'Harlem' Costume Designer Deirdra Govan Makes Style Aspirational
With over 20 years of experience in costume design and living in New York City, Houston native Deirdra Govan infused her firsthand knowledge of Harlem into the Amazon Prime Video series.
Few people are better suited to design clothes for “Harlem” than Deirdra Govan. Raised in Houston by way of Louisiana, Govan first planted roots in the Manhattan neighborhood in 1989. Since 1994, she has been in the entertainment business after earning degrees from both Pratt and Parsons, initially working in wardrobe on Broadway.
“Through that work, I started as a dresser,” said Govan. “I had an opportunity to costume an opera overseas, which was ‘Porgy and Bess,’ George and Ira Gershwin’s famous opera. Then I got a call to come back to the U.S. to do a TV series as a set costumer, and that TV series was ‘New York Undercover.’ That literally changed the trajectory of my career.”
In 2002, she embarked on her journey as a costume designer. Govan’s resume has since expanded to include titles such as “First Wives Club” and “The L Word: Generation Q,” and films such as “Sorry to Bother You,” “The Sun Is Also A Star” and more. As an adolescent, she always knew she wanted to be a visual creator, but her interest in clothes was piqued by storytelling and her “natural curiosity of the world.”
Through Tracy Oliver’s comedy series on Prime Video, Govan uses costumes to craft a vision of today’s modern Harlem woman: her highs and lows, the personal and professional, and more. Starring Meagan Good, Jerrie Johnson, Grace Byers, and Shoniqua Shandai, “Harlem” follows a group of four ambitious best friends in New York City as they navigate their departure from their late 20s into the next phase of career, life, love and relationships.
Govan said, “For me, ‘Harlem’ is deeply personal. It’s a dream show for me. I was truly honored that Tracy brought me along, she trusted me, and she had faith in me to really carry out this vision. It was important for me to have a hand in telling these stories because as women of color, we are not myopic.”
For Who’s Behind the Clothes, Govan talked to HuffPost about the hallmark fashion moments in Season 2, why she sought to spotlight small brands and how she retained the authenticity of the neighborhood and the characters’ unique style this time around.
Deirdra Govan attends the "Devotion" Premiere at Cinesphere on Sept. 12, 2022, in Toronto.
What was it like getting the opportunity to costume design on “Harlem,” a series that people have compared to “Girlfriends,” “Insecure” and even dubbed a Black version of “Sex And the City?” All of those shows have set a high bar when it comes to dressing women on television, but I imagine it’s a lot to live up to. How did you create a new path for “Harlem,” while also nailing the authenticity of the neighborhood and its unique style?
Well, it’s a multifold answer. I have a longstanding, incredible working relationship with Tracy Oliver. I did “First Wives Club” Season 1 for her. I also designed “The Sun Is Also a Star” with Yara Shahidi of which [Oliver] was also executive producer. She and I just hit it off, and we just kept the relationship going. She told me about the project and I was really excited. Then when it was ready to go, she circled back to me and the rest is history.
I designed Season 1 and I felt completely and utterly in tune with these women because I was a former Harlem resident for many, many years. I did a lot of time in Harlem, because not only was I a resident, I was very active in a lot of the resurgence and rebirth of restaurants and galleries, and I served on community boards. I was just deeply embedded in the community and the transition that was happening in Harlem. I had designed two restaurants already, just had so many connections and friends, and literally knew what that lifestyle was like, not just in Harlem, per se, but globally. A lot of my friends, we lived in Harlem, but we had lived all over the world, so we were bringing our experiences and giving Harlem a new life, so to speak.
I think in creating anything that’s of value, you put your soul in it. And I put a lot of my soul in 'Harlem.' I get emotional talking about it.
I was just very excited personally because for a long time, being a woman of color, you yearn to see your stories on the screen. Like everyone else who’s spoken about “Harlem” before, they look at it and they go, “OK, this is the Black ‘Sex and the City,’ or this is a diverse, multicultural ‘Sex and the City.’” I tend to look at it where the timing was right for the show, and I feel that “Girlfriends” and “Insecure” really set the bar and paved the way for what the show is and what it means to its viewers. I was very happy in having a hand in creating these characters and really understanding these women, because so many of these personalities were personalities that I knew, that I was friends with or affiliated with in some way, shape or form.
But I also wanted to make sure when I was creating the look and the style of the show that I was not having a myopic point of view. I really wanted to show these women as multidimensional, as not perfect human beings, but they had a sense of self and they understood that they weren’t perfect and they had flaws. I wanted to really have a grounded aesthetic that was hyper-stylized, super stylish, but yet accessible to the audience that would be viewing the show. Setting that tone of aspirational was something that Tracy Oliver was very clear on from the very beginning. That’s what I wanted to achieve when we started Season 1 and that’s what I’ve carried on into Season 2.
