Beyoncé’s Longtime Stylist Talks ‘Formation,’ Finding Inspiration And More

The glitz and glamour of entertainment is nothing without the people who dress today’s biggest stars. For “Who’s Behind the Clothes,” HuffPost spotlights stylists and costume designers who have delivered some of our favorite celebrities’ or characters’ most memorable looks.

One could credit how Emmy winner Zerina Akers became Beyoncé’s longtime stylist to serendipity. In reality, it’s a testament to what happens when divine timing, preparedness and more than a decade of hard work coalesce.

In 2013, after interning at W Magazine and working under industry trailblazers such as Camilla Nickerson and Lori Goldstein, Akers was ready to spread her wings. Beyoncé had just released her self-titled album — and she was looking for an addition to her team.

“How I actually landed the position was meeting Kwasi Fordjour over dinner, and I’m just telling him, ‘I want to go on my own soon,’ and put myself out there as a lead stylist,” said Akers, recalling her conversation with the “Black Is King” co-director. “That turned into him being like, ‘OK, well, Beyoncé’s looking for someone.’ At that point, you’re just like, ‘Oh, yeah, just get me a meeting.’”

Akers, who hails from Prince George’s County, Maryland, was Beyoncé’s personal stylist and wardrobe curator for eight years, from 2014 to 2022. A 14-year industry veteran, she has expanded her roster and dressed celebrities such as Megan Thee Stallion, Latto, Chloe x Halle and Ava DuVernay.

Akers has landed spreads in Vogue, earned a spot on The Hollywood Reporter’s Most Powerful Stylists of 2021 list and won Stylist of the Year at Essence’s Best of Black Fashion Awards. Before she clinched an Emmy Award in 2021 for her costuming on “Black Is King,” Akers was a student of the game and had been a fan of Beyoncé since the singer’s Destiny’s Child days.

“It really was a full-circle moment working with her,” Akers said. “I have watched everything that she did, so it came easy to me, knowing what you know, what she’s done before, what silhouettes suited her in the past, though she’s a very different woman. There are so many different versions of her, but how can I, as a stylist, find that new version?”

In this installment of “Who’s Behind the Clothes,” Akers talked to HuffPost about her extensive career, navigating visibility while styling Beyoncé and spotlighting Black creativity through her platform Black Owned Everything.

“I recognized the power that good fashion yields you, being the best dressed in school, wearing whatever was in at the moment, and I started to utilize it where I could,” said Zerina Akers.

From Beyoncé to Megan Thee Stallion, Chloe x Halle, Latto and more, you’ve styled so many powerful Black women. What is the throughline with your work, and what are the types of clients that excite you?

It’s being able to work with women who are just really queens in their own right, in the way that they pursue their own art. So Michaela Coel and Jazmine Sullivan, for example. But, more importantly, in these very high moments: Jazmine winning her first Grammy, Michaela winning her first Emmy, Latto winning her first award, period, at the BET Awards. Just helping them feel confident.

That throughline for me is a) confidence and b) for it to feel natural. I like for their style to not look like someone dressed them — though it ends up looking like, “Oh, Zerina did this,” but it still feels very natural to who they are as women. It gels with their essence versus feeling like they put on a look. I’d also say the exploration of color, prints and texture in looks, from Michaela Coel’s neon dress to Jazmine’s printed Christian Siriano suit, that felt iconic and timeless. I think 20 years from now we can still look at that moment and that will still be a very strong moment. It’ll still age really well, you know?

Tell me a little bit about your journey into styling.

I was always that young girl that was into looking cute, if that makes any sense. I had my little sister. She was always a tomboy, then I was always the very girlie one, posing for pictures and things like that. A lot of it was just watching my aunties. I was raised by my aunt and my grandma, but my younger aunties were so fly; I would wear all of their hand-me-downs. I recognized the power that good fashion yields you ― being the best dressed in school, wearing whatever was in at the moment ― and I started to utilize it where I could. If I couldn’t afford real designer things, I eventually, in high school, started to make my own clothes. I tricked myself into thinking I wanted to be a designer, went on to study fashion design for a short period and then switched over to marketing after that.

