When Cookie Lyon, the breakout star of Fox's groundbreaking new drama Empire, strode out of prison in the series' first episode, bedecked in a bod-con leopard mini dress with a floor-length fur flanked over her shoulders, it was settled: American TV had a new style icon.
Cookie, a wisecracking, Philadelphia-bred mother of three, may have just returned after a 17-year jail stint to claim her rightful place in the Lyon musical empire — an empire she helped build with her then-husband Lucious Lyon — but she doesn't miss a beat. Killing us with her one-liners and slaying with her fashion, the quick-talking maternal figure shies away from the oversized flannels of her primetime mama peers and instead claims her stake in the company wearing dizzying animal prints and larger-than-life furs.
We talked with Empire's masterful costume designer, Rita McGhee, to find out what's up with all those leopard spots. Here's what we learned…
"The thing that is so great about Taraji [P.Henson] is that we had La Perla and Agent Provocateur [for her fitting], and we had Victoria's Secret that we ordered online. And I think what — not what I think, what I know for sure sure — in styling her and styling Cookie, she owns It. So it doesn't matter if [the piece of clothing] is high end or low end or moderately priced, [Cookie] puts it on and she owns it, and I think women respond to her because they are that woman…they want to be that woman…they know that woman, or she is a side of them that's not out yet."
"[Cookie] is a very much a 'passion dresser': how she feels is how she carries out her character. She will truly wake up and say, 'What armor am I going to put on today?'. Her armor is dressing. But it makes her feel good, which is very important, and secure."
"[Cookie's] metaphor for her furs is a soft, warming, secure, luxe blanket, but it also shows her feminine side. Y'know, she's not so hard, she's still really soft but when you say 'bawse', she's 'bawse', but she's 'soft bawse', she's classy still. [Her fur is ] like the warm-soft strong blanket giving you luxe, giving you fabulosity."
"Of all the animal prints that [Cookie] likes, I would say it's [about] a soft strength. Because when you look at an animal you're like, 'Oh, the animal is so beautiful!' and you want to pet the animal, but the tiger and the lion are dangerous. They rule but they're dangerous; but they're soft and they're beautiful. When you see a leopard and he's just sitting there, and he's looking at his prey, he's very deliberate. So [the prints are] a stillness and a soft strength… When you see animals in the wild, it's like when they're with their families, like the tiger mom and the lion and bears. They are very protective of their families, and when it's time to get it, get out of the way! [laughs]"
"Cookie is open to all designers with her fashion. She doesn't have a problem with new pieces, high end, low end, new designers, one of a kind pieces. She's open to fashion and that's how I would say she's going with her fashion: new designers that you haven't seen."
"When we started the show, we did reach out to designers — established designer houses and new designers — so we do have pieces from new designers. And now, with the success of the show, the doors are open for me, so I can get new designers in, because when we would [first] call, people weren't familiar with the show. It was hard to get stuff. So [we had to buy clothes]. Not everything, but most of it, we did buy, and some of it was on loan or wholesale price."
"Having a fitting with [Taraji] is like magic, she's like a dress-up paper doll and that [expression] was from her! When I first met her and we had a fitting she goes, 'I'm like a paper doll! I'm easy!" I get the notes [from the showrunner] and most of the stuff works and you see the magic when you put it on."
"[Taraji] puts on some pieces and they look, y'know, nice on her. And then she puts on some pieces that look good, and then puts on some pieces and they're fantastic! It's almost like [a fairy tale], like 'Oh, this soup is too cold! This soup is too hot! Oh my gosh, this is just right!' It's just like that show, 'Say Yes to the Dress': you have emotional attachments and attractions to something you put on and you know this is it. It's like you feel character in it, you feel what you gotta do when you put this on…"
"Diana Ross…'Mahogany'! Alive, alive, alive! Done! Yes, Diana Ross all day."
Want Cookie Lyon realness? Costume designer Rita McGhee put together a wardrobe of Cookie-approved looks, just for us.
Topshop fur coat
$280 - nordstrom.com
Diane Von Furstenberg narrow shoes
Milly beige handbag
Yellow gold charm bracelet
$33 - amazon.co.uk
Jeweliq bracelet bangle
Alexis Bittar black crystal ring
ABS by Allen Schwartz square earrings
TOMS coiled snake ring
Images via Fox and Getty.
Marjon Carlos is a style and culture writer for Fusion who boasts a strong turtleneck game and opinions on the subjects of fashion, gender, race, pop culture, and men's footwear.