The show is a fashion delight. But it is also an assessment of the public face of hip-hop, clothing as class and style as identity.
“Empire” details the story of Lyon, a hip-hop mogul with the problems of King Lear: Which of his three sons will take over his business now that he has been diagnosed with ALS? The show is populated with a warring cast of characters who represent the full spectrum of hip-hop — from the street-tough world of shady entrepreneurs to corporate behemoths powered by MBAs prepping for an IPO. The clothes reflect that breadth, as well as the tension that exists between the past, present and whatever wealth the future may bring.
It’s hard not to compare the fictional characters with the real life men and women whose lives have traversed similar terrain. Through numerous flashback, the audience learns that Lucious spent the greater part of the 1990s as a struggling rapper working the illegal drug trade with his hair tied up under a do-rag. Now, he has a smooth pompadour, a bank account overflowing with money and a Gustav Klimt painting hanging in the foyer of his estate. He is mid-evolution Jay-Z — post-thug life, but not yet comfortable enough with his own success to stop dressing like he’s living in a Ciroq vodka commercial. Lucious still needs to primp.
In the boardroom, he manages to tamp down his instincts for the flamboyant flourish in the same way that he has learned to contain or outsource — although not always — his gangster impulses. Audiences see him wheeling and dealing in dark suits — but with a floral tie or a rainbow-hued pocket square. Just enough dazzle to set him apart from the lawyers and bean counters and to remind them all that he is not one of them. Close, but not exactly. The business world is full of circling sharks, but Lucious takes going for the kill, literally.
His style is not effortlessly cool. It is studied and particular. Lucious is a man who notices the details. He did not arrive at this apex without watching his back, his reputation and the just-so lay of his hair.
Cookie, played with a smooth roar by Taraji P. Henson, just finished 17 years in prison for drug dealing. She struts onto the screen wearing a tight leopard-print dress, a white fur coat, monster hoop earrings and a slick ponytail that sits high on her head and swishes down her back — as if her cell block had a beautician on call. Cookie looks a bit like Mary J. Blige circa the mid-1990s, when ghetto fabulousness was making waves in the fashion industry and everyone from Gucci to Chanel took a bite out of the trend.
**Read also: The real Taraji Henson, 10/6/11**
Her middle son, Jamal — the creative, gay one whose sexuality serves the plot — asks the question that begs to be asked: What gives with the clothes? It allows Cookie to explain not just the current ensemble, but her entire sense of aesthetics — and maybe a bit about her state of mind: She was wearing what she wore into prison. But even when she walks into the light, and eventually into a department store, she never gives up her allegiance to a look that firmly connects her to her past and to herself.
She does not evoke Hollywood glamour, Upper East Side wealth or an indeterminate international savoir faire. Her style evokes the brash, attention-grabbing honesty that has its roots among the striving class. Her clothes say money; she wears limo heels; and she has a smart mouth to equal a quick brain. She is still ghetto fabulous — the 2015 version.
One could almost watch “Empire” on mute and just by looking at the characters’ attire understand where they fit on the continuum and the demons with which they are struggling.
In the second episode, Lucious murders Bunkie. Whether or not his death causes any authentic grief, his passing must be mourned. And so the family gathers to reminisce and weep. During the evening, the youngest son Hakeem, who is the tough-guy rapper of the family, is bequeathed the giant gold chain once worn by the dearly departed Bunkie. Hakeem slips it over his neck as if it is a talisman of authenticity, a 14-karat muse and a protective coat of armor. In all of its shimmering, neck-straining weight, it was like a relic from hip-hop’s past — and fashion’s too.
He’s the son most intent on living life as an inner-city cliche. He wants to challenge authority — from his mother to President Obama — in spurts of manufactured rage. He defines his manhood by his swagger and his public image by a thug facade. Of course, Hakeem would most appreciate the giant gold dookie chain. It would hold no sway for Jamal, in his coffee-shop jeans, nor oldest son Andre in his banker flannels. Everyone has a fashion shorthand, an image of what they want to be.
“Empire” depicts the inevitable — but not necessarily admirable — shift in aesthetics as folks move up the economic ladder as well as the social one. Lucious has dumped the faded jeans and sneakers and styled himself in business suits and silk scarves. Cops stand at attention when he walks into a jailhouse; the president takes his call. But now he’s just a thug with better tailoring.
Anika, the debutante colleague and girlfriend to Lucious, sits in artist development meetings wearing a strand of pearls and “anchorwoman” hair — this culture’s uniform for authority and honesty. Her voice is smoothly modulated and her demeanor discrete. But all that charm school deportment doesn’t give her any class. She may not commit acts of violence, but she likes to pretend she will. She likes to exploit the mystique of a culture that she simultaneously disdains. Lucious’s executive assistant Becky, played by Gabourey Sidibe, with her dipped-dyed platinum hair, gold cuffs, chandelier earrings and rough edges, whose affection for her boss seems free of guile and facades.
“Empire” is not subtle in its use of fashion. Luscious’s pinstripes and Glen plaids dance on screen. Cookie’s tight, printed dresses barely reach to mid-thigh. But in the flashy furnishings, the pearls, silk scarves, gold chains and the designer evening gowns, audiences have a close-up view of all the insecurities, posturing, affection and fear that swirl at the surface of an American dream.