Photo by Derica Cole Washington.


an interview with Derica Cole Washington
by Maori Karmael Holmes

I first met Derica Cole Washington at Sundance in 2017, when I’d organized a panel at The Black House focused on costume and production design. Derica had recently designed costumes for Tahir Jetter’s debut feature, How To Tell You’re a Douchebag (2016), starring Dewanda Wise, and I remember being impressed with the protagonist’s wardrobe and the film’s look. In indie films, especially ones set in contemporary time, costume design is often forgotten until the very end, leaving designers with little budget or time to contribute properly to the world of the story.

Derica has since done several shorts films, two Super Bowl commercials, just wrapped the feature Zola, directed by Janicza Bravo, and the comedy series Twenties, executive produced by Lena Waithe. I talked to Derica recently over the phone to discuss her work in more detail. Like many of us, she is spending the quarantine going into deep-research mode reading Film Blackness by Michael Gillespie, baking, and completing long-neglected home projects.

Photo by Derica Cole Washington.

“I'm thinking of the layers, the composition, the palette. I am thinking about my job as a function to tell the narrative and to support the actor.”

Maori Karmael Holmes: Can you tell us a little bit about your background?

Derica Cole Washington: Both my mom and my [paternal] grandmother sewed and made clothes for me as a baby. That wasn’t really what initially got me interested in clothing, but I guess subconsciously it was always there. My dad’s also pretty handy. I consult with him virtually a lot now that we’re in quarantine!

MKH: How did you get into costume design?

DCH: I grew up in Cincinnati and went to an arts high school. From there I got into vocal performance, technical theater, set decorating, and then costumes. I didn’t think of it as a career. It was something that I did in school.

MKH: Where did you receive your training?

DCW: I like looking at beauty. I found some joy in that, so I wanted to study aesthetics. [As] I learned what a curator was, I thought, That’s really cool. They’re essentially assembling the art in a way to contextualize it for an audience. I feel like that’s kind of what I do now.

The first person I recognized from that field was Thelma Golden. I interned at The Studio Museum in Harlem, and I was just in awe of her—a dark Brown woman, short hair, really fabulous clothing. She was an inspiration. I also interned at Kim Heirston Art Advisory—another amazing, accomplished Black woman. I then went on to do my master’s in visual culture and costume studies, mostly under the guise of wanting to work as either an advisor or a curator, some hybrid of the two.

MKH: You have an MA in visual culture and costume studies from New York University. How did you end up as a designer and not a curator or historian?

DCW: I had done my thesis on cultivated consumption, specifically looking at hip-hop artists who were collecting art. I didn’t necessarily want to be a writer. My first adult job was at an interior design company; I was the coordinator. I hated that job because I wanted to be in on the action. At the time I was dating a writer, and we were watching all these films, and I kept seeing credits for costume design and production design. One of the names was Ruth Carter. I noticed that she was following me on Pinterest, and so I reached out to her. We exchanged emails. I sent her my resume, and then she saw that I had a degree in costumes. She was like, “Why are you not in costumes?” I talked to her, and then she hired me as her assistant on a commercial. And then our first feature that I ever worked on was Da Sweet Blood of Jesus with Spike Lee. Obviously, both of these people are legends. I had such an amazing experience that I was like, This is what I want to do.  

MKH: What are the aspects of the process that you nerd out on most?

DCW: One of the things that I recognized was how important understanding the body is. Not fashion. It’s not dressing runway models. You’re dressing different shapes, sizes, ages, heights—this is a 3D moving part that has to speak, that has to have all these actions. On set, I’m like: “So, are we doing a two-shot of this? Is there a pause? What color is this wall going to be? Can I see the location photos?” Because I'm thinking of the layers, the composition, the palette. I am thinking about my job as a function to tell the narrative and to support the actor. My favorite part is really taking the script and having those conversations, because it’s such a collaboration.

Marabou (2017) film still courtesy of Derica Cole Washington.

Zola (2020) film still courtesy of Derica Cole Washington.

MKH: With references, are there spaces you consistently find yourself drawing from or do you start from scratch with each project?

