Black Is King costume designer breaks down six striking Beyoncé outfits
Zerina Akers reveals how she coordinated over 60 looks for the singer in the new Disney+ film.
“I mean these days, you can kind of feel like you've seen it all on Beyoncé,” notes Zerina Akers. “What could she possibly give you next?”
Serving as costume designer for the new Disney+ film Black Is King, Beyoncé’s epic reimagining of The Lion King as a journey through the African diaspora, Akers asked herself a series of questions: “How can we bring in new silhouettes? What hasn't she done? And how can we approach it with a fresh eye and a fresh perspective, but still remain true to her, and her brand, and her body, and what she wants to wear?”
The Parkwood Entertainment stylist ended up coordinating over 60 looks for the singer alone, sourced from creators across the world. Though Akers worked with established designers who gave previously done right by Beyoncé — Olivier Rousteing at Balmain, Riccardo Tisci at Givenchy — she pulled much of the pop star's wardrobe from independent, up-and-coming designers.
“Beyoncé's body creates this domino effect in the community that I don't think we quite realize,” Akers tells EW. “So to be able to work on a platform like this and create that shift even in a small way, giving these designers visibility, and giving other up-and-coming designers and graduating students hope that they can do it too, I think it's just really powerful.”
Here, the Black Is King costume designer and founder of the Black Owned Everything, a directory of Black-owned businesses, shares her favorite looks from Black Is King that speak to the process and goals behind making the film.
The first look Akers singles out also happens to be the very first look of the movie, where Beyoncé walks along a beach in an angelic white dress constructed by New York-based designer Wendy Nichol. It served as a full-circle moment for Akers. “The last time Beyoncé wore Wendy Nichol, it was styled by Lysa Cooper for ‘Drunk in Love,’ and that was a very different time in Beyoncé's life,” she says. Now, as a mom of three, Beyoncé is wearing Nichol’s design again, with the dress built on the same base as the “Drunk In Love” look, but with fabric that is nude and sheer rather than black.
“We took silk charmeuse and organza and kind of layered it on,” says Akers. “I wanted it to feel very stripped back, almost falling off, where it almost didn't matter. But Wendy being Wendy, she made it in a way that looked like this couture style with a beautiful handmade dress. It was just simple enough, and just impactful enough for the opening shot.”
“Bigger” is one of two songs from The Lion King: The Gift that already had a music video, but for the song’s inclusion in Black Is King, Akers says the kind of look they were going for overall was “this ceremonial experience, and this cross-generational experience through tradition. So her being by the water, it also led into a lot of things to come: the women carrying the water collection baskets on their heads, the older women using smoke to clean the child and the essence and spirit of the children, and the presence of the young boy.” Adds Akers, the scene “happening on the beach, and in the open air and in nature, [shows] you're kind of this small inkling, but you're profound. Our bodies are made up of the same percentage of water as the world."
“Find Your Way Back”
One of the main inspirations for Beyoncé's “Find Your Way Back” look — a black bedazzled catsuit with matching headband, designed by Destiney Bleu of d.bleu.dazzled — were constellations. So Akers looked for whimsical costumes with a shine/sparkle element. “Beyoncé says, ‘I want crystals,' you get crystals, so I went to all the people that I knew were known for that,” she says. “Destiney does it, and she'll bang things out for us overnight. Between her, Laurel DeWitt, and Kerin Rose [Gold, of A-Morir], I just sort of wrangled the troops.”
Akers remembers Beyoncé first wearing one of Destiney Bleu’s crystal tights at her 2015 Global Citizen Festival performance, and since then they have been a mainstay clothing item for her dancers. Aligning with the values behind Black Owned Everything, Bleu is a Black independent designer based out of Los Angeles, who’s been an advocate for herself and other Black peers, making sure they all get proper credit for their work.
In addition to the halo-like headband from Bleu was the tall silver Laurel DeWitt necklace. “We took these chokers and we stacked them, and we welded them all together,” explains Akers. The piece “was inspired by the Ndebele tribe with their culture of neck stretching, and the stacking of the bracelets on that same look, it kind of spoke to that in a more of a futuristic way.”
To complete the look, Akers added crystal bracelets, a headdress, and another necklace, all designed by New York City brand Area, lead by designers Beckett Fogg and Piotrek Panszczyk. Area made pieces that were used for almost every outfit in “Find Your Way Back,” including a stunning rainbow crystal dress towards the end of the clip. “Area was kind enough to keep that look on exclusive, because it had just gone down the runway, and I think everyone had been looking for where that finale piece was gonna end up,” says Akers. “So I appreciate them for being patient with the release, and now I think it's a beautiful moment.”
The black-and-white shorts suit in "Already" came from African designer Loza Maléombho. “It actually came as pants," says Akers. But she wanted to make the outfit easier for Beyoncé to move in in the dance-heavy video. "The original design was a trouser with the jacket. I tend to ask for extra fabric, so I ended up taking the extra fabric and making little hot-shorts.” Next, Akers says, they made a gusset hole underneath each arm, which gave the jacket additional mobility. “Traditionally, a lot of West African fabrics don't have stretch, so we were able to make these minor alterations. Then it became like a look where she can do full choreo."
