Sorry to Bother You takes place in a world that is very much like our own — until it’s not. The problems roiling this alternative Oakland mirror the ones in many of our own cities (encroaching gentrification, rising home prices, people taking to the streets to call out injustices) filtered through director Boots Riley’s surreal vision. To tell a story in a world that is both fantastical and exceedingly familiar requires a keen attention to detail and a deep understanding of the source material. Below, costume designer Deirdra Govan talked to the Cut about how she dressed characters ranging from Tessa Thompson’s radical artist to Armie Hammer’s sinister, sarong-wearing CEO to Lakeith Stanfield, who plays a guy just trying to make things work without being crushed by late-stage capitalism.
How did you get involved in the project?
I had worked with one of the producers, Nina Yang Bongiovi, on another film. She sent me the script with one sentence attached, “Kill it.” When I read the script, I could not contain myself. Not often [do] you have the chance to articulate a vision this unique, this risky, with a multicultural, diverse cast. And being that it was sci-fi, alternative universe kind of fodder, I was immediately like, “Sign me up.” The deal was further sealed when Boots [Riley] and I met. We had such a great creative synchronicity. He immediately trusted me and let me fly with a lot of ideas articulating these characters and their signature hallmarks that they would have throughout the film. That was really exciting because I was able to take some real creative risks and do things that may not have been seen before.
For me, Detroit’s costumes really stood out. She’s an artist who wears earrings that make increasingly dramatic statements (like “MURDER MURDER MURDER”) as the movie goes on. What were your inspirations when creating her look?
I went to art and design school here in New York. I’m a graduate of Pratt and Parsons from the ’80s and ’90s so I knew this girl — she existed within me and she was also one of my classmates. When you’re in the fashion design program at Parsons, you’re experimenting with fabrics, with details. You’re painting your clothes. You are your own design. What I loved about the way [Riley] wrote Detroit is that she’s so clear about who she was and what she was doing. I definitely am a product of being here in Brooklyn and part of the afro-chic, Afropunk movement. I wanted to bring a little of that punk funk to Detroit and also let her be experimental, let her paintings speak not only on the walls or in her performance art but also in her clothing.
Where did you find the pieces that you put her in?
Oakland has a lot of great vintage markets and that’s where pretty much all of these characters came from. A lot of the pieces that I found I would rework. I would cut them apart or I would apply new techniques or fabrics and details to them to really have them speak to the character. The great thing about it is that there were no rules but there were rules. It needed to make sense. It couldn’t be overdone. I needed to exercise a sense of balance with every character’s look.
Detroit’s message tees are a highlight, and I think people have been talking about them a lot since the first trailer premiered, but personally I found myself most obsessed with her statement earrings. Can you tell us a little bit about them?
The statement earrings were in Boots’s script. My job as the designer was how to make them come to life. We had a graphic designer, a friend of [Riley], who was experimenting with some typography for the film. So I went to his studio, and we sat down with our production designer, myself, and [Riley] and looked at some typefaces. We made some selections. Then I went about my job to figure out how to fabricate them and hired a local laser cut artist to cut them. We did several mock-ups because everything was about the weight and how they looked. I wanted to make sure that they were clear on camera. And that’s how the earrings were born, but they were a device. What I want to make clear is that it was written within the script that these different earrings existed. I just had to understand how to create them.
Most of the characters in this movie live primarily in one of two worlds. Either they’re drones who spend their days selling encyclopedias, or lofty power callers who are trying to sell something altogether different. But Lakeith Stanfield, as Cassius, goes from one world to the other. How did you use his clothes to tell that story?
Oh, I’m so glad you asked that. There’s a very clear line between when he transitions from Cassius of Regal View to power caller, and that is told through the palette. Cassius’s palette exists in muted tones of beiges, browns, greens, maroons, limes, lemon sherbets. When he transitions into a power caller, it’s with the plaid green suit and a pink shirt. There’s nothing phony about Cassius, and that’s true of his look, too. He’s not contrived. His ties are something that his father might’ve worn. He’s probably wearing his dad’s shoes. His sweater vest he’s had since high school. But when he goes into power caller mode, his whole interpretation of his style changes. It’s not exactly stylish, but in his mind it’s stylish. He’s not living by anybody else’s rules. That green plaid suit is from the mid to late ’70s. And then you have the pink shirt because that’s the signifier for him of “Okay, this is style. I’m bold. I’m wearing pink. I’m the embodiment of my own masculinity.” Then when he starts to become successful, we go from a shiny gray, almost sharkskin-like suit to a purple mauve to an indigo blue wash to a red. And red is a signifier because he is a bull’s-eye.
What was your approach when it came to dressing the people around Cassius? Did all of the Regal View characters in his office neighborhood stay within the same muted tones?
Absolutely. We had to be able to have [the Regal View employees] almost recede so when you go into the world of the power caller they are completely in your face. You cannot miss someone in a pink or a yellow or a purple or an orange. Only color can tell that story.
So let’s talk about Steve Lift. He’s the CEO of a morally dubious company at the center of everything, he’s played by Armie Hammer, and he wears a sarong.
Working with Armie was a special treat because he was willing to take the risk. There were a lot of different ideas about who he wanted this guy to be. We definitely knew he was kind of on the guru side. You could think of Elon Musk. You could think of Steve Jobs. Unfortunately this is a guru, tech genius, scientist who uses his wealth and power for nefarious means. He is the ultimate embodiment of entitlement and cultural [appropriation]. And him wearing a caftan and a sarong speaks to that. It’s just so wrong, but at the same time you’re like “Yeah, but he could do that” because that’s just how brazen this character is. He’s wearing an equestrian-style jacket and he’s got a riding crop with a sarong and he has the ability to just not care.
You mentioned near the beginning the importance of telling a story about Oakland. How did that idea influence what you were doing with the costumes?
I was really excited about it because I had family members in Oakland, and Oakland was kind of always like the second home that I had never lived in. It has such a powerful history behind it, and I wanted to try and enjoy it and absorb it and understand it. A lot of the complexities of gentrification kind of spill over into the shops, especially when you’re looking for pieces of clothing. You know, some areas are all of a sudden turning into hipster havens, but you’re going to a mom and pop shop. Or there’s this place called The Free Store, which my assistant took me to, where everything is free — you just leave a donation. What I loved about Oakland is that there’s such a depth to people who are the creatives there. They’re what makes Oakland so interesting and attractive, which is both beautiful and a curse at the same time. I didn’t want these characters to exist in a lofty space of nothingness. I just wanted them to be really grounded and of the area that we were filming in. That was my goal.
This interview has been edited and condensed.