‘Empire’ Costume Designer Rita McGhee Helps Us Get Cookie’s Badass Look

  • Empire Cookie

    [Photo Credit: FOX]

  • Empire Cookie

  • Empire Cookie

    [Photo Credit: FOX]

  • Empire Cookie

    [Photo Credit: FOX]

  • Empire Cookie

    [Photo Credit: FOX]

  • Empire Cookie

    [Photo Credit: FOX]

  • Empire Cookie

    [Photo Credit: FOX]

  • Empire Cookie

    [Photo Credit: FOX]

  • Empire Cookie

    [Photo Credit: FOX]

  • Empire Cookie

    [Photo Credit: FOX]

  • Empire Cookie

    [Photo Credit: FOX]

  • Empire Cookie

    [Photo Credit: FOX]

  • Empire Cookie

    [Photo Credit: FOX]

  • Empire Cookie

    [Photo Credit: FOX]

  • Empire Cookie

    [Photo Credit: FOX]

  • Empire Cookie

    [Photo Credit: FOX]

  • Empire Cookie

    [Photo Credit: FOX]

  • Empire Cookie

    [Photo Credit: FOX]

  • Empire Cookie

    [Photo Credit: FOX]

Forget all that talk that Lee Daniels Empire is a rip-off of 50 Cent’s Power, Empire is a phenomenon all its own. The evidence is clear that people are hooked on this show: Last week’s second episode of the series drew in 10.3 million viewers, up five percent since its debut. You can credit that to the series’ intriguing plot line (a mogul and his family struggle to maintain their music empire), its infectious soundtrack, and the impressive acting from a top cast, namely Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson. But the real hero of the show is most definitely its costumes.

Designed by costume designer Rita McGhee (who was brought in after the pilot to dress the rest of the season, following designer Paolo Nieddu), the show’s outlandish outfits are as fun to feast your eyes on as the drama itself. And taking the Empire crown for best dressed character? Taraji P. Henson’s Cookie Lyon. To be the queen of a billion-dollar company, you need to dress like royalty. And that Cookie does.

[Photo Credit: @rita_rocksstyle]

Here, we talked to the woman responsible for sifting through Cookie’s closest, McGhee, about the inspiration behind Queen C’s outfits in episode two, and the keys to being Cookie Lyon.

Taking what you saw in the pilot, how’d you decide to continue with the characters?
Rita McGhee: I got really good notes from my executive producers and creators, Danny Strong and Lee Daniels. They gave me the format of how they see the characters. Then I met with my actors. Taraji and Terrence, they know who these characters are. For Lucious, I researched what kings and mobsters would wear. He’s a businessman, he’s a father, he’s a thug, he’s a manipulator, he’s a person whom you can really put your finger on why you like him. His colors represent his strength. For him, we put him in Prada, Burberry, Gucci.

For Cookie, we shot high-end and low-end. We go to boutiques. She goes for Balenciaga, Prada, and Balmain. We even did stuff from Target for her. Whatever she puts on, she makes it come alive because her character is so raw.

When you came in, did you get a chance to discuss with the Paolo?
I did talk to [Paolo] who gave me a lot of good input, and I went from there, but I mostly took notes from the creators and the actors.

You can still see Cookie’s roots from her clothing, but also you can see how the power has changed her. Can you talk about that evolution?
She goes to jail in the late ‘90s, and when she comes out, it’s present day, so she still has her style of when she went in—the leopard print, the gaudiness, the overstated. But now that she’s into money, it’s a combination of both. She’s finding her style and how she could be a woman in the record industry and a woman in the world. That’s how her style comes together. Everything that she fought for, she has it now, so she’s finding herself.

Throughout the course of the season, how do you see Cookie’s style evolving?
She’s just a woman of fashion, and as a woman of fashion, her style is constantly growing with the evolution of her feelings. Her dresses are her armor. With each episode, her growth is reflected by how she presents herself. It grows on how fashion grows, on what’s in and what’s trending, and how she would represent that. She’s the trendsetter.

Is there anything she wouldn’t be caught dead wearing?
Something plain, frumpy, not tailored, and colors that don’t bring her out. She’s attracted to things that have the light. She wouldn’t be in anything that doesn’t represent her strength.

Say she just went to the grocery store, what would her outfit be?
She would go in jeans and a T-shirt but both would be fitted, and she’d put on some nice leopard boots. Then she’d top it off with a leather trench or a cute little fur. It’s like the housewife who’s always dressed up.

She’s got a style that seems like it’s from another time. Do you think it’s the lavishness of the industry and the spotlight that influences this?
It’s the spotlight, it’s the age we live in now. The truth is, if you can dress up, then dress up. Show your best. She’s in the music industry, in a billionaire family, and they started from the bottom, so she’s gonna show who she is and what she’s got. And she does casual—at home, she’ll have a lounging dress.

How has Taraji responded to the costumes? Is there anything she’s hoping to wear?
She’ll give me notes on how Cookie is feeling and looking in certain colors. [Taraji] is a joy to work with because she knows how to translate the feeling she has when delivering her lines into her Cookie’s style.

For the Lyon sons, are you looking at current rappers today?
For Hakeem, I look at A$AP Rocky, Drake, Kanye West, Lenny Kravitz, and Usher. For Andre, and even Luscious, I look at businessmen, including Donald Trump, Russell Simmons, and Diddy.

For anyone looking to dress like Cookie, but on a budget, what would you say are the essential pieces they need?
Dress in what makes you feel confident. Show off your body. Go for bold and color. Take a chance and wear something you normally wouldn’t wear. It just has to fit you and make you feel good.

What inspired you to become a costume designer?
I grew up in Guam so I was surrounded by the ocean and the lushness of the island. I was fascinated with television and film and how they dressed up. I watched American TV, shows like Brady Bunch and ‘70s sitcoms, and I was fascinated in how they conveyed what they were saying through clothes. So I graduated from Howard University and I majored in fashion merchandising, but my last year in school I took a class in costume design.

What would you say was your breakout moment?
I would say it’s Empire, but in all honesty I started working with Ruth Carter, who’s been nominated for two Oscars. She designed Spike Lee’s Mo Better Blues. Jungle Fever was the first movie I worked on as a PA then I worked my way up from there.

Do you have any advice for aspiring costume designers?
Have persistence, perseverance, and a belief system. Send out your resumes, and go out and meet people. Wherever you start, just start, whether it’s steaming clothes, ironing clothes, returning clothes, or folding shopping bags. Do the work with a great attitude and the rest will come. But most importantly, enjoy it.

[Photo Credit: FOX]

Tara Aquino is an entertainment writer based out of L.A. She likes people, places, and things.