How Hamilton’s Renée Elise Goldsberry Is Amplifying Black Designers
What do you do when you’re a Tony Award-winning actress and stuck in lockdown along with the rest of the world? If you’re Renée Elise Goldsberry, you plan a photoshoot to highlight the work of Black designers. While COVID has a lot of people stuck at home, it can be easy to put fashion aside, but the Hamilton star has found her niche. In collaboration with her stylist, Goldsberry produced a shoot where she only adorns herself with Black-designed blouses, jackets, and jewelry to match. As we round out Black History Month, Goldsberry discusses the importance of amplifying Black artists (and not just during the shortest month of the year), the intersection between theater and fashion, and what the resurgence of Hamilton means to her.
JULIANA UKIOMOGBE: To start, how did this collaboration come to be?
RENÉE ELISE GOLDSBERRY: The idea was born in the summer of Black Lives Matter and the summer of COVID. It was also the summer of Hamilton. The way we celebrated and did it all was by lifting up black designers in that time and socially distanced photo-shoot. Sarah Slutsky is my stylist. We connected a few years ago now. When Hamilton became the big publicity push, it was over the summer. She had a really wonderful idea to do more with styling and lift up Black designers. She came out to the house and I had a photographer who I just met, a young woman. The first thing she ever did was come out to my house for that socially-distanced photoshoot that we did. It was just so successful and such a wonderful opportunity that we were like, “we have to do it again.” So this time, I had an opportunity to do the Gotham Awards and we had to create a bubble to style me presenting at the Gotham Awards. And we thought, “Hey, we have a bubble of stylists that are together again, and it’s going to be Black History Month. Let’s shoot.” COVID keeps going and we’re constantly coming up with new and creative ways to make lemonade out of this time that we live in. And the advantage is that we can. We can lift up other artists. We can still support and enjoy and promote fashion.
UKIOMOGBE: How did you decide which designers to feature? What was the curation process like?
GOLDSBERRY: We just have favorites. So we just asked them to send over some strong things that they thought would work for us. Pyer Moss is a huge favorite of mine, Tori Soudan, Aliétte.
UKIOMOGBE: Do you have any other Black designers that you wanted to feature, but perhaps didn’t get to?
GOLDSBERRY: Yeah, Tiannia Barnes. I’m just going to keep shooting and keep pitching. I’m excited about supporting them. But another thing that really is exciting to me is discovering new designers. I think that’s what’s really special about having a stylist whose ear is to the ground at all times and is always looking and watching. I do believe that because we’ve come through such a hard time, nothing will ever stop this industry. I really do believe that, strongly.
UKIOMOGBE: Are you locked into the whole Telfar bag craze that’s happening online?
GOLDSBERRY: Girl. I’m online every day trying to figure how to get the vaccine and a Telfar bag. You can quote that.
UKIOMOGBE: How has the pandemic changed your relationship to fashion?
GOLDSBERRY: It’s evolving. In the very beginning, I enjoyed this very natural “this is who I really am” face. I actually enjoyed the realness of that. And then I desperately missed getting dressed up. I think a lot of us have talked to a lot of friends about the fact that we realized at some point the depression was just because we missed adorning ourselves. And we had to make a choice that we didn’t have to be connected to an event, which is something that we deserve to do for ourselves. I think that’s another lesson that we’ve learned is that our love of fashion and our love of ourselves and dressing ourselves, in a way, is something that we just deserve to do. And it doesn’t have to be connected with, “I have an opportunity to leave my house and go here.” It’s just something that’s a part of who we are that we love to do. It’s a personal expression that I think is bigger than an event.
UKIOMOGBE: When did your love of clothing begin?
GOLDSBERRY: I think a love of theater really primes you for a love of fashion, because it’s an awareness of the magic and the fantasy that you can create just based on what this character chooses to wear. The setting that you can create, and the time period of how they dress and what they walked in, how it affects how you speak, how you say lines, how you relate to each other. These things are not just for the stage. People in the fashion industry walk the streets that way. And so it really set me early, since I was eight years old of loving the similarity between the runway and the stage. And it’s a really happy sisterhood.
UKIOMOGBE: Going back to theater, so much of it is about the costumes and the outfits and the grandiosity. Do you see a clear link between theater and fashion that you miss?
GOLDSBERRY: I have seen a very clear link between theater and fashion ever since the Tonys of 2016 when I discovered that Anna Wintour is such a friend of the theater. I just was so moved by the fact that she dressed every actress that was going to the Tony’s. She offered, I should say. I believe she does it all the time, but that was my only Tony year. And I just realized, “Oh, we are both synonymous with New York City and we are linked to each other for that reason, and we are better with each other.” I was just so, so grateful for the offering and it made it so fun to do. It made it even more fun to do when it was a collaboration with the great designers to show up and strut at the Tonys. It was a magic blessing on our big night. I never want to lose that connection.
UKIOMOGBE: How do you see fashion in theater evolving in the future?
