With a keen eye for fashion and storytelling, Deirdra Elizabeth Govan has left an indelible mark on the hit Prime Video series “Harlem,” bringing the characters of Quinn, Camille, Tye, Angie, and more to life through her exceptional costume design. In a captivating interview with renowned Govan, we delve into her creative process and how her experience living in the vibrant heart of New York City has influenced her work. Moreover, our conversation delves into the pressing issue of pay equity for costume designers and the broader film production labor union community, shedding light on the ongoing fight for fair compensation and recognition in the industry.
Spencer Williams: I am so happy to welcome costume designer Deirdra Elizabeth Govan. I’m so excited to talk to you. I’ve been wanting to meet you for a little while now.
Deirdra Govan: Oh, well back at you. I’m quite excited to be here as well.
Spencer Williams: I’m excited to talk to you about Harlem. It’s a great show. I’m new to the show, and I quickly fell in love with it. I want to start from the beginning. You have roots in New York City, being a Harlem resident for many years during your career. You’ve also done wardrobe for Broadway. How did you come to be a costume designer, and was this a career path you always knew you wanted to pursue?
Deirdra Govan: I always wanted to work in film. It was my passion very early on. When I was accepted into Parsons School of Design, I focused on fashion design at the very beginning. But what was unique in my studies is that I had an opportunity to go into costumes, theory, and costume history. That was my calling card. I think I was more engaged with the storytelling. It was the narrative, and that’s what really drove me to it.
I had a dear friend who was a makeup artist for Saturday Night Live. He introduced me to the business rep for theater and film. That is how I started on Broadway, got my union card in wardrobe, which is a separate distinction from costume design. I started dressing, aging, dying, and making costumes. I got a call to come back and do a television series called New York Undercover, and I have been in television and film ever since and have not looked back!
I’m a voracious reader. I’m a curious soul. Anytime I read a book, I’m always imagining that world. Stepping in and working in the world of film and television, it’s a collaborative effort. It takes a lot of people to create this magic that everyone witnesses on screen and experiences, and I love that collaborative medium. It’s actually quite joyous when it works out well.
Spencer Williams: How would you describe your process?
Deirdra Govan: I’d say my process in costume design is heavily rooted in research, whether it’s a period drama or contemporary stylish series. It’s always about research, and I am inspired by so many different things at any given point in time. I’m notorious for waking up in the middle of the night. I’m running to my studio just to jot down some ideas. I’m not at all a blogger or a street-style photographer, but I do see things that inspire me. I’m a huge fan of museums and music. Music is a very integral part of my creative process. Sometimes when I’m doing sketches or illustrations, or even just putting together mood boards, colors, and fabrics, I have music in the background that I feel is setting the tone for the look and the feel of that scene for me and how that actor is playing in that scene.
When I’m reading a script, I’m designing it at the same time, and I’m trying to problem-solve as a designer. I think what people really forget is that we are problem solvers, and that is a real key skill set to have. Being able to connect the dots has really helped inform my process as a designer. My research and my design process are core to my very being.
Spencer Williams: Keeping yourself open to real life and understanding the world around you… But also, continuing to let yourself learn throughout life. I would say, it’s very important.
Deirdra Govan: Absolutely. I had a professor when I was doing my master’s… He shared with me that to always explore your cognitive world. Always keep discovering. I love knowledge. I have to also have a filter because not everything is good information. Having a very strong eye to self-edit. I think that’s the whole joy of doing what we do as costume designers. The art of discovery.
Spencer Williams: Let’s get into season two of Harlem. It’s so fun, very funny, joyful and vibrant. How did your experience living in New York inform your work on this show?
Deirdra Govan: Harlem is historic in so many ways and has such a rich legacy in the African American diaspora. When I had the opportunity to do this show, it wasn’t from the standpoint where I live in Harlem, and this is what I’m going to do. I was trying to tell a fuller story. Because I had lived in Harlem for a period of time I had firsthand experience of these women and their lives and all the nuances they’re in because a lot of these women were my friends, people that I knew, and New York is such a melting pot. I felt very connected to the story.
I had worked with the show’s creator, Tracy Oliver, on several other projects prior. When she shared Harlem with me, I literally jumped out of my chair! I was quite honored to be able to work with her and create these characters from scratch, from season one to season two.
Spencer Williams: You could tell just from watching the show that you and your team have a lot of fun with this show. The costumes are stellar as there is such a great sense of style. I’m always excited to see what’s coming up next.
