It’s impossible to discuss iconic ‘90s television without mentioning the Fly Girls. The dance moves, the music—the surrounding comedy legends within the In Living Color cast, of course—and the style. It’s the latter that you can credit to Michelle R. Cole.
Cole is a costume designer whose specialty is not just an ability to be on the pulse of what’s current in fashion, but her work has helped shape fashion and pop culture history, too. In fact, Cole’s resume almost reads like a timeline of powerful, emblematic trends, from the smart tailoring and bold saturated colors within the wardrobe of Tisha Campbell’s Regina in Martin to Yara Shahidi’s Gen-Z style evolution that can be tracked through her character of Zoey, from Black-ish to Grown-ish. It’s surprising that Cole never even intended to work in television.
Having fallen in love with costume design through theatre, Cole didn’t expect her career would lead her through a roster of some of the biggest sitcoms in modern TV. What’s more, in an industry that has not always embraced a diverse perspective, she often navigated her career in uncharted territory. Today, however, Cole is one of Hollywood’s leading creatives, a nine-time Emmy nominee, and sits on the board of the Costume Designers Guild.
With two of her longest-running projects, Black-ish and Grown-ish, having both recently come to a close, Cole—now 43 years into her career—is excited for the next challenge ahead (after the WGA and SAG AFTRA strikes come to an end) and to continue to mentor future designers. For her, the door is always open.
"I knew that when I got through with In Living Color it would be the root of all my future jobs."
ON GETTING A START IN COSTUME DESIGN
My dad was into literature and my stepmother was a drama teacher at a high school, so I grew up in a home where we went to plays. I would go to Beverly Cinema with my dad and watch old movies together. And then when we saw My Fair Lady I decided to be a costume designer. I didn't even know what that meant, but when I saw Audrey Hepburn and all those costumes, it was an eye-opener.
I went to college at Eastern Kentucky University and when I graduated I came back home to LA and started working in theatre. First for free, just volunteering. I just wanted to be around theatre because I loved it so much. Garland Riddle was the costume designer for a theatre I worked in and was also the costume designer for The Young and The Restless and he brought me in to do the show with him—at the time David Hasselhoff was in it. It was the biggest show ever back then.
After that, I got to work with a stylist from Australia and her taste was impeccable. She took me under her wing and taught me all of the luxury fashion lines. Valentino, Givenchy, Balenciaga. We worked on commercials together for years with the top directors. From there I would go on to do the Diet Coke campaign with Whitney Houston, then Bo Diddley and Bo Jackson with Nike, and then Miles Davis for Honda. It was just an amazing time in the ‘80s and ‘90
ON ARRIVING AT IN LIVING COLOR
The producers of In Living Color, Keenan Ivory Wayans, Damon Wayans, and Michael Petok, were looking for a costume designer, and they contacted a designer to ask for a recommendation. She said, “Well, there's this girl that runs around town, she's really good. I don't know her name, but she's pleasant.” And from that, I guess they called a fabric store and got my name and my number and called me in for an interview.
They asked me to do the show and it scared me completely to death because I was not prepared for it at all. I was like, “Oh God, I don't do comedy. I'm a theatre person.” Because that's how I saw myself, as a theatre person. So, I took the job and the first year the show was nominated for an Emmy for costume design. And then nominated again for each year after. The rest is kind of history. I initially wanted to be designing costumes for Les Miserable or Phantom of The Opera. God had a different plan for me.
ON THE FLY GIRLS & EVERYTHING THAT FOLLOWED
One day, one of our producers on In Living Color, Tamara Rawitt, bought a bunch of the Women's Wear Daily newspapers and brought them to me. In them was a story about the Paris Fashion Week runway shows, and the models were dressed like Fly Girls. It was the pearls with the T-shirts, the bras, the hats. She put the papers down in front of my desk and said, “When the fashion looks like the Fly Girls, you’ve made it.”
Still almost every day somebody walks up to me and says, “I just love In Living Color,” and then they start acting it out. And honestly, it was so much, I don’t always remember every skit. But I always remember how I got to every look. For instance, for Homey the Clown, the costume just came to me in my sleep. There was a gut feeling. And the great thing about the Fly Girls was going to New York every year and shopping at Patricia Field’s store.