GOLDSBERRY: I think we just have a greater awareness of our need for theater and fashion and our ability to create it. I mean, I think the creativity that we’ve had to draw upon to keep doing what we do is going to drastically, I think, change how fast we get back to ourselves and what we do in the future. I really believe that strongly. I believe that we are on the precipice of the greatest comeback of all time in both the theater and the fashion world. I think we have exercised muscles that we didn’t know we needed. And I believe the minute there is the slightest glimmer of light, we are going to be roaring like the ’20s. I’m really excited about it. There’s this metaphor of the tulip. That the bulb that you plant in the deep winter is going to bloom in the spring. I believe that very strongly about both the theater industry and the fashion industry. I believe we have done our job. We are planting bulbs and it’s going to be a beautiful, beautiful field of tulips.
UKIOMOGBE: I would say you’re definitely aiding in that because I think these photos will introduce lots of people to Black designers that they might not know of prior to this. I think you’re kind of leading that charge, in a way, with these photos.
GOLDSBERRY: Thank you. I think another wonderful thing that happened in 2020, which is a year we all think we want to forget. But really, a lot of wonderful things happened in the midst of so much challenge. And one of them is that we learned that Black lives are worthy of celebration outside of the month of February. And Black businesses and Black artists and all of these things are really bigger than the shortest month of the year. We have to continue to do this. I think we learned that lesson this summer, and I think we’ve all done a really good job and are aware of how much better we need to do. And that’s not just for people that are not Black, that’s for people that are Black as well. We have a responsibility to support and promote each other and when we do that, we’re all better.
UKIOMOGBE: How would you describe your personal style?
GOLDSBERRY: My personal style is very eclectic. I feel no pressure to not dress up and I also feel no pressure to dress up. As I get older, I feel even stronger about this. I’m really most in tune with what I want to feel like on that day. I’m getting stronger about being less concerned with what everyone else is going to be wearing when I show up, and more focused on how I want to feel. It’s very tactile also. I like to know how something’s going to feel on me and how it’s going to feel when my hand brushes my arm. These are things that I’m really focused on and they give me a lot of joy. And so it frees me up to be very eclectic in terms of what I wear. I don’t like to limit myself to the idea that I am one thing.
UKIOMOGBE: Are there any fashion trends that you want to see make a comeback?
GOLDSBERRY: Hm, so funny. I just finished shooting the first season of a television show called Girls5Eva. It’s on NBC Universal Peacock. It’s produced by Tina Fey and Meredith Scardino. This show is about a group of women that were a one-hit-wonder pop group in the ’90s. It’s a second chance story where we come back together many years later and we believe that we can make a big, huge pop comeback as a girl group at this age. It’s really wonderful.
The styling of it is probably my greatest creative experience where the styling really informed who the heck my character was. So often, that’s something that doesn’t come along ’til later and this was a time where I was like, “Oh my god, every time I put these clothes on and do this hair and makeup, I remember who she is.” But we bounced back and forth so much between the ’90s and the present-day. I realized that there were things they were saying like, “Okay, now we’re doing the retro ’90s look.” And I’m like, “Wow, I still wear that exact same lipstick.” There are a lot of things from the ’90s that I still do. I wasn’t aware that it was over. What I loved so much is, it’s back. It’s a time period that everybody, even those that were not around, is loving right now.
UKIOMOGBE: What else is next for you in this new year?
GOLDSBERRY: I will spend the rest of this winter doing an album. I’m writing and putting out an album that I will probably try to time with the release of that show. It’s a wonderful show because it’s a celebration of music and fashion. So it’s going to be really well-timed for an album. I’ve been really blessed since the moment they announced that they were releasing Hamilton in the summer of 2020. I’ve been really blessed to be able to be one of the few artists that had an opportunity to work through this winter of this pandemic.
UKIOMOGBE: Speaking of Hamilton, what’s the reaction been like from new fans who are seeing it for the first time on Disney+?
GOLDSBERRY: It’s so wonderful to be able to give to the theater, the one thing it didn’t have, and that is the fact that the show can go on once the curtain comes down. That’s the one thing that you don’t get in the theater. And to be able to film a live performance in the way that they did it and put it up so that literally anybody can see it, gives access to children that weren’t even born when we did the show. That gives access to people on the other side of the globe. That gives access to people that can’t afford that ticket, people that couldn’t get into the theater. It just gives access to anybody that wants it and I think that’s the way theater should always be. Because it came out in the time of COVID and we are so truly distant from each other, I don’t even think I’ve really gauged yet how much more exposure I’ve had. I don’t know because I don’t leave my house most of the time. But I do know that I come across people on social media and I come across people’s eyes from underneath the mask who just really light up because Hamilton has been such a blessing in their life. People will send me messages that talk about their kids who are just so excited to see a Brown princess on the screen. They think because we’re on Disney, that we’re princesses. It just really chokes me up and fills my heart with so much joy that it’s there and available to anybody that wants to see.