By and
with contributions from Leigh Nordstrom
 on September 14, 2015
Lee Daniels

EMPIRE STATE OF MIND: Lee Daniels, the mastermind behind the blockbuster series “Empire,” has been taking in the sights this fashion week.

On Monday morning, a week before the show is back on the air, he was at The Frick Collection sitting front row at Carolina Herrera, who’s designing the costumes for his upcoming Richard Pryor biopic.

Though his show is known for its unapologetically over-the-top style, Daniels himself is not, by his own admission, a connoisseur.

“I’ve gone to a few shows with Naomi [Campbell],” he said from behind sunglasses, clearly learning already how to play the game. “My friends go all the time, and they’ve been trying to invite me but I always threw my nose up at them. But now I’m into it. When I really started appreciating fashion at all was when we were trying to experiment with fashion on ‘Empire,’ and the whole thing with Cookie.”

Cookie is the show’s hugely popular matriarch played by Taraji P. Henson, and she is a ferocious dresser, perpetually clad in exuberant furs and Cavalli animal prints. The character is based on Daniels’ sister, Leah, with whom he used to shoplift when they were young.

“When I was a kid I used to boost — ‘boost’ is stealing. My sister and I, we used to go to Saks and boost.” Daniels confided this on Saturday when he was back at Saks, though this time, he was unveiling the store’s windows, now decked out in promotion of the show he created.

Daniels even had the president of Saks Fifth Avenue, Marc Metrick, thanking him for attending. In fact, it’s Daniels’ own rags-to-riches tale that informs the show’s aesthetic, he said a day later at Hood by Air in Midtown Manhattan.

“What we wanted to do with ‘Empire’ was a show that explains ghetto-fabulous, that you can still have a sense of style and taste coming from enormous poverty,” he said.

It was a fitting appearance for the filmmaker. He and Shayne Oliver — and the artist Kehinde Wiley, who was also attending and whose paintings are prominently featured in “Empire” — both explore black culture and gender in their respective lines of work, and they recognize in each other a similar sensitivity.

Oliver has been a fan of “Empire” since the beginning and last season, he sampled quotes by Cookie for the collection’s soundtrack. Daniels, meanwhile, is returning the favor by featuring a Hood by Air costume in the opening shot of the second season premiere.

Though Daniels wasn’t personally familiar with the label, his son and an actor on the show, Bryshere Y. Gray, clued him in to why it might be relevant to watch.

“‘HBA.’ That’s the hood slang that we call it. It’s dope, I rock it,” Gray said in the front row. “It’s a great brand, it’s creative, it’s relevant, it’s today. I’m 21 and I wear it.”

Lee Daniels

<br /><em>Lee Daniels, Ilene Chaiken, Brian Grazer and Danny Strong at Saks Fifth Avenue</em>  Scott Rudd/WWD

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