Everybody was caught off guard. Upon first announcement of FX’s original show Atlanta, audiences were skeptical. Debates in ATL barber shops and hair salons centered around reckoned curiosities; exactly which aspects of the A-town would the show highlight? How would southern people be portrayed? Isn’t the show’s creator, Donald Glover, from California? But when the hit show premiered late last summer, it quickly won over the hearts of audiences nationwide and went on to become one of the best shows on television, snatching up several awards including the Golden Globe for Best Comedy Television Series.
One thing fans loved about Atlanta was the authenticity of its characters, and Costume Designer Kairo Courts had a lot to do with serving up so much of that realness. Courts designed the entire award winning first season, and recently spoke to us about her overall vision and creative process for helping to bring these beloved characters to life. “The goal of Atlanta was to tell the story of real black people in Atlanta in a very surreal way,” said Courts, “at the time, my husband drove the public MARTA bus throughout metro Atlanta, and I would ride with him to people watch.”
Hailing from Baltimore Maryland, Kairo immersed herself in the culture of real southern people, which shows through the work brilliantly. When asked how she got started in the business, she admitted that it took some grit and gratis to get started. “I fell in love with costume designing when I interned, for FREE, on an indie film in New York in 2002. A friend of mine, noticed my avant-garde taste in fashion and suggested that I get a production job in the costume department… I was smitten at first sight! I loved the idea of bringing a thought to physical fruition, creating a character that feels very real to its viewers, and using costumes as a median to do so.”
With most successful journeys, the road to your big dream is not an over night trip and is often filled with curves, bumps and detours along the way. Courts has also been a marketing assistant, visual merchandiser, body builder, and police officer but she has learned that all of her ventures embody the same principles “thinking creatively, enjoying the work, anticipating needs, knowing the craft and keeping a sense of humor while executing it all,” as her bio reflects.
The fashion lover, who jokes that she “came out the womb wearing a pair of blue suede heels and a silk embroidered petticoat”, has also served in different positions within the costumes department on films like The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, HBO’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Barbershop: The Next Cut, and Ride Along. In addition, she’s done work on TV shows like The Walking Dead, Single Ladies, and BET’s Zoe Ever After. But Courts admits that Atlanta was a production with its own unique vibe. “Atlanta is what I like to call an “artist’s show.” Which means if you have an idea, no matter how quirky or bizarre it may be, it could make its way to camera if you can convince the show runners (who are imaginative young artists as well) that your idea sells the storyline. What makes Atlanta unique is that everyone from the cast to the crew are, the “cool kids” …the strangely weird folks (in a good way) and true artists who care about what it is that they’re putting out into the world.”
And many fans would agree that the TV world was better off since the birth of this show. But lots of hard work went into producing such quality, and Kairo graciously shared a bit of her creative process with insight on how she goes about shaping the details of a character through wardrobe. “The birth of a character starts to manifest after having a conversation with the director, the writers, and the creative producers. It is my job to excavate the character from the script, wade through the director’s vision, incorporate the actor’s opinion, and manifest the person that the writers have envisioned all while using my imagination, life experiences, research, and black girl magic,” explained Courts with a smile. “A huge part of my process to create a character is music. Once the tonality of the character is set, I choose the music that speaks to the character…what would the character listen to, what is this person’s aura, what is their body language, what was their childhood like, what do they do in their leisure time…essentially what is their story? I go as far as producing a playlist to inspire my own creativity, and I also play it during fittings to get the actors into character as they try on their costumes. Music has a magical way of guiding you to the sweet spot of artistry.”
It’s safe to say that Kairo Courts has found her sweet spot. When asked what advice she would give to aspiring creative and costume designers she said, “don’t be afraid to work for knowledge. Not all opportunities are presented with a fat pay check and an impressive title, but every opportunity presents a stage for you to showcase your greatness. And you should exude that greatness in the smallest to the grandest of tasks. At best you’ll acquire a networking circle that knows your work ethic and will push you towards your goal.”
Courts just designed an original Netflix movie called Candy Jar and is making great strides in the film and television industry. Keep up with her on social media @kairostyles (Instagram) and via her website www.kairocourts.com