Fashion Fling – Costume Designer Rita McGhee Reigns on Empire
By Staci Layne Wilson
One cookie that never crumbles – and always looks like a zillion bucks clad head-to-toe in luscious leopard or sparkling Swarovski – is the best love-to-hate-her TV beeyotch to saunter along since “Dynasty’s” Alexis Carrington: she is Cookie Lyon, played to pouty perfection by Taraji P. Henson.
In the hot hit “Empire” (a Lee Daniels created hip-hop nighttime soap that just debuted three weeks ago on Fox, and has already been picked up for a second season), Cookie is the ex-con ex-wife of ruthless rapper and music mogul Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard). She’s fresh out of prison and meddling in the family biz when we first meet her, and as of the most recent episode Cookie’s pouncing on Puma (Cuba Gooding Jr.) in the hopes that the rainmaker will write a hit song for her son… She seals the deal wearing an Alexander McQueen snakeskin clutch and Chanel necklace. No knock-offs here. Gucci, Reed Krakoff, Valentino, Christian Louboutin, and Philip Treacy are as much a part of the show as the cast.
Creating Cookie’s chic style is the dream-job of costume designer Rita McGhee, who is the reigning wardrobe queen with over 25 years under her rather fashionable belt. She’s worked with the likes of director Spike Lee and Oscar-nominated costume designer Ruth Carter. While the outrageous animal prints are the most eye-catching on the small screen, the glitzy purple pops are just as crucial. “One fact that stands out and is truly in line with the lead characters is the color purple,” said Rita McGhee in a recent interview. “Only a Roman emperor was allowed to wear the trabea, which was a toga entirely colored in purple. Tyrian purple dye was worth more than its weight in gold and therefore came to symbolize both wealth and power.”
Even though the show is all about money, glam and status, Rita McGhee brings it on with a relatively small budget of $15,000 to $20,000 per episode. Like “Empire” itself, family connections don’t hurt. McGhee’s mom-in-law is Janet Bailey, who was the first wife of Earth, Wind & Fire singer Philip Bailey — and she lent three furs out of her own closet (including the minxy mink Cookie wore last week’s episode) from her days in the spotlight. The vintage threads sure do imbue the show an air of authenticity. “I’ve had that coat for 15 years,” said Bailey of the $10,000 coat. “I was going to the Grammys and wanted to look nice. At the time, I liked fine things. I have a lot of diamonds and I think about lending those, too.” Rita McGhee has also borrowed key pieces from the show’s fashion consultant, Monique Mosley, who is married to musical director Timbaland.
When the show airs (Wednesday nights), the Twitterspere is all abuzz about the who’s wearing what. #TeamCookie fans are all over Cookie’s delish duds. Some of the celebrity slaves to her fashion include Porsha Williams, Tameka Raymond, and Brooke Lewis. (You can chime in too, name-checking @EmpireWriters and @TheRealTaraji and using the hashtag #EmpireFOX)
Photos: Chuck Hodes/Rita Mcghee/FOX