“’70s robot porn stars.” That phrase isn’t something normally used to describe musical inspirations, but for Twenty88, the Billboard 200 top-fiver and R&B collaboration between songstress Jhene Aiko and rapper Big Sean, that’s the exact vibe both styling teams were going for.
While their single artwork — Aiko donning an orange wig with a molded gold-wire nosepiece and Sean staring mysteriously off into the distance — became somewhat of an Internet sensation, fans didn’t have a clue what the actual project would look like, until the Tidal-exclusive 15-minute short film dropped April 8. Billboard spoke to Aiko’s style team, Noelle Smith and Rebecca Jefferson, and Ade Samuel, Sean’s stylist, about the video’s robot-slash-porno inspiration and the challenges around dressing the two in a modern Johnny Carson (circa 1970s) look.
Talk me through the styling inspiration behind Twenty88.
Ade Samuel: The inspiration we were given [from Director Lawrence Lamont and Creative Director, Mike Carson] was that Jhene and Sean’s characters were the world’s most famous porn stars who are from the 1970s and are also controlled by robots. So the clothing vibe was 1970s but with a futuristic feeling.
Rebecca Jefferson: It was a little intimidating when they first told us. How do you evoke that futuristic, ‘70s porn star vibe without being too literal, too cheesy and without literally looking like a robot? It was important to us to elude to the ’70s vibe while also making people think…wait is she (Jhene) human or is she not?
Noelle Smith: Yeah, when we were reading through the treatment, we all decided to not take it too literally and just do more fashion. And that was great because we took advantage of the fact that there’s so much 70’s inspiration happening on the runways right now.
What runway shows did you pull directly from?
AS: Because it was a futuristic take on Boogie Nights meets Scarface meets Johnny Carson, I had to give Sean big collars because they’re rich. In the first scene he’s wearing a Helen Yarmak coat with a big fur collar.
But what really inspired me was Gucci’s Fall and Spring 2016 shows, for both men and women.
RJ: For Jhene, we pulled from a ton of designers. Mara Hoffman, Barbara Bui, Kurt Geiger, Giuseppe Zanotti. Lots of wide leg, textures, patterns and ’70s colorways going on there. We were really looking for pieces that complimented the look without being costume-y.
Sean’s clothes seem more flamboyant and “out there” than Jhene’s, which is usually the opposite of what we normally see.
AS: Men’s fashion can be fun too! Especially right now with all of the amazing runway options we have. So many colors. In the Johnny Carson talk show scene, Sean was wearing this amazing orange Katie Ermillo velvet button down with leather suede patches on it, and under that he was wearing a wild button down Bottega Veneta sweater-vest with a nude Gucci turtleneck. So ’70s and fun. But to modernize it, I paired that with a pair of light washed Edwin jeans.
In the Black Panther scene, his look was all vintage, but to make it a little more fashion forward, I pulled inspiration from a few things: Wesley Snipes films, New Jack City, which was a really big movie in the 90s, and Beyonce’s “Formation” SuperBowl performance.
What was your favorite outfit for Jhene’s character?
RJ: There’s one scene at the end where she’s in the car and then on the ground before the robot turns her off, and she’s wearing this really cool, almost velour mint jacket. And that was worn on top of her outfit from the talk show scene where she was wearing a pair of Badgley Mischka sparkly high-waisted pants, which I had been obsessed with ever since I saw them on the runway.
NS: I loved that we could put Jhene in that outfit because it’s something she wouldn’t normally wear. And she loved playing a character who would wear that outfit and embraced being out of her comfort zone.
RJ: It was like dressing an alter-ego, which was the point. The colors of that scene paired with the pants, plunging Mara Hoffman blouse and Charlotte Olympia platforms; you almost felt like you were watching an episode of The Sonny and Cher Show back in the day.
And her accessories — tell me about that gold bar down her nose.
RJ: Literally, we were brainstorming looking on Pinterest at pictures of robots. We knew we wanted to incorporate metal in some way, but we just didn’t quite know how. Maybe makeup? Jewelry? We wanted to keep everything minimal but obvious. Initially we made a thin wire piece for Sean and that didn’t work out, which was good because then it was unique to Jhene’s face.
NS: And we wanted something different because individuality is something she emphasizes in her everyday look and music. So we were thinking of what else can we do and were discussing a gold metallic line down her face. But we wanted something more three-dimensional.
RJ: So we went to Michaels and bought cheap, gold wire and tried it. None of us had ever molded wire before, which was stressful. But when we molded it to Jhene’s face, she was instantly obsessed with the piece. She would wear it home, and if she didn’t have it she’d ask where her wire was. It became a part of her face.
NS: It became a part of her life.
How was what Big Sean and Jhene’s alter egos dressed in different from the real Big Sean and Jhene?
AS: Well Twenty88’s style is more modernized ’70s cool, whereas Big Sean is a bit more clean, street-wear inspired. Definitely two different people. When we’re doing Twenty88 stuff, it’s Etro, Sandro; it’s Levis boot cut. Big Sean’s style is Yeezy, it’s more Stoussy and Supreme.
But I think with the season shows being so focused driven on this ’70s trend, it’s only natural for us to transition and continue styling with retro touches. Sean has innate natural style and it’s fun to work with him because we have a shared vision.
NS: Jhene’s real style is comfortable and flowy. Always something she can move and perform in. Very much a festival vibe, she loves to show skin, and so we use a lot of contemporary designers. Whereas Twenty88 had a definite look, which was fun and different.
RJ: Right. When we dress Jhene, it’s not necessarily that we’re looking for designers, but we’re looking for different pieces within a designer’s runway look. We could look at a 20 piece show and a certain crop top with great detailing will catch our eye because she’d normally gravitate towards that. Where for this project we went for amazing textures, funky crazy patterns, jumpsuit or wide leg pants, or even something more covered up that just screams ‘70s. But I would not be surprised if she randomly threw us wire and asked for a molded piece. We will always be scared.