'Queen Sugar,' 'Insecure' Costume Designer Breaks Down Looks That "Showcase Black Culture"
"When shows are based in Los Angeles, we're always talking about Hollywood or Melrose Place or Echo Park. Very rarely do we get to see the inner workings of South L.A., of Crenshaw, of Inglewood," says Ayanna James.
Costume designer Ayanna James has worked on two television series so far, under two of today’s hottest content creators: Issa Rae and Ava DuVernay.
She designed for Rae's Insecure for seasons one, two and part of three on HBO, before beginning with DuVernay’s Queen Sugar for season four (which premiered June 12). For both series, her goal has been to shop locally and dress the characters from stores where the characters would have shopped.
For Rae’s character, who lives in South Los Angeles and works at a middle school nonprofit, James pulled from places like L.A. thrift store Jet Rag, L.A. boutique Collection (for vintage Levi's) and L.A. brand 69 U.S. — the latter for a cropped button-down shirt during “that incident” with Daniel (Y'lan Noel). James also taps black designers, because she knows that’s what Issa would wear, for pieces such as slippers from Brother Vellies or a sweatshirt reading “Inglewood” made by Reckcreations. Other familiar pieces include Dijon Samo's “FBI Killed Fred Hampton” sweater, a dinner party dress from Maki Oh, Issa's swimsuit from Andrews Iyama and cowrie shell earrings from Almasika Fine Jewelry, plus Diaboli Kill jewelry for Molly, Issa's best friend played by Yvonne Orji.
“She would shop probably at the Crenshaw Mall or in Leimert Park, where the office is based,” James tells The Hollywood Reporter. “That was why her palette is so texture-heavy and print-heavy.”
James then set out for New Orleans to film Queen Sugar for several months, saying she wants to "elevate" the looks of siblings Nova and Charley, who inherit their dad's sugarcane farm in Louisiana. Here, James talks to THR about envisioning the outfits of the leading ladies on Insecure and Queen Sugar to "showcase black culture."
When you began on Insecure, what were some of your initial visions for the characters?
I have a personal relationship with Issa that started before Insecure got green-lit, so I was very familiar with her web series Awkward Black Girl and her brand of comedy. That was really the initial concept and inspiration behind it. Same type of comedy that Awkward Black Girl had but we just wanted to make it a little bit more fashionable, a little bit more stylish, a little bit more authentic. We had more money, that of course helps. So with [directors] Prentice [Penny] and Melina [Matsoukas] and Issa, the drive behind the storytelling was to showcase black culture. So I pulled a lot of inspiration from the people that I knew around her and the show and how I designed each character.
How would you describe the difference in aesthetics between Issa and Molly?
The biggest thing is Molly has money and Issa doesn't [laughs]. Molly passed the bar; she's a nice attorney downtown. She's making good money and Issa worked in nonprofits, so Issa's clothing was either indie brands or we thrifted quite a bit for her. Versus Molly, she's someone who would have shopped at Barneys, Saks, Neiman, slightly higher labels. So that's on the surface. Molly was very monochromatic or dichromatic, where we'd put her in amazing pantsuits where tonally she was more pastel. For Issa, we incorporated lots of prints. I would work with [designers] from L.A. to Nigeria, so her palette is jewel-toned, burnt orange, olive — anything that had a lot of texture and pattern on it.
Were those color palettes mostly due to their jobs or their personalities?
Mostly for their jobs. I pulled a lot of inspiration from girls I knew, so Molly was like a contemporary minimalist. Even her apartment kind of reminded me of something on Pinterest. It was very pastel-y, very cute and little accents of gold.
How did Los Angeles influence specific looks?
Because music is such a big part of the show — it's one of the top three things you reference when you talk about Insecure — so I always wanted to throw in some vintage tees, which we started in the pilot episode. I think in the pilot Issa wears a B.B. King vintage T-shirt, and then one of them wears a Michael Jackson T-shirt. I started there with artists that we love from back in the day and that really opened the door for a lot of T-shirt companies and brands reaching out, saying, 'Hey, we'd love to get our stuff on the show.' And I gave priority to many of the designers who were based in L.A. So when it comes to how music influences the show and the storytelling of it, Issa left all those Easter eggs with Drake lyrics. There were certain times when I would align a T-shirt with how she was feeling.
I started with music and as the show grew I realized Issa Rae's importance of showcasing South L.A. and the places that we don't particularly see on television. There's one sweatshirt that she wears in season three that says "Inglewood" and that's from a local designer [Reckcreations], so it was really fun to support and showcase different designers that are in and around the areas that we shoot in.
Why is that important to you and to the show?
