Cookie Lyon is having a moment. And thanks to her, so is animal print.
Ever since Empire debuted in January, Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) has become TV's latest fashion icon. But unlike the perfectly tailored trench coats envied on Scandal or the colorful, but conservative clothing of Mindy Lahiri, Cookie's style looks like it was taken straight out of Alexis Carrington's laundry bin.
"I would say that she's bold and brash and she's beautiful. But she's also soft," Empire's costume designer Rita McGhee explains to TVGuide.com. "I went for colors and prints and I went for different geometrical patterns and shapes — things that just show the intricacy of her personality."
Everything Cookie wears tells us something about the woman who's wearing it, where she's been and what she aspires to. Cookie is a woman who loves herself and knows her worth, but is only going to get what she wants on her terms. Her closet is filled with pieces that are loud and sometimes a little risky — just like her.
To learn more about Cookie's style - including its surprising inspirations - read our full interview with McGhee below.
WHERE IT COMES FROM
To create the luxury fashion of Empire, McGhee and her team don't exactly have a luxury budget. "We are fashion-finders. It's like a wardrobe reality show, going out there and ... getting all the things that we need to make it work," McGhee says.
In order to do that, McGhee says the wardrobe department casts a wide net, shopping at boutiques, designer stores, online, thrift shops and even Target: "It's not all high end, which is great because that's who Cookie is," she says.
That being said, Cookie is no stranger to designer names. But while some items are donated by designers and a few items are custom-made, most of the high-end pieces Cookie wears are loaned from real-life Cookies, Janet Bailey and Monique Mosley, the wives of Earth, Wind and Fire's Philip Bailey and Empire's executive music producer Timbaland, respectively.
McGhee remembers her excitement when Bailey, the mother-in-law of her sister (who also happens to be McGhee's assistant) initially agreed to lend her furs for Cookie to wear, because it allowed her to "bring the character to life, because this is a woman who has lived the life of music and excess."
As for Mosley, Lee Daniels was the one who initially pushed McGhee to reach out to the producer's wife, who has been the "most gracious" with her wardrobe ever since. "She's our couture angel, so we have some unique pieces that were made for her that we use on Cookie," McGhee says. "And Taraji loves them because it's really living a part of this life."
"For Cookie, everything was an inspiration for me," McGhee says. In crafting the Lyon matriarch's signature look, she drew influence from nature, color, musicians and powerful women, such as Michelle Obama, Diana Ross, Mary J. Blige, gangsters' wives and Michelle Pfeiffer in Scarface.
"She's an inspiration of what women aspire to be and what they want to be," McGhee says. "They want to try it and they don't have the boldness to do it. Or they have the outfit, but they don't wear it all the time."
This fashion confidence is what has attracted so many women to Cookie's style, McGhee says. "She puts it on and you feel all these different emotions," she explains. "It's like: 'Wait, I want to know you! Wait, I want to wear that! Wait, I want to be you! Wait, let's go shopping together!'"
It's a safe bet to say that in any episode of Empire, Cookie can be spotted wearing at least one item emblazoned with the coloring of a safari creature, be it a zebra, tiger, giraffe or snake. But more often than not, Cookie loves to rock a leopard print.
"She did that leopard and she did the matching and she had some Louboutin shoes on," McGhee says, referencing one of Cookie's all-leopard ensembles from Episode 2. "They were total separates but they totally worked. ... She'll really go off an instinct. And I think the animal print is instinctual in how she is feeling her strength."
PAST MEETS PRESENT
Before Cookie was locked up, she was a struggling young mother focused on raising her children and producing her husband's music career — but that doesn't mean she didn't have style. "She's still flashy for their time. She's still fabulous for where they are economically," McGhee says of Cookie's flashback fashion. "She's still cute and she's still hot, but she doesn't have the money to take her fashion to the next level."
Now that she's out, Cookie is stuck between the two worlds. Because while acid-washed mom jeans have sadly made a comeback, generally speaking, a lot has changed in the fashion world between Cookie's arrest in 1998 and her release in 2015. That's why viewers will often see Cookie mixing throwback-style pieces with something more modern, such as a chic cape blazer.
"I think [that's] because she's still finding herself," McGhee says. "But in finding it, it is who she is. She represents who she is in how she puts her style together ... so it's vintage and modern and current and hip and trendy. But she can put them all together."
PURPLE AND GOLD
Cookie's most memorable outfit to date is probably when she attended a family dinner wearing nothing but a purple sable and Victoria's Secret lingerie in Episode 6. "Oh, my God. That was fantastic!" McGhee exclaims. "We had great furs to choose from, but the purple one was perfect for this scene because purple is Lucious' favorite color. So since she wanted to woo him, she wore that."
McGhee says you'll see Cookie in a lot of purple throughout Empire, but it won't always be about seducing Lucious. "She is very much a woman of mystery, as well as a manipulator, as well as a loving woman who wants to get her man and get him back," McGhee says. "It depends on what she's wearing and how she's feeling, but purple is the color."
Another color you'll often see Cookie draped in is gold, most often in the form of doorknocker earrings, chunky necklaces and even long claw-like gold nails. "I think the gold represents the power," McGhee says. "And the gold is also the color of Empire and she is working to get back more than half of what's hers, but [also] to build on her empire and to keep her empire for her and her sons."
Cookie can't resist a good fur, PETA be damned. Throughout the season, she has shown off what we hope is only a peek at her expansive fur collection, ranging from a purple stole to an ivory mink.
"I got that note from Lee Daniels," McGhee says. "He said, 'Let her wear furs. Let her be fabulous.' And I went with it."
"She was away for 17 years. She comes out of jail and she deserves it," McGhee continues. "She's going to wear all her nice pieces right now. It also shows her lifestyle. Her lifestyle is that she doesn't have to wait to wear anything to a special occasion because this is her special occasion."
See all of Cookie's fiercest fashions below: