How Aaliyah Transformed From Tomboy To High-End Threads
Through an insightful conversation with Aaliyah’s stylist, Derek Lee reveals how the “I Care 4 U” singer traded in her baggy jeans for designer dresses. —Richy Rosario
Right before the world got to see the visuals for Aaliyah’s stellar “One In A Million” video, fashion stylist Derek Lee had just started working with her. Their first encounter was in 1996 for a magazine photo shoot, which according to Lee, may or may not have been for Teen Vogue. Two days later, he was back in Los Angeles from New York City to work his magic for Baby Girl’s new video. He instantly understood her, and she very much so appreciated it.
Aaliyah took her time to grow into the sex symbol she became, but still, that didn’t mean she didn’t take risks or let her team do their job. It just so happens that they did it effortlessly, cautiously and effectively on her pace.
“Derek is so dope,” Aaliyah said in a 2001 episode of MTV’s Diary, a few months before she died. “He can find something that you never heard of, and it would just be the illest. He’s got a sixth sense of style. But he wants to please me and put me in what I’m comfortable in. He never pushes me to do something I don’t want to do.”
Her beauty was impossible, and her style was worn on a body filled so deep with natural swagger it made the ocean jealous of the seismic waves she caused when she appeared. The sunglasses, mysterious aura and dark black tresses made her irresistible. She made ambiguity a trend, and mystery a fashion statement. Her style was a fusion of femininity coupled with the hard looks that hail from the street. She sounded like an angel, yet looked like a villain. Who wouldn’t be attracted to the girl who looked like she could kill, but still be sweet enough to sing you a lullaby? (See: “It’s Whatever”)
Watching her transform into that was just as interesting and beautiful. The hood fly girl was introduced on Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number, then on One In A Million, that same trendsetter came with a sharper, sexier edge. On her last album, Aaliyah, she no longer was a girl. Aaliyah Dana Haughton was a woman ready to take the world by storm with lace dresses, and fiery red lipstick (See: “We Need A Resolution”).
Lee was also present on the “Rock The Boat” video set, but left a day after Aaliyah and the rest of the crew did. On the subject of her passing, Derek tells VIBE over the phone, “It’s just like when you see a flower, and you see it’s about to flourish, and somebody picks it, so it can’t grow anymore. Things had the potential to be so magnificent.”
With her death we gained an angel, but we lost the burgeoning icon who possibly would be taking over the game now. Below, the man who dressed R&B’s immortal Baby Girl shares how Aaliyah put her spin on her many fashion statements.
VIBE: Where did you draw your inspiration from when styling Aaliyah, and how did you know that she was ready for that?
Derek Lee: If you look at her, the whole thing was very street New York — she was doing the baggy stuff, but it wasn’t really the same way. I grew up in the Lower East Side, so I saw a lot of Puerto Rican girls looking like this. And it was what I liked seeing on the streets, it was what I was attracted to. I know this girl. I know how to make her hot because I see her everyday on the streets of New York.
It’s what I think is pretty about that kind of girl, she’s so beautiful and confident, that she doesn’t have to wear something tight to show her a**. More so, she’s like, ‘I know I’m hot and I got swag.’ I never pushed her to do anything specifically, although I would always bring something to push it a little bit further.
What was it like working with her? Did she have a lot of input?
When it was time to dress her it was always a collaboration. I never wanted to take what was natural for her, because she owned that persona. So I wanted it to always be natural for her and not feel forced. The only time that I’d say she needed some convincing on was in the video for “Are You That Somebody.”
That is where we did the skirt and the heels for the end of that video. I had all that stuff made, and I brought it because she was still kind of (iffy) on it, but Fatima [Robinson, choreographer] was like, ‘No, you need to do that, you got to do it.’ And she was like, ‘Okay, if you think this is the right time then let it be the right time,’ so that was the only time that she was (iffy) on something. On everything else she was more than ready to go. She was slowly morphing into that woman anyway. And I loved her, she was like my little sister. I wanted to protect her innocence as much as she did.
What was it like when you had to pull sexier clothes for her?