Because it's a show that shows we really haven't seen. When shows are based in Los Angeles, we're always talking about Hollywood or Melrose Place or Echo Park. Very rarely do we get to see the inner workings of South L.A., of Crenshaw, of Inglewood. And so just being in alignment with the storytelling and the importance of it to Issa, I wanted to support that and supplement that with the costumes.
How else do the costumes reference L.A. than, say, New York?
There's a totally different vibe, particularly within black culture. Certain characters we could see were really true and authentic. For example, Thug Yoda is a Blood and has actually worked on projects with YG, where we had to abide by a specific street code because people from this area would dress a certain way. So in terms of the brand and the colors, shoes, what side they wear their belts on, all of that is very specific, so I wanted to make sure that we incorporated that within the characters.
Then the writers also created a backstory for them. For example, Lawrence [Issa's boyfriend on Insecure] went to this university for tech and he got to explore and experience the East Coast a little bit, so he's not as L.A. as anyone else. He's a programmer; my husband works in a similar field and so does my father, so I pulled inspiration from both of them when it came to Lawrence.
What were some of the things you picked up from them that you incorporated into Lawrence's look?
They really only wear button-front shirts and jeans, and they'll wear [certain] sneakers and that's it. But we wanted to make Lawrence feel a little bit sexier, particularly in the second season, when he finally gets that job and he's working. So I upped the style and the fit. Jay Ellis, he's 6' 3." He's kind of like a model body, so everything is just going to look great on him. But we gave Lawrence the back story that he ran track and he's an athlete. So for his shoes, I bought him some really awesome Jordans.
And let's talk about Queen Sugar. Why did you want to join the show?
I worked with Ava once on Jay-Z's "4:44" video and I loved the way Ava told stories, so that was obviously exciting. It's a drama, which I haven't done. I've mostly been in the comedy world for my career. So I felt this was another fun challenge, and then, of course, to come to New Orleans was icing on the cake. But really just to do something totally different and open my brain up and work in a different capacity is really what interested me into coming on to this project.
What have you found to be some of the differences between comedy and drama costuming?
From a costume standpoint, it's mostly tone. When it's drama, you're not really supposed to use a lot of color because tonally you want the focus to be on the acting. So having to pull back a little bit on the fashion and style, but still be able to engage and excite the audience. These characters they've been with for four seasons, so when they do see them on camera, [it's] that they are kind of falling in love and they are paying attention to what they're wearing.
How was that, having already seen the tone of the show? Coming in, what were some of your inspirations when you joined?
I had a meeting with Ava before I came to New Orleans, and I showed a mood board of what the characters were and where I thought we could go. And she and the showrunner Anthony Sparks downloaded me on what the storyline for each character was going to be this season.
So really it was just marrying my vision with the storyline. It's been a lot of fun. I think this season (not just because of the clothing, but, because of what's happening with these characters and how they're developing) that the audience is really going to be shocked a bit and it's going to be a lot more engaged.
Where are you finding pieces for the show? Are you shopping in New Orleans while you're there?
It's not as easy as I thought it would be [laughs]. I am shopping locally for some of the characters, but New Orleans is in a phase where it's still making its comeback from Katrina and some of the issues it's had over the few years. There's not a ton of shopping here compared to Atlanta, compared to Texas, compared to L.A. So I have to be really smart and strategic. There's no Beverly Center that I can go into and get everything I need.
For this character, you've got to go to Lakeside Mall and this character, you've got to go to like the 9th Ward. On weekends, my assistant designer and I will go out and check out malls and [other] places. We went to the French market. Magazine Street is a really amazing place to shop. For characters that are supposed to be from the Saint Joe Parish, or characters who are farmers, or who are of a younger demographic, I can shop locally. But I work with Shopbop quite a bit for Charley and Nova. For those two women, I outsource [because] I wanted to elevate their look a little bit."
Do you have a favorite look this season?
Nova is an author this season. That's not a spoiler because we find out at the end of season three that her book is going to get published. So I worked really closely with a designer, Fe Noel, who is based out of New York but she's from Grenada and she works with a Haitian artist, a painter. There are a few pieces that I asked her to make for Rutina Wesley, who plays Nova. You'll see two pieces from her in the first episode [that are] two of my favorite looks. I think everybody on set, when Rutina walked on set, was like, 'Oh my gosh this looks so amazing.'
Connecting to both shows, what makes both of these projects special for you to work on?
What makes them special is that they are headed by two black women, both from L.A., both telling stories that relate to women who look like them and like me. It's sort of a signaling of this new wave of television and media and entertainment that we're going to be able to digest. I'm just really excited to be working with the Ava DuVernay and to have worked so closely with Issa Rae. Both women are absolutely brilliant.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.