Zerina Akers attends "The Crown We Never Take Off" Art Basel Exhibit on Dec. 1 at Soho Studios in Miami.
Zerina Akers attends “The Crown We Never Take Off” Art Basel Exhibit on Dec. 1 at Soho Studios in Miami.

Udo Salters Photography via Getty Images

How would you characterize or describe your personal sense of style?

Today I would describe my style as somewhat experimental, probably first and foremost androgynous. When I say experimental, I really like twisted basics. I like classic items that will live long, but they just have a nice twist on them. I have this cool, white button-down shirt that just has burn marks on it. It’s these pieces that I feel like I could have for 10 to 20 years, and every time I wear them, people would be like, “Where’d you get that?” They’re very classic, very basic things, but it just has this very modern edge to it. I’m kind of a tomboy at heart. When I go home, when I’m with my family, me and my cousins are all still playing in the moon bounce and stuff like that. We’re kids! We take the kids to Chuck E. Cheese, we have game nights around Thanksgiving, and we’re still very youthful and playful. That’s how we connect and love each other.

My little sister has an insane sneaker collection, and now that she owns all the shoes that she’s wanted, she customizes her own. Through growing up with her, I have a bit of a tomboy side. At the end of the day, I think all of us women just want to be comfortable, so that’s really contributed to how I see myself and how I dress myself. I’ve been leaning much more into being sexy, but overall I am a pants girl. I feel good in a nice suit or a nice pant. I’m not really the short skirt girl, but I’m all of those women at the same time. I’ve been leaning into celebrating my body, not taking myself too seriously, and continuing to experiment as style evolves and this Gen Z past-future movement moves through the industry. I’m just embracing it and trying new things.

Which brands and labels do you tend to gravitate toward, and why?

I like different brands for different reasons. I really love Fe Noel for vacation vibes and ease and femininity. Glenn Martens, I think, would probably be my favorite designer at the moment. I love what he’s doing with Diesel, but everything I own… I’ve been collecting Y Project and buying Y Project for years. Every single time I wear it, people just fall over. It’s right there, but no one’s paying attention to it. It’s just these very unique pieces that you’ll just never find again.

I love Sarah Diouf’s Tongoro. I mean, when you wear any of her pieces, it’s a showstopper. My friend Jessica almost strictly wears her clothes. Every time this girl walks in the room, and I own some pieces as well, she shuts it down. Every head is turned, and it just really takes up space. I just love her for that, and I feel like every woman should have that experience.

Zerina Akers, the recipient of the 2021 Culture Creators Fashion award, speaks during the Culture Creators Innovators & Leaders Awards.
Zerina Akers, the recipient of the 2021 Culture Creators Fashion award, speaks during the Culture Creators Innovators & Leaders Awards.

Jerritt Clark via Getty Images

Who was the first client you styled, and what was it like when you landed Beyoncé?

Oddly, Beyoncé was my first styling client on my own. I had actually worked as an assistant for a long time. I worked [as I was] moving through the industry, from Camilla Nickerson, Lori Goldstein to Derek Roche, [who is] Diddy’s stylist, to Robért Behar, Janet Jackson’s stylist. Once I kind of landed with a stylist that worked more so in commercial projects — which would be TJ Maxx commercials, Avon ads and things like that — that’s where I was really able to learn the business. On off-days, in between campaign shoots, we would do e-comm at Saks, and I would assist there. W would do Macy’s catalogs and things like that. Then, eventually, working at Brooks Brothers, learning more men[swear], traveling around the U.S., and all of these fantastic places. Eventually, the opportunity came up for me to interview for this position, to be Beyoncé’s personal stylist and maintain her personal wardrobe. I started in 2014, so the process probably really started in 2013.

