Remakes are a tricky business. Attempting to reinvent a classic for a new generation is rife with potential missteps—not to mention the potentially tepid response from an audience who may not be interested in being retold an old tale. And then there’s timing; opening weekends can be hell when contending with established franchises or, God forbid, long-awaited big-budget sequels.
Sony Pictures’ Superfly was up against all of these factors on its opening weekend, which got a head start last Wednesday and ultimately came in a respectable seventh place at the box office (not bad for a film that took only $16 million to make). But while critics and viewers had mixed reviews of the remixing of the 1972 blaxploitation flick—now starring 21-year-old Grown-ish actor and recording artist Trevor Jackson in the role of Youngblood Priest—one thing everyone has agreed with is the film’s look, which references the slick, money-drenched veneer of 1990s hip-hop videos to visually translate Superfly to a postmillennial generation (notably, the film’s director, Director X, is a protégé of Belly director Hype Williams).
Much of that look is due to costume designer Antoinette Messam, who ensured that the new cast of characters were, as described by the New York Times, “dressed to the nines” for Superfly’s return to the screen. As Messam made clear in a Sony press release, “It was important to me and [Director] X that the overall costume design for the film was super fly on its own; that each look had an intent that spoke about its character while being modern and not necessarily beholden to one place or a certain style.”
In the midst of the film’s opening weekend, Messam spoke with The Glow Up about reinventing a 46-year-old icon for an entirely new era. The Jamaican-born, Toronto-raised model-turned-stylist-turned-costume designer got candid about the evolution of her career, which began when she became a mother. “It was instinctive going from modeling to styling, but what wasn’t planned was costume designing,” she told us.
Messam claims that her costuming career—which is now her first love—began as “a fluke,” launched when she helped out a local designer on a new television series. MTV eventually picked up the show, and the designer—who would become a mentor—recommended Messam for the job. Over two decades and 46 IMDb credits later, she has amassed an extensive résumé in television and film, including costuming Ryan Coogler’s 2015 hit Creed and the 2009 horror film Orphan.
It was Messam’s work on Orphan that would get the attention of veteran producer Joel Silver, who would sign her on to costume the slick new remake of Superfly. It was a perfect fit for a designer who once owned her own collection of blaxploitation flicks.
Messam’s first inspiration? The array of statement coats worn by Ron O’Neal, the original Youngblood Priest. “It was all about, ‘Bam! I’m here’—but effortlessly,” she told us. “He didn’t have to try, and that, I think, was something that I really, really wanted to make sure that I helped to translate.”
Messam also drew on the remake’s relocation of the action from Harlem to Atlanta because “Atlanta has its own style—it’s glam. The girls are made up; they’re very done. The hair is done, their brows are done, everything is done.”
But despite the fact that Youngblood Priest was now an Atlanta antihero rather than a New York City hustler—albeit still with a perm—Messam wanted him to stand apart from his surroundings and fellow characters, who include his lieutenant, Eddie (Jason Mitchell); Priest’s all-white-everything rival gang, Snow Patrol; and the always stellar Michael K. Williams as malicious mentor Scatter.
“That was a fine line I needed to walk,” she told us. “How do I have this man, like Ron O’Neal in the original, who stood out—but he didn’t stand out [in a way] that looked costumey, or over-the-top or jarring. He stood out in that he was super fly—he was fly. Even when he was in the fucking bathtub, the guy was fly.”
To give Priest his signature style, Messam drew from of-the-moment designers like Philipp Plein and Fear of God, as well as more established and low-key labels like AllSaints, Burberry and Balenciaga—and then she threw in long-beloved urban stalwarts like leather specialists Daniel’s New York. As Messam explained:
We needed to have this character look like he was wearing his own clothes. There were multiple things that I could’ve gotten for [Priest] that were very much on trend or very much the hottest thing on the runway ... but it was also important that Trevor [Jackson] be able to carry it, and also that it was Priest.
For Priest’s sidekick, Eddie, there was slightly more flash, by way of a beaver-fur coat from well-known Atlanta furrier Henig Furs; G-Star jeans; and a covetable leopard-print, leather jacket from John Varvatos. Far more than simply dictating what a character is supposed to look like, Messam maintains that it’s a delicate balance of storytelling and strategic styling:
As a costume designer, I am hired to take what is written in the script and, with the direction I’m given, help [my director] bring that to life with the costumes. ... I then have to help tell that story with the body, and the person and the actor in front of me. ... The biggest compliment an actor gives me is when they say I’ve helped them find the character with the clothes, especially if it’s so far of a departure from what they’d wear in real life.
But how to approach a still-problematic hero and storyline that could easily devolve into damaging stereotypes? It’s not a task that Messam takes lightly:
At this stage of my career, I do make conscious choices, especially in these times. I’m not going to lie; there were certain areas of the film that I had issues with ... But what I don’t see and hear enough in the trades about this story—which is what I saw in the pages—is the heart. That this young man, the street and choices made him who he was, but there was integrity. ... There are ethics there, even with what he does for a living.
Integrity is at the core of Messam’s career and at the core of the projects she chooses. Because ultimately, no matter how they’re dressed up, bringing humanity to her characters is what Messam most wants to accomplish:
You know what? At the end of the day, integrity’s all I’ve got. I’ve got to go and sit in that premiere and look up and be proud of what I’ve done.
Correction: Monday, June 18, 2018, 3:45 p.m. EDT: An earlier version of this article stated that Messam’s next film will be All Day and a Night, currently in development. We have since been informed that Messam’s involvement is unconfirmed and have revised the article accordingly.