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Costume Designers Ruth Carter and Zerina Akers Just Gave Sage Advice

Vogue‘s Forces of Fashion 2021 event, titled “Fashion Goes Forward,” took place virtually on July 7 and 8; the event, which is now in its fifth year, features panel conversations with designers, celebrities, stylists, and editors about all things fashion and style, namely what the fashion industry will look like as we begin to emerge from a global pandemic.

On its first day of programming, Teen Vogue‘s executive editor Danielle Kwateng moderated a panel discussion, “Moving Images,” between Oscar-winning costume designer Ruth Carter and stylist, costume designer, and wardrobe curator Zerina Akers. Carter was the first African-American designer to win Best Costume Design at the Academy Awards for her work on Black Panther. She has also designed costumes for films including Malcolm X, Do the Right Thing, and Selma. Akers is Beyoncé’s go-to costume designer and created the looks on her film Black is King. Akers has also launched Black Owned Everything, a “comprehensive directory of Black-owned businesses spanning fashion, beauty, art, and homeware.”

Credit Vogue

Credit: Vogue

The group kicked off their discussion by talking about when each designer saw herself truly represented onscreen. “There was a breaking point where I realized that fashion played a big role in costume designing. I feel it was Mo’ Better Blues, Denzel Washington on the Brooklyn Bridge playing the trumpet at night,” Carter shared. “I felt like we were represented fashion in a huge way in film. I saw my work in that way.”

Akers says that she, her sister, and their cousins saw themselves in the characters of the classic ’90s sitcom Living Single. “We would identify with the characters because one of us was more into fashion and style, while my younger sister was more of a tomboy,” she shared. “We all had those faces available to us and a lot really translated through their style.”

Mentorship, especially in traditionally white spaces like costume design, was another discussion point the group touched upon, especially Carter’s close working relationship with directors like Spike Lee and Ryan Coogler. “It was the time when everything was coming to a head in the ’80s, rap was coming into the fold, independent filmmaking was really big,” Carter remembered. “I was in the sweet spot. I was in the place where people wanted to see more representation behind the camera.” Despite the fact that she worked with other Black directors, there was still a lack of Black talent behind the scenes, especially in costume design. “You could count the costume designers on one hand and those who were interested in film on half a hand.” Carter said that her relationship with Lee, Keenan Ivory Wayans, and Robert Townsend “was what we all wanted to see on camera that we weren’t seeing in film at the time.”

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