DCW: I start with art a lot. There’s a palette, texture, something I can draw from. I’ll look at Tumblr, Pinterest, or Instagram, of course. Each project is different, depending on the tone. That’s a conversation I like to have with my producers and my director: “Who’s our audience? Who are we making this for? What are we saying with this? Does the world need this?” These are questions I ask myself when I decide to take on a project.

With Zola, we talked about it as a story that’s an interpretation of the Wizard of Oz. This girl going from Detroit to Florida was like going to Oz, a group of four, all looking for something on their journey. I played with that idea of the Emerald City a lot with fluorescent green. Her costume, her hero costume that she wears on this road trip, is a blue gingham ensemble, a slight nod to the original Dorothy. She had on Nike Cortez with a red swoosh, which was a nod to the ruby slipper.

With Twenties, everybody’s using social media, so my approach to that lookbook was to make it like an infinite Instagram scroll. When I did the mood board, I made it look like each page was a nine grid, little blocks of various things. It had a specific color palette, and not every picture was a person. I mean, if a person literally has a page of just selfies, I’m unfollowing them!

MKH: Speaking of Twenties, the main character, Hattie, as a masculine-presenting lesbian, is unlike any star we’ve seen before. What were some of your considerations when conceiving of her look?

DCW: One of the things that was really important to Lena and I was to represent the diversity of this character and her interests—also highlight Black lesbian designers or people who don’t identify a gender with their clothing, whose work speaks to a culture and a community that is underrepresented.

Hattie, she’s so authentically herself compared to the other people in the show. She’s wearing vintage tees, sneakers. There’s a carefreeness and risk taking—a little flashy at times for someone who has hardly any money and is sleeping on somebody’s sofa, but that explains your twenties, essentially.

MKH: Who are your mentors in real life or in your imagination? Who are some of your favorite costume designers (and directors)?

DCW: As a [costume] designer, I’m not really interacting with other designers ’cause we’re all doing our own things separately. I look at Andrew Dosunmu and Mobolaji Dawodu, and their collaborations as a director and designer. Because I’m also interested in production design, a person I really admire is Hannah Beachler—not only because she’s from Ohio! She’s carved out an amazing career. I really admire her journey and the projects she’s chosen: Moonlight, Black Panther. It’s similar to what I’m looking to build.

Twenties (2020) series still courtesy of Derica Cole Washington.

Girls Room (2020) series still courtesy of Derica Cole Washington.

MKH: What makes you decide to take on a project and/or work with a director?

DCW: The thing is really connecting with filmmakers since I am in this supportive role of making someone’s vision come to life. It’s important to be at the places where their work is being shown. It’s important to support the work. One of my favorite collaborators and colleagues is Tiffany Johnson. We worked together and did a short for [American Film Institute’s] Directing Workshop for Women called Marabou. I had already been a fan of her work from another short she did called Ladylike. The same with A. V. Rockwell. I saw her work and was like, I want to work with her. Our first collaboration was Feathers and a Super Bowl commercial with Serena Williams in 2019. In a similar way, Calmatic found me, and I was really grateful to work with him on my second consecutive Super Bowl commercial.

MKH: What advice would you give a designer about to embark upon their first feature?

DCW: The thing with filmmaking is that you can dress someone head to toe, have a whole plan—but if you don’t understand the scope of what that director is looking for and what’s going to happen in the editing phase, then you’re not really getting it, because not everything is going to make it. You’re not always going to see the shoes. You’re not always going to see the pants.

“The thing is really connecting with filmmakers since I am in this supportive role of making someone’s vision come to life. It’s important to be at the places where their work is being shown. It’s important to support the work.”

MKH: Is costume design your singular passion and focus? Any desire to get into fashion or production design or directing?

DCW: I’m interested in producing. As a producer, I can have a bit more power in creating an opportunity for someone else or helping to support and fund projects. Also, there’s not really a person who’s a costume critic. You have art critics, but there isn’t that person who has the knowledge of costume history or is able to ask really informed questions about the work. I want to create that space.