I knew that if she was going to wear dresses and be a little bit sexier, it was going to have to have a harder edge to it. She was very feminine and sexy, but she didn’t want that to be the only thing that was about her. When she was getting sexy, I had to pull something a little bit more masculine even if she was wearing a dress — the dress had to be so that she can flip it either way. It can be sexy, but not overtly sexy and still be hardened. Like the black dress in “We Need A Resolution” but instead of wearing it the right way we turned it backwards because it had a little bit more edge, and she rocked it that way in the way she moved. It’s all about how it made her feel.
Who were some of her favorite designers?
She loved Roberto Cavalli. I put her in a lot of Cavalli, and it was right before everybody started wearing it. And the reason why I put her in Cavalli is because more rock people were rocking Cavalli than hip-hop people at the time. She also loved Armani — she had a very good relationship with Armani, so when it came time for award shows and serious events I would get a lot of stuff from them as well.
For the video for “Try Again” that’s where we stepped away from the Cavalli and went towards Dolce & Gabbana, because that was the hardest look around. That look still looks incredible. It was everything and she was the first one to rock anything like that. As a matter of fact, she ruined it for anyone else that tried to wear it after. Then she always used to rock her Nikes or her Timbs, that’s kind of how she rolled.
In what direction do you think Aaliyah was going style-wise?
I was trying to turn her into a superhero. I know it sounds strange, but I was trying to turn her into like an anime. At that point right before she passed away I started doing a lot of research in Japanese bookstores in Little Tokyo. I was trying to take elements from that, so to me that was sexy because it was fitted but it was still hard.
It would be like fitted stuff with straps and halters — it would have been almost like a superhero character from the Marvel movies. But if she were going to an award show it would be the complete opposite. I liked the dichotomy and the contradiction of being both soft and hard, and the beauty to be able to flip it naturally.
What are some of your fondest memories of working with her?
I just remember laughing every single time that we were together cause we all enjoyed what we did. Everyone was on top of their game. And she gave us free reign to do whatever we wanted. That’s what made it amazing. I’ve never worked with anyone that’s trusted you enough to give you free reign to let you do whatever you wanted because they knew you cared about them enough. She was so loved, by myself and other people that worked with her, because she always looked out for us.
Did you have a close relationship with her family?
Yeah definitely, everyone that worked together with her had to have a close relationship with her family. It wasn’t really an option, because it was a tight knit family and your time was limited. You had to have a tight relationship.
Are you still in communication with them now?
No, I don’t talk to them. They just kind of disappeared. For years afterwards I did, but that was when I was living in New York, but then when I left New York things kind of changed. I didn’t see them or talk to them as often. But if I did or if I do, it would be exactly the same as before.
Any special memories of the “Rock The Boat” video shoot? Was there anything they didn’t show on BET when they were filming Access Granted?
They followed us around a lot so they captured a lot. I don’t recall if they captured us riding mopeds, but I remember renting them and riding around the island with nobody but us. There was no security; it was just us chilling. Just me, her, Eric and my tailor and we had a blast like we were just regular people. And that was the only time we had off, other than that we were working the entire time. That’s one special memory that I have.
How did you go about styling that video?
Well I always had this strong connection with dancehall. Dancehall is probably my first favorite type of music. And it was ghetto dancehall that I liked — stuff that when you went to Kingston you would see in the dancehall clubs. She had Jamaican in her as well, so she was down for whatever and plus being on an island you had lots of opportunities to go in with this Jamaican stuff. It’s probably where I drew my inspiration from. I went to a club in Kingston and all the girls just wore that. Stockings, shorts — they all looked homemade. I did all the ripping, cutting and bleaching of the jeans in the video. I remember cutting a Coca Cola can and putting it on the top of the brim of the hat that she is rocking because that is what you would see in Jamaica. I would make stuff all the time for her. I also made little earrings to go with it, she didn’t like the earrings, and thank God she didn’t.
Where do you think her career would be now?
She was probably going towards film and TV really hard. It was her next revolutionary step; it felt like she was willing to take it at her natural pace, not trying to force it. So I think she would have been in several movies by now. She also wanted to do a clothing line. Also, she would’ve had several different businesses. I’d see her as a multi-millionaire entrepreneur, and just a well-rounded woman.
How do you feel about the way Aaliyah has inspired this generation of up and coming singers, like Tinashe and Mila J?
It’s fantastic because it shows young women that you don’t have to put all your business out there in order to be sexy. There is an alternative to certain other styles that are out there. It’s an important image for young girls to see, because not every girl is that girl who wants to be in a dress everyday, or something of that nature. Some girls want to be comfortable, sporty, but still have their hair and nails done. That again, was a very New York thing. She was that all day, everyday. I see girls walking around like that all the time, and it makes me smile that she owns that look.
