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'Empire' fashion: Clothing helps the TV show tell the story

"Empire" is the new "Dynasty," with Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) and her over-the-top wardrobe in the Joan Collins role. Credit: FOX/ Chuck Hodes

From the moment it premiered, populated with lounging pajamas, hooker furs and animal-printed everything, Fox's hip-hop drama "Empire" has used fashion as entertainment, plot point, backstory and weapon.

No dress is too tight or fur too fabulously garish for Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson) to wear into the offices of Empire Entertainment. She has thrown her heels in anger; her hat has been toppled and proudly righted in a raucous elevator altercation. Meanwhile, no silk scarf gets past the show's patriarch, Lucious Lyon -- played by Terrence Howard. He was even wearing a paisley scarf and a dapper newsboy cap when he shot his longtime friend, Bunkie, in the face. A thug in gentleman's attire.

The show, which ends its first season this week, is a fashion delight. It details the story of Lyon, a hip-hop mogul with the problems of King Lear: Which of his three sons will take over his business now that he has been diagnosed with ALS?

One could almost watch "Empire" on mute and just by looking at the characters' attire understand where they fit on the continuum and the demons with which they are struggling.

Through numerous flashbacks, the audience learns that Lucious spent the greater part of the 1990s as a struggling rapper working the illegal drug trade, his hair under a do-rag. Now, he has a smooth pompadour, an overflowing bank account and a Gustav Klimt painting hanging in the foyer.

In the boardroom, audiences see him wheeling and dealing in dark suits -- but with a floral tie or a rainbow-hued pocket square -- just enough dazzle to set him apart from the lawyers and bean counters. Lucious is a man who notices the details. He did not arrive at this apex without watching his back, his reputation and the just-so lay of his hair.

Cookie, played with a smooth roar by Henson, just finished 17 years in prison for drug dealing. She struts onto the screen wearing a tight leopard-print dress, a white fur coat, monster hoop earrings and a slick ponytail -- as if her cell block had a beautician on call. Cookie looks a bit like Mary J. Blige circa the mid-1990s, when ghetto fabulousness was making waves in the fashion industry and everyone from Gucci to Chanel took a bite out of the trend.

Creative, gay Jamal, the middle son, questions the clothes, allowing Cookie to explain not just the current ensemble, but her entire sense of aesthetics -- and maybe a bit about her state of mind. She was wearing what she wore into prison.

In the second episode, Lucious murders Bunkie. Whether his death causes any authentic grief, his passing must be mourned. And so the family gathers to reminisce and weep. During the evening, the youngest son Hakeem, the tough-guy rapper of the family, is bequeathed the giant gold chain once worn by the dearly departed Bunkie. Hakeem slips it over his neck as if it is a talisman of authenticity, a 14-karat muse and a protective coat of armor.

He's the son most intent on living life as an inner-city cliche. Of course, Hakeem would most appreciate the giant gold chain. It would hold no sway for Jamal, in his coffee-shop jeans, nor oldest son Andre in his banker flannels.

Anika, the debutante colleague and girlfriend to Lucious, sits in artist development meetings wearing a strand of pearls and "anchorwoman" hair -- the uniform for authority and honesty. Her voice is smoothly modulated and her demeanor discrete. She may not commit acts of violence, but she likes to pretend she will. Lucious' executive assistant is Becky, played by Gabourey Sidibe, with her dipped-dyed platinum hair, gold cuffs, chandelier earrings and rough edges.

"Empire" is not subtle in its use of fashion. Luscious' pinstripes and plaids dance on-screen. Cookie's tight, printed dresses barely reach to mid-thigh. But in the flashy furnishings, the pearls, silk scarves, gold chains and the designer evening gowns, audiences have a close-up view of all the insecurities, posturing, affection and fear that swirl at the surface of an American dream.

 

Dressing the cast

Costume designer Rita McGhee, once an intern for Ruth Carter ("Selma", "The Butler"), is getting plenty of credit for the success of "Empire" -- especially when it comes to dressing Cookie.

McGhee told Essence magazine that she sees Cookie as "bold" and "fierce." More important, "she cares about how she presents herself to the world. So she likes bold colors she likes loud colors ... she likes the leathers, she likes the furs, she like the loud colors. So she blings, and she's loud and ostentatious."

With a tight budget, McGhee turns to some well-connected friends to help fill Cookie's closet, notably Monique Mosley, wife of music mogul Timbaland. Mosley, listed as a fashion consultant on the show, has leant clothes from her own wardrobe, including a stunning Gucci gown. Even McGhee's mother-in-law, Janet Bailey (once married to Philip Bailey of Earth, Wind and Fire) has let the show borrow some of her fab furs to help put Cookie over the top.

But like many shoppers out there, McGhee plays the field, noting that she's shopped for the show's characters everywhere from Balmain to Target.

-- Barbara Schuler

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