How Charlese Antoinette Jones Became Black Hollywood's Go-To Costume Designer
Charlese Antoinette Jones has worked on the Academy Award-winning film Judas and the Black Messiah and the new movie Air. We spoke with her about how she got her start and her career highlights.
It’s a freezing day in Brooklyn and Charlese Antoinette Jones is ordering food from Pies ‘n’ Thighs, a go-to fried chicken spot when we meet at the Okayplayer office. Outfitted in a white blouse, white denim pants, and white Maison Margiela Tabi boots (and topped off with a striking white milliner hat), she greets me warmly, fresh off of shooting for close to an hour in our studio space a block away.
The acclaimed costume designer in her late thirties is a few months removed from her last project, the Whitney Houston biopic I Wanna Dance With Somebody. After working as the costume designer for the Oscar-nominated Judas and the Black Messiah (a film by an old friend, director Shaka King), Charlese said the phone began to ring with opportunities. Since then, she’s worked on projects ranging from Random Acts of Flyness to Nanny.
Now, she’s patiently waiting for her newest project Air to release. Hitting theaters on April 5, the Ben Affleck-directed Air details how Michael Jordan’s family and Nike executives altered the footwear industry with one deal. Since she’s a sneakerhead and a product of the mid-‘80s and ‘90s, Charlese shared it was a dream job to work with Affleck (who stars as Nike co-founder and former CEO Phil Knight) and others on the film, including Viola Davis (as Jordan’s mother, Deloris), Chris Tucker (as Nike executive Howard White), Matt Damon (as Nike executive Sony Vaccaro), and Julius Tennon (as Jordan’s father).
Allotted a tight schedule of five weeks to prep, she set out to create custom suiting and recreate looks from the Jordan family’s visits to Nike. Due to this time constraint, she was also designing while the film was being shot.
“The collaboration and trust [Ben] had in my vision for costumes allowed my work to really shine,” she said. “Viola was just so generous and warm. Chris Messina [who played David Falk] was so into his costumes and his Wall Street vibe, he kept pushing for more and that’s always affirming as a designer.”
But before Charlese began acquiring a robust resume, she was a kid in the suburbs of Maryland drawing and sketching outfits for her Barbies. The costume designer’s early fashion memories took place in the Black church she grew up attending — the Free Gospel Deliverance Temple in Coral Hills, Maryland — where she fondly remembers seeing the beautiful hats church ladies wore, as well as the abstract, bold ties men wore each Sunday.
Circumstance also served as an unlikely inspiration for Charlese. Because her grandmother was on a fixed income, Charlese learned how to shop on a budget and thrift through her. She also learned about fabrics from her mother, who used to make the family’s clothes because money was scarce. She often accompanied her mother to a fabric store, where she helped pick out fabrics for custom looks.
By the time she was in high school, Jones and two of her childhood friends had formed a design collective. Since they lived in the suburbs they each felt that there weren’t a lot of unique options to buy at local shops, so they began creating their own outfits to wear to parties.
“I couldn’t sew back then, so a lot of my work was in reconstruction and dyeing and aging,” she said, adding that she also bleached T-shirts and ripped-up jeans. Sometimes to round out the custom designs, Charlese, and her friends also shopped for vintage pieces.
“[Back then it] was just a combination of reconstruction, vintage styling, and purchasing new things, and then also coming out with original concepts and designs. It’s still how I design today,” she said.
Despite a clear interest in clothes and design, her parents didn’t encourage her. Instead, they pushed her to find stable work. Since it was the late ‘90s, she said she understood their reasoning: “[Their] engagement was around me doing well in school and going to college and making something out of my life, because my parents didn't have the best childhoods or opportunities.”
Then, with her parents' blessing, Charlese decided to attend Philadelphia University (now Jefferson University). Both of them assumed she was studying e-commerce, but at the last minute, she told them she was changing her degree track to study fashion merchandising and management, a decision that altered the entire trajectory of her life. Before graduating, she interned at Macy’s in New York City, being a part of their product development department. Though it was a heavy workload filled with communicating with factories in China and trying to get the best price for fabrics and styles, she became so skilled at this that Macy’s offered her a full-time position. Jones took the offer and began her New York creative life immediately after she graduated in 2005.
Although she felt the job was a part of her New York dream, Jones began to see how restrictive the position could be. Things came to a halt when she got in trouble for going to shows on her lunch break, which led her to leave the job after four months.
“I quit my job because I was like, ‘If I’m in New York and can’t do fashion, what’s the point of being in New York?’” Charlese said.
After leaving, she enrolled in classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology with a focus on styling. While there, she was able to start a portfolio. During this time, she also styled her friends who were underground hip-hop and neo-soul artists.
“I was working Fashion Week backstage, dressing models, meeting so many cool people, [and] celebrities. Thom Browne shows were my favorite shows to do,” she said.
Next, she was tasked with an internship on the set of Solitary Man starring Susan Sarandon and Michael Douglas, where she worked alongside costume designers Ellen Mirojnick (Bridgerton) and Jenny Gering (The Americans). Though she was working at entry-level, she loved it because she was able to see the inner workings of a major film over the span of two weeks. Then, she was referred for a paid job with costume designer David Robinson, best known for his work on Zoolander. Through working with Robinson, she met another costume designer, Meredith Markworth-Pollack, who not only hired Jones to assist on different projects but helped her get into the union, too.
After building a name for herself, she finally had her big break courtesy of Shaka King. In 2012, the longtime friend reached out about his directorial debut Newlyweeds. The indie flick, shot in Brooklyn, centers around a stoner and his inability to separate his high life from his actual reality. Living in a creative Black community in Brooklyn at the time allowed her to put her own unique touches on the clothing for the project, which served as her first as a costume designer.