2013 was [her] self-titled [album]. I had actually assisted as a second assistant, with some of the project for a day or two with B. Akerlund. I had a friend, Kareem James, come in and just assist them, but that was sort of separate. How I actually landed the position was meeting Kwasi Fordjour over dinner and I’m just telling him, “I want to go on my own soon and put myself out there as the lead stylist.” He was an assistant creative director at the time who then went on to co-direct “Black Is King.” That turned into him being like, “OK, well, Beyoncé’s looking for someone.” At that point, you’re just like, “Oh, yeah, just get me a meeting.”

Beyoncé arrives for the Premiere of Disney's "The Lion King" on July 9, 2019, in Hollywood.
Beyoncé arrives for the Premiere of Disney’s “The Lion King” on July 9, 2019, in Hollywood.

Albert L. Ortega via Getty Images

How long did you work with Beyoncé, and what was the essence that you tried to encapsulate when styling her? How would you describe her style evolution over the years?

With Bey, I was with her from 2014 up until last summer, last year. Almost 10 years, like eight years or so. I can speak to her style up until then, but now not so much. Generally, for me, working with her, I’m a fan of Beyoncé. That’s a known fact; I’ve always been. I was a childhood Destiny’s Child fan. It really was a full-circle moment working with her. I have watched everything that she did, so it came easy to me, knowing what you know, what she’s done before and what silhouettes suited her in the past, though she’s a very different woman. She became so many different women as we’ve watched her since being in the group, going independent and becoming a mother. There’s so many different versions of her, but how can I, as a stylist, find that new version? Find that new woman? What silhouettes can we explore that she hasn’t before? Because it’s easy to get stuck in like, “OK, well, this works for her, so we’re going to do this.” Or, “She’s a bodysuit girl, so where the body suits at?” It’s like, how can we still stay true to the powerhouse that she is but still try something new to mark these times and where she is at the moment?

That was always my goal because it first started in personal wardrobe, where she was popping out in the streets of New York a lot. A lot of people don’t really know, but that was a lot of me as well, all those [images of] her going into the office. Color-blocking and all those sorts of things were almost like us getting to know each other. Then I was able to move onto doing more video projects and things like that. The first noticeable one was the “Formation” hat look, but just that one look in that video. I didn’t do the whole video; then, I probably did most of “Apeshit,” with the exception of one look, then “Black Is King.”

When you say the “‘Formation’ hat look,” you mean the iconic still photo where she had her middle fingers up?

Exactly, which is crazy because that look really showed me that… or, rather, reassured me. That was a really pivotal moment in my career because that’s when I really saw that I’m now contributing to things that will outlive me. That image became like a symbol for a movement, a symbol of an era. In Pictionary, you could draw five lines and you could guess it. It really became a symbol of that time and that album. That helped me gain more confidence in my voice as a stylist.

Beyoncé on stage during The Formation World Tour on May 27, 2016, in Chicago.
Beyoncé on stage during The Formation World Tour on May 27, 2016, in Chicago.

Larry Busacca/PW via Getty Images

You work with such strong personalities and figures. How do you, as a stylist, manage all of these different tastes? How do you make sure that you’re hitting the mark with each of them without doing something that’s old or antiquated but doing something that makes them feel comfortable and gets the desired result?

The interesting part is that they’re all pretty much the same size, give or take height a little bit here and there, but they’re all very similar in size. That’s also interesting because a lot of the women I have styled are curvy. With someone like Beyoncé, it’s such a touch-and-go because every designer will fall at your feet. Because of her very sort of iconic figure, you have to be very careful with her silhouettes. We’re approaching those new silhouettes in a way that still feels fresh, approaching color and texture with her in a way that feels fresh. Because seeing Beyoncé in hot pink excites you, seeing Beyoncé in gold it’s like, “OK, we get it” — but seeing her in neon green, it’s like she’s right here with us.

Working with Meg is a dream. I would say she’s one of my favorite people to work with. I’d hate to even play favorites, but Megan Thee Stallion is so confident. You can just dress her or you can put anything on her. She may not go for anything, but she is fine with every inch of her body. That is just so refreshing to work with. It’s so refreshing to dress her. I always sort of saw her as this modern-day pinup girl. She has a natural body, and I always kind of thought about her in this very kind of classic Pam Grier natural, original Black beauty. At the time, I had just sort of moved from Beyoncé to Megan; I would probably say that I kind of overexposed everybody because she has a cute belly and she just never had any problems showing skin. I would definitely take advantage of that and have fun with that.

