The illustrious essence of Zerina Akers


The Emmy Award-winning costume designer and stylist to stars like Beyoncé reflects on her inspirations and the importance of uplifting Black designers.

Zerina Akers doesn’t follow trends but is a savant at starting them. As a costume designer and stylist who has been working in the fashion industry for over a decade, the sartorial mastermind has created some of the buzziest, most memorable celebrity style moments.

When Megan Thee Stallion channeled old Hollywood glamour at the 2021 Met Gala in a custom Coach gown that garnered attention from Vogue, it was because of Akers. When Karol G sent her fans into a tizzy with all the eye-catching ensembles in the “Bichota” music video, Akers was the one who orchestrated the style.

And when Beyoncé broke the internet with her pregnancy announcement in February 2017 — wearing only a burgundy bra and baby blue underwear — the Beyhive owed praise to Akers. If you scroll through Beyoncé’s Instagram, so much of the carefully curated and luxurious fashion displayed is styled by Akers, who is currently the superstar’s personal stylist and wardrobe curator.

Akers’ magic touch can be seen all over fashion, from editorial shoots with Normani to red-carpet moments with Niecy Nash. She even won an Emmy Award in 2021 for the costume design in Beyoncé’s 2020 film “Black Is King,” which showed off the beauty of the Black diaspora through exquisite fabrics and striking ensembles.

The illustrious essence of Zerina Akers
Mamadi Doumbouya for Insider

But Akers is more than a stylist. She’s a force working to change the fashion industry from the inside out.

In June 2020, she launched Black Owned Everything, a marketplace that showcases Black designers and businesses. It has helped launch fashion brands like K.NGSLEY, and it’s only the beginning.

In a conversation with Insider for our series Black Ensemble: Fashion for the Culture, Akers reflected on the fashion industry’s relationship with Black creatives and why forging space is so important.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The illustrious essence of Zerina Akers
Mamadi Doumbouya for Insider

You’ve accomplished so much during your career, from becoming Beyoncé’s personal stylist to winning an Emmy Award. Can you share where your love of fashion began?

I went to a competitive all-Black high school in Maryland, so there was always competition over best dressed or what you’re wearing. My grandmother taught me how to use the sewing machine, so that was definitely a pivotal moment.

I started to design and reconstruct garments before organizing a big fashion show at the end of my senior year. People bought my stuff, and it was like, “Oh, maybe this could actually be a thing.”

I initially studied design and later switched over to marketing and merchandising in college, but that took me in the right direction. I landed my first internship at W Magazine, which put me on that path to figure it all out.

Were there any Black fashion icons that inspired you along the way?

I’ve always been a fan of Queen Latifah’s fluid style. Watching “Living Single” back in the day and seeing this powerful woman really own a new space, she rode the line of being a tomboy but still being really feminine.

And then, I remember, in the early days, really loving June Ambrose’s work. Seeing her as this brown-skin stylist, I wanted to be just like her.

The illustrious essence of Zerina Akers
Mamadi Doumbouya for Insider

Outside of Beyoncé, you garnered praise for styling celebrities like Megan Thee Stallion and Latto. What is your advice for dressing women in clothes that accentuate — not diminish — their curves?

Exploring a structured shoulder that extends past a certain point can make your arms look slimmer and your waist look smaller. It gives an inverted triangle shape that makes sure you have the right fit.

Open necklines on bustier women are often flattering. Not to say that you need to show a ton of cleavage, but having skin at the top can add balance. If you have a double-D breast size and a turtleneck, it can make you feel a bit choked up. Whereas if you open that neckline, it balances where the attention is going.

The illustrious essence of Zerina Akers
Akers styled Latto for the MTV Video Music Awards in 2022 (left); Beyoncé for the Hollywood premiere of Disney’s “The Lion King” in 2019 (center); and Megan Thee Stallion for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover launch party in 2021 (right).Bryan Bedder/Contributor via Getty Images; Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images; Rodrigo Varela/Getty Images for Sports Illustrated Swimsuit

You received critical acclaim for projects like “Black Is King,” which highlighted the vast diversity and beauty in the Black diaspora. Are there any aspects of Black culture that continue to inspire your work?