Deirdra Govan: Thank you! It takes a lot of people to bring this show together, and I think the guiding force is Tracy Oliver’s vision. These characters, they’re so rich, so varied, and they’re not perfect. They’re imperfect people doing interesting and sometimes not-so-great things.
Spencer Williams: Harlem follows a group of four friends who navigate relationships and careers in New York City. I found the costumes to be very modern, bright, and vibrant. Each of these women has their own style, but how would you describe the overall philosophy of the costumes in this show.
Deirdra Govan: I would say it’s aspirational, glamorous, but in a way that anyone who’s seeing the show can relate to. I really wanted to make sure in creating these women and telling their story through their clothes that it really spoke to them, not only as the character but to the actors. There was connectivity to them personally. When I was creating the storylines of how their closet would look and what would they wear on this day, and what would they wear on the next? The rest is really about what’s on the page. It’s been one of the most rewarding creative experiences in my life because, as women of color, we don’t often get these opportunities to really be seen in all these different ways. They are so unique and have different personalities, but the synchronicity and the sisterhood between them… you feel it. I wanted that to also resonate in their style choices.
Spencer Williams: There’s a lot of storytelling in each of the costumes on these characters. The costumes really give them each a unique personality and style, but also say a lot about what each of them is going through throughout the series. I’d like to get into each of the character’s personal styles. I would say Angie might be my favorite. Her looks keep you on the edge of your seat every episode. You never know what you’re going to get with Angie except that you know it’ll be a serve.
Deirdra Govan: It’s always a joyous occasion when Shoniqua (Shoniqua Shandai) is in a fitting room because we just have fun. With Shoniqua, you get to push the envelope, and what I really wanted to focus on was her growth. She’s finding her balance, and we see that she also goes through her own transition, and that is elevating her look. There are moments for her where we really see her family life and understand where they come from. That also informs Angie’s confidence, which we see comes from a loving family. You get a true understanding of who Angie is and where she gets her confidence. She’s got body for days, and she can rock anything. It’s such a fun experience with her.
Spencer Williams: One character that I couldn’t get enough of was Quinn (Grace Byers). She has a very proper feminine sense of style. Quinn goes through quite a journey in this season. I especially loved watching her play golf with her parents. That golfing costume, it was just… *Chef’s Kiss* perfect.
Deirdra Govan: Quinn is obviously a fashion designer, ironically. We’re seeing her take some risks. We’re seeing more neckline, more skin, more confidence, and ultimately falling in love. That really changes you. I think for Quinn and Angie, those are two very strong story arcs that we roll with. We have her Vogue 73 Questions look, which is an original design built by myself. That was my ode to New York, inspired by Art Deco, with the Chrysler Building being my motif, my muse. Quinn is the quintessential New York girl hailing from Westchester, going to Sag Harbor, Martha’s Vineyard, that’s her vibe.
The pride costume for Quinn was an original build. You really see Quinn embracing her new queer life as she’s come into her own. I was inspired by the great Bob Mackie and what he did for Cher on many occasions. The storyline required that Quinn make her costume for pride. It was so much fun to envision and create!
Spencer Williams: I am loving this. I could talk to you forever! Let’s dive into one of our next characters, Tye (Jerrie Johnson), who is very structured, very hip, but also still knows how to have fun.
Deirdra Govan: With Tye, we’re really seeing her out and about in the world, so I wanted to give that dapper style. Tye is artsy, she’s cool, and she’s self-assured. She knows who she is! She’s also a womanizer, a player all day. I definitely had fun with her vibe because of Jerrie. Having done season one of The L Word: Generation Q, representation is very important to me. I did not want to fall into the tropes of a black female queer. Jerrie and I had a lot of deep conversations. What I love about Jerrie as a person is that she rocks a dress one moment, and she’ll rock jeans and boots the next. She as a real keen sense of how she wants her body to look and how she wants to feel. And her confidence is just amazing. Bringing Tye to life is such a joy.
Spencer Williams: I want to talk about Camille (Meagan Good). Camille is business-oriented and sophisticated but still has fun with her fashion. How would you describe Camille’s looks?
Deirdra Govan: First of all, I’ve known Megan for a very long time, so the opportunity to work with her is just… I can’t even explain it! She’s one of the most amazing human beings. When I really leaned into where I was going to go with Camille, her being an anthropology professor… I took it in the direction of, I hate this terminology, but there is a vintage chic to her. I don’t like to call it boho chic because that develops into something else. She has to look professional. Blazers were very key statements. They’re signature hallmarks in her closet. Jeans are also signature hallmarks in her closet. The ability to have something that is so unique, sculptural, and body conscious is definitely her. I like to call it my mahogany moment meets Annie Hall; if that gives you an interesting flavor.