I knew that when I got through with In Living Color it would be the root of all my future jobs. To this very day, every single show comes from that show. The people who hired me for Black-ish were the producers for In Living Color. The people who hired me for Bernie Mac, the same people who hired me for In Living Color. That is the tree trunk of my career, and all the branches that come out from it are from In Living Color. Every single show.
ON NAVIGATING THROUGH NO
When we came in—designers like Sharon Davis, Ruth Carter, Ceci, Francine Jamison-Tanchuck, and myself—we didn't have diversity committees. We pretty much navigated it ourselves. We were Black women that were breaking through some barriers, and it was definitely hard. I knew I could do any show, no matter what the cast looked like, but I wasn’t getting as many opportunities.
I remember I went up for a show with a really famous producer. You could tell that he was thrown off when I walked into the room because I'm Black, and the show was about a white family and took place in the Midwest. So he interviewed me and you could tell he was uncomfortable. Afterward, he told my agent at the time that he felt I wasn’t right for the job, that, “She probably doesn't understand middle-class America.” And I just remember that hurt. My world is filled with all kinds of people—I was raised that way—and hearing that feedback crushed me for a minute, but I knew I wouldn’t let it stop me.
Shortly after that, a producer for In Living Color had gotten a job at NBC for a show called Three Sisters. I went up to interview for the job and said, “I'm going to nail this.” I motivated myself to be more prepared, well informed, and made drawings with my own money. I went in for the interview and I killed it. The two women producers, Eileen Heisler and DeAnn Heline, who happen to also be white, hired me. That started my career designing for a major network and opened all new doors. It took 20 years to do that and I’m forever grateful that they believed in me as a designer.
I'm sure every one of [my fellow Black costume designers] has our own stories about how we all got through moments like that because we were very fresh and there weren't many of us at that time. And so, to be on the committees now and the board of the Costume Designers Guild and to see how far we’ve come is great, but we still have a lot of work to do.
ON HELPING SHAPE ICONIC CHARACTERS
Everything with me is about timing. Regina from Martin and the Fly Girls’ style was distinctly ‘90s, Bernie Mac was 2000s, and very different from Tracee Ellis Ross and Yara Shahidi’s characters in Black-ish. Each of their looks served an amazing purpose in the time they lived in. The timing of my show is something I have no power over, but I think that I've been super blessed that I've been able to help express my leading actors to their fullest and to have been able to build these characters that leave such an impression. Some even have shaped TV culture. It’s an honor to be a part of it.
I can't wrap my brain around it because I don't design thinking if I’m changing the course. My intention is to use my research to help create characters with a distinct look, who have heart, and then to figure out where they're going. Where are we going to see them in future episodes?
ON HER NORTH STAR
My North Star is my parents. And it's my grandmother—she taught me how to sew. I wouldn't be doing this without them. My grandmother and my parents really invested in us, me and my brothers. Even when I started to see some of my friends become designers before I did, I didn’t get discouraged or disappointed—I remember my father would always say, “Don't give up. Keep fighting.” And here I am 43 years later. So it’s always about honoring them.
ON NEXT CHAPTERS & GIVING BACK
We all had separated after Black-ish and everybody's gone on to other shows. We'll never be back together again as a group like that, but there are special moments that we've had on set. And that's the hard part because you know that you've made TV history with an amazing cast and crew. But going forward is the exciting part: Where am I going next? For me, I tend to figure out the producers, executive producers, who are going to allow me to do my thing and who trust me. I've been very fortunate in my career to have producers—like Kenya Barris, Larry Wilmore, Keenen Ivory Wayans, Damon Wayans, and many more—that have opened the doors for me, inspired me, and challenged me. I love to be challenged.
The thing I love the most is being able to give back to the costume community as far as helping others. In my own costume-designer community it’s helping new designers and students in college. I always have my door open for any designer who wants to call me. I always want to be able to give back—as much as people have poured into me, I want to pour into others.
"I always have my door open for any designer who wants to call me. I always want to be able to give back—as much as people have poured into me, I want to pour into others."