Actress Tessa Thompson has perhaps found the best analogy for red carpet dressing since, well, ever. We’re talking mere hours after the 32-year-old Dear White People and Selma breakout star has stepped off the red carpet of the Los Angeles premiere of her recently released box-office hit, Creed. She’s wearing a sleek Valentino Fall 2015 mini for the launch and it’s hit her: “Last night started to feel like a wedding! I’d spent all the morning figuring out the seat arrangements, people were driving down, the premiere party, introducing the family to the crew and not eating. You never get to eat the cake, you have two sips of champagne, and you forgot to talk to your uncle or something!”
It’s true that for a young actress who has the industry abuzz over her considerable and impressive talent, the premiere of her history-making new film can feel like “the big day.” And, I add, there’s the similarity of the trousseau—the elaborately planned array of ensembles to mark the momentous occasion, the equivalent of which Thompson has well stocked.
A quick glance at the actress’s impressive turns on the red carpet this year, from Rodarte, Miu Miu, Altuzarra, and Emanuel Ungaro, and one will notice the standout outré decisions that have gotten Thompson noticed. “I really gravitate toward things that are elevated and heightened,” she says. “I love monochrome and clean lines, things that are elegant and simple, but I also really love things that are far-out—especially in the hands of the houses that can do it really well.” Pinpointing such style iconoclasts as Grace Jones, David Bowie, and Tilda Swinton as sources of inspiration, she adds, “I guess the idea of being ‘pretty’ and always palatable is just not that interesting to me.” Instead, like the costume and makeup used to develop her on-screen personae, the actress uses her clothing to truly transform for industry events—a practice she’s honed while working with her styling team, or “style sirs,” as she calls Wayman Bannerman and Micah McDonald.
The duo approached the actress just a year ago as she was being flung into the throes of back-to-back promotional tours for Dear White People and Selma, and imparted on her the importance of culling a dynamic red carpet presence as she made the transition to full-fledged star. “As an actor, when you look at your body of work, you’re trying to just make it dynamic and do something unexpected. If you can do the same thing in fashion, it helps people see you in another light—that you’re multidimensional,” she says.
Thompson’s insightful analysis belies the fun-filled fitting process the three have developed for picking her ensembles. “As Tessa likes to say, ‘We like to play,’ ” Bannerman and McDonald write to me. “Meaning, we love to call in a myriad of options ranging from opulent and elaborate to minimalistic.”
Blaring Rihanna and Beyoncé hits and teasing one another over shoe and clothing choices, their fitting is more akin to a loose hangout session among friends. This relaxed spirit is what has led the trio to some “happy accidents” along the way: the colorful printed Mary Katrantzou skirt and splashy Sophia Webster heels Thompson threw on at the last minute for a Creed promotional tour stop when an Altuzarra suit didn’t quite work, or the Emanuel Ungaro dotted frock she chose for a West Hollywood press party after another choice failed to arrive on time. “That dress got written up and ended up in a bunch of places!” Thompson says.
Enter Rodarte designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy, who designed Thompson’s breakout red carpet look at New York’s Selma premiere with a dress that was practically a work of art. Her pearl net gown was made up of blue, silver, and black sequins and Swarovski crystals that trailed the floor, giving major mermaid vibes. The boundary-pushing and daring designers count Miranda July and Kirsten Dunst as muses; after being approached by Bannerman and McDonald, they immediately took to Thompson’s own fearless approach to fashion and work, inviting her to sit front row at their Fall 2015 show. “I think we were just mutually interested and attracted to each other,” Thompson says. “Now we have a real rapport and are becoming friends. They are very down-to-earth, cool people.” It’s that sense of ease, adventure, and groundedness we look forward to seeing more of as Thompson takes on the frenzy of awards season, what with Creed already receiving Oscar buzz. “Hopefully this doesn’t sound too saccharine, but for me, it’s all about remembering that childlike place of dress-up before going out on a red carpet,” the actress says. “That, and taking a deep breath before facing the yelling!”
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