"I wanted to really have a grounded aesthetic that was hyper-stylized, super stylish, but yet accessible to the audience that would be viewing the show," said Govan. "Setting that tone of aspirational was something that Tracy Oliver was very clear on from the very beginning."
On the note of straddling the line between aspirational and accessible, in Season 2, I noticed the incorporation of Hanifa, a Black woman-owned label that has captured so many of our hearts. Tell me why it was important for you to feature smaller designers and Black designers in “Harlem.”
I fell in love with Hanifa during our COVID pandemic lockdown, when we were all home for months at a time. I discovered her because I am a digital geek, and I saw that she did an incredible fashion show in 3D and I’m a fan of that. I’m also very interested in it, the technology aspect of fashion, what that means and how it can transform our world, in addition to creating sustainable fashion and styles.
My impetus for the show wasn’t just to feature Black designers, but to feature designers that people really didn’t know that were just about to pop or on the verge. Or maybe a handful of people really knew but not everybody. I really wanted to just take advantage of that opportunity just to cast a diverse net of what the style of the characters would be this season, but I definitely had some favorites, and Hanifa was one of them. I think with the girls and their distinct personalities that I’ve really worked hard to create based upon what’s on the page, it was important that I aligned designers that made sense with their aesthetic, their styles that we created for the show.
How did you elevate each character’s style in comparison to Season 1? I noticed that Tye is in a lot of tracksuits, blazers and funky prints, but it’s more crisp and structured. Camille is very boho chic outside of the classroom, while Quinn is super femme, prim and proper in the way she dresses. Then, of course, Angie is the wild child who will put any and everything together in an ensemble. How did you hone in on each of their styles, and which designers did you gravitate towards for each?
Because I was so very clear in their identities and their style of what I created in Season 1, I really didn’t have to change anything dramatic. The change really takes place within their storylines, and you see their growth and development. Style is evolutionary. Of course, with any of them, there’s an evolution, then there’s some parts that are tailored back, but that is driven by the storyline. The storyline is my Bible and it’s what I follow, but I also make sure that I’m not boxed in. I want to make sure I have the freedom for these women to grow and make different choices that they may not have made in Season 1 based upon the place they are in their character.
Grace [Byers], for me, there’s an evolution of Grace. There’s something that happens to Grace [who plays Quinn] this season, and that is called out. There are some really risky, adventurous moments that really take hold and change her. You’ll see accents of black, you’ll see some metallic accents, you’ll see some things that you haven’t seen before — and that’s really harkening to where she is in the storyline.
Therein lies her love affair and what happens, and there is a part of Quinn that is becoming more mature and is understanding herself first. Whereas in Season 1, I played a lot with pearl button details, the pious coquettish, without being overtly coy in a way to where she’s clueless. The femininity took another turn [this season]. The femininity became a sexuality and sexual awareness that she owned, and a complete understanding of who she was and how she wanted to grow into her relationship. That’s really where I started with her, and a signature look is that the details of accents of black were very key to that.
Govan said, "Style is evolutionary…The storyline is my Bible and it's what I follow, but I also make sure that I'm not boxed in."
With Camille, it was pretty simple. She isn’t really in the classroom that much this season. It was really more pared back, but still very boho chic. I call her my mix of Annie Hall, Diane Keaton and Diana Ross mahogany. Vintage chic is what I created; that’s the baseline. I really didn’t deviate too much from that. I pretty much kept Camille, but I wanted to take some fashion risks with her. I tried to put her in things that you would never expect to see Camille in. I put her in Junya Watanabe, which is very, very fashion-forward. It’s like a blazer/capelet, then she has these incredible, sick Zimmerman silver metallic boots. It’s a risk, it’s not safe. The reason why I say that is because she is a professor; there is a mode of decorum that you have to have and a level of professional aesthetic that you need to maintain. For me, it was about kind of pushing the envelope with Camille this time in certain areas.
For Tye, I played a lot with Wales Bonner with her. That was a grounding look, that collection that she did was so amazing, and I just really, I just wanted to lean into that. The character Tye is still Tye. She’s still doing what she does best, which is to womanize and break hearts. She is unabashedly herself, and she makes no apologies. I didn’t really do too much with her, because I think I already laid the groundwork. For all of them, because we are working in a different season right now, that’s also a silhouette change: tank tops, bare skin, the sexy, the leg, the thigh. All of these things really needed to come into play, because we were really pushing the fact that we are in spring/summer, which is such a huge departure from where we started the series, which is fall/winter.
