Chicago costume designer Marci Rodgers wears many hats to bring characters and past eras to life

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Marci Rodgers. (Image supplied by The Friday street Club)
Marci Rodgers. (Image supplied by The Friday street Club)
  • Rémy Martin recently announced a collaborative new campaign with multi-Grammy award-winning music artist, Usher, to celebrate the harmonious blending of music and Cognac. 
  • Teaming up with Usher and Rémy Martin, are globally recognised creatives including Raphael Saadiq, world-renowned musical composer; and Marci Rodgers, Academy-Award winning costume stylist, among others. 
  • Afika Jadezweni had a virtual sit-down conversation with Chicago-born costume designer, Marci Rodgers, about the Rémy Martin film, as well as other industry-blazing projects she has under her belt, including BlacKkKlansman, She's Gotta Have It, and No Sudden Move.

Each piece of fashion worn by any individual can serve as a vessel for storytelling - whether fictional or real-life. In this way, outfits and trends can communicate moods, personalities, as well as social and financial status. 

You need only look at the way world wars shaped women's fashion, the feminine – yet equal parts dapper – style of the 1950s, and the way the Roaring '20s popped the cork of stylish extravagance and glitz that had been bubbling under wartime ruin. And after apartheid stripped black South Africans bare of their dignity, the youth found ways to clothe themselves boldly in the township streets the regime had brutally designated for them, while the wealthy and privileged robed themselves in slightly reimagined remnants of colonial fabric.

These were expressions of reclamation, and they've prevailed well into the latter years of the 2000s, thanks to the collective nostalgia of emancipation that for a long time probably seemed uncertain. 

More on this in the article below.

READ MORE: Fashion in a post-Covid era demands a deviation from uninspired churning out of collections

But for now, I want to throw your attention briefly to a 2017 W24 article about how the colours we wear can sometimes have an impact on how we are perceived;

"Everyone has a favourite colour or at least a go-to colour of sorts, usually one of the primary colours, as was noted in Live Science's pie chart of humanity's favourite colours. These tend to be either rather bright or a calm pastel tone."

"It is not only colours which give off a vibe about us, but the way we dress also gives off a certain impression to strangers (and people you know) about our personalities, and how seriously we take ourselves," the article added. 

Accompanying this sentiment, is a 2019 conversation with Netflix's The Politician costume designer & stylist, Claire Parkinson, who told us that power dressing is "about showing your inner power, and it's often influenced by things we've experienced and how we experience the world in general."

"Power is internal," she added, alluding to the fact that clothes can therefore be a medium through which we subliminally let our inner power be known to those around us. 

This is how costume designers build story outfits that correlate with each character's influence (or lack thereof) in film and TV. 

Often, films and TV series will not necessarily have a fashion storyline, yet the collaborative efforts between a director and costume designer can still visually elevate a story. At times, with character development, we may even see a sartorial arch coming through.

This marriage of fashion and film has - over decades - given us several fashion references as well as created fictional style icons. 

READ MORE: An ode to TV's It girls who seemingly dressed beyond their means and the stylists who made them so  

From the era-defining likes of Great Gatsby or Marie Antoinette, to all things well-tailored on Suits to the TV 'It' girls of the 1990s to early aughts, a costume designer's hand weaves important narratives too.

And so; such is the vocation of Chicago-born, Hollywood costume designer, Marci Rodgers.  

It’s easy to go on the internet and find pictures of clothing, but I feel like there’s a backstory to every piece of clothing somebody puts on.
Marci Rodgers

It is to capture - in carefully researched and curated pieces - not only the cultural climate of any given era, but the intellectual and emotional trappings of each character.   

This week, she celebrates the premier of No Sudden Move - where her work alongside production designer Hannah Beachler, has been described by the New York Times as a "museum-quality panorama..".

This comes after she costume designed a film with premium Cognac brand, Rémy Martin.

marci rodgers
Marci Rodgers. (Image supplied by Friday Street Club) 

Rémy Martin recently announced a collaborative new campaign with multi-Grammy award winning musical artist, Usher, to celebrate another harmonious blending worth appreciating; that between two cultures of timeless excellence - music and Cognac. 

“Team Up For Excellence - The Film” highlights the cultural connection between Cognac and American music since 1917 in France, and how the two have been synonymous ever since. Here, we see another depiction of how costume lifts a story - no matter how short. 

READ MORE: Impossible is Nothing - Thebe Magugu on excellence, education, and his beloved muse

In the film, imagined in collaboration with FRED & FARID New York, Usher narrates a story spanning the decades from the 1920’s to present day, which pays tribute to the multi-cultural connections, celebrated styles and rhythms of the past.

