Rainbow, Dre, Zoey, Dianne, Andre and Jack have become extended family at this point. It’s safe to say, we’re fully invested in the Johnson family. From their family dynamic to their individual fashion, black-ish provides life and style lessons.
If Bow (Tracee Ellis Ross) was our mom, we’d raid her closet on the regular. And Yara Shahidi, she would have had to put a lock on her closet door before leaving for college. While all these characters are stylish in their own right, there’s a mastermind behind the scenes, who is responsible for all the looks we see every Tuesday night. Behind the wardrobe of our favorite black-ish characters, is a Black woman — Michelle R. Cole — who worked closely with the show runner Kenya Barris and cast to curate captivating fashion moments each week. With the 73rd Emmy Award nominations on the horizon, we caught up with Cole to talk black-ish fashion and remind the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences why black-ish better a score a nomination in the design department.
“Eight years ago, I sat down with Kenya Barris to discuss the characters, who are based on his own wife and six kids,’ said Cole reflecting on the first season of black-ish. Barris sought to portray an affluent African-American family on primetime TV. “Through the clothes we wanted to show America what a Black family looks like from our perspective,” Cole explained.
Barris had a vision for his characters to marvel his family and if you’ve ever seen Barris, in real life, he is fashionable himself – often stepping out in high-end designers like Gucci and LV. It makes sense the cast of black-ish embody those same stylish characteristics.
“We wanted to mix up the clothes of high-end designers and basics like Zara, H&M, J. Crew, etc. Just a lot of mixture of designer and basics,” said Cole. “Kenya had a lot of input as far as characters and their personalities. I think we really accomplished that. ABC tends to like colors, I personally love colors, textures and patterns.”
Tracee Ellis Ross’ screen style is a standout. At any given time, you can catch Bow in the latest high-end designs, rocking vibrant hues or kicks with a dress.
“Tracee’s look is very colorful, we gave it a lot of interesting, high-end pieces from Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Dior, Barney’s NY, Neiman Marcus, and Saks. We like to put different shapes on her,” Cole described. “She just has such a great look, a great body, from her hair down to her make up to her earrings, she’s always sharp. She always looks great from a jumpsuit to jeans and a top. And we try to make it look effortless. She has around eight to ten changes per show so we try to give it a different look each time.”
When asked who is her favorite cast member to style, Cole responded, “Tracee, or Bow, really has my favorite style. If I were a guy it might be Dre. But I just love dressing Tracee. She’s an icon in the fashion world. It’s so much fun to see Bow these past seven seasons, going into the eighth and final season. I love everything that Tracee wears but I am a big fan of skirts and sneakers, myself. And dresses and sneakers.”
That doesn’t discount the other emerging stylistas on the show. Over seven seasons, we’ve watched Marsai Martin develop into a teenager and ditch her private school uniform for her own personal style.
“With Marsai, we met her when she was seven or eight years old. Now she’s 16. She is Jack’s twin. She is a very outspoken character,” said the wardrobe wizard. “Her personality started to shine a lot more these past couple seasons. She is still in private school but gets to choose her clothing. Watching her character grow and watching her grow has been a lot of fun to watch. It’s been really fun to see how her look has evolved these past eight seasons. She wears sweats, has this young, urban flair. She listens to hip-hop. She likes music so we based it on a lot of TV. She’s such a super smart, brave character so we don’t put her in anything too girly. We put a lot of sneakers on her, baggy pants sometimes, cute crop tops and a lot of hoodies in season seven.”
While some costume designers hesitate to share their favorite look of a season, Cole joyfully talked about a standout look from season seven.
“I do have a favorite look from this season. It was Jenifer and Laurence in their bride and groom costumes. I designed it and had help construct their pieces. I love Jenifer’s wedding gown! It was inspired by African textures and patterns. I loved all the colors. The dress was constructed by Lavie By CK Claude Kameni who also designed for Viola Davis, and worked on Coming 2 America with Ruth Carter. And Jennifer’s headdress was made by her hairdresser, Enoch. David Paletz constructed Laurence’s suit.”
Cole, who lives by the mantra “blow it out the water,” applies that to every aspect of her life and brought that energy to the wardrobe room of the black-ish set.
“I always say, ‘let’s just go for it.’ And then we can always pull back. But I really like to take risks, go over-the-top, then pull back if need be. That’s kind of what I do. I say let’s go the distance, and then maybe pull it back. I’d rather start big and then take away.”
For many, black-ish was a breath of fresh air, offering mainstream America a much-needed perspective into the life of a well-off Black family. Despite the beloved series coming to an end after season eight, it’s safe to say Cole, Barris and everyone involved accomplished exactly what they set out to do.