Meg is such a visionary. She’s so creative and explorative; she’s just so much fun to work with because she wants to do all the things. She’s young, and she’s taking advantage of that youth in every way possible. Everybody kind of sees her as the big homie. She always look so, so larger than life, so serious and so tough, but she’s just like the sweetest, most playful person that really wants to have fun and love on everybody. The fun thing about Latto is she’s a new artist. She is so young; Latto’s 23, so developing that style and working with her to kind of really shape her persona is really fun. She is still a rapper, finding that toughness. All the female rappers are very sexy, but she is willing to play around with that sort of tomboy edge as well and bring out that Big Latto. I loved Latto’s Flaunt shoot. It’s very simple, but I loved Latto’s [outfit in the] “It’s Givin’” [music video.] It was a very simple Mugler blazer with a red glove.

Zerina Akers (left) and Latto (center) attend the Sergio Hudson Fall 2022 ready-to-wear runway show on Sept. 10.
Zerina Akers (left) and Latto (center) attend the Sergio Hudson Fall 2022 ready-to-wear runway show on Sept. 10.

Lexie Moreland via Getty Images

Speaking of Latto, you’ve dressed her in Fe Noel, Sergio Hudson and more. Why is it important to you to platform Black designers and, in the case of “Black Is King,” Black African designers specifically?

I would say it really came from the need to source and secure clothes and looks for Beyoncé, specifically, that had a longer shelf life. She couldn’t really wear all the major designer things that everyone else was wearing because then it would just be like, “Who wore it best?” If she’s not going out every single day or posting pictures every single day, it was just such a risk. [I was] really trying not to waste money like that and waste budget, so I thought: What if we get some things that are custom and that are from younger, smaller designers? Then we take this platform and lend a hand to them as well?

Because Gucci is always gonna be Gucci, Chanel is Chanel, and they’re all going to be in business regardless of if she wears it or not. For example, her wearing Tongoro Studio; I remember she wore it twice in one year, once on vacation and the other was just like a style post. Sarah [Diouf], who owns the brand, told me that she went from employing seven people to employing 50 people. Now she’s become the first made-in-Africa brand on Net-A-Porter. That kind of reach, you just never know how far it actually goes. I remember Sergio Hudson — and I think he’s maybe said this in an interview, which I didn’t know at the time — him sort of struggling at the beginning of his career. We would meet, he would show me his collections and I would place an order for Bey for some custom things. He told me later that those orders or me buying samples helped him fund making the new collection. Things like that helped him really continue the business. And look at him today: He’s in every major department store, and after Michelle Obama, it just blew up. Whether it’s helping them get from that one stepping stone to the next or being that launching pad, either way, it’s worth it. Either way, it helps.

What are some of the challenges of being a Black stylist that you encountered early in your career? Talking to other stylists, they’ve mentioned how sourcing was difficult as labels didn’t want to lend to Black stylists — so they’d have to go out of their way to purchase and return.

That shit is annoying. I mean, it’s still like that if it’s not a Beyoncé. Even then when I was styling Beyoncé, it still was a challenge. There were a lot of people that wouldn’t lend to Beyoncé and wouldn’t do things for Beyoncé.

Even going into stores having to shop, people would just overlook me. When they didn’t, when they were nice, I stayed with them forever, and I only shopped with them for the next eight years. You know what I mean? Those people to this day would say, “You were my biggest client.” Things like that, shopping with the right community even if it is a department store, keeping that circulation within a certain community has always been important to me.

