"Everything is 2.0," said "Empire" costume designer Paolo Nieddu with a smile, in a lead up to the hysterically anticipated second season of the Fox series. "It's just bigger and better and there's a lot — a lot — of fashion." After a very tight, 10-episode first run about the King Lear-level dynamics surrounding the Lyon dynasty, the sophomore season of "Empire" is nearly doubling the episodes to 18, meaning that Nieddu — who designed the costumes in the series pilot — has two times as many opportunities to work his magic. And all the designers want in, as you may have already noted after seeing the Internet-breaking trailer showing Cookie in Moschino patchwork denim while visiting Lucious in his prison-issued orange jumpsuit (which even he admits is the new black).
While costume designer Rita McGhee finished out the remaining nine episodes in season one, Nieddu returned for round two to finish what he started. (He and McGhee were both nominated for Emmys for their work on the show, although the trophy went to Marie Schley for "Transparent" on Sept. 12.) What brought him back? "Um, I was asked," he said. Nieddu felt "for the most part" that his original vision carried through to the season one finale. But now that he's in charge again, the show's style is going back to its roots. "The characters are not changing their looks completely," he said. "It's still going off of the original tone, only it's more current, more high end."
Nieddu cut his teeth working under the late stylist Annabel Tollman and the legendary Patricia Field — he was the assistant costume designer on "Sex and the City: The Movie" — so he utilized those relationships to call in samples and pieces for the show. (He also scoured Net-a-Porter, Moda Operandi and vintage stores, including Luxury Garage Sale, based in Chicago, where the show films.) Pulling from his past job experience, Nieddu approaches "Empire" costumes as a stylist working for the fictitious Lyon family. "[The Lyons] are famous. Jamal (played by Jussie Smollett) does have a stylist. He's a singer. He can't go shopping. He'll be mobbed," Nieddu explained. "Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) cannot go shopping. Like Kanye isn't going to the stores all the time. They can't. They don't have time."
Taraji P. Henson as Cookie enjoys the bulk of the designer goods with head-to-toe looks strategically coordinated with hair and makeup for each episode."It's like Barbie," Nieddu said. "Today this look is Executive Cookie and this is Party Cookie." The Lyon family matriarch's wardrobe includes the aforementioned Moschino — Jeremy Scott is a fan — Gucci dresses and Fendi furs. Her accessory collection is equally as stellar: CFDA darling Paul Andrew, Aquazurra, Jimmy Choo and Manolo Blahnik for shoes, plus lots of Judith Leiber bags and Kimberly McDonald and Kenneth Jay Lane jewelry. Nieddu admitted that he can't help but dress Henson as Cookie with a social media end game in mind — thinking "this is going to be the Instagram meme" or "This is the 'SNL' skit. This is the Halloween costume. I wonder how many Cookies there will be?"
On the flip side, at the start of season two, Lucious (Terrence Howard) had to swap his boardroom and Leviticus suits for a prison jumpsuit. But, "Terrence wore [the jumpsuit] his own way," Nieddu said. "He unbuttoned it, rolled it and wrapped his tank top." Knowing Lucious, he'll be back into his neckwear flourishes soon enough.
Back on the outside, new Empire Entertainment CEO Jamal will enjoy some wardrobe tweaks along with his new status. "We're changing him and added more sex appeal to his clothes," Nieddu said. "Don’t expect suits in the board room." In contrast, we'll be seeing more of conservative Wharton grad Andre (Trai Byers) outside of the boardroom. "We're starting to peel the layers off of him and we see him in a different wardrobe, but we are still keeping who he is," Nieddu hinted. "What does a man like Andre wear on a Saturday?"
As for Hakeem, well, "he’s Cookie's son," Nieddu said. "He's fashion-y. He is the reckless bad boy — drinking and partying. He's living it up in the Lyon family." So, clearly the flashy baby of the Lyon family gets to wear off-the-runway Moschino sample pants in the first episode. But, "he needs to be more responsible," Nieddu added, since it does take a certain level of maturity to pull off a hostile takeover of your father's company alongside his ex-fiancée. "That will show through in his clothing. I want to give him a little bit of tailored pieces." Plus, "we stripped away the chain this season," Nieddu said, which also means downsized diamond studs. "I think they were too big on his earlobes."
As for the supporting ladies of "Empire," the polarizing Rhonda (Kaitlin Doubleday) is getting a wardrobe makeover, too. "Her look during season one was undefined to me. It was all over the place," he said, regarding her refined pencil skirt in one scene and a crop top/body-con outfit in another. "[Doubleday] has this Sharon Tate 'Valley of the Dolls' look and [Rhonda] and Andre have this kinky sex life, so there's this sexiness to her," he said. "It was about making her like Stepford-meets-Mia-Farrow-meets-'Valley of the Dolls.'" No word on whether a bib fits into Rhonda's new look.
In real life, Gabourey Sidibe has been promoted to series regular while her on-screen character Becky climbed the corporate ladder to the A&R department. "She's making more money, so she's going to look more in charge," Nieddu said. Counting Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey as inspirations, he looked to Eloquii, Jibri and custom pieces by Chicago designer Michelle Tan for Becky's grown-up, tailored outfits. Taylor Swift's #squad member Serayah (aka Tiana) is back, too. "She's gonna be more New York," Nieddu hinted. "Tiana needs some edge and so we're gonna give her that." As for Serayah's real-life pal breaking the fourth wall and visiting the Empire Entertainment offices? "I would love that," Nieddu said. "Taylor needs to come to Empire."
Much like how junior staffers at record labels and the like tend to scavenge gift bag cast-offs for items that they otherwise couldn't afford, Cookie's long-suffering, cell phone-addicted assistant Porsha (Ta'Rhonda Jones) will be on the receiving end of some swaggy scraps, too. "I feel like Cookie would toss [Porsha] some free designer sunglasses or gift bags, so that's a little thing I'm creating for her," he said. Although, the Moschino teddy bear cell phone case that Porsha carries this season didn't come from a discarded gift bag or the props department. The cuddly tech accessory was actually pilfered from Oscar-winning writer/creator/director Lee Daniels.
Like season one, the sophomore "Empire" outing will feature cameo appearances from major guest stars like Lenny Kravitz (hopefully in reinforced pants), Chris Rock and Oscar-winning actress and fashion campaign star Marisa Tomei as Mimi Whitman, a billionaire venture capitalist sure to cause some drama among the Lyon family. "She's more avant-garde and takes the road less traveled when she makes her fashion choices," said Nieddu, who is also itching to design his own collaboration in the future with the help of Matchbook Company. In the meantime, the costume designer has a laundry list of fashion-forward guest stars he'd like to work with. "I would love Rihanna and Nicole Kidman," he said. "I would love Cher. Cher. That's the one. Erase the others. Cher needs to come on 'Empire.'"