Inside The Sneakers and Hip-Hop Heels on ‘Empire’

Footwear News caught up with Rita McGhee, costume designer for the hit show “Empire,” to talk turned-up sneakers, hip-hop and designing for so many characters.

How do you prep for each episode?

I have inspiration boards for each character and their color story and spend a lot of time on color theory. I like dressing each of them because they all dress differently and play off each other.

Any on-set moments that stood out for you?

When we were dressing for the White Party, Terrence [Howard, who plays Lucious Lyon] came to me with an idea of what he wanted to wear. Then, later in the day, Bryshere [Gray, who plays Hakeem] came to me with what he wanted to wear, and they were so similar. It really was like the little prince and the king. They hadn’t talked ahead of time but really just channeled each other. We wanted to turn it up a notch for the big party.

Talk a bit about Cookie Lyon and Lucious Lyon. How did you imagine the characters’ styles?

Cookie [played by Taraji P. Henson] wears bold prints — a lot of animal prints — and lots of jewelry and fur. She’s not scared to wear those outfits. Cookie wearing the animal prints shows she is a bit like a king of the jungle. These animals sit silently until they’re ready to strike.

Lucious is regal and royal. He built his “Empire.” While he’s calculating and manipulative, he’s thoughtful in his style choices. We looked for regal colors for him: maroons, yellows and greens. He wears a lot of textures and ties and ascots and is very clear on his structure. We looked at other empires and leaders when we were thinking about him.

Empire on Fox Costumes Shoes
Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) and the rest of the “Empire” family.

How did you approach the three sons: Andre, Jamal and Hakeem?

Each son is a combination of their parents but with a bit of their own personality. Andre, the first son, is highly educated and looks down a bit on his family, even though he’s in the office. He’s always in suits, whether it’s a three-piece suit or a tie and vest.

Jamal is the casual son. He’s not flashy, so we might put him in a button-up and jeans or a leather jacket.

The youngest son, Hakeem, is much flashier. He is totally turnt-up, flashy and hip-hop. He’s the one who’d be ordering bottle service and spending money, so he has to show it in his style.

When you’re choosing shoes, what brands do you go for?

Footwear is so important because it’s the tie-in for the look. We have shoes that range from the high end to something inexpensive with a great toe, heel, or shape. We [often use] Givenchy, Prada, Dior and Louboutin. We also found a white-and-gold heel for $20 in a Chicago boutique. The footwear accentuates the outfit.

The Empire music label on the show is also releasing sneakers. How do sneakers fit into the style of the characters?

We love Jeremy Scott, Puma, Nike and some of the high-end labels for the sneakers. We’ll go to Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue for some of the sneakers and do a lot of online shopping for the costumes as well.

What’s your favorite shoe moment from the show?

It’s the last episode. I don’t want to tell you too much, but it’s an extravaganza of a show. Cookie has on some spike shoes that work with the wardrobe so well. There’s a closeup on these shoes, and they get a real moment. They’re Sam Edelman, too.


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