Lena Waithe is constantly bringing visibility to what a 'black gay girl' looks like, whether she’s at the Met Gala in a Carolina Herrera rainbow cape or smirking on the cover of Vanity Fair. Not one to rest on any of her vast accomplishments, the Emmy Award-winning actress, screenwriter and producer is now turning her attention to upcycling, with the help of Mercedes-Benz.
At the start of Spring 2020 Men's Fashion Week — and Mercedes-Benz's Ambition2039 initiative for a more sustainable future (including a new fleet of carbon-neutral passenger cars in 20 years) — Waithe spent time with Timberland Creative Director Christopher Raeburn and Dutch designer Duran Lantink to learn a new skill.
Though, upcycling isn't new to her. In a panel with Raeburn, Lantink and influencer Aleali May, Waithe revealed she often scours vintage shops looking for Chicago Bulls memorabilia or concert tees that remind her of her youth.
"I would see Metallica, Nirvana concert T-shirts, and bands that I’m not particularly listening to, so I would talk to some of the people who owned vintage shops," she explained in Raeburn's London studio. "I'd ask if they had Luther Vandross T-shirts or an SWV T-shirt. Jodeci? Immature? They’ve been finding that for me." Waithe says she is always appreciative when someone sends her a Whitney Houston concert tee as she is building a collection.
For her, it's the memories attached to the clothing that make upcycling cool. "That legacy, which is like crazy connective tissue that we all have," she said. In fact, when she moved in with her fiancée Alana Mayo, they found another connective tissue between them: Janet Jackson. "One thing about living in a lesbian household is that she and I get to share clothes. We found two old T-shirts that were Janet Jackson Rhythm Nation T-shirts because we both went to that concert."
During Waithe's time in London, before a house party celebrating her upcycled creations, Refinery29 sat down with the producer of The Chi to chat sustainability.
What's your favourite Mercedes-Benz rap lyric or memory?
My favourite memory deals with rap. I remember seeing Jay Z in the wagon in one of his videos, maybe "Big Pimpin'". I remember being fascinated by that trunk, I guess as was everyone. It was the first time I had seen that car. I can see him in the backseat.
What attracted you to working with Mercedes-Benz?
I’ve always been a fan of the brand and when I sat down with the team it just felt like, there was a really nice synergy. So I just followed that. It really made sense also in terms of what the theme was: how to learn something new, which was a big thing for me. I feel like I’m always doing and trying to challenge myself to get out of my comfort zone so it just really made a lot of sense.
You mentioned you hadn’t touched a sewing machine since high school, what sorts of things were you making?
It was sort of like paint by numbers, they would give us [fabric] with the [pattern] and all you had to do was cut it out. So it wasn’t creative, but it still was a very cool thing. Even though your shirt looked like everyone else’s, it was still cool because you made it and you’re feeling very accomplished.
Tell me which queer designers are exciting to you right now?
I always wear a ton. When I guest-hosted Jimmy Kimmel Live! I wore a sweatshirt that read 'Coco Butter' by these lesbian designers, Stuzo. I just saw the picture of it on Instagram and soon after, I’d been asked to host and I was like oh, that would be dope if I walked out in a shirt that said coco butter. It’s really black, it’s really fly. And the fact that it was made by queer women of colour was just the icing on the cake. Whenever I’m on a big stage like that, I always try to wear a queer designer, a designer of colour.
Also DVMN PIGEON [founded by a] lesbian woman called Knoxxy, I’ve been wearing her stuff for a super long time. I wore that recently, when I taped something for Netflix. But there are a ton of designers that are making stuff and coming out with things and they always are very kind to send me stuff so I always try to rock it. I just make sure I tag them.
You've had such striking looks for each Met Gala you attended. What is your thought process when you're getting dressed for events?
Well, honestly, it really is a collaboration between me and the designers. Sometimes it's tough because I’m [someone] people know, I get a lot more credit than I deserve. But the truth is these people have a whole team. They have seamstresses. We go through multiple fittings. There are a lot of emails back and forth, so it’s definitely a collaboration. But it really starts in their brain, like the first year was Carolina Herrera and they were doing capes. There is a nice synergy there from the Emmy speech. So they had the idea of the capes and different colours and then I said, Well, what if it was a rainbow cape? and they were like Okay, cool.
This year, I was with Pyer Moss and it was a phenomenal effort. The designer Kerby Jean-Raymond, he had the sketches of us wearing the same suit, and I was like Oh, that’s amazing. It was his idea for the pinstripes to be lyrics. I pitched him and I was like what if we do messages on the back. The first thing that came to my mind was 'Black Drag Queens Invented Camp' and he was like oh, I like that. So, it was just he and I texting back and forth. What I love most about it is that collaboration, the ideas flowing, and just really creating a vibe. My style obviously is the liaison.
[The Met Gala is] always just so much fun. There is a level of competition, there is a level of camaraderie. Because you don’t know, it’s all private and secret about what people are wearing and who they are wearing, so when you get there, there is a big smorgasbord of 'oh that’s cool' or 'oh that’s amazing'. 'Where’d you get that idea, where did that come from?' I really think people went all out this year too with the camp theme.
What does it mean to be a queer person during the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising?
I was honoured to be a part of the Stonewall anniversary social media campaign, I just shared one of the videos they did. To me, Pride month is almost like Black History Month: I don’t necessarily need a month to celebrate these things that make me who I am, but I am grateful that it brings awareness to the world at large about queer people.
A big thing for me is making sure we’re embracing everyone in the queer community. I think it's easy to say lesbian, gay, trans, bi but there is also the intersex community, the asexual community, the non-binary community that I feel is often forgotten about or is gender queer as well, so to me, when people are embracing the queer community, I want them to make sure they are embracing everyone.
Disclosure: Travel and expenses for the author were provided by Mercedes-Benz for the purpose of writing this story.