A photo posted by Derek Lee – Stylist (@dleestyle) on
Subtle Sexiness And Effortless Electricity Made Aaliyah One To Watch On The Dance Floor
VIBE caught up with Aaliyah’s long-time choreographer, Fatima Robinson, to discuss how her dancing embodied some of the key attributes a dancer should have, and why it still holds merit. —J’na Jefferson
As an entertainer, Aaliyah was able to embody so many characteristics of what people look for in a good performer. Although I was a late bloomer when it came to starting my dancing career, I can see where some of the styles of the choreographers I’ve grown up loving have a similar flair to the late musician.
A lot of times in dance, especially when it comes to the hip-hop style, choreographers looking to hire dancers usually look for those who can balance both sharpness and fluidity, while still being able to showcase their effortless musicality. Looking back on her videos like “Try Again” and “Are You That Somebody,” Aaliyah’s talent in all of those techniques of dancing are apparent, as she’s able to hit every syncopated word and beat with ease as if she’s moving on air. She also had an effortless swagger in her dancing, which I believe is something that you can’t learn in a dance class; it’s something that’s innate.
Her longtime choreographer and friend Fatima Robinson, who has also worked with The Black Eyed Peas and Mary J. Blige, remembers Aaliyah as someone who could be perceived as shy, but came alive on the dance floor when the beat kicked in.
“Like all great artists, as soon as you put on the music she came alive because that’s what she was happiest doing,” she wrote via email. “Her musicality was great. Her instincts were right on when it came to how she interpreted the movement with her lyrics and she picked up choreography super fast.”
Another positive attribute to Aaliyah’s dancing skills, Robinson explained, was that she was able to showcase the many sides of her personality. Not only could she perform choreography in a feminine and sexy way, but she could still break it down with the boys and be smooth and cool. Her choreography mirrored the groove of the music she was putting out.
“I don’t think we really see Aaliyah’s style of choreography today,” Robinson continued. “I think choreography has become much faster and way more intricate. Aaliyah’s choreography rode the pocket of a song because that’s what her music required.”
As for the musicians who also were given the gift of dance, I believe there are a handful who possess the qualities of what it means to be an electric performer. Aaliyah’s electricity as a performer came through her ability to catch her audience’s attention through the power of subtly.
She didn’t have to use fancy bells and whistles in her videos to get your attention or death-defying stunts and explosions to get your heart racing. All it took was epic choreography that could stand the test of time, incredible beats by Timbaland and a stunning glance from her enchanting eyes that signaled that she was about to bring you what you wanted. Today, those attributes still hold merit. Without a doubt, her skills would have resonated with music fans today because she was always on the forefront of what was “in” in music and culture.
“She was an amazing human being who had a very distinct sound and vibe to her,” remembers Robinson of her friend, whom she notes is one of the most talented artists she’s had the pleasure of working with. “She was a gentle soul and everyone will remember her angelic voice.”
The Looks That Spawned A Thousand YouTube Makeup Tutorials
From ‘Queen of the Damned’ inspired makeup to a fresh palette to showcase her natural beauty, Aaliyah’s makeup artist, Eric Ferrell, discusses how the songbird became his muse. —Richy Rosario
Aaliyah has always been a trendsetter. From her street-smart looks to her sensual lace dresses, she practically grew up in front of our eyes. Throughout the years, it was refreshing to see how much her look evolved. Makeup wise, she went from soft neutrals to hard reds and dark eye pigments. Celebrity makeup artist, Eric Ferrell, was the man responsible for her ever changing look. Since the inception of her career in 1994 with Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number, he’s been a dominant factor in her cosmetic evolution.
Ferrell remembers their initial encounter being for her first music video and photo shoot, marking the first time she got her makeup done professionally. Aaliyah wasn’t used to the professional attention that came with the territory. Hysterically dissolving into a thunderstorm of giggles on the other side of the line, Ferrell remembers the time she told him she thought he was kind of creepy for staring at her the whole duration of the shoot. When they reconnected for a magazine shoot in Los Angeles a year or so later, Ferrell remembers Aaliyah stating, “‘I’ve never had my makeup done professionally, so when you were looking at me on set I thought you were staring at me…When I went home I told my girlfriend, ‘I don’t know but the makeup guy was kind of weird, he kept staring at me.’” He replied, “I was watching the monitor to see if your makeup was okay, to see if you needed a touch up.”
