Sandra Hernandez didn’t originally think she was going to be a costume designer. It’s hard to believe now after a career that includes such highlights as “The Secret Life of Bees” and “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” that the communications major considered communicating in something other than clothes, but if fate hadn’t intervened in the form of a radio contest, she might’ve gone in a different direction.
“I didn’t go to school for fashion,” says Hernandez. “I graduated the year that ‘Mo’ Better Blues’ came out and I was home that summer just stressed out because I had a degree and no job. I had submitted [an application] to [Spike Lee’s production company] 40 Acres and they said, “What we can offer you is an internship,” and I took the weekend to think about it. Then the radio station here in New York was offering free tickets [to “Mo Better Blues”] and I called and I actually won. I was like, “Wow. This is the universe’s way of saying this is what you need to do.”
Since then, Hernandez has been creating universes of her own, first becoming an assistant to the great Ruth Carter (“Malcolm X,” “Amistad,” and “Selma”), then rising through the ranks to become the head of 40 Acres and a Mule’s costume department for Lee’s remarkable, highly colorful late ’90s/early 00’s run that included “He Got Game” and “25th Hour.” In the process, she also became a go-to designer for any filmmaker who has wanted to capture the grit of life in New York City, whether it was the feverish glam of “El Cantante” or the scrappy street vibe of “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints.” Yet one of her most fruitful collaborations has been with Los Angeles-based director Gina Prince-Bythewood, with whom Hernandez first worked with on the 2000 drama “Disappearing Acts” and has continued to this day with the romance “Beyond the Lights.”
A film about the passion that arises between a pop star named Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who watches helplessly as she cedes her identity to the demands of the music business and the cop (Nate Parker) who helps her reclaim her individual voice, “Beyond the Lights” was itself a labor of love that required Prince-Bythewood to put her own money into making a proof of concept short to get financiers aboard and operated on a miniscule budget, making her longtime relationships with collaborators such as Hernandez all the more important.
In response, Hernandez gives “Beyond the Lights” some of her most inspired work to date — as does nearly everyone involved in the production — taking Prince-Bythewood’s desire to show how hemmed in Noni is inside of an image created by others to sell her to the masses and creating a duality to each of the outfits the singer puts on. Conveying the excess of an industry that places a premium on sex over talent, Hernandez draws on the idea of a gilded cage for Noni, decking her in gold chains and skimpy tube tops that simultaneously seduce and reveal how hollowed out she has become from the young girl who could once belt out Nina Simone’s “Blackbird” with soul that belied her age.
Shortly before “Beyond the Lights” hit theaters, Hernandez spoke about her ongoing collaboration with Prince-Bythewood and how the liberation of Noni allowed her freedom of her own to pursue some of her most outrageous ideas.
We tend to work the same way in that sense that we are really inspired by the background story to help us create the look. [Gina] creates these bios for each character and she shares a lot of information, which helped me as a designer to develop the character visually. Then she sits in on the fittings, which [before “Disappearing Acts,” our first collaboration] I’ve never had [a director there] before. The first time, I was like, “Oh, okay…” but it was actually great because she wants to try stuff and lets me do what I want, but she is also very clear on what she does not like, which helps move the process along.
Because you’ve had a long collaboration, do you come in earlier on one of her projects than you might otherwise?
With Gina, it’s pretty early because that’s just how she is. On “Beyond the Lights,” I was actually in South Africa and she had been emailing me and I didn’t know because I wasn’t checking my emails. Then I checked and I was like, “Oh my God!” That was almost a year-and-a-half before, which is good because you start out big and then you just start [winnowing down]. There was one particular dress that we really loved, but it actually turned out to be not a good idea, which happens all that time. By the time we get down to the nitty gritty, we realize no, that’s not going to work [because] they were trying to shoot at one of the award shows, to show all of that energy and we didn’t have the time. That was a blessing in disguise that it did not happen, because then we would have been married to this dress.
I can’t even imagine what dress you couldn’t create for the film considering the crazy one you created for Noemi’s red carpet appearance at the BET Awards, which consists of gold chains only on top and what appears to be a silk skirt underneath. Was that fun to create?
We did not have a lot of money, and it’s so funny because we were collecting a bunch of images and that was a particular image that we saw of someone’s idea and we couldn’t afford it. I had an amazing person in New York, who was helping me and would make it work with different materials. He was just so amazing because that’s mylar. It’s not really a metal, but it looks like it, doesn’t it? [My collaborator] Abraham is beyond talented and he was shipping me all of these things as needed. That particular dress was ideal because it was just the idea of Noni was that she was in this cage that she had been put in, so it was just perfect.
Gina has said in interviews, “The less Noni wears, the less you see of her.” Was that a touchstone for your designs?
That was actually the first thing that she said to me. I was actually very conservative in the images that I originally sent to her and I know what Gina likes and doesn’t like a lot of the times, so I was surprised when she sent me back some images, and I was like, “Oh, wow, we can really go there.” It was almost like there was numbness of not really being attached to a body because it really doesn’t belong to you at that point.
Gina allows you to be creative and bring your ideas to the table. There were, of course, things that I wanted to do and as soon as I see the look on her face, I’m like, “Okay, that’s not working.” [laughs] And we could have went way risque, but there was a fine line because she also did not want [Noni] to look just trampy.
I actually keep the images up on my wall just as inspiration, and every time [Gina] would come in she’d say, “Why do you have that on your wall?” Or flip the picture around, which was like an old running joke. You just have to immerse yourself, which is what I do, in the character and what the look is and just draw the inspiration, so that you don’t lose focus. And it is a team effort. I could not have done this job by myself, given the amount of money that we had, and that I was in LA and had someone in New York building for me.
Did a lot of the images you have on the wall come from the music industry?
A lot of it came from the music industry, but as you know, everything they wear is high-end couture. Rihanna was the person that we loved her look, and we thought that was Noni in some respects. We didn’t have the money to dress her with the pieces that Rihanna wore, but a lot of it came from images. I love doing research, and now compared to when I was spending time in the libraries and spending so much money on magazines and photography books in the ‘90s, I can spend days and days in front of the computers just grabbing images from all over the world, and it didn’t have to be anything regarding clothes. It could just be interior stuff about texture, so It was definitely a combination of hip hop, R&B, and high-end fashion stuff – then we would put the walls together. Everyone [on the team] had their own wall full of images.
Nate is amazing. He has the tiniest waist, which is so crazy because I think he was a wrestler. But it was about trying to keep it really, really simple [with him] because he makes everything look so good. He is this cop, he leads the simple life and there’s nothing extravagant about him and then when Noni gets her hands on him, he winds up having to put on a jacket and having to be a little bit more put together when she takes him to the award show. But the thing with him was to tailor things a specific way so it doesn’t look floppy on him, but also being very careful not to make him look too good. Although he may have a $100 t-shirt on, you want to make sure that it looks like it’s Fruit of the Loom.
You spoke about how research has changed. Has the rest of the job changed at all?
I love the research part. I love helping to create these characters and when you have someone in the fitting and you’re going through racks and racks of clothes, and once you get that one outfit on them, it’s like magic. The hair on our arms stand up, because it’s like, wow, there it is and I don’t know how many pieces it takes. Sometimes, it can be the first piece that you put on them and other times, by the time you’re done, the fitting room has a pile of clothes that do not work. It’s just fun. It’s stressful as well, but in the end, when it all comes together, it’s exciting.
“Beyond the Lights” is now in theaters.