"How do I look?" asks kingpin outlaw Rufus Buck (Idris Elba), in the midst of donning what is presumably his first three-piece suit in years. His gunslinging lieutenants, true-to-her-name "Treacherous" Trudy Smith (Regina King) and rakish "Cherokee" Bill (Lakeith Stanfield), just broke Rufus out of his prison chains and stripes. As Trudy looks on, he continues to smooth his rumpled white shirt, with the top few buttons undone, into his black waistcoat and trousers. Signaling his return to power, Rufus slowly saunters out of Trudy's saloon to address the understandably apprehensive townspeople, in the final look, complete with a three-quarter length, notch-lapel velvet suit jacket in a stunning — and foreboding — crimson red.
Sure, the star-studded "The Harder They Fall" takes place in the late 1800s in America's Wild West. But the high-style Western feels very modern day, much like Rufus's jaunty bespoke suit, custom-designed by costume designer Antoinette Messam, in collaboration with Sir Ozwald Boateng (below).
Inspired by the current day-vernacular-inflected script written by first-time feature film director Jeymes Samuel (a.k.a. singer, songwriter and producer The Bullitts) and Boaz Yakin, Messam took creative license with injecting anachronistic fashion into the period costume. "These guys read like they're walking with swagger," she says.
The soundtrack — which includes "Guns Go Bang," by Jay-Z (the film's co-producer) and Kid Cudi, and Samuel's remix of Barrington Levy's 1985 reggae dancehall classic "Here I Come" — also influenced her anachronistically stylized vision. Messam, who previously designed 2018's "SuperFly," took producers Samuels and Jay-Z (billed as Sean Carter) themselves, into consideration, too: "What are their worlds when you look at them? These men are fashion aficionados. They love clothes."
Upon Rufus' triumphant return to Redwood City, an affluent Black community prospering from the textile trade, Messam imagined he would immediately head to the finest of 19th century tailors at his literal disposal. "I wanted his clothes to look like they just came off the sewing machine, like they were just tailored and made for him," she says. "They were so spanking new, they were still standing on their own."
In real life, Messam went to the most illustrious tailor in London — Boateng, who redefined Savile Row tailoring as the youngest designer to open a shop on the legendary Mayfair street. Coincidentally, in early discussions, both Messam and Samuel included the designer's 2019 collection, which celebrated the Harlem Renaissance, in their presentation decks. (Elba, styled by Cheryl Konteh, and Samuel also wore Boateng tuxedos for the rousing London Film Festival premiere of the movie.)
"Idris decided to make the character rougher, hence, the shirt, even though this beautiful piece, was more rough, which fit with the character that he portrayed in the movie," says a proud Boateng, over Zoom. (Their relationship goes way back: He designed Elba's wedding suit for his 2019 nuptials.)
Messam studied line sheets of Boateng's collections to determine which designs to "adapt" to fit the storytelling of Rufus's power grab in Redwood City. "I just revised some of the details — like the collar and the length of the jacket to make it more the shape and silhouette of a [Victorian] frock coat — but still with a very, very contemporary feel," she says.
Samuel envisioned a color-rich Western adventure, "not a dirty, dusty, dark cowboy movie." So, working closely with production designer Martin Whist, Messam focused on saturated jewel tones, especially for the Redwood City gang. Trudy, for one, makes her appearance in a regal sapphire blue redingote.
To give figurative and literal layers to Trudy's formidable character, Messam used contemporary pieces interpreting Victorian lace detailing. Leading Rufus's prison break, she wears a pristine white blouse by Ralph Lauren Collection (above), with scalloped eyelet frills peeking out from her hammered brown leather jacket and cerulean wide-leg riding trousers, both of which custom-made by Messam. "The entire blouse is just like a vintage lace tablecloth," she says. "It just really said, 'I'm strong, but I'm feminine,' which was important. I didn't want her to look like another one of the boys. She didn't need to: She's a strong woman."
Delicate lace elements — and contemporary labels — bookend Trudy's arc, with a black sheer blouse, contrasting her custom-built dark denim and leather-paneled Victorian riding coat and distressed-leather jodhpurs (below). "I wanted to still see the feminine; the soft, but darker," says Messam, who found the stretch in the Zara top conducive for the intense action required for the finale showdown. You'll also find patent Victorian-inspired lace-ups by Marc Jacobs and Golden Goose knee-high cowboy boots in Trudy's late-19th century riding (and fighting) accessories.