From Blues to Hip-Hop, Swing Dancing to Break-Dancing; Usher and Rémy Martin 1738 Accord Royal travel through decades in France and the US, to honor these cultural figures; both rooted in a shared philosophy of aiming for the stars. 

Teaming up with Usher and Rémy Martin, are globally recognised creatives including Raphael Saadiq, world-renowned musical composer; Marci Rodgers, Academy-Award winning costume stylist; Aakomon Jones, award winning dance choreographer; and director of the production; Jake Nava.  

Not too long after this launch, I had a virtual sit-down conversation with costume designer, Marci Rodgers, about this collaboration, as well as other industry-blazing projects she has under her belt, including BlacKkKlansman, She's Gotta Have It, and No sudden Move.

The award-winning costume designer was on the set of a new project on a Monday morning (evening in SA - at the tail-end of my work day), where she so gracefully gave me 30 minutes of her time despite being very evidently on a tight time budget. 

"Please forgive me, I’m actually in the middle of filming right now," she says, anticipating that rescheduling from Saturday to Monday might have been an inconvenience for me. It wasn't.

Instead, I just ask her if she's feeling better; to which she sighs and responds "no" and explains she had an allergic reaction to medication the day we were initially meant to chat. 

Ironically, I would later find myself penning her story (a few weeks later) while recovering from my own brush with ill-health. But between this "kid from Chicago" and a "small town girl", the juice of the very lively conversation we had was well worth the squeeze. 

"This is my office right now," Marci says over Zoom - mask on - gesturing at the set around her. “I’m in the process of shooting a television series – it’s a period piece," she tells me. 

And so our chat begins: 

You’re skilled at styling outside of the current era, having costume directed films such as BlacKkKlansman and Passing. The Rémy Martin film also references the Harlem Hellfighters getup, taking us from the 1920s to present day times. What’s your approach to designing a wardrobe for these kind of films?   

Well, let me start with BlacKkKlansman, which was one of the first projects I became globally recognised for and to be honest with you, I took it back to the legend. What I mean by that is; I took a trip. There were so many things that stood out to me [from the script and the research], particularly Gone With the Wind – in American history, that movie is prominent.

So I did research on the Ku Klux Klan early on in my research process and I had to remove my personal emotions from it, but I wouldn’t say I became numb to my research. What I did do, was [transfer] that emotion into my design.

I then visited my alma mater, Howard University. There, I looked at 1970s fashion from Essence Magazine, Jet Magazine and I had the opportunity to look at archival photos of Stokely Carmichael, who we know as Kwame Ture. And that was important to me because I knew I was telling the story of a real person and real people such as David Duke.  

So it’s really important that I find real photos.

It’s easy to go on the internet and find pictures of clothing, but I feel like there’s a backstory to every piece of clothing somebody puts on. There’s a reason why people wear what they wear. For me, personally, that’s why I’m able to convey storytelling through my wardrobe or costume design. I pay particular attention to the details. 

It’s all a story; and I like to have my costumes – period or not – to have texture. Texture and colour give emotion. There’s a reason why people wear black and there’s a reason why people wear white. 

READ MORE: EXCLUSIVE | Gina Prince-Bythewood on the need for women, black people to be represented in film

This Rémy Martin film is also a celebration of music and as such, there’s dancing. How do you select clothes to complement or elevate movement? 

That’s really important. It’s something I learnt in my Master’s programme at the University of Maryland.

My professor (who’s still my mentor) had us collaborate with the dance programme. That was my first project in costume design. So depending on choreography or who the talent is, having certain pieces available for them that makes them look slick, clean, and in character [can carry the movement]. 

In the Rémy Martin film, what Usher wore had to translate through time and eras as well.  

It’s been said that clothes have their own way of communicating a message – how did you carry Rémy Martin’s campaign message of “teaming up for excellence” in the pieces picked for this film?

I was very particular about that. I keep saying it’s an honour because we collaborated so much and bounced ideas off one another [with Usher], and what that meant was finding a happy medium.

With Usher in particular, he is humble, but he is a staple in our community, so I tried to manifest the best fashions available in the wardrobe and it was kind of perfect. It was almost like a beautiful mistake. I walked up to YSL in Los Angeles and it [Usher’s look] was right there. 

What do you enjoy the most about designing a wardrobe for a period film? 

Honestly, just walking away having learnt something new. It sounds cliché, but it’s the truth. I learnt so much working with Spike Lee – we went to Basquiat’s grave and I never thought so early on in my career that I would look at [Jean-Michel] Basquiat’s grave.

