The six-time Emmy nominee also discusses leaving behind a legacy of hiring a diverse staff.
In our long-running series “How I’m Making It,” we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.
“For my whole career, I’m a designer that you can’t hold back. Because if you hold me back, it doesn’t work for me,” says Michelle Cole, over the phone from Los Angeles, when I first speak with her in May.
While the six-time Emmy nominee for costume design is referring to her professional approach, her innate drive to “blow it out of the water,” as she likes to say, applies to her career, too. Case in point: Cole is currently multitasking three of writer/creator Kenya Barris’s shows — his edgier new Netflix series “#blackAF,” his ABC family comedy flagship, “black-ish” and its Freeform spin-off, “grown-ish.” (The latter’s usual midseason June premiere is delayed to 2021.)
Cole credits her late father, Marcellus, for encouraging her ambitions to become a costume designer and work in an industry that, decades later, still has plenty of work to do in terms of diversity. “He would say, ‘You’re Black, don’t forget that. But you can do it and there are going to be forces that are going to try and stop you. But don’t let them stop you,'” she recalls.
He was born and raised in Kentucky, and moved to California to study literature at the University of Southern California, where he met her kindergarten teacher mother. He became a high school principal in Los Angeles. “He’s one of the teachers who helped put Black history in the classroom,” she says.
A lifelong Angeleno, Cole turned to her father’s home state for college, graduating from Eastern Kentucky University with a bachelor’s degree in clothing and textiles. While there, she threw herself into studying costume design, history of costume and drama art and designing the university’s theater performances — especially period dramas. (“I wanted to do ‘Les Misérables,’ Queen Elizabeth I, ‘Little Women,'” she says.)
Like a character on “grown-ish,” Cole was a popular and active member of the student body, serving as treasurer of the Textile Clothing and Fashion Club and participating on homecoming court. But she still had to challenge the entrenched biases and discrimination that tried to hold her back.
“I had a white teacher in college telling me I’d never be a costume designer,” says Cole, when we catch up again in early June, amid the wave of international protests against systematic racism, following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. “That, to me, was a challenge. I was like, ‘OK, so I’ll design.'”
Karmically, the university invited her back not once, but twice, to speak with students after being nominated for her first Emmy, for her work on “In Living Color.” But she doesn’t gloat: “There are certain things that will always stay with you and, believe it or not, they push you, too,” says Cole, who regularly speaks on college panels to give advise and inspire students in starting their careers.
After she graduated in 1979, Cole returned to L.A. and took a day job as an assistant menswear buyer at the now-defunct J.W. Robinson’s department store. But over the weekends, she assisted in costume designing at theaters and playhouses, including the now-shuttered Long Beach Civic Light Opera. “I came in and worked for free,” she says. “I just wanted to be in theater.”
Cole became a fixture at fabric houses frequented by established costume designers and stylists, and made an impression: Over the next decade, she racked up plenty of assisting gigs, including costumes on the soap opera “The Young & The Restless” and styling for still-famous commercials, including ones starring Whitney Houston for Diet Coke and Michael Jordan for Nike. She also worked on pilots for glamorous nighttime soap producer Aaron Spelling (of “Dynasty” and “Beverly Hills, 90210” fame) and joined the team of assistants under live-variety-show costume designer Ret Turner (“The Sonny and Cher Show,” “Mama’s Family”) during his Emmy Awards outings.
“I remember Bob Hope,” recalls the animated storyteller, about the legendary comedian presenting at (maybe?) the 41st Annual Emmy Awards in 1989. “I had to put his socks on one year because he couldn’t bend over.”
In the ’80s, Cole came up alongside a group of Black women costume designers, who have all made lasting impacts on American culture through their work on film and TV: Francine Jamison-Tanchuk (“Just Mercy,” “Boomerang,” “Glory”), Ceci (“Dear White People,” “A Different World”), Sharen Davis (“Westworld” and the stunning “Watchmen” pilot) and Ruth E. Carter (Spike Lee’s go-to and the history-making Oscar winner for Costume Design for “Black Panther.”)
“There were only a few of us around, you know? We were very supportive,” says Cole. “I don’t think there was ever any jealousy. Everybody had our special thing.” Three decades years later, the group still catches up over dinner, annually. Plus, “[Davis and I] Zoom each other every weekend,” she adds.
