The Costume Designer of ‘Zola’ Reflects on Her First Award Nomination

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In How I Got Here, Black and brown creatives explore how they worked their way to the top of the fashion industry. In conversation with Vogue*, these editors, social media stars, and more reveal the unforgettable moment that would change their careers completely.* How I Got Here offers (stylish) life lessons, in the artists’ own words.

Costume designer Derica Cole Washington got her start assisting none other than Ruth E. Carter, the Oscar-winning costume designer behind Black Panther. Having made her way up from a shopper, designated to garment tracking, to assistant then designer, Washington is now receiving accolades for her own work too. She received her first nomination from the Costume Designers Guild for her work on the film Zola. (Her former boss is nominated in the same category.) After a near decade in the industry, Washington is ready for bigger and better things. Here she tells Vogue how one year shaped her entire career.

The year 2015 was pivotal for me. That was my first time going to the Costume Designers Guild Awards. I wasn’t a designer yet; I was [Ruth E. Carter’s] closet assistant, and she brought me with her. I just thought, Wow, this is amazing. It was like the Oscars specifically for costuming. That same year, Ruth was honored at the Essence Black Women in Hollywood event, and I joined her on the red carpet. That’s where I met Mara Brock Akil, who I ended up working for on Being Mary Jane.

While I was working on Being Mary Jane in Atlanta [as] Ruth’s official assistant, I still wasn’t unionized and Georgia is a right-to-work state, so I was her shopper. I eventually got upgraded to being assistant costume designer [in the same year]. I officially joined the union and became a union designer. I was in the category of assistant costume designer, but I signed up [for the union] as a designer because I knew eventually I wanted to design on my own.

My first job in the union was as an assistant costume designer on Power season three. The union and your agent negotiate contracts and rates with productions. Being in the union also means there’s a standard of professionalism on the job and the crew has a certain level of experience and expertise in the industry. A lot of jobs require union status of all crew. That was my first job where I was paid well enough to have an apartment on my own in New York. I learned so much from my time there. I was able to shop for costumes with a budget, and there was a Black woman at the head of all of it, Courtney Kemp. It was just a really [fulfilling] experience to be on that show.

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