some of that fear of wearing animal print. A lot of people shy away from it. [We also] utilized historical references, playing with opulence, and pulling some of these tribal references, the use of cowrie shells and things like that. Going back to when cowrie shells were treated as currency in Africa and bringing that into this opulent space by wearing it on a hat, on a headpiece, on a belt so that it’s present and represented. It was just a phenomenal, phenomenal video to work on.

I had to pause several times, in "Mood" and also "Brown Skin Girl," to see how many people you designed for in various sequences. You mentioned 70 on set for "Mood." Do you have numbers for the entire project?

I tried to count. I tried to count even on Beyoncé, and I stopped somewhere at 63 but I feel like it's more like 65. Then we're never going to talk about the ones that didn't make it in the film, then we're at like 70. That's just on her alone. Again, in that project, it was one thing to have 70 people; another thing is to have to funnel them and dress them, let's say, in five different, large scenes, from the synchronized swimming, to the club, to the chess scene. So, I don't have a [total] count.

I wanted to go back to the animal print because it figures prominently. You said people shy away from it and it also can overpower an individual. Here it's done differently. Can you talk about the symbolism of that, and why you relied so much on animal print?

I wanted to take these stereotypes that are often portrayed with black people, whether it be of African descent or in the diaspora, of how we represent luxury and how we project luxury and opulence. They maybe call people ignorant for wanting to wear a gold chain or wanting to kind of overdo it. Wealth looks very different in black and white, and it really ties back to the decadence in many African cultures. Let's say, from Nigeria, in weddings everything is custom made in the same fabric for entire bridal party, or the entire bridal party and their family. Then they change looks halfway through the reception. At the end, there's a celebration where all of the guests throw or pin money onto the bride and groom as an offering to them. They come with purses full of money and they just throw it at them. It’s a stunning ceremony from top to bottom. We pulled from references like that.

Coming from one end of the diaspora, where we're sort of judged in a way for kind of wearing gold chains and rappers, but it's all sort of one thing. It's all a cellular memory. Using Duckie Confetti and those money-print pajamas, and then she puts in the diamond teeth — it's playing in that space. Tying it back with the stereotype, when you want to wear something tribal or feel ethnic, it’s an animal print, you know?

Right.

So we took that, elevated it and made it decadent. I don't know if I've ever seen mixed animal prints done in such a way on any runway in a way that's wearable. It’s usually more scaled back, as in one piece, and not mixed. I've been trying to look back to see if I overlooked something because I don't think I’ve seen it. To take that and turn it on its head, and then utilizing [Poppy Lissman black bar sunglasses] to create this sense of anonymity. You have this black bar across her face. I remember [Jean-Michel Basquiat] saying that when he would cross-out words, that's when you wanted to read them. Taking away the eyes in that shot, you are allowed to see yourself. She becomes anyone, she becomes everyone. To me, that was one of the stronger and more fun looks to work on.

You tell a story by placing luxury houses like Valentino, Burberry, Balmain, Alexander McQueen alongside rising-star designers, many of whom you've worked with in the past, whether it was Formation or just other looks, like d.bleu.dazzled—

Jerome LaMaar has done dresses for us.

Yeah. Can you explain the importance to you and to Beyoncé of using lesser-known Black designers in this film and what you hope people take from that?

Beyoncé does not care who the jacket is by. If it's a beautiful jacket, it's a beautiful jacket. She's not, "Oh, I'm going to take the Chanel one over the Jerome LaMaar one." It's which one looks better. "Oh, this I love. This is bringing something that represents who I am and who I want to be." With some of the larger houses, I love that I was able to support those that supported us. I mean, Olivier [Rousteing] has come through for Beyoncé in more ways than one. Riccardo Tisci at Burberry, I wanted to support his tenure there because he has been there for her for more than 10 years — for many years — with past stylists. He's always come through. I liked having this space and platform to say, "Thank you," and still pull them in in these larger visual pieces. The Burberry cowhide look on the horse, when that circulates, she’s also wearing [Ariana Boussard earrings and bangles]. From the Valentino look, she’s also wearing A-Morir sunglasses by Kerin Rose Gold. Mixing the high and low so when those looks circulate, it makes such a profound difference in the careers of these designers and these businesses. That’s the power. It's kind of like Robin Hood in a way, a fashion Robin Hood.

