Film & TV

Costume Designer Derica Cole Washington on Dressing the Twisty Tale of 'Zola'

Under Washington’s eye, the Twitter-thread-turned-film transports viewers back to 2015 — money print bikinis and all.

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Costume Designer Derica Cole Washington on Dressing the Twisty Tale of 'Zola'

Under Washington’s eye, the Twitter-thread-turned-film transports viewers back to 2015 — money print bikinis and all.

“Ya’ll wanna hear a story about why me and this bitch here fell out?” First written by exotic dancer A’Ziah “Zola” King in 2015, it’s the opening line of a viral Twitter thread recounting a 48-hour saga involving a Florida strip club, a pimp and a crafty frenemy named Stefani.

With Zola, King’s words are transformed into a visual feast for the big screen under the artful direction of Janicza Bravo. (Bravo is also the film’s co-writer, alongside playwright Jeremy O. Harris.) Taylour Paige (Boogie, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) plays Zola herself opposite Riley Keough (The Girlfriend Experience) as Stefani, our protagonist’s wide-eyed, fast-talking foil. Set against neon-tinged strip clubs and the garish landscapes of Tampa, Florida, Zola finds herself at the center of a prostitution scheme set up by Stefani’s pimp (her “roommate,” the character describes in a vocabulary saturated with AAVE).

Zola‘s stranger-than-fiction plot provides instant intrigue, but it’s the film’s visuals — namely, its on-the-nose costumes — that keep you watching. Zola and Stefani maneuver their dangerous, and at times, hilarious, predicament in punchy outfits that instantly transport viewers to the mid-2010s, when aviator sunglasses and Chiara Ferragni reigned supreme. As costume designer Derica Cole Washington describes, Zola is, in its own way, a period piece — after all, what better illustrates 2015 than money print bikinis and sequined pants?

We spoke with Washington about the art of costume, dressing Zola and getting discovered on Pinterest by Ruth Carter. Keep reading for our conversation.

How did you originally get into costume design? Have you always been interested in fashion?

I wasn’t interested in fashion at all — I actually studied art history and was on the path to go into curatorial work, more so the art production field. I was actually way more interested in interior design, and that led [me] to set decoration. I was working as an intern at Art Production Fund in New York, and we helped with the prop art for Gossip Girl. So I knew the production designer at the show, and I was like, “Oh, this is really cool.” She was like, “I don’t have space on my team, but maybe go look into the costume department.” I didn’t get the job.

I did a master’s in Visual Culture and Costume Studies at NYU, but that was, again, more geared towards…Met-style exhibitions. That’s what I was really interested in when I studied abroad — I went to Paris and saw the Yves Saint Laurent show and I just loved the visual display of how the costumes and the fashion were presented. Then, one day I was on Pinterest and noticed that Ruth Carter was following me. This had to be around 2012, before she became world-famous. I reached out to her. I sent her my resume and she goes, “Oh, it seems like you have a lot of research background.” She hired me as her assistant on a commercial and then a movie, and I just got the bug. [Costume design] really is very different from fashion in general. You’re working with the body and the narrative of the story, more so than fashion. For me, mood boarding through Pinterest — which is how Ruth and I connected, and how I connected to the world of costume — is what interests me. I love mood boarding and bridging together the story through palette and all of that.

One thing that really stands out is the contrast between Zola and Stefani’s costumes. How did you use wardrobe to establish distinct identities for both characters, and what were you aiming to express through their costumes?

With Stefani, specifically, we meet her at the restaurant…she’s wearing this vintage Dior outfit. It’s a swimsuit and a skirt…she’s wearing that to showcase that this is someone who Zola is looking to as having access, having money, having privilege — having things that she wants to attain and acquire. The idea of having designer vintage, something very rare, and what that represents is how we meet her.

As we progress, the story takes on this narrative of almost like a Wizard of Oz tale. Dorothy is Zola, and that’s why she’s in a blue gingham set, representative of the old Dorothy. The blue is also a nod to Twitter. Stefanie is in pink, representing this lightness that we think we’re getting in this character — this playfulness, feminine energy. Almost a friend in disguise, because, as you know, this is not the most innocent trip that she had planned.

As we go into our third act, Stefani ends up in neon snakeskin, which is the true reveal of her character. In contrast, Zola is wearing a metallic sequined bike short and tube top. That was her shield of armor…not only for herself, but also for protecting the two of them.

Did Zola herself play a role in informing the costumes?

I want to be very clear that this is not the Zola persona we know on Instagram today. [The movie] is kind of a period of piece — it’s 2015, she’s 19. So this is pre-internet fame. We are taking [inspiration] from the innocence of who she was at that time. Looking at a lot of her younger photos from 2014, 2015 definitely informed the decision-making.

How did you develop the costumes Zola and Stefani wear at the strip club?

There are two strip club scenes — the first one, when they go to the club in Detroit, that’s when they have on slip dresses. That was something Janicza and I talked about; they’re building and bonding their friendship. With that, we wanted to show the synergy between them as friends. One of the references we had was Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion-slash-Clueless.

When we get to Tampa, there’s the whole montage of Zola and her different personas and looks that she’s debating. She finally lands in a metallic money bikini. That was a nod to the period. That was a huge aesthetic, the money bikini. And then Stefani is in this two-piece denim look. That was inspired by who she is, trying to be a merger of people [as] we’re slowly starting to get the reveal of who she is.

What did the process of collaborating with each actor on their wardrobe look like?

With Taylour, I had a lot of different pieces and she was like, “These are really cool, but I can’t actually dance in this.” She couldn’t dance in anything that was metal or anything that had a lot of fringe because she was going on the pole, going upside-down and doing all kind of movements. We ended up simplifying a lot of the dance wear for that need for her to perform. If you watch a lot of dancer or dance-inspired projects, they have a lot of the fringe and sparkles and all that. But Taylour is a real dancer, and I really leaned into what she needed to do her performance best.

Zola is in theaters now.

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