But, yeah, that’s still a mess. It’s actually getting worse; it’s turning back the other way, as much as people are doing things for the Black community and trying to do these activations and things like that. Now, on the flip side, there are brands that now think, “I’m gonna be cool and do it the other way.” If you notice, models are getting skinnier and skinnier again. There’s like maybe one or two plus-size models on the runway, and they’re usually in a black spandex dress. Usually they’re in something very simple depending on the brand. Now it’s taken a turn. Vivienne Westwood — I can call it out. We tried to dress Latto for fashion week, and it was like, “Oh, she’s not on our approved list of clients.” It feels like they’ll pick one Black performer at a time. So if it’s not a Beyoncé or Rihanna… they’re really not giving these girls a chance.

It’s saddening and unsurprising. How does that affect dressing Black women who are curvy? Does that complicate your role or the objective?

It did. I think now clothes are getting sexy again. There was a long time, sort of post-Phoebe Philo at Celine, where everything was very frumpy and very art cool. When you went to shop, there are certain types of garments that are draped properly, that could fit a curvy woman, that could make a super skinny girl look a little bit curvier. Those items are always sold out, and especially in the larger sizes, so why aren’t stores buying more? If those sizes are always selling, why aren’t they increasing in larger numbers?

What do you hope to do next? Who would you like to add to your client roster? Are we going to see any looks of yours in the “Renaissance” visuals?

No, I didn’t work on any of this project. But I will say, for me, I sort of no longer have a wish list of people to work with. It’s a lot of pressure dressing people. In general, I hope to explore more design collaborations. I think there’s just certain products that should be in the market that aren’t necessarily. As far as the rest of the year, I’ll probably take most of the rest of the year to kind of travel a bit. But I’ve been much more intentional about connecting with people as everything is sort of really truly open again, like going to Paris Fashion Week to just actually meet people in person again. I feel like the rest of the year is going to be filled mostly with that. I’ll go to Africa in December, for a nice long trip. I’m going to Qatar at the end of this month. I’ll spend some time with family. Maybe some jobs will pop up here and there, but I think the rest of the year is really about connecting and really setting the intention for next year.

On the note of pressure, working with a client as visible as Beyoncé must come with a lot of critiques. Did you ever take the things people say online about her outfits, both good and bad, personally?

Back then, in general, I’d say, with clients, it is a lot of pressure. It is very hard when the Internet is now so used to being so mean. It could just be one photo compared to the next or maybe a bad makeup day. The outfit could be fine and maybe the hair is just not that great that day, and they just go crazy. It’s never that bad for me. Because the thing is, what people fail to kind of realize is that it’s always the celebrity that’s bearing that cross. If I just put her in some T-shirt with some weird slogan on it or something, she’s gonna have to deal with that backlash. It’s never really me, per se, but I do take it really personal, even with the platforms. I think there are a lot of these style platforms that really encourage a lot of negative chatter in their comments — and there are others that don’t.

Akers, who hails from Prince George's County, Maryland, is an Emmy-winning costume designer, celebrity stylist and wardrobe curator.
Akers, who hails from Prince George’s County, Maryland, is an Emmy-winning costume designer, celebrity stylist and wardrobe curator.

How do you stay inspired and cut out the noise?

It’s just kind of constantly looking at things. Now I’m into this more automated way of style. What’s happening overall with Gen Z, like, I think it’s hilarious that Madonna has fully tapped into Gen Z at her place in life. I’m so tickled by that. It’s just kind of constantly keeping your eyes open. That could be anywhere, whether it’s like the street market at Leimert Park [in L.A.] on the weekend or online finding that one random designer with 300 followers.

When we previously spoke in 2021, we discussed building your e-commerce platform Black Owned Everything. How has it progressed, and what do you seek to achieve with it?

It started through summer 2020. While many fashion insiders were calling out these larger houses and these larger brands, I thought that that energy could go a lot further. Even a percentage of that energy could go a lot further by shining the light on our creators. I launched the platform and I launched the Instagram [page], which then led to the marketplace. It’s been a bit of an uphill battle, sort of fighting against technology. We relaunched the site in December, and we’re kind of on a beta test for some new technology. Now I think it’s really time to level the site up with more editorial content and really give the site a voice. I still see it as a place to come in and explore Blackness, from Black writers, photographers, creators, designers, and eventually previewing short films and things like that to turn it into more of a culture hub.