Speaking of Tongoro with Sarah Diouf, Beyoncé was the first to wear her brand when she wore it on a boat. It was casual. She posted a picture. Then she wore her again on a trip to South Africa. Even at that point, I think she was still the only one to wear her brand. Since then, Sarah has gone from employing seven people to employing 50. The reach of families that that then helped and feed, just by her diversifying who she's wearing. It promotes and inspires people to also diverse their spending and shopping and open their eyes a bit. It creates a domino effect that is much needed in the world. We get used to shopping on Amazon or other very easy ways, but there's so much out there. There's so much amazing talent.

Black Is King is also such a moment for bling, body paint, head pieces and accessories. As a costume designer, it must have been fun to play in that world and add all of these extra elements to take everything over the top. Do you have a favorite moment?

For one, [Francesca Tolot] on the black and teal body paint really, I think, became a star of the show. But Neal [Farinah] and Nakia [Rachon Collins] killed the hair. Those head pieces were to die for and provided the much-needed exclamation point to a lot of these looks. I’d say one of the favorite headpieces was the headpiece with the horns for the cowhide look that [echoes] the Egyptian goddess, Hathor, and pulls in references to tribes in the Congo. It just really blew me away. They really became the stars of the show as well in "Brown Skin Girl" with all the beads. That look was definitely [one of] my favorites.

What was it like to be on the set of the "Brown Skin Girl" shoot? It’s such a family affair with Kelly Rowland, Tina Knowles-Lawson, Blue Ivy and then with Naomi Campbell, Lupita Nyong’o, Adut Akech, etc.

Oh, I mean, a dream! I got to dress Naomi Campbell! It was almost like inviting people to your home. When you invite people to your home, you bring out the good china. You're going to serve them in your Hermes tea cups. You're going to go all out. That's how it felt to have the guests on the set and to actually be able to dress them. Naomi Campbell in the Schiaparelli was just to die for. I love Daniel Roseberry's collection, and was so blown away by the exaggerated silhouettes that he's creating. To place that look there and on her was breathtaking. The McQueen and the Jil Sander on Adut [created] a mother-daughter vibe that is so beautiful.

We shot Lupita in New York separately. To work with such an actress was a little bit intimidating, I must say. She's a very strong woman. Her presence is monumental. She's very confident and sure of herself. I was proud to be able to find things that she liked that contributed and tied everything together. My favorite on her was that rosette Rodarte when she's in the mirror. It's just really beautiful with white on white rosettes.

There’s a duality of light and dark in several scenes, and others where the contrast is pops of color that are monochromatic. What were the conversations you had about black and white?

Talking about the chess scene, in developing the “dark side,” for me, it represented the indigenous spirituality. When you look at the bishop, I wanted it to feel like almost a voodoo priest, because there's this concept or notion that it's evil, and that's not the case. I wanted to show the essence of that in the chess piece. I hope that throughout the film, people can take and start doing research on indigenous spirituality, and that we all don't have to necessarily practice one thing. There is a lot of power, and that it's a bloodline thing.

Going to the monochromatic looks ... I love color. It just brightens the day. I'm not an all-black girl. I'm more of a pop of color. If it's a gray day, you're going to find me in a yellow suit. I love to play with color. Spiritually as well, there's a lot of power to pull from it when you can play there. In a lot of the monochromatic dressing, it reminds me of grandmothers. Your grandmother going to church and taking time to put together a look, find lilac shoes to match her lilac dress and then putting on a lilac hat with a bag and gloves.

Also, for example, in Nigeria, monochromatic dressing from head-to-toe represents opulence and decadence in many ways. Wearing your Sunday's best, that’s when you could get out of your uniform and put on your best. And a lot of people in the South, their mothers and grandmothers wore uniforms as they worked so that would be their day to get out of that. I liked playing in this space of this kind of all-in-one, sort of kind of very custom, very — you have to kind of hand-pick it, you had to get it made, or you had to get it dyed — and taking the spirit of that into these looks.

I'm going to apologize in advance for asking this because I know this was a year-plus of your life and many sleepless nights so it isn’t fair to pick one but do you have a favorite fashion moment in Black Is King?

Right? [Laughs] Thank you for your consideration. Can I give you three favorite moments?

I'll take them all.