“We laughed about that until the day she died,” he continued. It was that closeness and bond that they shared that Ferrell viewed Aaliyah as a source of creativity.
A photo posted by Eric Ferrell makeup and hair (@ericferrellmakeup) on
“I was so inspired by her that I would just call her my muse,” Ferrell says matter of factly. “I would have ideas and they would just pop into my head. And a lot of times I would have dreams. I got frustrated because sometimes you don’t remember your dreams, so I would wake up in the middle of the night and jot down something on a sketchpad that would help me remember.”
That innate instinct for making the late R&B superstar beautiful is what made her, in a sense, trust him with whatever he wanted to try — and then some. For every look he would present to her, she added a different twist to it. Ferrell says she was fearless and wasn’t scared to try something out of the box, no matter where it came from. “The whole look we did for the ‘We Need A Resolution’ video came from stuff that I saw on the runway from Alexander McQueen and John Galliano,” he recalls. “Every idea I brought to her, she was like, ‘Well why don’t we do this too?’”
Aaliyah’s extreme loyalty to her team often times clashed with the label. When photographers, magazine editors or video directors didn’t want to use her people, she wouldn’t oblige. It was all or nothing. Usually when pop stars start climbing the ladder, European glam squads and more elite publications start knocking on their doors. “I appreciate that because we were the ones that elevated her image to the point where those types of people started paying attention,” he says of her faithfulness to them.
But before the world started seeing Aaliyah’s style mature into the sexy young woman she was at the point of her untimely death, Ferrell notes she really took her time to turn up the heat when it came to her style choices. Instead of sporting skintight, revealing ensembles, she chose loose fitting, practical street garb. Bandanas, dark sunglasses, baggy pants and over flowing jackets concealed the beautiful, sexy young girl that lied beneath. It was like she was an enigma everyone wanted to come undone, and a mystery only those close to her could solve. Ferrell remembers she was obsessed with MAC’s Paramount lipstick, and had an affinity for dark mysterious things.
Her favorite makeup looks were the deep smoky-eye for the “Try Again” and “We Need A Resolution” videos. “I think she really liked that because it was smoldery, sexy and a little bit dark,” he says. “And a little bit dangerous. I remember she said, ‘I feel like guys are going to look at this and say I want to go towards you but then I am afraid,’” adding that, “She liked the power of a woman. She liked to be powerful.”
A photo posted by Eric Ferrell makeup and hair (@ericferrellmakeup) on
Besides being heavily involved in her work, she was a huge practical joker. He recalls a time when she and her then-boyfriend Damon Dash got into a fake heated argument in a hotel room just to scare him. While tiptoeing to the phone to call the hotel concierge for assistance, Ferrell remembers suddenly seeing “two little heads pop up laughing.” She also used to refer to her hair stylist Eric Foreman (who also died in the plane crash), as “chocolate pudding, because he had this big head with no hair on his head. And has brown skin and he looked like a bowl of pudding,” he says laughing.
Overall, they were all like family. Derek Lee (stylist), Foreman and Ferrell were all really close to her and her family. It was pivotal for anyone that was going to work with her. In a twisted turn of events, Ferrell was supposed to be on the set of “Rock The Boat” in the Bahamas, but he couldn’t make it because he was on tour with Macy Gray. Instead, his best friend and fellow makeup artist Christopher Maldonado was there, and sadly lost his life in the plane crash.
The world always questions how big Aaliyah would be today if she were still alive. In 2001, she was at the top of her game starring in movies like Queen of the Dammed, Romeo Must Die and releasing her self-titled album with hits like “Rock The Boat” and “It’s Whatever” (a slept-on gem in her catalogue). Joel Silver, the producer who cast her in Romeo Must Die was also ready to cook up a storm. According to Ferrell, he was slated to create an animated superhero series starring her based on the images you see in the beginning of the “More Than A Woman” video, which was directed by Dave Meyers.
Underneath her insular and private- yet-alluring persona was a young woman ready to take over the world. “She never wanted to be damsel in distress,” Ferrell affirms. “She wanted to be the superhero.”