According to Elizabeth Birkett, better known as Beth Gibbs, stylist and creative director of LA streetwear mecca Union, Native Son protagonist Bigger Thomas is a different kind of cat — the kind of cat who plays with and breaks open the stereotypes of what it means to be a young black man in the US. He’s the kind of cat who, as far as Gibbs is concerned, captures a different kind of style.
Ever since Richard Wright’s novel was published in 1940, Bigger Thomas has been a controversial symbol of racial oppression, one Gibbs says she was excited to bring to life while working as Costume Designer on Rashid Johnson’s film adaptation, which lands on HBO tomorrow night.
The plot follows Bigger, played by Moonlight‘s Ashton Sanders, a poor, 20-year-old black man from Chicago who enters a new world of money and power after being hired as a chauffeur for an affluent white businessman. Watch the trailer below.
Ahead of Native Son hitting screens, Highsnobiety linked up with Gibbs to discuss her work on the project, from how people of color are portrayed visually in cinema to what inspired the looks she created for the movie and where she found that awesome military jacket Bigger wears toward the end of the trailer.
“I was really excited to make all the characters stand out,” Gibbs explains. “Especially the African American characters that you traditionally see represented in a very general way, very generic. Like, ‘Oh, we’re going to put a hoodie on and really dark clothing,’ and there aren’t really any characters behind it. Everybody kind of looks the same.”
This wasn’t going to be the case with Bigger, whom director Johnson had decided would sport bright green hair. If the character were someone who rebelled against stereotypes, he needed a look that reflected as much.
“He was into punk, he was into books, he was into reading,” says Gibbs of how Bigger was envisaged, with his style following suit: a punk aesthetic sprinkled with references to cultural icons like pioneering ’70s Detroit rockers Death (not to be confused with the Floridian death metal band of the same name) and NYC artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.
“I wanted [Bigger’s leather jacket] to look like he had drawn on it, very DIY, right?” says Gibbs. “He’s an artist. This is his way of expressing himself. There’s writing on his jacket, there’s writing on his shoes, there’s writing on a lot of T-shirts and clothing.” A lot of that was the work of artist James Concannon, whose anarchic style gave Bigger’s clothes the desired effect. “I wanted Bigger Thomas to resemble a punk, but also Basquiat, who used to paint and draw on his clothes,” Gibbs adds. “I wanted Bigger Thomas to have that same vibe.”
As well as black punks and those “who were outside the box,” Gibbs looked to Robert De Niro’s portrayal of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver for when Bigger’s narrative takes a darker turn.
“A lot of [Bickle’s] stylization felt very authentic to who he was,” Gibbs explains, referencing that indelible image of the character’s mohawk and military jacket combo. While she wasn’t looking to replicate the Taxi Driver look specifically, Gibbs embraced the idea that a character’s wardrobe shifts along with their psyche. As she puts it, “Instead of rigging guns, Bigger is writing more on his T-shirts.”
Bigger might adopt a military jacket toward the end of the movie, but the style isn’t a Bickle homage. “It’s definitely more of a West Indian [military jacket] because I’m West Indian. I’m from Jamaica. I definitely wanted the roots of that,” Gibbs says.
For Gibbs, these homages and references to music and culture represent a black character she sees as atypical, someone “that wants to do something different, but still has the trappings of what it is to be a black man in America.”
Gibbs likens costume design to method acting, an approach she says is also employed by Kym Barrett, the wardrobe designer who worked on Jordan Peele’s Us. “When I am dressing a character, I really want to embody what that character feels like,” she explains. “I think there’s a lot of psychology behind why we choose the things we choose. The things we choose to wear are a way of expressing ourselves.”
In that vein, Gibbs says kids from the hood — “no matter what hood I go through in the world” — really nail sartorial self-expression. “They’re really trying to stand out and say something without saying anything,” she says. “I just think that’s really important and that was a huge thing for me doing Native Son.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean spending big bucks on designer garms. While brands such as Carhartt WIP and Kenzo lent pieces for the film’s production, most of the wardrobe used on Native Son was found second-hand, at Cleveland’s army-navy surplus stores which she says are stacked with the best ’90s-style military gear. The items were then customized by Concannon or Ariel Roman, a graphic designer who has worked with Noon Goons and Gibbs’ standalone label Bephie.
Much of Gibbs’ work at Bephie and Union, which she runs and co-owns with husband Chris, involves discovering and elevating emerging creatives. “We’ve always done that at Union,” she says. “We’ve always incorporated smaller streetwear brands with higher-end fashion brands. That’s something that I really believe in.”
Unfortunately, she says, the sharing-is-caring attitude isn’t universal. “I’m sure a lot of the reasons why fashion is so stagnant right now is because the powers that be don’t want to move, and they just keep on taking and taking and not organically passing it on. To me, [that] should be the natural progression of art, fashion, and anything along those lines.”
Talent making room for new talent is how Gibbs got her start, after all. After interning at New York hip-hop radio station WQHT, aka HOT 97, in the late ’90s, Gibbs worked with Def Jam’s Russell Simmons, Stüssy, and Supreme. She says Supreme’s James Jebbia was always on hand with an offer of work when she needed it and acknowledges that being around people so “authentic to who they were” helped her find her own footing.
“It was very male-dominated [but] I wasn’t really thinking about it like that,” Gibbs says. “I felt fortunate to come up with all these really cool people. They did inspire me in their way. I was just observing them and how they did things based on their own rules. One thing I learned from all of them is that they did them.”
That thirst for authenticity is what keeps Gibbs inspired. It’s what she believes is missing from streetwear and fashion right now. It’s what she’s looking to capture in her next Bephie collection and in Native Son. And it’s the message she’d give to anyone trying to make it in the industry today. “The people that stand out are the people who are authentically who they are,” she says. “They authentically have something to say in their work.”
Native Son stars Ashton Sanders, Bill Camp, KiKi Layne, Nick Robinson, and Margaret Qualley, and premieres on HBO tomorrow, April 6 at 10 p.m. EDT.