Angie is very interesting as well. There were some things that transpired with Angie in Season 1 and I really wanted to pay attention to make sure I gave her a clear continuity and showed her growth. We do see her still out there, far out, doing the most — always — but her choices are edgy and ultimately, quintessentially, Angie. There’s a lot of sparkle, there’s a lot of bling, over-the-top jewelry choices, accessories, makeup and everything. It’s a full-on attention-grabber. I think Angie really holds her own in that respect, but I wanted to just be very mindful not to make her look cartoonish. That was really important to me. I wanted to push it to where everybody is vibing at their same level, but no one is literally so far out in left field that you’re like, “Wait, what happened?” I just wanted to try and make sure that I had a balance with all of their looks for the season.
“Harlem” follows a group of four ambitious best friends in New York City as they navigate the departure from their late 20s into the next phase of career, life, love, and relationships.
In the trailer for Season 2, Quinn was in a really colorful, beaded look for Pride, which you designed yourself. How long did that assembly take for you, and what was the process?
Like Camille, pushing the envelope also happened with Grace because she did take a risk in Episode 5, which is our Pride episode. That look was completely out of my brain, and I built it for her. It was a week. I had five days. The whole look of that was inspired by Cher. I love Cher, and I was a huge fan of everything that Bob Mackie did for Cher. He was an incredible designer and costume designer. His fashions, his stage costumes that he created for Cher literally were the baseline of what I wanted to do with Quinn. But the forerunner for me? It was a mash-up of Cher and Grace Jones, because I am the ultimate Grace Jones fan. That’s really what inspired me. The hairpiece was inspired by a headpiece that Bob Mackie created for Cher for one of her shows many years ago. The catsuit was something that I was obsessed with [from] Grace Jones and the multitude of catsuits that she did.
Those were my muses when I designed Quinn’s look for Pride, and me being the invisible hand behind Quinn’s fashions, that was it. And it needed to be so ridiculously over-the-top, because she really wanted everybody to know, “Look, I’m here, and I’m queer.” I wanted to hit home with that. I had several iterations that I presented to our team and our showrunners, and that’s the one we settled on, and I ran with it. There was one iteration where I had shoulder feathers — big, over-the-top feathers — but I let the feathers go, and I had a beaded catsuit with a lattice bodice. It was fire, and Grace [Byers] pulled it off flawlessly. I mean, she looked stunning, and it just really delivered the message. I just loved everything that it said: the capelet to the bodysuit to the latticework, the bodice, the silver belt. Everything from head to toe — with the exception of the shoes and the handbag, which are by Kurt Geiger — they’re all custom. That’s everything that we built in the shop, and we did that in less than five days.
You also designed a stunning gown featured later in the season that Quinn wears for her coveted 73 Questions interview with Vogue. What was the reason behind that dress choice, the tones and the train?
That look is completely and utterly the simplistic moment of her fashion talent. This was an opportunity to really show what she could do and at the same time not deviate too much, but make her more heightened and more stylish and sexy. That outfit is an original design that I created, and it is my ode to New York. That outfit is everything that New York means to me. It is art deco-inspired, obviously by the Chrysler Building. The detailed work of the ruching is reminiscent of Mary McFadden and the pleated fabric that I used. It’s a raw silk jumpsuit and the bodice is pressed out, then the overlay, the top is meant to be like the tears at the top of the Chrysler Building. I just loved it so much. When I found that fabric and sourced the fabrics, it just all came together to me. It’s my glamour art deco moment for Quinn because it is a total New York style piece. The whole cutaway bustle that she has is detachable. That came from an idea from Season 1 that didn’t materialize, so I just brought it back in this way. And I said, “OK, this is the moment where she’s able to detach the bustle and you see the full-on jumpsuit.”
I wanted something dramatic for her. There’s a song called “Native New Yorker” by Odyssey and there’s all these amazing, cool jazz songs, old R&B songs that are just so classy and classic. Sometimes, when I’m designing and I’m creating looks for characters, I always have music going because it sets the tone and it sets the mood. I even do that when I’m reading scripts or breaking down scripts because music is also indicative of how I want to tell the story through clothes.
In that moment, for Quinn, it was all about champagne kisses and caviar dreams, lifestyles of the rich and famous. This is her big moment, but it is so profound to me because in her big moment, she freezes and she realizes she doesn’t have everything. I wanted that tension of the beauty with the anguish that we of course see later. Most of her palate was pastels and blush tones that I created for Season 1, but I take little risks, I go a little bit deeper, but I still have that intact. When I made this departure, when I went this deep with purple, blue, and darker tones, that’s because what she’s feeling is deep. I know some people say, “Oh, that’s a little too literal,” but no. This is what it means to tell a story through clothing. I felt that was a huge win visually, a huge win storyline-wise and a huge win for the character. I’m so glad that it went over so well, because she looked beautiful, and it did what it needed to do to tell the story.