For me, it’s the hood. I feel like a lot of our trends were born out of necessity, like Billie Holiday wearing flowers in her hair because she pinched off the side of her hair with an iron, or Salt-N-Pepa wearing asymmetrical hair because it was burned.

Bringing that essence of “What would the Black girl do?” into every project makes it that much more special, especially when you think about the way our culture’s been tapped into.

The illustrious essence of Zerina Akers
Billie Holiday (left) and Salt-N-Pepa (right).Michael Ochs Archives/ Tim Roney/Getty Images

Speaking of Black culture being tapped into, how do you feel about the luxury fashion industry’s relationship with Black designers?

I think there were really big strides made with the unrest of 2020.

We see a lot more Black designers, whether they’re collaborating with these larger entities or not, being positioned next to a lot of the heavy hitters. You’re really seeing people like Sergio Hudson develop into a household name.

When we’re given the space to be ourselves and bring to fruition some of those ideas that have been sitting in our head or sitting in our notebooks for God knows how long, they become mind-blowing.

Unfortunately, there’s still much more work to do. I think there were a lot of concessions made in 2020 that people don’t really realize were quickly taken away, like retailers buying a collection outright, then returning it if it wasn’t purchased. That makes it challenging for independent designers to grow a business.

Even so, in what ways have you noticed Black fashion leaders and innovators advancing the industry?

Brandon Blackwood has taken the popularity of his “End Systematic Racism” bag and made it into this multi-million dollar handbag business. A lot of people think that these businesses just started in 2020, but I purchased my first Brandon Blackwood bag five years before that. He’s been really smart about the moves he’s made.

Or K.NGSLEY, which sells genderless items. That was just Kingsley Gbadegesin being his authentic self, wanting to serve his community and have his people really be seen.

When we’re given the space to be ourselves and bring to fruition some of those ideas that have been sitting in our head or sitting in our notebooks for God knows how long, they become mind-blowing.

All we need is that space and opportunity.

The illustrious essence of Zerina Akers
Mamadi Doumbouya for Insider

You’ve uplifted lesser-known designers during your career, even going so far as to create Black Owned Everything, an online Black-centered marketplace that helped launch K.NGSLEY. What is it like being a part of the change you want to see?

For us to help launch K.NGSLEY with just unisex tank tops and to see his product just expand his business, it’s beautiful to watch. Now he’s running a new studio.

We’ve become a bit of a launching pad for many businesses. It was important for me that these creators and designers have a space even if some of the bigger retailers weren’t paying them any mind.

What is the future of Black Owned Everything?

I want to develop more of a voice on the site. I’m working to collaborate with more writers so people can go to the site and consume more than just products. Like, where can we push the conversation?

And really having Black-owned everything. In the future, you’ll be able to buy your laundry detergent and baby diapers like a one-stop shop.

The illustrious essence of Zerina Akers
Mamadi Doumbouya for Insider

Considering the history of the fashion industry and recent strides, what do you think the future of fashion will look like?

I hope we find a place where we’re not overconsuming because I think a lot of the industry has been pushed into doing all these ornate fashion shows. These fashion shows cost a lot of money when, really, they could do a beautiful lookbook to portray how they want the collection to be sold.

Season after season, you don’t even have time to wear your clothes before being pushed to buy new clothes. When you see the number of collections that go down the runway versus the number of garments you see in the store, it’s a huge disconnect because I think many retailers are underestimating their consumers.

It’s like, unless you’re able to place that special order directly with the brand, what is this all really for?

The illustrious essence of Zerina Akers
Mamadi Doumbouya for Insider

Do you have any advice for the upcoming generation of designers?

Oh my goodness, study the business. I think there are too many kids out here creating a product and jumping in head first, which will do much more of a disservice, especially when it comes to capturing and maintaining a customer.

It’s not just creating something and selling it. Do you have your packaging ready? Have you taken that time to prepare?

I think that there’s this kind of system of education that’s been lost. They need to educate themselves on the business and strive to learn all it entails because they risk losing a customer forever.

This feature is part of Black Ensemble, a series celebrating Black leaders, innovators, and trendsetters in the fashion industry.

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