Its a beautiful spring day on the Disney lot in Burbank, but Michelle Cole has no idea. The Emmy-nominated costume designer behind the TV series In Living Color and The Bernie Mac Show is burrowed inside her workshop, the greatest thrift store youve ever seen, where Chanel and Dolce and Gabbana mix effortlessly with Zara and Target. Here is where Cole crafts costumes for Kenya Barriss Black-ish, about the Johnson family: Andre (Anthony Anderson), Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross), and their five kids. Its where scores of Dres sneakers reside alongside Bows scrubs. Most recently, the work space is where Cole turned Yara Shahidis Zoey Johnson into a fashion icon with her whimsical-yet-relatable style as a college freshman in the hit debut season of the spinoff series, Grown-ish. Through Zoey, Cole has paired a vintage fur with a black Tupac Shakur tee for the characters Teen Vogue internship, and matched a leopard-print blazer with track pants for a day at school. Coles looks for Shahidi have inspired numerous magazine editorials, scores of fashion-blog posts, and perhaps even contributed to the uptick in teenagers penchant for thrift shopping.
She is Barriss secret weapon.
“Shes a magic fashion elf,” Barris said of the costume designer. “Theres not even a close second. Every time I dont have something [for Cole to work on], everyone immediately tries to use her. And I think, Oh they are going to try and steal the magic. Its like the ring in The Lord of the Rings.”
The last time Cole saw this kind of frenzy for her work was back in the early 90s when she was the costume designer for In Living Color and helped transform the Fly Girls, including a fresh-faced Jennifer Lopez, into a cultural moment.
Cole knew she had hit the big time back then when Karl Lagerfeld did a collection for Chanel with various In Living Color touches. “I remember my producer had all these magazines, Womens Wear Daily, etc., and she cut them all out and put them on my desk,” recalled Cole. “She said to me, When you have couture copying you, youve made it.”
Right now feels like another high point for Cole, if not an exhausting one. In addition to Barriss “-ish” empire, Cole fashioned the leads for the multi-hyphenates new pilot, Bright Futures, starring Emily Ratajkowski (Gone Girl) and Shameik Moore (The Get Down), which Barris is waiting to hear if NBC will pick up. Cole also worked on the pilot for the untitled Netflix project starring Joseph “Rev Run” Simmons and his wife, Justine Simmons. Shes currently cataloging all of her work so she can take a break before the new seasons of all of these shows begin gearing up.
“Youre going about 150 miles an hour but youre also being creative,” said Cole. “Its a nice challenge.”
In addition to keeping up with the breakneck pace of Barriss four-day production schedule, Cole is constantly working to stay ahead of her bosss quickly evolving fashion tastes. The 43-year-old show-runner has a panache for style and is known for his shoe obsession.
“[Style is] absolutely important to me. I couldnt afford shit when I was growing up, so its probably a psychological scar Im trying to get over. Also,” Barris said with a laugh, “I want to make sure I dont leave any money for my kids, so Im going to spend it all on clothes.”
Cole, in turn, spends a lot of time trying to stay one step ahead of him.
“The hardest thing is keeping up with Kenya,” she said. “He loves clothes, and I dont think he wears anything twice. Its always, How can I outdo Kenya? Because he has a vision. We really went through each and every character.”
Cole and Barris have been collaborating since Black-ish debuted in 2014. She worked on the pilot, returned for the second season, and has been with him ever since. According to her, clothes to Barris are about more than just looking good. “He wants to represent black culture as . . . We can do this,” she said. “Were in this society and this is what we look like. Many people are not aware. Its good to work on these black shows that portray [families] with a car in the driveway and a nice lifestyle, and then youre also raising your children with the same principles and morals.”
“We were going for something kind of eccentric, a little loud, something she wouldnt wear to school,” said Cole, who was happy to incorporate her own personal history into this outfit, scooping up a Nordstrom t-shirt emblazoned with the face of Tupac Shakur, with whom Cole worked on In Living Color. She paired it with a pink vintage fur.
Zoey Johnson rocks a minidress from South Korean designer Hyein Seo, one that Cole shortened and topped with a velvet blazer. Cole, whose myriad duties include being on set for each establishing shot, doesnt have a lot of time to shop for looks, but found the time to buy this dress for Shahidi. “Thats one of my favorites,” she said.
Zoey is appealing to the dean of students after an incident at the fictional “California University” she attends. At times, Cole dresses Shahidi to go against the emotions on-screen, but in this case she leaned into the moment, pulling a denim shirt from Zara to go with similarly colored jeans for a monochromatic look. “She was trying to make a point [in this scene],” said Cole. “You still want her to look great, but you didnt want to have something off-the-shoulder.”
“When you reach a level of status—and making it to college is an accomplishment in itself—you are trying to define who you are,” added Barris. “And we want to give our audience a real example of who these characters are.”
Key to that construct is, of course, Shahidi, whom Cole has known since she was 13. Over the past five years Cole has watched Shahidi mature from an eager, young actress into an outspoken activist.
Cole wants her clothing for Zoey to reflect a similar trajectory.
“Shes such a great role model for young women, especially teens,” said Cole. “You dont have to have all this skin out at 16 years old. You can still wear your J. Crew, your Forever 21, a piece from Barneys—and still be really cute.”
Coles eclectic style has worked well for Zoey—and Shahidi—incorporating high and low fashion to give her style some uniqueness. The costume designers team of 15 assistants spends a lot of time combing the racks of well-known chain stores, as well as vintage boutiques throughout Los Angeles to find what works.
“Yaras not a clothes-whore when it comes to [designer] names, shes not like that,” said Cole. “She wants to look great and have something different, so I think thats a really good advantage. If its cute, lets wear it. If its smart and chic, lets wear it. We go high-end. We go medium, and we go low.”
Get Vanity Fairs HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Nicole SperlingNicole Sperling is a Hollywood Correspondent for Vanity Fair.