Charlese Antoinette isn’t a household name just yet, but it’s coming. She’s been putting in work as a costume designer for years. You’ve seen her vision come to fruition in projects such as Did You Hear About the Morgans?, See You Yesterday, Raising Dion, Astronomy Club, various commercials and campaigns, and soon, Judas and the Black Messiah, which is already receiving Oscar buzz for costume design. “I’ve already started my Oscar press run which is so weird,” says Antoinette, “but this journey has been a long time in the making.”
“We’d find out there was a party happening, and we’d get materials,” says Antoinette. “A lot of it was just whatever we had. One of my friends, her mom was a seamstress and sewed and would actually make things. I was more into deconstructing things and distressing things—using a lot of safety pins, bleaching denim, tearing up things and stuff like that. I also did a lot of hand painting on my clothing with our logo all over stuff. We had business cards and everything, we took it really seriously.” Antoinette eventually became the go-to person in her family for styling and would dress her mother and sisters for events. By the time college rolled around, she knew she wanted to pursue a professional career in fashion.
In the early 00s, she enrolled in Philadelphia University, the oldest textile school in America, for fashion merchandising and marketing, so that she could learn more about the business.
“A lot of my friends from there ended up doing years abroad,” says Antoinette. “One of my friends who went there went to China for a year. He speaks fluent Mandarin to this day and works in the fashion industry. Another one of my friends went to Italy for a year, and these are young Black kids from Philly, so it was a really good program and a really good school.”
Antoinette got recruited from college to move to New York and work in product development as an entry-level product assistant for Macy’s. She quickly learned that corporate life wasn’t the route she wanted to take. After years of working for various heavy hitter brands such as Bloomingdales, H&M and more, she began making connections—mostly by mingling at New York Fashion Week and other events. This led to styling some fashion shows and eventually her first movie. Today, Antoinette is bicoastal, going back and forth between NYC and LA, and, again, on the brink of winning an Oscar.
“The way you get the job,” Antoinette explains, “is by putting together a presentation and doing research and pitching the director or the showrunner—or the director or producer—on how you would approach costume designing these characters and the feeling of the overall world you’re going to be costume designing. In the case of Judas and the Black Messiah, it’s a period piece and a lot of the characters are based on real people. So, I had all this amazing imagery and photography of these real people to work with. Combining that with my knowledge of trends in the 60s, it was like, ‘Okay, every time I see Bobby Rush in a photo, he’s got on this turtleneck and leather jacket. I’m going to say he’s a little more mod.’ So, for the purposes of this movie, every time we see Bobby Rush he’s going to feel really mod. That’s how I approached his character, and you definitely want to put together boards and sketches too.”
Designers create the vision. So they are often the liaison between actors, props, directors of photography—and anyone else involved with visuals—to make sure that textures, fabrics, color and sights show up properly on camera. They impact the storytelling, even down to details like how a blood splatter would show up on certain colors and fabrics. “It’s like integrating all the different departments’ work as it pertains to the character,” says Antoinette, “so it’s really fun because you really get to see it come together beyond just the clothes.”
Judas and the Black Messiah was supposed to premiere last year, but it got pushed to 2021, like many Hollywood productions, due to Covid-19. However, Charlese Antoinette is occupying her time with other projects while anticipating what may soon be a hectic season of movement once Judas does premiere. Work, in some cases, has shifted to digital, where she has styled projects entirely over Zoom. Antoinette also designs jewelry via Charant Gold and helped launch a fundraiser for the Boys and Girls Club in Cleveland, so they could establish a sewing lab for students. There’s also the Black Designer Database which was born on set when Antoinette was styling for Netflix’s Astronomy Club.
“They were adamant about wanting to wear Black designers,” says Antoinette, “and I always try to put Black designers in my projects where I can, but I realized I was using the same people over and over. So I wanted new faces. It started with me just putting out a Typeform on Facebook looking for designers to fill it out. It blew up within the first 24 hours, so I knew I was on to something.” It has been over a year since Antoinette initiated the Black Designer Database. Anyone can go on and search designers by specialty and location. Costume design and styling professionals can get concierge services to help them curate projects they’re working on and also get direct access to stylist contact information for a fee.
“I know what it’s like to be on deadline and need direct contact information,” say Antoinette. “I’ve made it so that my industry peers can get the entire designer database for a fee, so that we can keep the site going.” And for anyone curious about breaking into the business as a costume designer, Charlese Antoinette has words of wisdom for you too. “There are several dope organizations that are providing classes or networking opportunities that are legit,” she says. “There’s a woman named Rebecca Force. She has a company called Style and Lead that has courses and things like that online. If you’re in LA and you’re interested in becoming a costumer—specifically if you’re Black—there’s Fabric Collective. They network and post jobs, and it was started by some amazing women that I know. There’s also Misa Hylton Fashion Academy. Those are all pretty good.”