I’m thinking of the layers, the composition, the palette. I am thinking about my job as a function to tell the narrative and to support the actor.
Maori Karmael Holmes: Can you tell us a little bit about your background?
Derica Cole Washington: Both my mom and my [paternal] grandmother sewed and made clothes for me as a baby. That wasn’t really what initially got me interested in clothing, but I guess subconsciously it was always there. My dad’s also pretty handy. I consult with him virtually a lot now that we’re in quarantine!
MKH: How did you get into costume design?
DCH: I grew up in Cincinnati and went to an arts high school. From there I got into vocal performance, technical theater, set decorating, and then costumes. I didn’t think of it as a career. It was something that I did in school.
MKH: Where did you receive your training?
DCW: I like looking at beauty. I found some joy in that, so I wanted to study aesthetics. [As] I learned what a curator was, I thought, That’s really cool. They’re essentially assembling the art in a way to contextualize it for an audience. I feel like that’s kind of what I do now.
The first person I recognized from that field was Thelma Golden. I interned at The Studio Museum in Harlem, and I was just in awe of her—a dark Brown woman, short hair, really fabulous clothing. She was an inspiration. I also interned at Kim Heirston Art Advisory—another amazing, accomplished Black woman. I then went on to do my master’s in visual culture and costume studies, mostly under the guise of wanting to work as either an advisor or a curator, some hybrid of the two.
MKH: You have an MA in visual culture and costume studies from New York University. How did you end up as a designer and not a curator or historian?
DCW: I had done my thesis on cultivated consumption, specifically looking at hip-hop artists who were collecting art. I didn’t necessarily want to be a writer. My first adult job was at an interior design company; I was the coordinator. I hated that job because I wanted to be in on the action. At the time I was dating a writer, and we were watching all these films, and I kept seeing credits for costume design and production design. One of the names was Ruth Carter. I noticed that she was following me on Pinterest, and so I reached out to her. We exchanged emails. I sent her my resume, and then she saw that I had a degree in costumes. She was like, “Why are you not in costumes?” I talked to her, and then she hired me as her assistant on a commercial. And then our first feature that I ever worked on was Da Sweet Blood of Jesus with Spike Lee. Obviously, both of these people are legends. I had such an amazing experience that I was like, This is what I want to do.