“I knew we were going to win the Oscar – I really did,” said St. Louis native Kevin Mayes. As her head tailor, the fashion designer helped Ruth Carter make history as the first African American woman to earn a costume design Academy Award for “Black Panther.”
He was so sure that Carter would win, that when she did, Mayes was collected to the point of seeming nonchalant. “ People were like ‘you’re so calm,’” Mayes said. “Because I already knew. I felt it. And when you feel something like that, it’s God talking to us. So [when we won], I was just living and experiencing what God already told me would happen.”
Mayes has been following the feeling that he said he is sure to be God’s voice since he was a little boy. It was that feeling – in the form of curiosity – which led him behind a sewing machine. When he was 7, he noticed a big clunky machine in the corner collecting dust. For a whole year he would walk past it and wonder what it was before asking his mother.
“When I turned 8, I finally said ‘Mama, what is that in the corner?’ And she said, ‘That’s a sewing machine, baby.’ And I said, ‘Well, what does it do?’”
His mother had decided to take a sewing class. She failed. The machine just sat there until that moment he asked his mother about it – and changed the course of his life.
“It was history from day one,” Mayes said. “From that, everything started.”
He didn’t go to the machine right away, but the seed for sewing as a creative outlet was planted. He practiced with needle and thread first. The first Kevin Mayes creation was a heart-shaped pillow. It was a design triumph for the 8 year-old.
“I guess that was God’s way of letting me know that everything starts from the heart,” Mayes said.
By the time he settled into Normandy High School, the teacher would often allow him to takeover teaching the class.
He still laughs about the time his mother met his sewing teacher, Mrs. Mabry, during a Normandy High School open house. She came in the room and locked eyes with the teacher and they both let out simultaneous belly laughs and pointed at each other. Mayes didn’t get the joke. Turns out Mrs. Mabry was the teacher who failed his mother a decade earlier.
“I said, ‘What kind of coincidence is this?’” Mayes said. “That was God ordering my steps.”
A journey to blackness
Mayes has done many things in-between being a star sewing student at Normandy High School and leading the team that creating the stunning Academy Award-winning costumes for the record-shattering film that was Marvel’s first black led superhero film. After graduating from Normandy, he took his talents to New York’s famed Fashion Institute of Technology. Design was always a priority for Mayes, though he is a gifted visual artist who worked with pioneering prosperity preacher Rev. Ike, and as a personal assistant and wardrobe stylist for some of the biggest names in Hollywood. Tyra Banks, Will Smith, Chris Rock, Lupita Nyong’o, Chaka Khan, Ledisi and Oprah Winfrey are on the long roll of A-list stars on Mayes’ resume.
His partnership with Carter on film began on the Jimmy Smits film “The Price of Glory” in 2000. “We just clicked,” Mayes said. “We work together a team and we balance each other.”
He worked with her on Ava DuVernay’s Oscar-nominated film “Selma” and on the 2016 reboot of the Emmy Award-winning miniseries “Roots.” It was through “Roots” that Mayes developed an expanded appreciation of Carter.
“To watch her build upon these characters was amazing,” Mayes said. “There’s a system to building a character. It was a feel to it – and I just loved to watch Ruth when she was in action. As I was watching her, she was teaching me.”
He talked about the detailed research that went into costuming each character, from the tribes that inspired the costuming – down to the headwraps that enslaved women wore as they worked on the plantation. Being able to use their respective gifts to illustrate black life and the African-American experience through costume design has been rewarding beyond words.
“My good friend Monica Tyson said, ‘It must feel good to create for your people,’” Mayes said. “And it does– it has been wonderful. Me and Ruth, we have done ‘Selma’ together, we’ve done ‘Roots’ together and we’ve done ‘Black Panther.’ It’s all geared towards black culture.”
He was also thrilled that St. Louis had strong representation within the film through himself, Sterling K. Brown, who had a brief, but pivotal role as N’Jobu and SZA, the St. Louis born, New Jersey-bred Grammy Award-nominated singer featured on the soundtrack.
“The spirit of St. Louis was all up in Black Panther,” Mayes said. “It was and I loved it. It was a blessing and a wonderful feeling to have a role in that.”
Having “Black Panther,” a showcase of black excellence, become an Academy Award winning global phenomenon was the icing on the cake.
“I’m like ‘What is God trying to tell us?’” Mays said. “And I think it’s that we need to show people our talent, creativity and all of the gifts that we have been given as a people. And to show the world, yes, we are here.
[And to show that] we have been here – and what people are discovering now, we’ve had centuries ago.”