Even for BlacKkKlansman, sitting across from someone who was a staple in the Black Panther movement and hearing her talk about her love and how she pretty much changed the face of the civil rights movement.

You can’t pay for stuff like that. 

And what do you find most challenging about period film styling?  

I don’t like to use the word “challenge”, but I would say some of the obstacles I’ve faced includes actually finding something I’ve discovered in my research – the actual garment. It’s bittersweet because you can put your spin on it and remake it to be what you envision it to be.

For example, the project I’m working on now - with the armour design - the research that I’ve pulled has given me an opportunity to put other designers on an international platform instead. So it can be difficult, particularly to find fabric that existed in the 1930s, so you have to get crafty and really know your fabric history. 

You have to be able to collaborate. Sometimes collaboration is not going to be fun, it’s not going to be comfortable – it’s just not. That’s the beauty of it and that’s what makes beautiful storytelling.

In a more contemporary project like She’s Gotta Have It, although it’s an adaptation of an ‘80s film, how deliberately do you create memorable looks that will be referenced for seasons to come?

I was a child when She’s Gotta Have It (movie) came out, but thankfully I had the man, the myth, and the legend there, Spike Lee, to mentor me through that process [of the Netflix series adaptation].

There were looks that I was specific about for everyone and I could see myself in all of the characters. The series had to look real to me because I’m not from New York; I’m from Chicago, so I had to make it look real and also pay homage to the person and the original story with the iconic image of Nola in the white shirt, and then Nola 2.0 (DeWanda Wise) has the headwrap paired with this white shirt in the Netflix series.

BROOKLYN, NEW YORK - MAY 23: DeWanda Wise and Spik
DeWanda Wise and Spike Lee attends the "She's Gotta Have It" Season 2 Premiere at Alamo Drafthouse on May 23, 2019 in Brooklyn, New York. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images) 

How collaborative is the process of costume designing?

It depends on the director, but it’s generally very collaborative. I have a movie that’s premiering with Steven Soderbergh (No Sudden Move) and that’s the second movie that’s singlehandedly changed my career.

When he reached out to me for No Sudden Move, and as I went through the process, I realised that collaboration is about relationships. For this current project, my cast is all A-list and I’m young in my career, so to have this opportunity so early on is so important, but I know it came from my relationships and you have to extend that olive branch [to the new guard].

One of the first things I learnt in Maryland was collaboration; you have to be able to collaborate. Sometimes collaboration is not going to be fun, it’s not going to be comfortable – it’s just not. That’s the beauty of it and that’s what makes beautiful storytelling.

That’s how you end up with a beautiful project. 

BROOKLYN, NEW YORK - MAY 23: DeWanda Wise and Spik
Marci Rodgers attends the 21st Costume Designers Guild Awards x Getty Images Portrait Studio presented by LG V40 ThinQ on February 19, 2019 in Beverly Hills, California. This image was captured on the LG V40 ThinQ. (Photo by Rich Fury/Getty Images for LG V40 ThinQ) 

As a costume director, would you say you have a styling signature for each of your projects that one would be able to identify before the credits even roll up? 

If I didn’t tell you, you wouldn’t be able to pick it up. But when I first started design, I said that if I could insert my own background story into any actress' costume, it would probably be pearls or pink and green because those were my sorority colours at Howard University (where Kamala Harris and I were actually initiated in the same chapter). 

So I will always try throw somebody into some pearls – it’s my way of giving back to the sorority that chose me to be a member and to carry on our legacy and tradition. Other than that, you’ll probably see the men in hats, because my father played a huge part in what I see as a gentleman. Even my mother wore a lot of hats to church pre-Covid. 

Lastly, what’s your favourite fashion era of all time? 

To be honest, I fell in love with the 1920s. I always knew I would.

When I [costume designed] Passing, to see those characters in their Sunday Bests – everyday walking out of the house dressed [to the nines] – meant a lot to me because my father dresses like that. My dad does not own a pair of jeans and yesterday we left the house, and he literally wore a two-piece linen suit with a matching hat… and the shoes to match!

My father creates his own clothes, sketches his own clothes, and he came up in the ‘70s; so between the ‘20s and the ‘70s, you had a range of clothing that people wore to express themselves [like my father].

Like I said earlier, people overlook why certain characters wear what they wear, and how specific it is. It even goes down to the jewellery and items we don’t see on them. But the beauty in my job is that I can float through those eras and when I want to insert myself, I insert myself through the costume design. 

Having said that, I actually don’t have a [favourite] era, but if I had to choose, it would be the ‘20s. The 1950s I also like, as well as the 1970s. So I picked three (chuckles).

Additional information provided by Friday Street Club

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