Alexis Carrington. Carrie Bradshaw. Cookie Lyon? Television loves its fashion plates. And as the medium’s most legendary classics Dynasty and Sex and the City prove, a fierce dress or the right shoe can serve just as much drama as any plot twist or character. But rarely – if ever? – have we seen the primetime sartorial agenda-setting come from a smack-talking woman, freshly sprung from prison, in fur, body-clinging leopard print and stilettos.
And yet here Cookie is, putting a final nail in the coffin of casual wear and steering us all toward maximalist bling, mega-high heels and makeup. In one short record-breaking television season, she became the embodiment (and one of the drivers) of a moment.
That Empire, a hip-hop drama that became the fastest growing show since House a decade ago, has influenced fashion is inarguable. Taraji P Henson, who stars as the show’s infinitely quotable convict-turned-music-mogul, Cookie, and the rest of the cast have appeared on the covers and the pages of some of fashion’s most important magazines. Meanwhile, Cookie’s trademark look – flashy, outsize outerwear, body-con, freakum dresses and sky-high ponytails – have trickled onto the catwalk.
When bold, shaggy coats began trending during the autumn/winter 16 shows last February, it was Cookie who many editors attributed the reference to. And when Marc Jacobs sent out a party invite in August demanding guests wear, “fur coats over lingerie, lipgloss … sequins, sky-high stilettos … cowl neckline halters” and “no flat shoes, no matte surfaces, no natural looks,” he could have been describing Cookie’s entire season one wardrobe.
Now, as Empire kicks off its second series in the UK, the jury is still out about whether or not Cookie will finally gain control of the record label she helped found with her ex-husband, Terence Howard’s Lucious Lyon. But what’s clear is this: her fashion credibility is officially set in stone.
For proof, look no further than the first 10 minutes of last night’s episode, complete with a cameo from André Leon Talley, and one of the purest examples of shade to ever grace the screen: When he bumps into Cookie during a “Free Lucious” concert, Talley takes one look at her heavily embellished designer dress and observes, “Gucci … last season.” It’s a fashion moment and a joke that Empire is in on.
Its wardrobe, led by costume designer Paolo Nieddu, is the antidote to normcoreand trades on all of the hallmarks that made 90s hip-hop fashion so great: the over-the-top displays of wealth, the shiny bling, the thick gold chains, the box-fresh kicks. This is a throwback to the era of Puffy, Lil Kim and Hype Williams, when clothes would shout luxury designer names, never whisper. And it’s a mood that is catching on with viewers: American television network Fox has started a blog called Cookie’s Closet, which features shoppable entries listing out designer pieces (Fendi! Michael Kors! Giusseppe Zanotti! Phillip Lim!) Cookie wears in each episode. It’s the sort of thing one could imagine Carrie Bradshaw lovers scrolling through if her show had aired during the prime of the internet age. And, in a way, Empire is picking up where SATC left off, with all the camp glamour, conspicuous consumption and, yes, sex.