I love the tea party scene. I wish I could have just lived in that world a little longer. This very girly meeting, very feminine and dainty gathering of women, I think is something that we all dream of. We'd love to have a nice chat with our girlfriends and then catch up and just debrief. It's soft, but it feels tough. It's floral from head-to-toe, but there's a woman in a do-rag, and then it's still in support of the matriarch. That was a really fun one to style.

Another one I love is Timothy White, who's been Beyoncé's lead tailor for 20 years. He's kind of her Bob Mackie. He's an unsung hero on our team, and many people don't really know who he is. He made the exaggerated black gown in "Brown Skin Girl." Alongside the Valentino look, it has really become an iconic Bey image that represents the film and what it is. That's one of my favorite looks. He really went all out. He did the teal fringe look in "Water," and the red fringe look in "My Power," and so many other things. He's a godsend.

You posted that the yellow Adama Paris look is "very dear" to you. Why is that?

The color yellow speaks to very powerful spiritual entities and across platforms. So, whether you're speaking to an Oshun in the Yoruba culture or you're speaking to St. Anne, it pays homage to ancestral spirits — whether that be in Africa, Brazil or through Cuba — those that have uplifted us in an unseen way. It’s very special.

Speaking of special, you also got your designs in there with the tweed bathrobe and the head wrap. Tell me the story behind that?

I wanted a lot of Chanel in "Mood." We were supposed to shoot it in September or August but we didn't shoot it until the end of September. So, I had to give back all of the samples because we had them for too long. Chanel didn't make a tweed bathrobe, and I had this idea of this tweed bathrobe. I wanted her by the pool in this bathrobe with the towel, but I wanted it to feel like this opulent tweed to tie back to this particular community. That's where that was born. I just designed it. It had a bit of a train. I wanted the towel to feel like a beach towel and a head wrap and an African head wrap. That’s where that came from.

There's another thing we worked on. Natalia Fedner made a really flat, gold headpiece, similar to the one that Nija wears in the yellow in "My Power." On Beyoncé, she wears it in "Already." She's sitting on the ring and there's a gold medal. That one, we took and put sort of all of these different earrings, these gold earrings, which for a lot of young black girls are their first piece of jewelry; these tiny, gold earrings that are a symbol and connection. Often it can be the only family heirlooms that people have, their grandmother's gold rings. I wear mine all the time. My grandmother, she's still alive, thank God, and we switch rings. She gives me rings and buys me gold earrings, and that's a special connection for us. It's a pillar. To utilize these, from simple gold to bamboo earrings, all on this headpiece, where she's crowned in this nostalgia in a way was quite fun. I ended up turning that headpiece upside down in a way.

Beyoncé wrote on Instagram that the film now serves a greater purpose, arriving at this time, and the hope is to present elements of black history and African tradition, which I think, in large part, is accomplished by your collaborations. What is your hope for how fashion or the world responds to this moment?

I think Beyoncé is leading the charge in creating real change through this film. Just with the combo of the independent and couture designers, it really creates a space and a platform for access. That is phenomenal.

For myself, I started the Instagram page, Black Owned Everything. In less than two months, it's grown from three followers to almost 140,000. It shows that people are ready. There's a hunger. Beyoncé amplified that with "Black Parade" and created a directory so you can go to Beyoncé.com and find all of these brands. Real change is happening. We’re able to contribute to a real shift, and it's growing.

We have more work to do, but in terms of the film, the film just gives you a nice visual escape into that world, and also provides the platform. The work is day to day. We're off to a really good start in creating some real change and giving visibility to black designers, black companies, black-owned businesses, black creators, and then we can expand that into other cultures as well.

What's the next step for Black Owned Everything?

I actually haven't shared with anyone. I am creating a marketplace platform, an e-commerce space, to invite a nice, well-curated selection of these designers to sell their clothes in one place that will make it easier for consumers while also giving people access to a larger market. The people that are in my community, at my arms' reach, they get funneled there. People that are engaging in the platform now, they get visibility from a lot of high-end brands and fashion people. And the space will feature black creators; health, wellness and yoga instructors; things like that. Give me a few weeks and we'll be launching soon.

My last question: What's next? Are you taking a vacation?

Oh, I wish. No, no, no. Chloe and Halle have way too much coming up. And I have to prepare Beyonce's fall wardrobe. I don't think I'll get a vacation just yet, but I hope to design more. I hope to get my hands dirty a bit more in the design world, and create things of my own. It's fun.

Scroll down for more looks from Black Is King.