By Jahneil La Mara
You may remember Zulema Griffin from Season 2 of Project Runway back in 2005. Nowadays, she is taking the costume design world by storm.
A product of Parson’s School of Design, the self-identified queer craftswoman is currently working as both the production and costume designer for the short film For Our Sins in New York. For Our Sins is set in a war-struck Mali and showcases character James Nazzir as he deals with the trauma of his experiences during the war.
“It’s very powerful,” says Griffin. “It shows family dynamics, issues, and problems of outsiders in Africa, the causalities of war and how people love to see people as gods and monsters.” Griffin is tasked with making Queens, New York look like the West African nation.
The Brooklyn native started her career as a Ford Model and later transitioned to designing. “It wasn’t a simple process,” she tells ELIXHER. “I actually didn’t know what I wanted to do after modeling. When I modeled it really wasn’t popular for models to become designers so I worked at a restaurant.”
Griffin got her “big break” when a customer noticed the dress she was wearing, which was one of her own designs. The patron invited Griffin to be the assistant costume designer for a feature he was working on. The industry has always welcomed Griffin with open arms and she’s very fortunate to be able to survive solely off designing. But that doesn’t go without understanding the adversities that people of color in the film and fashion industry face.
The invisibility of people of color in the fashion industry has always been a hot topic. Even still, the number of Black models on the runways are scarce. No stranger to how the business both overlooks and benefits from Black women, Griffin has previously spoken very openly about her experience on Project Runway — noting how her persona was skewed during the editing process. She has publicly stated that she believes they wanted her to be the bitchy Black woman and eliminated her when they did not have enough material. The reality show also failed to include she was queer although they heavily focused on that element for the gay men (“f you’re trying to create a villain, you can’t give them endearing traits…”). The distorted power dynamic between creators and consumers is still a paradox for the fashion veteran.
“How does one group of people spend billions of dollars in the beauty industry and has almost no representation and allows this to take place?” asks Griffin. The lack of diversity, however, does not deter her from continuing to make her mark. Drawn to people that are experimental with their work, in the future Griffin hopes to work with the likes of Adrian Phillips, Steve McQueen, and Lars von Trier.
Outside of designing, Griffin has been enjoying learning how to sail. “It is really fun,” says the nature-lover. “I didn’t think I would enjoy it but it’s something about being out in the open water and open air particularly in the sunlight.” Fishing also allows her to reconnect with the earth.
It’s no surprise that staying grounded is a part of this design guru’s life routine (and success). We can’t wait to see what she has in store next.
Jahneil La Mara is a Southern California native and graduate of Florida’s Bethune-Cookman University where she received her B.A. in Mass Communications and served as editor-in-chief of the school paper. She has always been intrigued by the personal style of others and loves food, natural hair, traveling and Instagram. La Mara enjoys reading all things queer, fiction and non-fiction, and writes about her personal experiences being a young fashionable queer woman of color on her blog, LaLaLaMara.com.