For over 30 years now, costume designer Johnetta Boone has seen her creations grace the big and small screen alike. From her early work on such films as Beloved and The Notebook to her extensive collaboration with Tyler Perry (7+ projects), Boone has earned the respect and admiration of her peers. She imbues her creations with a masterful use of color and a keen eye for shapes, silhouettes and proportions.
In our exclusive interview, Boone discusses how she got started and how she’s learned to create costumes that serve the story and the character.
Costume Designer Johnetta Boone: Interview
You originally studied fashion design at FIT. Did you ever think costume design would end up becoming your career path? What experiences led you to choose one over the other?
“My major was actually Fashion Buying and Merchandising, with a minor in design. I felt it was best to learn the business aspects of the industry, as I grasped design fundamentals at a young age from my mom. Of course polishing them up was a necessity, but without business skills survival in this industry is questionable. Thoughts of costume design as a career path in the 80’s and 90’s never seemed like an option. The industry was quite closed off to people of color in those days. After working many days and nights in the print industry and being introduced to live media, my life was changed forever. The moving parts became more attractive to me.”
Why do you think there is very little crossover between these two careers?
“Fashion design is a process where the creator is stimulated by fantasy. That fantasy will be translated and generated into a more functional form for the consumer audience. Fashion is bound to the functionality and comfort of the items worn. It has a specific purpose that generates a means to which it is applied.
Costume design is a process by where the creator is stimulated by a character, creature or being, which then translates into a fictional or nonfictional form. It is not bound by any relationship to the presenter. The communication of this form extends beyond the individual wearing the costume. The transfiguration is generated by the creator. This form translates a message. The drive of these two creators evolve from two very different places, and it makes the crossover a little challenging.”
What would you say was your professional breakthrough as a costume designer? What changed after that?
“My professional breakthrough occurred when I designed The Great Buck Howard. It was a fantastic project with Tom Hanks, John Malkovich and Emily Blunt. However, the most evident change didn’t occur until For Colored Girls, a Lionsgate project. Working with major studios provides a confirmation of aesthetics in this industry.”
Over the years, you have worked with many singers-turned-actors: Harry Connick Jr., Beyoncé, Macy Gray and Jill Scott, to name a few. Do you find you have to work even harder to erase their public perception/persona and overcome the personal style for which they’re known?
“What a great question! Let’s also include Kim Kardashian and Oprah in this conversation. Yes, there is a considerable amount of preparation and thought that takes place when working with high-profile celebrities. The actor and I both have the same drive, goal and desires to erase the audiences view and relationship to their original performance source.”
You worked on Cadillac Records, a film based upon real people. Do you feel a big sense of responsibility when designing for a movie inspired by a true story?
“With designing any project that is based upon a true story or reflecting actual events, there is an enormous responsibility to maintain authenticity. In-depth research takes place, along with the execution of the costumes’ creation being crafted right down to the fibers of the fabric. It’s enticing at times to use the ready most available sources. However, it’s not worth compromising the integrity of the project. For example, with fabrics, certain fabrics may not have existed and it’s these types of details that show in how they perform. Additionally, the greatest challenge is when product placement is involved. There are clever ways around copyright laws, though the best approach is total avoidance. In this case, and with a little frustration, your design may become compromised.”
How do you approach your work when an actor must wear an ugly or unflattering garment?
“Communication is the key always, and surprisingly, this is a common situation. If the actor has studied the character in depth, there will be an understanding of what’s expected. Although, issues still arise, especially in projects that are written within certain environments or with specified depictions. The idea is to introduce the script into the equation, which allows you to reflect on the notes that have been presented. When all else fails, take a little artistic license and meet the actor half way. This elevates a total collapse in building the character and the overall translation.”
Have you ever been surprised with how your work appeared on screen or connected to the production at large?
“It does come as a surprise from time to time. When you’re so close to a project and absorbed, it’s a challenge to see all the working parts collectively. There are many facets that enhance costume design such as lighting, cinematography, hair, make-up, props and production design. The art extends beyond yourself and is a complete collaboration.”
You always make women of all shapes and sizes look so stunning. Are you often approached by people asking you how to get their hands on a specific item or accessory you’ve designed and/or used?
“Thank you! In the Rubenesque era in the 1800’s, women’s voluptuousness was celebrated and a sign of royalty. I must’ve lived in that era!!! Being a woman with curves, my understanding is perhaps a little more in-depth. Viewers quite often reach out for the details of my finds. It’s always a pleasure and I’m happy to share.”
If you’ve been inspired by this interview and want to learn more about the art (and business) of costume design, we highly recommend you pick up a copy of Costuming for Film. An incredible resource, this book covers everything from joining the union to how to run an entire wardrobe department!
Of course, if you’re already on your way, then you’ll want to check out Jaquard Natural iDye! An ingenious product, it enables you to easily dye fabric in your washing machine. Simply toss in a dye packet, add a little salt and run the wash cycle. Trust us – the results will be gorgeous and vivid!