Spencer Williams: It seems a part of your process was to spotlight small brands and retain the authenticity of the neighborhood. How did that play into your process?
Deirdra Govan: It was about heightening small brands but also very important for me to bring black fashion to the floor. I sought out brands by black fashion designers who I really felt served the storyline that I was trying to tell with these characters. So you’ll see Wales Bonner, Sergio Hudson, you’ll see so many incredible looks. What is exciting for me is that this is for everyone’s consumption, and it was important for me to articulate a grounded glamor that is aspirational. Harlem is a storytelling place in and of itself. You can walk on the street and be inspired by anything that you see. Harlem is special, and I give a lot of credit to Dapper Dan. He was ahead of his time, and so ripping a page from his rule book is really what I tried to do in Harlem and push it so forward in ways that people would never, ever expect.
Spencer Williams: What was it like collaborating with all these different departments? I imagine it must have been a very personal, intimate conversation all the time.
Deirdra Govan: I’m glad you asked that. No costume designer exists on an island. It takes a team, and there’s no way you could do it on your own. I also want just to give a shout-out because, without my costume supervisor, it would not have been possible. My assistants are on my left hand, and my supervisors are on my right hand. They are integral in addition to everyone else in our department. There were a lot of us, really. It’s a fast-moving show, and as I said, we’re shooting multiple episodes at different times, so you really have to pay attention to those details and try not to miss a beat.
Spencer Williams: What would you say is the most rewarding part about working on this show along with your incredible team?
Deirdra Govan: I’m telling stories about women. I’m such a lover of Tracy’s work and how she writes, and the stories she tells. It’s like a novel that you can’t put down. I enjoy the collaborative process. I enjoy the creative synchronicity between departments. When it works well, it works really well. There’s a sense of pride in knowing that you’re doing something that you really enjoy. The show has been very special to me. It has meant a lot to these women, their work as human beings, as actors. When you get an opportunity to work with people like that, you go above and beyond. That’s, that’s what I tried to do. Deliver.
Spencer Williams: And deliver you and your team did! Before I let you go, you are the Vice President of United Scenic Artists, Local USA 829, IATSE, and a Costume Designer by trade. I know you’re working toward pay equity for costume designers and the broader film production labor union community. I would love to talk about that with you.
Deirdra Govan: Thank you. I am glad you asked that question because as costume designers, who are in this movement of pay equity, it is something that we are really, really focused on. In my opinion, for Local USA 829, it was important to build a pay equity task force, which was implemented last year to work in concert with a pay equity committee that is within the CDG Guild of 892. A lot of people don’t really realize that costume designers are some of the lowest-paid crafts in film and television. We are the tripod that supports the director in realizing a vision. In doing so, there is a pay inequity that exists between the department heads and costume design. When you look at all that we put into a production and what shows up on the screen, if you take away the costumes… you have the sets, the actors, but what are they wearing? Hence our tagline, Naked Without Us, which says it all.
Spencer Williams: Costume design is integral to any story. Without the talents of costume designers and their crews, none of our favorite films or shows would be able to exist.
Deirdra Govan: I’m passionate about it because I think it’s important for people to really understand and recognize costume design as an art form. There is an artistry to everything that we do. There’s a reason and a rationale behind the decisions that are made in order to build these characters and ultimately create the look and tell the story. What’s sorely needed and what I feel has fallen by the wayside is really an understanding of what the costume department does and what roles we, as costume designers, bring to the table, and how important we are to the process. We’re really at the front end of it all. If it’s an original build, sometimes those looks are marketed ten times over by the studios, and costume designers see none of the proceeds.
It’s important for me as well as my colleagues who are in this, to shine a light on this issue. It’s about our value. What we bring to the table is more than just in that moment for that film. It is beyond.
Spencer Williams: Wow. Deirdra, I look forward to continuing to work alongside you and everyone else in bringing these issues to the forefront. It’s really time that we make sure that costume designers and the film production labor union community are paid what they’re worth, which is everything. From Harlem to Avatar, The Last of Us, Bridgerton, none of this is possible without the costume designer. Thank you for shining a light on this, and thank you so much for joining me.
Deirdra Govan: Spencer, thank you. You are a joy, and I really appreciate the invitation.