The recent triumphs of top-rated shows like Insecure, Black-ish, Power, She’s Gotta Have It and others at the forefront of the tanning of American television have helped to re-introduce a variety of Black perspectives to the mainstream. Those success stories have also offered an authentic glimpse at what style can look like and can represent within the Black community.
“Style is non-verbal communication with the world,” says costume designer and wardrobe stylist Ayanna James. “You are saying a lot with how you look. It’s an individual characteristic and it’s something that’s defined by each person. It’s whatever message you want to put out in the world.”
A storyteller at heart, James utilizes clothing as a tool for expression. Whether curating the fly, yet cozy fits found on the cast of Insecure or helping to perfect Issa Rae’s glo up look for red carpet appearances or outfitting the stars of JAY-Z’s futuristic “Family Feud” visual, the Los Angeles-based stylist makes a statement. Pieces of clothing chosen by her for projects she's worked on have featured timely quotes that speak to the culture, have paid homage to cultural icons like 2Pac and Sade, and have given a few emerging designers their first major breakthrough.
Prior to styling, James used blogging to get her message across. The valuable fashion advice her online platform provided prepared the former biochemistry student for her current money moves. “I would say because of that I had an idea of personal styling,” she admitted. “Having that online audience prepared me in that I can easily design a scene with women of different shapes, sizes, heights, weight, styles, body type and all of that.”
Here, Ayanna James talks with REVOLT about the tweet that changed her life, working on JAY-Z’s “Family Feud” video, Issa Rae’s casual style and what she looks for in emerging designers.
What challenges did you face during your transition from biochemistry student to stylist?
Ayanna James: There was actually no challenge. I kind of just fell into styling. An opportunity opened up as I was blogging and I took it. That just came from a single tweet. A stylist tweeted that she needed an assistant and I reached out via Twitter. That was my entrance into, but I think the hardest point once you make that transition is building a clientele. It’s kind of like being a new graduate where you need to have a portfolio and a resume, but how do you get that? It takes a lot of you investing into yourself. I think once you make that transition and you cross over, sustaining yourself is the most challenging part.
How did your work with your style blog prepare you for a career as a costume designer and stylist?
I would say it gave me an audience, and because of that I had engagement, so I knew what questions the average woman had with regards to personal styling, what looks best and looks for less. I was able to gain kind of a general understanding of what women look for and what we were interested in. And I was speaking to a specific demographic.
Had you known that costume design and styling would be your career at some point, what shows do you think you would’ve looked at for style inspiration growing up?
The same shows that I look to now, shows like A Different World, Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Of course, I grew up on Black sitcoms, so those would be the first, but really now, it just depends on whatever the project is. And that just falls on the research. But no, if you would've told me five years ago that I’d be doing this I probably would’ve chuckled at you.
Walk us through the process of how you conceptualize your looks.
I read a script first. I have a conversation with the producer or directors, because you always want to get a sense of the type of project that it is and what are the requirements, so that you can know what kind of aesthetic it needs. So I would get a script, flush out some rough ideas, talk with the producers and directors about it and then just refine, refine and refine until we get to a place where I feel good design-wise and they feel good story-wise. After that it’s shopping, fittings and talking with the actors and actresses. Then it’s making a selection based off of those fitting choices that I have. From there it goes to the scene.
Does Issa Rae’s personal style influence how you style her on set?
A bit, because her character Issa Dee is kind of an evolution of J from Awkward Black Girl. Also, because I have the relationship with Issa and knowledge of her personal style, we did take elements. You’ll see Issa Dee in Insecure wearing Converse. She’s always in jeans or a graphic tee. It wasn’t until Season 2 that we really started playing with Issa Dee dressing up. We pull elements from Issa’s very casual, no pressure style, but involve that and made that very specific to her character.
Who is your favorite character on Insecure to style?
All of them are. I love that I get to style such a broad stroke of black actors and actresses and that each of them has an individual style. It’s something that we haven’t seen on television before in this fashion and manner. So I think every single character on that show is my favorite to dress, because I get to flex different muscles.
Has how your source inspiration changed from your early days working with Issa to now?
It’s really based off of the script, so the inspiration comes from the writer’s room. They’ve created the scene and the dialogue, and so I fit into their storytelling. I just say the same thing they’re saying through clothing and that’s where most of the inspiration comes from. Every project is different. Every project requires me to maybe find something or explore something that I’m not familiar with. And so, the inspiration comes from every single individual project.
What do you look for when searching for emerging designers to work with?
I look for cultural relevancy. When I’m looking for t-shirts, it’s mostly shirts that are inspired or a direct product of pop culture, specifically Black pop culture. That’s where the Shade shirt or the 2Pac shirt come into play. Anything that is something I haven’t really seen before. Something that I can say is that working on Insecure, I prefer new designers. I come across a lot, and there’s a lot of the same out there. But here are a few people who are pushing the conversation forward and taking risks. I got to start showcasing them last season with Season 2. That’s kind of the method I use in finding designers, but I read 98% of the emails that come across our desk with emerging designers and really the difference is what I haven’t seen before.
What were some of your references for the JAY-Z’s “Family Feud” video?
The treatment we received from Ava DuVernay was really well done. Almost immediately, I had an eruption of ideas in terms of how to sew the seam of family and legacy. Because it takes place in the future, we took a look at fashion and what we think it’ll look like in the future. We then tried to put our own spin on it, so that it didn’t look like something already done. We also had the cultural references that we wanted. So the inspiration for that was how when society tends to denigrate and break down, that they often go back to just the basics, a kind of like a very basic style. Anything past the mother scene with Blue Ivy at 35 is very basic and solid. There are solid colors, solid prints and maybe some patterns, but not much at all. As the project evolved, it was really just coming up with ideas that would really help drive home the message of family and legacy, and felt like the future.