Although her debut came with more notable work — The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete, Mulignans, Addicted to Fresno,Little Vincent N Roxxy, Spike Lee’s See You Yesterday, and Raising Dion — Jones was close to ending her career in 2019, dealing with both pay issues and projects that she didn’t feel aligned with.
“The work and the pay weren’t lining up,” she said. “The kinds of things I was being offered were not lining up with my personal goals as a designer.”
Around this time, King asked her to read the script for what became his next feature film, Judas and the Black Messiah. The two had stayed in touch and worked on other projects since 2012, and he felt confident that she could execute the historic moments the movie featured. Jones shared that she resonated with this project, having already (and coincidentally) done extensive research on the Black Panther Party.
“I literally [had] a thumb drive of research about the Party, about 1969 fashion,” she said. From that point on, she had to convince Warner Bros. to hire her. After Shaka fought for her and she did a presentation (along with nailing her fittings), they agreed she was the right choice.
As a part of her research, Charlese poured over countless photographs, watched a handful of documentaries, and read biographies that documented the Black Panthers in the ‘60s, to get a feel for the historic looks she was hoping to emulate. Chairman Fred Hampton Jr. (who was a consultant for the film) answered any questions she had, too.
With a deadline of roughly five weeks, she hit the ground running to deliver her first period film. Needing to accurately portray the clothing worn by the Black Panthers, she sourced deadstock vintage from Atlanta and Ohio, as well as Warner Bros.’s personal stock. She also called in a favor with a vintage enthusiast she had a relationship with who was based in Fresno, California, adding that she nearly cleaned out his stock.
The end result was a film brilliantly led by her use of vintage looks meshed with custom-made pieces. Daniel Kaluuya was so believable as the political powerhouse Fred Hampton, thanks partially to Charlese’s excellent costuming. The Black Panther Party and Fred were mainly seen in a color palette that emphasized how grounded they were: army green, camouflage, and Black. As for LaKeith Stanfield, who was living between two worlds as FBI informant/Black Panther infiltrator Bill O’Neal, he wore a mixture of worn-in vintage pieces and flashy clothing that the real-life figure would have worn. During significant flash-forward moments in the film — like its recreation of O’Neal’s “Eyes on the Prize II”interview — Jones said they built a custom suit for Stanfield.
Charlese didn’t just nail this film; she exceeded expectations and attained all of her looks while staying under budget. When it was released, she sat back and waited patiently as the world watched it from their homes during the pandemic. Though she felt good about the end results of her work, she was particularly pleased when Vogue recognized her in an article detailing how the Oscars had snubbed her in the costume category. Other interviews on her work in Judas, as well as a nomination for an award from the Costume Designer’s Guild, pushed her to continue walking toward her purpose. Judas was nominated for a total of five Oscars in 2021; Kaluuya won an Oscar for best supporting actor.
“It was affirming that as much as you believe in yourself as an artist, and I do and always have, at some point, if you're not feeling supported, it's kind of hard to keep going on that journey,” she said.
By the time Kasi Lemmons’ I Wanna Dance With Somebody became an option, Charlese was getting the opportunity to design for a lot of Black movies. Becoming more selective about the projects she was signing on to after Judas, Jones agreed to be I Wanna Dance With Somebody‘s lead costume designer after reading the script, saying she felt it was a well-balanced story that honored and celebrated the legendary pop star.
As a part of the second wave of creatives hired for the film, Jones redesigned the costuming and began shooting on her first day on the job. She leaned into creating stories through the clothing, which meant she had to recreate Houston’s easygoing street style uniform — sweatsuits and Nike Air Max sneakers — as well as her luxurious performance looks. For that, she pulled archived Dolce & Gabbana pieces that reflected what Houston was wearing while headlining her final global tour. Since designer Marc Bouwer worked a lot with Whitney on custom looks, Charlese also commissioned him to recreate pieces for Naomi Ackie. There were a total of 125 looks worn by Ackie in the film.
“I think I did an amazing job showing the difference between Whitney Houston and Nippy,” Charlese said. “On stage, Whitney Houston [is all about] gowns, elegant fashion, over-the-top moments. Offstage [she was] really simple, streetwear, casual, chill. That was who she was at her core. She was a Jersey girl. I felt like it was so important to show.”
With all of these significant successes under her belt, it might be difficult to imagine what could be next for Charlese’s career. When this topic came up she brought up the fact that during the pandemic, she began grappling with and working to dismantle the harm she feels capitalism has done to her mind, body, and spirit. She also mentioned that she has started some initiatives in her union with her design friend Meredith, one of them being CDG Cultural Conversations.
Launched two years ago, the goal of CDG was to highlight diverse voices within their guild, and they succeeded in doing so among Black, Latinx, LGBTQIA, Native American, and Asian Pacific Islander costume designers. The virtual meet-up consisted of panels and group talks, where each of them spoke about their different experiences as marginalized people. These conversations have since grown into recorded conversations that are currently available to view on YouTube.
As a natural next phase, Meredith and Charlese planned a two-day sponsored retreat for designers that took place in January. The idea for this stemmed from wanting to create healing moments not just for herself, but also for her peers who often feel overwhelmed and drained from working during the pandemic. The end result was a dinner, sound bath, and healing session that received rave reviews from participants.
“We [needed] a minute to breathe together and have fun together and also heal in this neutral setting to set off this year with a different intention,” she said. With these community-centric successes, Jones shared that she plans to continue leading conversations and events among the larger creative community, not solely with costume designers. She also wants to figure out how to help others live and work more sustainably.
“How do [we] set proper boundaries with work and with other people so [we] can still show up [our] full self but also not be completely burnt out all the time?” she said. “People shouldn't have to be beaten and battered to come up in this industry.”