As much as the story lines and actors draw you in, the fashion on Issa Rae‘s “Insecure” is also part of the show’s allure and in each episode makes an equally nuanced and fresh statement. As we come to know each character better, it’s clear their wardrobes are carrying messages about who they are and where they come from.
It’s a meaningful goal for Los Angeles-based stylist, Ayanna James, who says her hope as the show’s costume designer was to contribute to an authentic portrayal of a demographic whose stories have been under-represented. “We’re showcasing that. There are people of color who went to school, are educated, we’re multi-dimensional, we’re not monolithic, we wanted to tell their story. And it’s still relatable to everyone, being in love, not finding the career you like. We just wanted to tell it through our lens,” said James.
In a phone interview with James, she explained what goes into assembling a wardrobe for a new show, and also provides some inside details on how the various costume choices are providing a wealth of info about the characters. And by the way, she is also aware that Twitter is debating Issa’s granny panties and says there’s a reason for them, too! Check out the exchange below.
Snobette: How did you become involved with “Insecure”?
Ayanna James: “I was introduced to Issa [Rae] through “[The] Misadventures [of Awkward Black Girl],” but I’ve worked with her on other pilot presentations. One day we were talking about things we wanted to accomplish and I told her I wanted to costume design my own TV show. When HBO green lit “Insecure,” she set up an appointment and I interviewed with Melina Matsoukas, and [the show runner] Prentice Penny, and they loved the ideas I brought to the table.”
Snobette: What was the process involved in understanding the characters?
Ayanna James: “There are a lot of meetings that go into the visuals. We read a script and I do a break down and character analysis. I present a mood board to producers that speaks to the look and feel I’m going for with a character, and then we do a whole bunch of shopping and fittings and we plug in the looks based on scene, and that’s what I do for every single character.”
Snobette: You dress all the characters?
Ayanna James: “I do, as the designer of the show, I approve everyone’s look and then I have an entire team that helps bring the vision to life. We have a crew of about five people.”
Snobette: How many people is that for each episode?
Ayanna James: “Everybody from Issa to all of the background people in restaurants, basically everyone on camera, which ranges from 175 to 200 people.”
Snobette: How does dressing all the people who are in the background work?
Ayanna James: “Sometimes it’s just a minor adjustment though even though they’re not directly on camera, they still play a big role. For something like a club scene, we’ll let extras know, ‘This is a club, come dress appropriately’ and if they wear something that makes sense, we’ll work with it. We also have an entire trailer to dress background.”
Snobette: It seems like so much, were you taken aback by the scope?
Ayanna James: “I was ready, I’ve been doing it on an indie level for a while and was at the point where I wanted to flex my muscles on a bigger platform.”
Snobette: How many hours are involved when you’re filming?
Ayanna James: “It’s about a 16-hour day. Everyone has to be dressed by 6:00 [AM] so I have to be on set by 4:30 [AM]. After everyone is dressed, we watch the first spot and then I go back to my office or my trailer and start making mood boards or reading the script and making notes to give to my shoppers. I typically have four or five fittings per day. Getting home at 8:00 or 9:00 [P.M.] is an early day. We have a lot to tell and squeeze into 30 minutes.”
Snobette: Are there any costume designers who you took inspiration from?
Ayanna James: “I got a lot of inspiration from ‘90s sitcoms. I rewatched ‘A Different World’ and ‘Family Matters,’ and remembered when I watched ‘Martin,’ how I felt when I saw a FAMU tee.
“Those ‘90s shows were so authentic and rich and real. I wanted to convey those same authentic messages. ‘Insecure’ and ‘Atlanta’ speak to a very under-represented demographic. We’re showcasing that. There are people of color who went to school, are educated, we’re multi-dimensional, we’re not monolithic, we wanted to tell their story. And it’s still relatable to everyone, being in love, not finding the career you like. We just wanted to tell it through our lens.”
Snobette: What is it like pulling now versus when you shot the pilot?
Ayanna James: “It’s improved a bit. When we shot the pilot, we were able to pull because of my background as a stylist and also through Melina’s music industry contacts. We called in a lot of favors, and then the rest we were able to pull from costume houses. Once we started shooting, we did have a certain budget and I did a lot of purchasing. I wanted to be able to hold on to what we pulled and because we worked with a lot of indie designers, I wanted to support them.”
Snobette: What are some of the labels you’ve worked with?
Ayanna James: “Stella McCartney is one. Issa wears a denim romper that is Stella and one of Molly’s black dresses is also Stella. I love that we could put the same designer on both characters. They’re completely different personalities, but it worked for both.”
Snobette: How do you source your looks?
Ayanna James: “I do a lot of searching on Instagram. You start on your friend’s page and then you end up on the stylist of a friend’s page. I follow a lot of indie and vintage boutiques, plus fashion shows all over the world. I’m interested in Lagos fashion week in Nigeria, I was really tuned into London.”
Snobette: What was the thinking behind Issa’s looks?
Ayanna James: “I’m Issa’s stylist and I already had a good sense of her style, and she wanted to look like herself, but up a notch. She wanted to resonate as natural and then we just showed her options. She also gave us the characters’ backgrounds and stories. For Lawrence and Issa, we know how long they’ve been together and a lot of other details.
“A subtle hint I gave about Lawrence, in one scene he’s in a Georgetown t-shirt so that gives you a hint about where he went to school and that maybe he’s really smart, which brings up the question of what is going on with him and why he isn’t working. When we worked with Debbie Allen, as a nod to her, Issa wears ‘A Different World’ t-shirt.”