Another element that attracted Akers to the Ivorian-American designer’s piece was its play on a conventionally masculine aesthetic. “I'm sort of always inspired by androgyny in general, and the art of the power shoulder, and how women feel wearing these kinds of silhouettes.” Completing the costume is what Akers calls “an unsung star to the look,” the gold L'Enchanteur jewelry. “L'Enchanteur... are twin sisters out of Brooklyn, they're Nigerian, but they were raised in [New York]. I just kinda let them do their thing, because their aesthetic alone I thought was rooted in tradition, in a bit of a tribal aesthetic... but very modern, and forward, and experimental.” The design duo was so excited about the project, they kept making things for Akers, leaving her with around 30 pieces of jewelry available to use for the film.
For all the original, ornate work Akers and the designers created, there's one specific outfit that was seemingly ubiquitous before Beyoncé even wore it in Black Is King. That would be the Marine Serre moon print catsuit, which the singer and her dancers wear with matching gloves in a lotus flower formation at the center of the “Already” video. The outfit has been seen this year on everyone from Dua Lipa to Rosalía to, most recently, Adele who she posted an Instagram of herself in it while watching King. Beyoncé herself was notably ahead of the curve, having first worn a black-and-red version of the catsuit to a Houston Rockets game in spring 2019.
Despite its fame, Akers found a unique reason to include the popular garment in the film, saying Serre's design takes “this futuristic approach to this very minimal second brown skin. I chose to do that color instead of the bone, or some of the other colorways that she offers, so that it serves as this very simple component to the shot, but it's just so powerful because these dancers, they look like these sculptures standing there, and you're allowed to take in the entire shot.” A catsuit is part of the performance wear one comes to expect from Beyoncé, but “because of the moon print, it brings it to this very current space, and very relevant space."
Akers had a tough time choosing her favorite look from "Water." There’s the floral Mary Katrantzou gown moment she describes as a “moving Vogue cover,” that initially struck Beyoncé as being almost “too pretty.” There’s the silver Mia Vesper look from the scenes with Beyoncé and her dancers carrying the water collection baskets, best exemplifying “this conversation culturally about collecting water, and water not necessarily being readily available,” that Akers describes as the theme for the visual. But the look the costume designer lands on though is crafted by the Australian-born, London-based designer Michaela Stark.
“I had this idea of these elongated, exaggerated jeans,” says Akers. So she commissioned Stark, who had already been a member of their sewing team in Europe and worked on projects like the “Apesh*t” music video. She says Stark “took it a step further, and made this denim corset top with these really long flare jeans."
“With Michaela Stark, the funny thing is the look came first. We had these very long jeans that waterfalled a bit, and that inspired the creative director to have these waterfalling braids, which I kind of kicked him for because I was like, 'I would've made the jeans longer! I would've made them waterfall down the stairs,'" Akers says with a laugh. “But that inspired him to then have this really long cascading, braided hair, so it kinda goes hand in hand. Sometimes the horse is before the carriage, and sometimes, it starts first with us.”
“Brown Skin Girl”
Another standout beauty moment is the black tulle gown from “Brown Skin Girl," which was designed by Timothy White Custom and aligns the project's overall exploration of costumes with exaggerated silhouettes. “If you could see the grandness of this dress...” says Akers, adding that Timothy White has been Beyoncé’s tailor for over 20 years. “He's an unsung hero on our team. He's her Bob Mackie of sorts.” With multiple memorable gowns used in Black Is King, Akers adds that the designer “set the standard and set the bar” for the film’s costumes.
For the garment White made for “Brown Skin Girl,” Akers notes that “the hair had to be elevated in order to match the grandeur, [and] the size of the dress.” Enter a giant hairpiece in the style of the Ancient Egyptian queen Nefertiti. “Beyoncé loved the shot so much she wanted to just keep shooting. That kind of happened in the spur of the moment,” Akers recalls. “She's like ‘I just want to go look for look for look.’”
Luckily, the costume designer already came prepared with a rack of more black-and-white clothes from Senegalese brand Tongoro that she’d originally intended to use for a group shot. Instead, Beyoncé started switching through some more stately hairpieces, “and it turned into a really gorgeous portrait series. That started with one shot that just inspired her right there in the moment.”
Akers says the theme of the visual, directed by Jenn Nkiru, is about growing up, with the clip using hand games, tea parties, and debutante balls to represent a coming of age that happens for “darker complexion women cross-culturally.”
While the involvement of Black beauty icons and actresses like Lupita Nyong’o was nerve-wracking in the same way as “guests coming into your home,” Akers says it was “a dream come true to work with Naomi Campbell... to be able to dress Naomi Campbell today, [and have] this sort of living image that will outlive us all. It's very pleasing for me.”