Behind Every Pop Star, There’s a Mom Carefully Sewing Her Costumes in the Wings

Rachel Hahn

Speaking from homes just 15 minutes apart from each other in Los Angeles, artist Lorely Rodriguez, aka Empress Of, and her mother, Reina, are discussing Rodriguez’s performance costumes. Over the past few years, Reina has handmade Rodriguez’s onstage outfits, whether it be the gauzy, pastel floral dress that she debuted at a festival in La Jolla last year or the puff-sleeved, plaid, schoolgirl separates that she wore running around Dublin while on a European tour. In an Instagram post showing off her own handiwork for the floral number—Reina’s Instagram name is @latinaknowles, a cheeky reference to Tina Knowles-Lawson, of course, who used to sew the stage outfits for Beyoncé and the rest of Destiny’s Child—Reina offered up a styling suggestion, too. “I tell her [not] to wear shoes on stage [so] it looks more like summer!”

Over the course of our conversation, Reina actually pitches a new design that she hasn’t talked with her daughter about yet—she’s afraid Rodriguez is going to think it’s too over-the-top. “I had the idea that I wanted to sew for her an empress costume,” Reina says. Usually the concept for every garment comes from Rodriguez, but Reina wants to float this extravagant new idea, which she developed based off on the title track of Rodriguez’s new album, I’m Your Empress Of. Reina’s voice is on the song, and small pockets of Reina’s wisdom runs through the entire album. Reina improvised the spoken word interlude on the title track, the first song on the album, on the spot. She talks about the difficulty of learning English—Reina is an immigrant from Honduras—and how her daughter’s work resounds in others. “I only have one girl/But the only girl is like the having thousands of girls/Because look at how many times she reproduces herself in each bunch of you,” Reina proudly says.

This empress outfit that Reina is envisioning would only bring out the spirit of the song, she posits. “Maybe it’s a beautiful long cut. Sometimes when you have the chance, you can bring out what you sing with the dress,” she explains. “But this is only in my mind. I’ve never really shared it with her because it’s her career, and she can decide what she wants to do.” Rodriguez ponders it, clearly a bit skeptical, but she’s not fully opposed to the idea. Reina asks me for my opinion. “Don’t you think that sounds good?” I respond yes, of course, though I understand how tricky mother-daughter dynamics can be and I don’t want to get in the middle of anything. They end up reaching a compromise: Rodriguez thinks a corset with a train fashioned with velcro could have a similar dramatic effect. “It depends. It depends on what fabrics we use, because if you could go crazy with it, I know you would,” Rodriguez says.

Though they work well together, their tastes clearly differ. “My mom thinks stagewear has to be over-the-top, and to some degree, I agree. Fabrics look really good onstage if they have a bit of shine or gloss because the lights will pick it up.” When they go downtown to buy fabric together, Reina picks out the most eye-catching, shiny, and fringed fabric that she finds. “I say, okay, what’s a more subtle way that we can do that? I think it’s from her growing up with Tina Turner and Gloria Gaynor and Cher. She loves flash,” Rodriguez says. Though Rodriguez will sport these handmade dresses onstage, she’s as likely to wear a pair of Dickies with some classic Nike Cortez sneakers.

Reina isn’t exactly a professional seamstress, but her innate skills span generations. Reina moved from her hometown of San Pedro Sula to California in 1971. She was just 19-years-old and pregnant with her second child, Rodriguez’s older brother (Rodriguez is the baby and the only girl), when she moved to the states alone with little more than the money that lined her pockets. Back home, her family were top tier garment-makers. “They sewed for the First Lady, they sewed for Miss Honduras, so we have a history. This art is in the blood. It’s in the family,” says Reina. Reina’s mom used to sew dresses completely by hand, but this knowledge didn’t need to be meticulously passed down to Reina—she insists it comes naturally to her. “When you have the talent—I’m sorry that I have to say that—it comes with you. I get a piece of material and I’m not afraid to put the stitches in there. I’m not afraid to mark it. I can cut it in seconds, and I look forward to see what I end up with. It’s like when my daughter says she likes this music—she composes it, and ends up with nice music. It’s the same. She got this talent and I got this talent.”

When Empress Of first started to play shows around the time of her debut EP Systems in 2013, she didn’t want to dress up too much onstage. “I thought, ‘Why do I need to dress up?’ People should be focusing on my music, not me,” Rodriguez says. It’s a mentality that she connects with the desire to be taken seriously, especially as a producer and songwriter. Over the past few years, her thoughts on her performance wardrobe have shifted thanks to her experiences at Paris Fashion Week, working with her first stylist, Turner, and getting more involved with stylists on photoshoots. “[Turner] really opened me up. What you wear and how you look finishes the story, and I’m not afraid of it right now, and I don’t think I ever will be. It’s become a part of who I am.”

In the visuals for her new album, Rodriguez has been digging even deeper into her roots, reinterpreting certain Latin American sartorial signatures—she’s fashioned sculptural shoes made entirely out of corn, made dresses entirely out of party supplies, and incorporated bandanas into her album art. “This album and my development as an artist has been about very much about having my own relationship with my roots,” she says. Her relationship with her mom is a major part of this reclamation of her Latin American identity. “I’m always fascinated to ask my mom, ‘What did you guys used to wear?’ ‘How did you learn how to sew?’ All these stories. I think those things are beautiful and I think they’re the part of me I want to discover more about,” she says. “It’s just fascinating being a kid of someone from another country and wanting to open the treasure chest of where you come from.”

From the beginning, Reina wanted her daughter to dress more elaborately onstage. “When she started, she used to go on the stage with shirts. With pants. And I was trying to tell her, ‘Lorely, you need to dress differently for the stage,’” Reina says. She’s still holding out hope that her daughter’s style can get even more performative. “She’s getting there and accepting dressing differently and having some special costumes. The fans of the album appreciate it. ‘Oh, I love the costumes you’re wearing. Can Empress Of’s mom do something for me?’ They like it!,” Reina says.

The process is collaborative in every step of the way. “The amazing thing about having a mom that sews and being able to design something with her and make patterns and tailor them is that it fits. So much of your confidence is wearing things that fit,” Rodriguez says. “Onstage, I know I can thrash, dance, run back and forth, and everything I want showing is showing and everything I want covered is covered.” Says Reina of the process,“Let me tell you, every piece that I make, simple or extraordinary, she comes to fit it and try it. It has to be exactly to her body. She is very picky. Everything has to be according to her.” Sometimes she has to take apart the entire garment to fix just one small part of it that Rodriguez envisioned differently. “I just want to say thanks to my mom for tolerating all of my revisions and suggestions,” Rodgriguez says. “Happy Mother’s Day, mom.”

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Originally Appeared on Vogue