America loves Cookie Lyon – the female lead on Fox's breakout hit Empire – riotously played by Taraji P. Henson.
But we wouldn't connect to Cookie so completely if her sense of style – or, sometimes, lack thereof – wasn't so very on point with her character: Cookie dresses like a woman who doesn't play.
Enter costume designer Rita McGhee.
McGhee puts Cookie in cocked-to-the-side fedoras and animal print getups by day. By night, for Cookie's luxe, music-industry affairs, she wears sumptuous furs over glitzy gowns.
McGhee also has to work the then-and-now: À la 2015, she drapes Cookie in slinky ensembles. For the throwback '90s look, McGhee coolly clads Cookie and then-husband Lucious (Terrence Howard) in Coogi sweaters, Girbaud jeans, and Timberlands – when the couple were West Philadelphia drug dealers.
"The Lyons were, and are, influenced by the music," McGhee said during a telephone interview from Chicago, where "Empire" is filmed. "Cookie is always confident in what she wears."
McGhee, 50, started working as a costume designer more than 20 years ago under Ruth E. Carter, twice an Academy Award nominee for best costume design ("Malcolm X" and "Amistad"). McGhee's TV credits include the "Jamie Foxx Show" and "In Living Color," and the first movie she worked on was Spike Lee's "Jungle Fever." (No wonder McGhee knows those '90s so well.)
But "Empire" is McGhee's biggest hit to date: According to the Hollywood Reporter, last week's episode hit a new high of 14.2 million viewers – not quite as many as "The Walking Dead," but more than "The Big Bang Theory." And so McGhee is joining the growing ranks of costume designers who can carry as much cachet as the stars they dress.
"Costume designers really have a voice now," said Linda Kearns, of the Matchbook Co., a New York-based firm that represents more than 25 costume designers.
"They are experts, voices of authority, trendsetters. They are creating the persona of these strong, empowered women who are stylish and feminine, and viewers are connecting to them."
Patricia Field, the sartorial brain behind "Sex and the City," may have been the first to have such an impact, but these days, designing a character can get you a clothing collection.
Lyn Paolo's strategic, crisp white suits, cloaks, and gloves for Olivia Pope on "Scandal" inspired a line at the Limited. Janie Bryant created Don and Betty Draper's perfect-on-the-outside, tortured-on-the-inside 1960s style on "Mad Men" that resulted in a Banana Republic capsule collection. Mandi Line, the costume designer for ABC's "Pretty Little Liars," worked with Aeropostale to create a grouping of tween-savvy pieces, too.
An oversize, interlocking-C, Chanel necklace that Cookie often wears sold out soon after it appeared on the third episode while she visits an old friend, portrayed by Cuba Gooding Jr. If "Empire"'s story line next season remains as compelling as the clothing, a line is likely in the making.
Written by Danny Strong and Lee Daniels, "Empire," which just concluded its first season, revolves around a clan of fictitious music moguls. When we meet the Lyons, Lucious has just been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease, which, of course, he's keeping a secret. He's grooming his three sons to take over the family biz. It's all very "King Lear."
Cookie has just been released from prison, wearing the same leopard print mini and white fur she wore at the start of her incarceration 17 years ago. Lucious used $400,000 of the couple's drug money to start the company. The fight for the empire begins.
McGhee, who was brought in as "Empire"'s main costume designer after the pilot, researched the style of 1920s gangsters and 1950s mobsters when creating Lucious' signature look – tailored Prada suits accessorized with ascots and scarves. Lucious, McGhee said, gravitates toward blues and purples (the stuff of emperors), although for the white-party episode, McGhee has him wear a long white suit jacket with fancy golden embroidery that she found at a Chicago thrift store.
Hakeem's look is inspired by the androgynous but still slightly masculine looks popularized by A$AP Rocky and Wiz Khalifa. Think black leather T-shirts and drop-crotch joggers by Public School, Givenchy, and Giuseppe Zanotti.
Jamal, the middle son, gay, and the most sure of himself, is all about comfortable T-shirts and Lenny Kravitz-style infinity scarves. The eldest, Andre, a Wharton School graduate, fancies slate gray, snug-fit Prada suits. (He is, after all, a millennial.)
Yet it's the flashy women's attire that deserves the most attention. Patti LaBelle, singing at a funeral in West Philly, is church-lady suave in an all-black ensemble McGhee purchased from Neiman Marcus.
Courtney Love, playing "Empire"'s washed-up singer Elle Dallas, is delightfully askew in ill-fitting, outdated mini dresses underneath layers and layers of fur. Among other celebrities McGhee dressed for the series are Jennifer Hudson and Mary J. Blige.
Lucious' fiancee, Anika Calhoun, is in a lot of Gucci in navy, gray, black.
"She also does a lot of red," McGhee said. "She's always tailored, very refined and upper crust."
Yet as with everything with "Empire," Cookie steals the fashion spotlight. Cookie's wardrobe is inspired by mobster wives as well as Diana Ross' character in the 1970s movie "Mahogany." She's a very-bad-meets-vulnerable girl, yet still a grown woman. Sometimes she's right on trend; sometimes she's so 17 years ago.
Those furs Cookie dons? They belong to McGhee's mother-in-law, Janet Bailey – first wife of Philip Bailey, Earth, Wind & Fire's lead singer. (How is that for authentic 1970s, trending hot on the runway right now?) Other notable pieces – namely, the Christian Louboutin shoes and black-and-silver Balmain evening dress – are from the personal collection of Monique Mosley, the wife of the show's executive music producer, Timbaland.
"She's our fairy, couture godmother," McGhee said of Mosley.
McGhee mixes in high-fashion labels, including a Diane von Fürstenberg cheetah print jumpsuit Cookie wears during a music studio recording session and a Gucci one-shoulder green gown at a family dinner. (At this rate, the Lyons may single-handedly bring back formal dressing for everyday dinner. If Lady Mary of "Downton Abbey" were around today, she'd be wearing that green number.)
But McGhee also throws in fast-fashion labels, such as a Zara animal print pencil skirt. And like many working women – including first lady Michelle Obama – Cookie feels fine recycling pieces, especially that black cloak.
"Cookie doesn't wear anything that takes away from what she has to do," said McGhee. "She comes out of prison. And she takes over. That's who she is."
And thanks to McGhee's deft costuming skills, we believe it.