Chinonye Chukwu is quickly making a name for her mastery of emotional, character-driven narratives. The Clemency director’s latest project is the heart-wrenching biopic Till, an account of the 1955 lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till. Told from the perspective of his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley (played by Danielle Deadwyler), the film opened Oct. 14.
In appearances for the movie, Chukwu has been a standout for her bold and assured red carpet style, one of many directors this year who are making marks with their fashion choices.
Chukwu tells THR that she has given herself “permission to play” in the style spotlight, even with the gravity of the Till subject matter. “We need some levity in our lives,” she says, matter-of-factly, also noting the relationship of the characters in her film to matters of clothes and identity. “I really wanted a vibrant, bold color palette. In Black 1950s Chicago, people really dressed to reflect their sense of self-dignity and self-power. It’s so rich! And [costume designer] Marci [Rodgers] knocked that out of the park.”
To navigate the red carpet this year, Chukwu called on A-list Hollywood stylist Jason Rembert, whose other clients include Jalyn Hall (who plays Emmett Till), Jayme Lawson (also in Till) and Lizzo.
Rembert says he’s impressed with Chukwu’s willingness to take risks. “I think, most of the time, the style of storytellers becomes a bit more muted, with a little less flair, but Chinonye is very much open to having that flair and more of a stylized approach, opening up the color palette and the shapes,” says Rembert, who has dressed her in everything from an elegant red Comme des Garçons suit and a green dress with a balloon skirt by Black designer Christopher John Rogers to a black Annakiki gown worn with sheer gloves. “To me, it would be a risk for an actress to be that glamorous and have the gloves be an accessory for a major carpet. But for a director, it’s even more special,” says Rembert (who fits Chukwu in multiple looks at a time at his New York studio).
Chukwu credits Rembert for pushing her into next-level fashion territory by introducing her to new labels, fresh colors and silhouettes that accentuate her shoulders and décolletage.
“I recently turned 37, and every year I feel more comfortable in my body,” she says. “So I’ve been really intentional with wearing clothes that make me feel good. I want to celebrate my confidence and my pride in myself. I want to be a bit bold and wear statement pieces. We’re playing with some corsets and finding that greens, reds, whites and yellows look especially flattering against my skin tone. It’s been great for me to come out in those kinds of colors for Q&As right after the movie has screened, because it brightens up the room in some way!
“I love a good heel,” she continues, “even though it’s painful as hell sometimes. I like to explore different cuts and colors and designers and styles. My parents are Nigerian immigrants, and traditional Nigerian style is very colorful and bold. I grew up with family members wearing the most beautiful, colorful, ornate clothes, so that was one of my references when talking with Jason.”
She praises looks by Rogers (“His colors are out of this world!”), South African designer Thebe Magugu and Chinese designer Anna Yang’s label Annakiki as particularly flattering. “Jason and I are very intentional about wearing clothes by as many Black diaspora designers as possible. I’m very mindful of that,” says the director, who was born in Nigeria and grew up in Alaska. In 2019, she became the first Black woman to win the Sundance Film Festival’s grand jury prize in the U.S. dramatic competition, for Clemency.
On set, her style is decidedly relaxed, the only ornamentation being gold hoop earrings and various gold rings by Mejuri, the sustainability-minded fine jewelry brand (“They’re almost like a security blanket,” she says).
“I have a uniform when I’m directing, because it’s about focusing on the work and being comfortable,” she says. “It’s my NYDJ jeans, because they have mastered the art of making comfortable jeans for women with behinds and thighs. They have a lot of stretch in them! And Vuori’s black T-shirts and all-weather hoodies work perfectly. Then I wear the most comfortable sneakers you could ever imagine, a lot of Allbirds. I alternate pieces in blacks and grays and neutrals because I don’t have time to think about what I’m wearing. I want to sleep the maximum amount of time before I absolutely have to get up and out the door!”
This story first appeared in the Oct. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.