THE DESIGNERS OF BLACK IS KING
by Jonathan Vatner
Black Is King, Beyoncé’s feature-length visual album inspired by The Lion King, is not only an inspiring tale encouraging Black Americans to reclaim African identity and power, it’s a fashion fever dream of jaw-dropping looks by mostly Black designers.
Dressing Queen Bey, the ultimate fashion icon, is a holy grail for designers and a sign of unparalleled validation. In 2019, the singer’s stylist Zerina Akers brought that validation to many independent designers—including a number of FIT alumni—when she asked them to pull together looks for the film. Here’s what those alumni said about the experience.
Venny Etienne has always wanted to dress Beyoncé. He submitted some pieces to Zerina in 2016, but her superstar client didn’t end up wearing any of his looks. Then, in August of last year, he heard from Zerina again. “She said it was for a video,” recalls the Fashion Merchandising Management alum and Season 17 Project Runway contestant. “She told me to focus on a strong silhouette, emphasizing either the shoulders or the hips.”
From Venny’s seven or eight sketches, Zerina picked this graphic blazer, which his brand, Levenity, is known for. He amped up the look with extra hardware and a strap on the sleeve.
He aims for perfection for all his clients, but designing for Beyoncé cranked up the intensity to the max.
“I was on an adrenaline high,” he says. “I worked for 45 hours straight. I was like, ‘Oh, no, I’m not sleeping for Beyoncé.’”
When he saw her wearing his jacket in Black Is King, he cried. “Ever since I started the brand, Beyoncé has been my number one goal–it was absolutely everything for me.”
Zerina ordered a ready-to-wear design by eco-chic brand Mia Vesper for an Egyptian-inspired scene, and asked for three complementary custom looks for Beyoncé —to be delivered in mere days. Mirabai Howard-Geogan, Fashion Design ’09, Fashion Merchandising Management ’07, the design consultant for the brand, made everything by hand, patternmaking, draping, and sewing for 18 hours a day.
The fabric itself played a big part in the inspiration. It’s a pleated, shiny nylon-Lurex blend with a floral print, and Zerina loved it. Mirabai draped it on a dress form, padded to match Beyoncé’s measurements. But to get the full effect of the dress, it needed to be tried on; luckily, Mirabai’s friend had exactly the same measurements as the star.
The structured headpiece, Mia’s idea, “was literally a cardboard box that was padded and covered in the fabric.” And the choice to include the neck piece that pulled up into a mask was pure serendipity: They could not have predicted that masks would become a necessity by the time the film debuted on Disney Plus.
Dynasty and Soull Ogun, the identical twin designers of L’Enchanteur, create clothes, hats, jewelry, and eyewear with a nod to West African royalty.
In 2019, the alums of FIT’s Design Entrepreneurs NYC program submitted hats and jewelry for Beyoncé’s video for Spirit, a song from The Lion King, and the singer wore their Midas Touch Finger Caps. A month or two later, Zerina reached out again, asking for as much jewelry as they could give her within two weeks.
The timeline was so short and the undertaking so vast that Dynasty and Soull entered a state of pure creation, not thinking, just crafting. “There was no practice and no script,” Soull says. “It felt like a freestyle mixtape.”
In all, they sent 60 to 70 pieces–mostly rings and earrings, dipped in 22-karat gold–the karatage commonly used in West Africa–but also other body adornments and textiles. Much of it appears, including a mouthpiece inspired by facial tattoos unique to a tribe in that area. Jay-Z wears a ring they made for him. Every time Soull watches the film, she sees more of their work. “There’s a lot of stuff in there,” she says. “It’s kind of like Where’s Waldo.”
According to Harper’s Bazaar, Zerina is good friends with Jerome Lamaar Rice, Fabric Styling ’07 (better known as Jerome Lamaar), and they have worked together for years. When they met in the Fashion District last year, she requested a look inspired by powerful matriarchs at Nigerian weddings, and he sketched it on the spot. They sourced a blue Nigerian lace, from which he created a trench/jumper hybrid with gloves attached. The piece is hand-beaded with turquoise, jade, hematite, mother of pearl, silver, and Swarovski crystals. Jerome also made Beyoncé’s badass sunglasses. (Milliner Sarah Sokol created the beehive headpiece.)
Discouraged by racism in the fashion industry, Jerome had stepped away from his brand, 5:31 Jérôme, but with the success of this collaboration, he has approached it anew. “As an Afro-futurist, this was the best opportunity to create something that felt strong, beautiful, sexy, and of course magical,” Jerome wrote on Instagram. “I have been reawakened as a designer to show my magic in a new way.”
Lorraine West Jewelry
Lorraine West’s Abstract Palette Earrings, graphic discs of polished brass, were inspired by a painter’s palette–a nod to her days as an illustrator (she graduated from FIT’s Illustration program in 1998). They face opposite directions, like a yin and yang, representing balance.
“Lorraine West designed these earrings as a tribute to all people that are painting a new world through their positive cause in life,” reads the description on her website.
The earrings have been a huge success for the independent jewelry brand. Not only did Beyoncé wear them while performing Water in Black Is King, but Mary J. Blige and Zendaya have also worn them this year.
On Instagram, Lorraine thanked the filmmakers, wardrobe stylists, editors, and clients who embraced the design throughout 2020. “It’s truly become the earrings of the year for us.”