Snobette: What’s the story behind the green sparkle dress she wore to sing “Broken Pussy” [Episode 1 “Insecure as F**k]?
Ayanna James: “That was Marc Jacobs from years ago. It was Melina’s. Her closet is amazing so we went to her house and went shopping in her closet. It worked for Issa because it’s not too girly or sexy, but also not conservative and it’s funky.”
Snobette: What about the Beyoncé “Formation” t-shirt that Issa wore [Episode 5 “Shady as F*ck”]?
Ayanna James: “That was a nod to Melina and her relationship directing for Beyoncé. We really just wanted to tell an authentic story so you had to give context. I can throw together outfits, but more importantly, can I tell the story and make sure every element is authentic to Issa’s life and her world?”
Snobette: She also wears a Prince tee [Episode 2 “Messy as Fuck”].
Ayanna James: “We wanted to set an aesthetic that when they lounge together they wear vintage t-shirts. I had a Michael Jackson t-shirt I had originally chose and Prince died the week before we started filming. To pay homage I made the Prince t-shirt. This graphic was already online so I pulled it and printed it. It was perfect, it was right after he passed, we were devastated and heartbroken.”
Snobette: Molly is the fashionista…
Ayanna James: “Molly isn’t rich, but she’s doing well so she could go to a sample sale and get a couple of designer things. She could wear Gucci and Lanvin because she has expensive taste, but for her suiting we pulled mostly from Ted Baker, ASOS and Reiss.”
Snobette: Did you put Lawrence in frumpy looking sweatpants on purpose?
Ayanna James: “Oh definitely, Jay Ellis is an ex-model and has an amazing physique so we had to work at making him look unattractive so his pants are literally three sizes too big. If someone is depressed and isn’t confident in themselves that shows in the way they’re presenting themselves to the world. There’s a lot of talk and little action from him on getting a business plan together and it shows. He probably doesn’t shower every day. We purposely did that and as the season progresses, he gets the job at Best Buy and starts to feel like he can contribute and you can see his character getting better, he starts working out again.”
Snobette: What was the thinking with putting Daniel in Mandarin collars?
Ayanna James: “Just give him a different flair. He’s an artist and a musician and he’s about his business so instead of putting him in stereotypical hip hop gear, we put him in a shirt with a Mandarin collar. He wore Chelsea boots on career day [Episode 4 “Thirsty as F*ck.”]
Snobette: In the episode [3 “Racist as F*ck”] where Issa meets up with Molly’s friends, there’s the whole statement about Issa wearing Converse and Molly wearing Fendi. Does that speak to their incomes?
Ayanna James: It’s an AKA party and they have a reputation for presenting themselves a certain way to the world. Molly is in pink and green and wearing her Fendi shoes. Issa’s not in that world, she just wants to be comfortable and her shoe choice helps make her look out of place among Issa’s friends, which we wanted to convey. That’s why we put her in the denim jeans and jacket. It’s also shows while they’re different, when they’re together, they’re still warm and friendly.”
Snobette: In one episode [2 “Messy as F*ck”) she goes to work wearing Molly’s clothing and you see her pausing at one point, observing herself.
Ayanna James: “Issa has hyped herself to go in and wing this presentation and she’s faking it so she borrows Molly’s suit and it’s one size too small. The suit is wrong, she botches the presentation and she ends up being blazer twins with Frieda.”
Snobette: Frieda is Issa’s co-worker at the non-profit.
Ayanna James: Frieda and Kitty are two of my favorite characters to dress. Kitty’s style is very ’50s vintage so when Veronica [Mannion] was cast she already had that vibe. We went to costume houses and pulled for her. Frieda is J.Crew meets Free People and the actress, Lisa Joyce, is just hilarious when she’s dressed and in character.
Snobette: Let’s discuss the complaints of Issa’s granny panties. First, I love her lingerie aesthetic, but people on Twitter are mad about them.
Ayanna James: “Lol, they’ll have to stay mad because that’s real life. What normal woman matches her bra and panties? And it’s not like she planned out the night before. Sometimes you watch network TV and the actress is wearing beautiful La Perla and women don’t dress like that.”
Snobette: Do you work together with hair and makeup?
Ayanna James: “Felicia Leatherwood does Issa’s hair so I’ll go to her with a look, and we go back and forth with ideas about hair and makeup. It’s a team effort. One goal is to show versatility with natural hair because that’s something you rarely get to see. Even the products we use, in the shower scene, it’s not a bottle of Head & Shoulders, it’s a brand that natural hair users would recognize.”
Snobette: How has it been dealing with the live critiques of your wardrobe choices?
Ayanna James: “I had a few panic attacks before the show aired when I started facing the idea of what people would say in real time, but at the end of the day, it’s a beautiful project. It’s something I’m proud of from the inside out and that gave me peace. And the response has been overwhelmingly positive. And it’s great, I get to see what people pick up on.”
Snobette: In the next episode 7 “Real as F*ck,” are you making statements about good and evil through clothing choices? I noticed Daniel is wearing a black coat.
Ayanna James: “You noticed! He’s the anti-hero in the scene, you want him to go away so Issa and Lawrence can be happy so I made him more foreboding with the coat. Your stomach drops when you see him. I want you to feel the intensity of just how badly things could go because he’s there.”
Snobette: When do you begin filming for season two?
Ayanna James: “We start in spring of 2017.”