Let’s talk about dressing the flagship male love interests: Tyler Lepley as Ian and Sullivan Jones as Jameson Royce. Although they’re both lax in their style, how did you juxtapose the chef and the academic?
Ian,quintessentially, he’s that sexy dream. He’s the head chef, he’s got that masculine style, and I wanted to play mixing and matching patterns. So in one scene, I have him in a pink shirt, and then I have [him in] a printed textile, almost like an Aztec print, then I have him matched with plaid pants. I really wanted to put him in a fashion-forward direction. I didn’t see him as a typical jeans and T-shirt guy unless the storyline required that. The storyline many times required him to be in a tank top, but when he was out, I just wanted to show that sexy, suave side and that it was more than sneakers and kicks for him. He had an elevated style of his own.
With Jameson, I really leaned into Greg Lauren with him. There was a deconstructed look that I wanted to really play with, so I had the opportunity to do that. I had some deconstructed jackets, patchwork jackets, which I love. Again, we weren’t really in the college environment [this season], so we really needed to understand what his life was outside of the university. That’s really why he’s more pared-down and casual in that way. There’s an innocence to Jameson that I was trying to show, but not innocent in terms of him not being sexy. He still needed to be desirable. He still needed to be that guy that Camille can look to and feel safe with and know, “Oh, my God, there’s no question.” With Ian, you needed to feel that sexiness come through, that desire, that passion. Those were the two hallmarks of both of those men and their styles: Jameson was more deconstructed —still stylized — and Ian was just sexy, but a sexiness that was palatable. He walks in the room and you’re like, “Oh, damn, all right.”
In "Harlem," Tyler Lepley (left) stars as Ian alongside Sullivan Jones (right) as Jameson Royce, two of Meagan Good's love interests.
What has been the most rewarding part about working on “Harlem?”
For me, “Harlem” is deeply personal. It’s a dream show for me. I was truly honored that Tracy brought me along, she trusted me, and she had faith in me to really carry out this vision. Also, these women are my friends. I’ve known Meagan [Good] for a very, very long time. You develop very close personal relationships with them as people. It was important for me to have a hand in telling these stories, because as women of color, we are not myopic. I say that because it’s so easy to put diverse voices in a box. You don’t get the opportunity that often to just really fly creatively.
Don’t get me wrong: there are boxes, boundaries, and a lot of people I have to answer to. Sometimes, what I want in terms of costumes doesn’t always win, and I have to just abide by that. It’s not a free-for-all, but I think in creating anything that’s of value, you put your soul in it. And I put a lot of my soul in “Harlem.” I get emotional talking about it, because it’s a show that means a lot to me, and just feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity. As costume designers, I don’t like to break it down the color line — I think I can design anything and everything, as my body of work has shown — but we don’t, we don’t often get those choices. I’m completely humbled and honored that I had that opportunity.
Grace Byers (left), Shonique Shandia (center) and Meagan Good (right) as Quinn, Angie, and Camille in "Harlem."
On the pace that we have, which is TV, it is so fast-breaking. We have six days to create an episode; we were block shooting, shooting four episodes at a time. “Harlem” is a huge show. It is not small, and it takes a lot to pull it off. We have a lot of scenes, the girls have a lot of looks, and you have to have a very strong team and you have to be a strong designer to manage it. It’s not for the meek. It seems like it was just yesterday that we wrapped, and now we’re six months later and in February. I’m just very excited for people to see Season 2 and praying that it’ll get a Season 3. Fingers crossed.
What are you currently working on, and what’s next for you?
I just wrapped a film with Chiwetel Ejiofor, designing another period film. It’s a period piece called “Rob Peace.” It’s a true story, based upon the novel “The Short and Tragic Life of Rob Peace.” It’s a deep, deep, deep story, but it’s going to be beautiful. Next month, I have “I’m a Virgo” coming out. It’ll drop at SXSW, so I designed that, and that’s a joy ride. It’s my second project with Boots Riley after “Sorry To Bother You,” which we did almost six years ago.
Having started out in Harlem when you first moved to New York City and now working on this series, what do you wish you could say to your younger self?
I would say to my younger self two things: Buy that brownstone, don’t be scared. Invest in your community and stay with it. I would say what someone said to me when I was in college starting out: Don’t get stuck, explore your cognitive world and take risks.