Messam also incorporated homages to African culture into the costumes. Trudy wears chunky gold hoop earrings by contemporary jewelry brand Fulaba, traditionally worn by the Fulani women of West Africa to signify wealth. "That made a statement," she says. "It was important that the statement be subtle, subtle African references with some of the accessories, without hitting it on the nose." Trudy's counterpart in a rival gang led by Nat Love (Jonathan Majors, "Lovecraft Country"), "Stagecoach" Mary (Zazie Beetz), cloaks herself in an African indigo blue denim wrap (two below), worn over her custom-built buttery leather duster with tails.
Messam's approach aligns with director Samuel's cinematic vision of an all-Black cast leading a Western shoot-em-up, with nominal racial commentary — which feels like a socio-political statement in itself.
"He wanted to make a classic, but also modern Western," says Boateng, who's been friends with Samuel since the director's teen years. "A whole new take on the Western with this Black cast of characters that really existed, which is an essential point of this film and it's essential viewing."
The film also reclaims Black history in the American West, which was largely erased and ignored in schoolbooks and Hollywood fare. Historians estimate that in the post-Civil War period, one in four cowboys was African American.
Speaking to decades in-between the Victorian age and modern times, "Cherokee" Bill first appears on-screen wearing a pair of striped gray trousers (above), which Messam found as part of a massive haul from Mister Freedom. "It's like a denim lover's goldmine," she says. The Los Angeles-based brand, founded by Christophe Loiron, is a favorite of costume designers and stylists for vintage-inspired pieces, often manufactured from deadstock fabrics. (Arianne Phillips discovered the James Dean-inspired black T-shirt worn by Brad Pitt's stuntman character in "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" there.) Bill's trousers, from Mister Freedom's Continental Suiting collection, are made from fabric milled in Japan in the same weave as a circa-'40s French workwear-pant.
Messam estimates that she custom-designed about "99%" of Bill's costumes to perfectly fit Stanfield, while balancing storytelling to not cross over into fashion editorial. "It was a fine line to walk, because several times it tipped over the edge into, 'Oh my god, it's so hot. But it's too hot,'" she says. "Lakeith can easily take over the frame and this is all you see."
Along with his crew, Nat Love, an outlaw with an honor code, counters Rufus's gang, both in battle and style. "This was a community of travelers from all over the world, and I wanted that to be reflected in the texture and the colors," says Messam. Sergio Leone's '60s and '70s Spaghetti Westerns also inspired Nat and co.'s "organic," weathered and neutral palette.
Messam originally considered a contemporary menswear brand to collaborate on Nat's hero leather jacket (above), but ultimately custom-made one for the "exaggerated, wider, bigger, stronger" silhouette she envisioned; she custom-dyed and aged the leather to perfect a "sandalwood" hue, with a "russet punch underneath," to reflect his renegade lifestyle.
"A young Clint Eastwood in 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly' inspired me," says Messam, referring to the poncho-wearing bounty hunter in Leone's 1966 ultra-violent classic. When Nat debuts his quick draw skills, though, he's actually wearing a contemporary Levi's denim jacket under his almost superhero-like cape.
Messam studied the history of denim in the U.S. to confirm the similarity between the mid-1800s cut, wash and grommet-accented jacket and one from current collections. "I'm not going to be slammed by the historians. I have proof that that silhouette existed," she says.
Later, Nat rides into town wrapped in a tan leather cape (below), by Balmain, which Messam and her team "aged the hell out of."
Saloon mogul Mary coordinates with Nat in her butterscotch-hued, worn-in leather riding coat with tails (top), which Messam custom-built and literally washed. "I saw the mouths drop at Western [Costume Company] when people saw me putting these leather coats in the washing machine to break them down, soften and pre-age it," she says. Messam also wove contemporary accessories into Mary's ensembles, including a pair of Isabel Marant boots to accent her introductory leg- and bloomers-baring red gown and more rugged Jeffrey Campbell ones to infiltrate Redwood City.
"The Harder They Fall" releasing on Netflix allows viewers the opportunity to rewind and rewatch the high-octane action sequences and hone in on the costume nitty-gritty: the embossed stitching on Nat's Balmain wrap, the tapestry texture on Rufus's Ozwald Boateng waistcoat and the contrast pinstriping on his finale three-piece suit, plus the exquisite brown and black houndstooth on his jacket, custom-made from a '70s-era bolt of velvet discovered in the backrooms of Western Costume Company. Still, Messam argues: "I keep telling people, 'This is a movie that everybody who can has to see it on the big screen.' That's definitely when you see the details."
'The Harder They Fall' is in select theaters now and on Netflix globally starting on Wed, Nov. 3, 2021.