The close connections also led to her first lead costume designer job, on “In Living Color.”
“I was like, ‘Oh, what are you doing Ruth?’” remembers Cole of her fortuitous conversation with Carter, who designed the pilot of the series, but then became (understandably) busy with projects for Lee and Robert Townsend. “We were in our late 20s and she said, ‘I’m doing this show? Something with girls? ‘In Living Color?’ I don’t know. It’s a variety [TV] show. I’m going back to features.'”
With its premiere in 1990, the Keenen Ivory Wayans-created sketch comedy series broke ground on the fledgling Fox network, with a predominantly African American cast that included future Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx, Damon Wayans (yes, Coach’s dad) and David Alan Grier. Behind-the-scenes, the staff was just as diverse — comprised of 80% women and women of color, according to Wayans. The famous Fly Girls dancers (above) featured choreography by Rosie Perez, an unknown Jennifer Lopez and future “Dancing With the Stars” host Carrie Anne Inaba, (who, as an aside, changed this Asian American writer’s outlook on what I could be when I grew up).
Along with revolutionary jokes and characters discussing race in a way never seen before on TV, “In Living Color” established a bold, color- and print-heavy aesthetic, thanks to Cole, who often came up with ideas overnight. “I was doing musicals, ‘My Fair Lady’ and ‘Music Man,'” she says. “Everything about musicals is bright. Bright, bright, bright, bright, bright.” Cole’s pro-bono theater experience also trained her to accommodate for quick changes and find the best performance fabrics.
The Fly Girls — in their sleek spandex DayGlo separates, vibrant prints and chunky jewelry — began influencing international style. It may be no coincidence that Karl Lagerfeld introduced his “hip hop” collection for Chanel Fall 1991 (on mostly white models) complete with bold primary-color-blocking, brashly layered necklaces and off-center diminutive headwear. (Hey, Coles’s producers noticed the similarity.)
“People always ask me, did we know what we were doing was going to be so iconic?’ I was like, ‘no, never,'” Cole reflects. She went on to earn four Emmy nods for her work on the show.
Cole credits the relationships she developed on the groundbreaking series for her prolific career since. “I always say, ‘There is this tree. ‘In Living Color’ is the trunk and every single show that I’ve done goes back to a writer [from there]. All those writers took me with them,” she says, referring to popular series, like, “Bernie Mac,” “South Central,” “Martin” and “The Steve Harvey Show.” (By the way, her father came to set for all her pilots: “Everybody would call him ‘Mr. Cole’ because he had that look.”)
Working steadily through the ’90s, Cole wanted to grow and apply her craft to mainstream network shows, which, especially at the time, meant “white shows,” both in-front-of and behind-the-camera. “It took me 20 years to ‘crossover.’ To even get an interview,'” she says. “It was very frustrating, but I would go in for my interviews and I knew I had to kill it. I knew I had to dress a certain way. I was going to be a full-blown costume designer and I was gonna come in and just sell myself.”
Cole’s cadence quickens as she recalls one particularly galling interaction.
“One executive producer said to me, ‘You know, we think you’re right. You’re good, but I don’t know if you understand white Middle America.’ I was like, ‘OK, all right,'” she recalls. Like with that similar interaction from college, Cole was even more galvanized to prove that person — and the establishment — wrong.
Well, “In Living Color” alum Michael Petok happened to be producing an NBC sitcom, “Three Sisters,” and he secured Cole an interview with creators Eileen Heisler and DeAnn Heline.
“I remember I hired a sketch artist — out of my pocket — and I had done renderings. I had shopped for the fabrics. I did a board. I had my character breakdowns. I went over and beyond the line of duty,” explains Cole. The job came down to herself and another designer, whom she remembers being friends with the creators. But she won the job and designed for the show’s two-season run and followed Heisler and Heline to “Committed,” which ran for a season in 2005.
Wanting to flex her fashion skills, Cole heard that “Sex and the City” producer Cindy Chupak had a rom-com project in the works at NBC. “I just sold myself by talking myself into getting the job,” she says. “I was really being sneaky.” After securing her interview, Cole offered to drop into the production offices to pick up the script and casually run into Chupak. “We had a really, really great talk and at that point, she pretty much interviewed me. She just happened to call [Heisler and Heline] over at NBC [afterwards], and they said, ‘Oh my god, if she’s available, grab her,'” she adds. She costume designed “Love Bites” for its lone season.
