Interview: Empire’s Rita McGhee

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RITA MCGHEE: The woman behind Empire’s Emmy nominated style talks to PRIDE about her inspirations, the Emmy’s snub and The Cookie Lyon Collection…

Who was your favourite character to dress?

Really to tell you the truth, I don’t have a favourite. It’s the truth! I’m a parent who doesn’t have a favourite child. They are all different; they have different personalities and character.

Rhonda on the show, she is so tiny, so we can get size zeros and two’s that you’re not usually going to find, and just put it on her, and it’s fabulous. Then her husband (Andre), he wears suits, but the way he wears his suits, and the colours, because he’s going through bipolar and depression and his personality change, he only wants to wear dark colours. So every one of them is different; every one is my favourite one.

One-day Cookie’s wearing fur, the next day she’s wearing leopard, the next day she’s wearing zebra. Luscious, he’ll have on a suit, he wore white in the funeral scene because of the sorrow; white represents refreshing anew and the hurt. People mourn and they wear black, and you’re wearing white.

Everyone was my favourite. Every detail was important.

Is there a character where you felt it was more challenging to create a look for?

No, no – the job is challenging, but my saying that I believe is, through challenges, it creates a champion. So through reading the script, I stick to the script and I stick to the character and build from that. Sometimes the character would change. One day you have Jamal’s character and he’s just in a nice fitted t-shirt, and then at the end he’s running the company and he’s in a suit. So it’s always a growing challenge. I think the challenge is really finding the characters, by getting the right garments together to find it.

When you’re creating the looks for the character, do you provide them a general wardrobe for the season, or did you match outfits for the scenes?

Behind the scenes images of EMPIRE Costume Designer, Rita McGhee, from the set. Please credit BEK ANDERSON.

Behind the scenes images of EMPIRE Costume Designer, Rita McGhee, from the set. Photo by BEK ANDERSON.

I read the first script and I built the characters from there. My process is have tear sheets, I look at music, I look at Pintrest, I look at real people in the world. I researched the royal family, I researched people in music, heads of companies in music, like Simon Cowell, and that is how I continued to build on the characters. I’d meet with actors and the producers and I show them ideas and we build from that. We’d go out and shop, and then we’d create a closet, so we get good looks. So we have a bulk of stuff that works for them, and when we get a script it’ll give us new things. Like the white party, the show that was nominated for an Emmy.

Do you ever clash with the actors or producers about what a character should be wearing?

We all worked together creatively. The actors – my actors, the way I work with my actors is that, when they are in a fitting and they comes into character, and they are putting on that outfit, then that’s what they wear; we’re all in agreement. They can see themselves in this garment, and see themselves in that scene. There’s no disagreement because we worked collectively as a team so that it works. I listened to the notes from the creators and the actors. The all white party that I was nominated for an Emmy award for, I’d listen to my actors, and my actors came in, for example Luscious came in, Terrance came in, and said I want to look like royalty and I want to look like a king. Like a sheik or an Indian King and so that’s how it came about, because I listened to my actors.

There is going to be a Cookie Lyon collection at Saks Fifth Avenue, are you excited about hat?

I’m not involved in it yet, because things are moving along with other things in my career as well. But I think it’s about time and I think its great. Taraji and Cookie’s clothes, people are attracted to it because it’s a woman who’s empowered, and she’s still fun and sassy; I like to use the word appropriate. She’ll wear a suit to work but it’ll be a leopard suit, you know, do something different.

You didn’t win the Emmy, but how was it to be nominated?

It’s life changing, fantastic. I’m a part of the Television Academy now, and it’s history making to be part of this organisation and this academy, it’s fantastic. I truly believe that hard work pays off, I believe that God is limitless, I believe in listening to your actors and listening to the notes. Everything is inspiring, looking at the music and looking at colours, it’s all inspiring. Looking at Victoria Beckham and her line, her line of clothes her kind of style.

What can we expect from Season Two of Empire?

I’m not on season 2; I’ve gone on to do many other projects, but I know it’s going to be fantastic. I’m totally supportive of all my friends there on the show and everything. I’ve moved on and God has opened so many doors for me. I’m working on a show called ‘Zoe Ever After’ with Brandy. It’s about fashion, love and family. We’ll talk about that one later! But I know season two of Empire is going to be great because season one set the tone of the style.

Season One of Empire is now available on DVD.

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