Gersha Phillips talks about the costumes of “The Woman King” – WWD

Gersha Phillips talks about the costumes of “The Woman King” – WWD

Costume designer Gersha Phillips literally equipped an army for “The Woman King”.

The film, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival before its theatrical release, stars Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu and Lashana Lynch. Backed by strong critical reviews, the film is already part of the conversation around the autumn awards.

Set in 1820, the historical film tells the story of the Agojie, a group of warriors who protected the West African kingdom of Dahomey. Phillips was familiar with the concept, having assisted Ruth Carter in researching “Black Panther,” which featured a group of fictional warriors named Dora Milaje. “The step [for ‘The Woman King’] it came as ‘this is the story of the real Dora Milaje,’ ”says Phillips.

Phillips says she was “over excited” when she learned about the project. “Obviously, being a black woman is an amazing opportunity and an amazing story to tell,” says Phillips. She has had several interviews with director Gina Prince-Bythewood and the film’s producers, during which she shared the first sketches of her vision of her costumes.

Phillips, who was working on the final season of “Star Trek” when the call for “The Woman King” came, is thrilled to be working on projects that allow her to build and create immersive worlds. “This was interesting because we were shooting pre-colonial Africa, which is a really interesting time to investigate and understand,” she says, adding that it’s also a period of time not often represented in studio films. “So it was really intriguing to me, very daunting too,” she says. “I really wanted to pay homage the right way.”

The team aimed to stay as true to the story as possible, while elevating the aesthetics on screen. “One of the words that everyone kept throwing was ‘lofty’. They wanted it to be high and to be beautiful and lush, “says Phillips.

One of the first reference photos to appear on a Google search for Agojie turned out to be a propaganda photo used by the West at world fairs. “We realized during our process that those images were not the images we wanted to portray, as they were more exploitative images than Agojie,” he adds.

Phillips has focused on fabric as a tool to root the sartorial aspect in authenticity. “The fabric is an important part of telling the story the right way and also trying to be truthful and authentic to the world and the time,” says Phillips, adding that he didn’t realize how difficult the procurement of fabrics would be. from the beginning. His team bought fabrics from Ghana – they hired a local buyer and had the items transported by hand by plane to avoid shipping delays – bought vintage fabrics, block printed some original patterns and even discovered a Nigerian textile artist on Instagram.

Equipping an army meant creating visual cues to differentiate between status and wealth levels. Signs of wealth in the kingdom included numerous layers of textiles and jewelry stacked on the body.

“Gina wanted Nanisca to always have the highest rank of everything,” says Phillips, adding that they gave Davis’s character the best of everything: her belts were always the largest and most decorated, and she wore the most distinct, which were given by the king to warriors who performed well in battle. Nanisca was also the only character to wear armor.

Phillips describes Davis, the protagonist of the film, as wonderful to work with. “The other thing I love about Viola is that it makes the room happy. She has a great sense of humor and is really cooperative, ”says Phillips, soliciting the actress’s patience during the many rounds of costume changes and tweaks to accommodate stunts and movements. “And working on the bib was a rather long and arduous affair; we had to do three in all, ”she adds.

Secondary characters, including Izogie and Amenza, played by Lynch and Sheila Atim, also received elevated costumes that evolved over the course of the film as their ranking improved.

“When they first start, they only have a band of fabric around them [their waist], and then they take the leather belt and then the rope. So it gives it an elevation through the advancement stages through the program, “describes Phillips, adding that his team incorporated touches of white trim and white accessories as a nod to Amenza’s status as a religious leader. The high-ranking warriors were characterized by the use of gold thread in their belts.

“But we have always kept Nanisca as the real echelon: the richest-looking fighter and warrior,” she adds.

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