Though she valued the experience, Cole recalls feeling isolated at times while working on the Becki Newton-led anthology: “So many times at a production meeting, I’m the only Black person at the table, especially when I started working back at NBC.”
Since her first days in charge, Cole has committed to having a diverse staff, from interns to supervisors. She also makes sure to pack her team with entry-level positions, to give young designers the opportunity join the union. “Everybody knows that about me. If I was going to leave a legacy behind, it’s try to get people — people of color — into the union,” she says. “I’d get tired of hearing [about my proposed hires], ‘Well, they’re not in the union ….'”
And it took decades, too, but Black writers and creators like Shonda Rhimes and Barris run their own empires on network TV and boast even more lucrative Netflix contracts, which offer more freedom to explore their voices and perspectives (and drop a few F-bombs).
Cole is perhaps best known for her work with Barris, which, again, tracks back to “In Living Color”: For the fall 2014 TV season, Petok and writer/producer Larry Wilmore hired her to costume design the pilot of “black-ish.” (Cole was committed to another project for the rest of the season, but returned for season two.) Barris and Cole immediately connected over their avid interest in fashion and using clothing and accessories to tell their own best story. “When I first met Kenya in my interview, he goes, ‘I like the shoes,'” she laughs.
The two share similar professional ethics and sensibilities, according to Cole: “We’re both hard-working. We’re both driven. We’re both detail oriented. He’s a visual person. I’m a visual person. We both have a passion for what we’re doing.” They also both emphasize the importance of history in exploring and imparting important stories about race and class in America — and using costume to do so. “I love the way he always includes history, like [the slavery origins of] ‘Sunday’s Best’ and Juneteenth,” says Cole. “A lot of people didn’t know about that. When you finish watching his shows, you’ve learned something.”
ABC recently re-aired two past episodes of “Black-ish” — “Hope,” which debuted in 2016 and addressed police brutality, and “Juneteenth,” which earned Cole her fifth Emmy nomination in 2018. In the latter, three generations of the Johnson family perform original music, “Hamilton”-style, explaining the origins of June 19, 1865, when, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, slaves in the last Confederate state, Texas, were “informed” that they were free. (The end voiceover from Anthony Anderson, as Dre, feels especially meaningful this week: “All we can do is try to heal ourselves, so when America’s finally ready to truly apologize, hopefully we’ll be ready to forgive them.”)
“They both are just so strong, strong, strong shows,” says Cole. “Since I come from theater and period costume, ‘Juneteenth’ was a lot more creative for me.”
Barris has described Cole as “a magic fashion elf,” (to Vanity Fair, in 2018). Most recently, he tapped her to costume-design his Netflix debut, “#blackAF,” in which he plays a version of himself. Naturally, the writer-creator had an extra investment in his character — and his costumes.
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Cole laughs about Barris calling her “every day” inquiring about his wardrobe during the first week of shooting. “He was FaceTime-ing me while he was in hair and makeup. ‘Ring, ring, ring’ on FaceTime: ‘Kenya Barris’ [would pop up] and I would get anxiety attacks because he never did that before,” she says. “Finally, I got him weaned off.”
In all of Barris’s shows, Cole deftly uses fashion — and high-end designers — to illustrate his stories. She references back to her experience on the stylized Spelling pilots in the ’80s, which she now applies to Barris’s messaging.
“[Clothing] is such a huge part of a Black family making it, and doing well,” she says. To really nail the point home, she even shopped Barris’s closet for the first episode, including two of his own Gucci logo-mania leisure-wear pieces (above).
“I heard him talking the other day, he said, ‘It’s a language between us,'” she remembers.
Well, Barris needs to create more shows to keep his “magic fashion elf” off the job market, because the always-driven Cole keeps adding more projects to her docket. Prior to the Covid-19 lockdown, she was in the midst of prepping the Kelly Ripa and Ryan Seacrest-produced (and -inspired) ABC pilot, “Work Wife.”
“One day I’m gonna go down to one show,” Cole says. “I don’t know when it’s going to be, but it’s going to go down to one.” Although, based on her track record, not sure if she’ll be able — or want — to hold herself back.
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