Over the past weekend, I popped by the Museum of Missy Elliott in Soho to talk to June Ambrose, Missy’s long-time costume designer and stylist, who’s known her for 22 years. She walked me through some of the installations at the museum that touched on key moments in Missy’s music video life.
It’s been three decades since Missy Elliott first entered the music world with her all-female group Sista, recruiting neighborhood friend Timothy Mosley (a.k.a. Timbaland) as producer. Stepping out on her own with the release of her debut album “Supa Dupa Fly” in 1997, Elliott discovered her unique voice and style, transforming her into one of rap’s most prominent artists of all time. Four Grammy awards and over 30 million record sales later, Elliott has added the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award to her mantel after Monday’s MTV Video Music Awards.
To celebrate, MTV (in partnership with Pepsi) gave Elliott’s superfans the chance to “throw it back” and reflect on some of the 48-year-old star’s career highlights at a pop-up Museum of Missy Elliott, which opened on Saturday Aug. 23 and Sunday Aug. 24 in New York City. Tickets reportedly sold out in 60 seconds flat, with Elliott telling fans on Instagram to show up anyway, saying “You never know!”
Known for being hands-on involved in her costumes and outfits, Elliott has worked with costume designer June Ambrose, directors Hype Williams and Dave Myers, choreographer Hi-Hat, and make-up artists Billy B and Gloria Elias-Foeillet — all of whom created installations in the pop-up. Ambrose spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about Elliott’s style on a guided sneak-peek tour on Friday.
“Prior to 1997, I don’t believe there was any artist quite like Missy Elliott, both sonically and visually,” said Ambrose, who has worked with Elliott, from her debut solo single “The Rain” to 2015’s colorful, futuristic look for “WTF (Where They From)” to her “Throw It Back” video, out this week. “Missy’s audacity to be bold and different (and her sporty provocativeness) changed the narrative and redefined how women were viewed. Missy inspired a whole generation of women to find the confidence within themselves to go out and conquer the world unapologetically. Missy proved that one doesn’t need to fit into a box that society oftentimes attempts to put us in. That one can be both confident and unique and be able to achieve major success in the entertainment industry and beyond.”
Ambrose has witnessed Elliott’s approach to style and fashion firsthand. “Missy is a true visionary,” she says. “One thing that sticks out to me, whenever I’ve collaborated with Missy, is her ability to invent, receive and process creative inspiration from myself and others. Ultimately, her confidence, swag and conviction, her commitment to taking risks and pushing the boundaries, is what I believe makes her a true style icon.”
“Missy is so personable and warm and fuzzy and confident and shy, if that makes sense?” said Ambrose. “There’s a coyness to her. When you think about the word coy, Missy is the epitome. Clever but she still knows how to work it. Since I’ve known her, for over 22 years, she’s always been that way.”
Ambrose points to the “Lose It” music video, as an indicator of how ahead of her time Elliott has been. “We had a lot of girls dressed like boys, which is such a relevant moment as we talk about gender-bending and being gender neutral today. She was really on the pulse of that early, showing that girls can be in tank tops.”
Ambrose believes that’s part of why Elliott’s style changed hip-hop. “We were all about body image,” she says. “No matter what size you are, you can say confidently, ‘This is who I am.’ No matter what shape or size, color or gender, it doesn’t matter.”
At the pop-up, ticket holders can try on Elliott’s iconic garbage bag suit from her 1997 music video for “The Rain”; snap photos within installations from “Gossip Folks,” “Lose Control” and “Sock It 2 Me”; and hang out in the Supa Dupa Fly Lounge. There is even a manicure bar, so “If you a fly gal, get your nails done, get a pedicure, get your hair did,” as Elliott sings in “Work It.” Nail artists will help guests select customized nail art and sit at one of the “Missy” branded director’s chairs to receive the star treatment, while taking glam mirror selfies. Courtesy of mixed-reality company, VNTANA, the museum will also use immersive technology to create hologram-like images of stand-out moments from some of Elliott’s most popular music videos.
In the run-up to the VMAs, Elliott just dropped a new set of songs, the first since 2005’s “The Cookbook” and the new video for the single, “Throw It Back.” In the video, dancers jump rope with her braids and she gives new meaning to the term “snatching wigs.” Living up to her style icon title, Elliott rocks a monochromatic pink power suit, a chrome space suit, and a head-to-toe custom logo MCM x Misa Hylton look, created by her longtime stylist and MCM Global Creative Partner.
“This was so fun,” said Ambrose. “It was filled with a lot of collaborative moments, old school moments. The pom-poms that are actually red wigs was Missy’s idea. She loved the whole idea of girl’s snatching their wigs off. There’s a lot of shiny in there. I love shiny. I did the shiny suits for Puffy, so I do love shine! The moon suits were fun to design.”
Hylton told THR that styling Elliott is always a shared effort. “Every moment working with Missy is amazing,” she says. “Her creativity is out of this world. She lives outside the box in everything she does and it’s never a dull moment with her.”
As for a favorite styling moment with Elliott, Hylton points to an Elle magazine cover in 2017. “There is a mistaken perception in the music industry that Missy is shy, but her reserve is more about valuing her personal space. If you saw the images, that shoot was an opportunity to showcase different facets of Missy’s personality — playful, sophisticated, yet still edgy.”
Elliott’s MTV honor comes in a year filled with recognition for her ground-breaking contributions to music. In May, the four-time Grammy Award winner was awarded with an honorary doctorate degree in music from the Berklee College of Music. In June, she became the first female rapper to be inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame.