For her white knuckle, comedy-suspense movie “Zola,” Janicza Bravo had a clear and ambitious goal when it came to the costumes: “We need to make all this Halloween clothes.”
What the director and co-writer — who actually started out as a wardrobe stylist and costume designer — means is, she wanted the fashion to have a long lasting impression, like the oft-cosplayed yellow plaid in “Clueless.” “We have to be so pointed. So aggressive,” Bravo says.
The same could be said about the film, which brings the famed 2015 gonzo Twitter thread by A’Ziah “Zola” King to life on the big-screen. While while waiting tables at a Western BBQ restaurant (not Hooters, due to legal clearance issues), the titular enterprising Detroit dancer (Taylour Paige), in her red fringed Western shirtdress uniform custom-made by Fashion Brand Company, meets a seemingly guileless Stefani (Riley Keough), clad in floral appliquéd vintage Dior (below). Stefani invites Zola on a spontaneous road trip to Florida for lucrative dance gigs. Mayhem ensues.
King’s riveting 148-Twitter-thread served as a Trojan horse of sorts, drawing readers into a thrilling — and storytelling-medium-busting — chronicle that’s really a treatise about sex trafficking. Co-written with celebrated playwright (and upcoming guest star on “Gossip Girl” and “Emily in Paris“) Jeremy O. Harris, “Zola” is packed with symbolism and messaging that’s meant to make us question our own internalized pre-conceptions about women secure in their sexuality and sex work.
“This movie was a chance for young Black women and young white women to watch it and go, ‘Oh, I want to be like that. I want to talk like that I want to like exist comfortably in my body in this way,” Bravo says. “Like those women are both possessed and very comfortable in their sex.”
Costume designer Derica Cole Washington (whose work includes Lena Waithe’s “Twenties,” “Insatiable” and the upcoming “True Story”) joined the production and worked closely with Bravo to illustrate these themes. Like the real King, Zola is a surburbanite, which Washington portrayed through preppy, sporty silhouettes that were also on-trend in 2015. Zola and Stefani mostly wear pants (or shorts) through the entire film — another pointed statement.
“We didn’t want to just reveal them as having that kind of look that you’re expecting for someone who’s in a sex trade exchange,” Washington says. “We really wanted to ground it and give it its own power. When you think of the pantsuit, that has a sense of control.”
A softer mini-dress moment occurs early on, when Zola becomes drawn to Stefani and her sense of wide-eyed adventure. The two come together sartorially “in unison,” clad in slip dresses that harken back to a classic comedy celebrating women’s friendships: “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion.” (Fun fact: The 1997 film was costume-designed by Mona May, who also did “Clueless.”) But, foreshadowing, Washington switched their color palette, so Stefani is in a blue lace Fleur du Mal, while Zola wears a custom-designed neon green dress.
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“When you meet Zola in that first act, her home life is a little bit diluted. It’s a little bit soft. It’s a little bit drained of energy. All she wants is adventure and once you like propel her into adventure, the world explodes, right? It’s super chaotic,” Bravo says. Shot on 16mm film, “Zola” feels especially dream-like and surreal as the duo — plus Stefani’s oaf-y boyfriend Derek (Nicholas “Cousin Greg” Braun) and pimp X (Colman Domingo, in an eye-catching Hawaiian print shirt from Zara and driving slippers that Colman Domingo might wear) — embark on a “Wizard of Oz”-like journey down south, with vibrant Miami colors and contrasting textures jumping off the screen.
Zola’s gingham cropped tank and biker shorts outfit, custom-designed by Washington, references Dorothy’s iconic checked dress, while red swoop on her Nike Cortez sneakers nods to the magical ruby slippers. The blue color palette, meanwhile, is a callback to Twitter, the platform where the story was born. Washington found the coordinating bomber jacket at a small shop in Florida as “a piece of coverage” for Zola to wear on the journey; the layer offers warmth over her bare torso, except for strawberry pasties (top), after her first Florida dance gig and also as figurative barrier when she’s sent by X to accompany Stefani on a job. Zola also wears a gold “A” pendant to honor King, who’s an executive producer on the film.
Stefani begins the odyssey in pink pastels, which both challenge our preconception and mask her duplicity. “We’re just presuming her innocence and also, pink is a metaphor for this lightness, bubble gummy kind of world she’s living in,” says Washington. For the road trip, Stefani — who packed multiple changes for her working weekend — wears a too-small cropped sweater by Hardeman and sparkly Adam Selman pants (above).
According to Bravo, the pink also provides a hard, jarring turn for Stefani’s final look: a lime green, python-print crop top and pants set by I.Am.Gia. “Her girlishness is going to morph into snake,” she says.
Once the Oz escapades accelerate, neon “sour green” elements start seeping into the costume design, also seen in Zola’s bikini during a particularly tense interaction with X by the pool. “The Wizard of Oz is this green wizard, this hidden character that we never saw,” says Washington, comparing the color symbolism to Stefani’s true intentions.
Accompanying Stefani on the doomed job, Zola armors up in a sparkly, rose gold biker short set from Asos (above). “The shimmery metallic piece is kind of her armor or shield, as a form of protection,” says Washington.
But one of the most expectations-subverting costume moment involves a much more immaculate and chaste take on a school-girl fantasy look, when Stefani wears a crisp white button-up shirt — offering only a modest amount of midriff — with a knife-pleated plaid skirt and scalloped ankle-socks with stripper platform Mary Janes to fulfill a series of sex work appointments, as an anxious and surprised Zola waits in the adjoining room and a montage of male genitalia flashes on-screen. Bravo specifically wanted a “very tailored, very clean school girl uniform,” says Washington. “I remember asking, ‘Do you not want her to be more disheveled?’ [Bravo] was like, ‘No, she’s gonna stay pristinely clean the entire time.’ That was a very, very specific element.”
The majority of the film unfolds from Zola’s point of view, as the viewers feel her trepidation throughout the uncontrolled events. But the movie also illustrates how she wants to see herself represented, especially through her style.
“How would Zola — the real Zola — dress this movie? Are we going to have a regular SUV or Navigator come and pick those people up? No, I want it to be a Benz box, right?” Bravo says, then pointing to Zola’s recognizable designer luggage and travel accessories (third from top). “Like, she’s got this Chanel bag and the Fendi bag and the Louis Vuitton bag. You’re like, ‘Really? She has all those bags?’ I don’t know if she really does it. But, why not?”
In a deeply uncomfortable (yet very funny) segment, Stefani tells the story from her perspective — or the story she wants you to believe — by narrating a sequence featuring exact verbiage from Jessica Swiatkowski (a.k.a the real Stefani)’s recount in a 2015 Reddit post. To unreliably narrate, she wears her concept of a conservative and respectable “Christian” look: a pink skirt suit, found by the writer-director on a late-night Asos search.
“It was also the ridiculousness of her wearing a suit, but the skirt’s too short,” says Bravo, who took inspiration from a polka dot skirt worn by Nicole Kidman’s scheming weather presenter in the 1995 black comedy, “To Die For.” “It’s like, you can’t wear that to court. When you sit down, I think your crotch is exposed.”
But Washington envisioned a uniform from another profession, which offers yet another telling metaphor: “a really simple real estate agent that’s selling you on this story that’s not true and that no one would believe.”
‘Zola’ premieres in theaters-only on Wednesday, June 30.