Peacock just finished streaming the second season of Bel-Air, the show spun off from the popular 1990s Will Smith vehicle The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. This version of the show starts Jabari Banks as Will, the teenager from West Philadelphia sent to live with his Uncle Phil (Adrian Holmes) and his Aunt Viv Banks (Cassandra Freeman). It once more focuses on the teen’s at times awkward transition from the streets in Philly to the gated mansions in upscale California, and the emotional and familial bonds he develops along the way.
The concept was first developed from a fan’s (Morgan Spillman) short film based on the original sitcom, with Malcolm Cooper, T.J. Brady, and Rasheed Newson expanding on the original story by then-married couple Susan and Andy Borowitz. The new show has many of the old’s same characters, including Jimmy Akingbola as the sarcastic butler Geoffrey, Olly Sholotan, Coco Jones, and Akira Akbar as Will’s cousins Carlton, Hillary, and Ashley, though it features a more prominent role for Will’s mother Vy (April Parker Jones) than the ’90s version.
During last year’s awards season, we spoke to the show’s production designer and editor, to find out how they created a new look for the known and beloved quantity that was the original show. This time around we chatted with the show’s principal Costume Designer, Queensylvia Akuchie, when she told us about the unique combination of original costumes, garbs relating to African identity, and ultramodern hip wear that she went for in dressing up the various characters.
Read on to see all she had to say about working on this popular show.
Below the Line: How did you come up with the designs you made for the show, particularly considering that the show already existed in the public mind?
Queensylvia Akuchie: Well, I got a call from my agent, I had just wrapped one show and I had all these scripts. I remember having watched Season 1 and before that thinking, “How could you possibly remake this show, no way!” But then I fell in love with the characters and I met with the show’s producers and I felt instantly connected to them, thinking, “Go where you are celebrated, not where you are tolerated.”
Once I started prepping, I started honing in on the characters. I wanted to make them my own. I wanted to keep a connectivity with the original characters in the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air but also have the dramedy vision that the creators had. I started by figuring out who they were as a person. She is of African descent and that is how I start honing in on who she is. Will? He is from Philadelphia, even if he lives in Bel Air. That is who he is.
BTL: In terms of the main character Will, what are you going for with the various hip looks you gave him throughout the season?
Akuchie: His story as a young man figuring out who he is, where he is going to go, and going through the traumas of life. Every one of the customers he has you see a bit of Philadelphia influence but he also stays grounded. And then you see it mixed with fashionable stuff like Balenciaga. He knows he has a big future ahead of him, so what does that look like? He is in a burnt orange tuxedo jacket in the first episode. It’s something he would have never picked up in Philadelphia, but it is vibrant here and it shows he has grown and he has room for it. This is why his first line there was that the had not worn a tuxedo before. It shows his momentum as a character.
BTL: What were some of the favorite outfits you eventually came up with in that original process and why were they your favorites?
Akuchie: It is hard to say, but the most intentional costumes and the ones I connected with the most were Aunt Viv’s because I am of Nigerian descent and she is. Growing up I never saw on TV people wearing what my aunts and uncles would wear, and so to have her wear prints of that type — my mother would have been so proud. Everyone’s costumes ended up meaning a lot for me, but these had connectivity for me and that is why those were some of my favorites.
BTL: Was there a lot of design starting from scratch for those particular ones, or did you find them somewhere?
Akuchie: Combination. I worked with a lot of Rodeo Drive and with a lot of designers from Ghana, Zimbabwe, Nigeria. We did buy some stuff, but we sourced all over the world, U.K., etc. Some things were definitely made on sight as well with them.
BTL: And for those what sort of fabrics are we looking at?
Akuchie: We had a lot of silk and chiffon. One of the favorites we built from scratch was for Hilary when she is on a yacht in the first episode of the season. That was designed and built here in L.A. We sourced out the flowers going into the dress, and ended up being very special.
BTL: What was the collaboration like with the various stars, with respect to your creative process?
Akuchie: When I had the first fitting with them it’s more of a meet and greet with no clothes. I shared with them my three to four-page mood boards, and that is where we being the collaborative process. It ended up being easy to work with each other — I was clear on what I wanted each character to look like, and they were all supportive of it. I think the clarity helped with that.
BTL: What about the collaboration with other below-the-line colleagues — what was that like during your work?
Akuchie: Every episode we had a hair, makeup, costume meeting. Before that, we had the meeting with the production designer to make sure the curtain, the bedsheets, the carpet is not clashing with the costumes. I share the boards to the set decorator and once we are good, I share them with hair and makeup. I must say, our cooperation on this show was beautiful and everyone was rowing in the same direction all along the way.
BTL: Did any of these people have their own ideas or feedback for yours?
Akuchie: All the time. With Episode 9, it was very collaborative with director Tasha Smith. She wanted pinks and turquoise, she was very hands-on that episode and wanted us to make sure to be vibrant and bedazzled. It was fun to have the director that hands-on, because it makes it more fun and excitement because you have their attention and you can build and add, remove diamonds, add accessories. This is the episode with the football game, of course, Hillary is in the game, and that’s what she and her girls were wearing.
BTL: So what is next for you on this show?
Akuchie: We got picked up for Season 3, which is super exciting. Once we are over this hump [referring to the Writers Strike] we will get going. I am doing research, and I know I want the characters to be bigger and better. Hopefully, it all meshes with the new storyline, which we obviously do not have yet!
Bel-Air premiered on Peacock on Feb. 13, 2022, and has streamed its 20 episodes across two seasons so far.