Photography by Paola Kudacki
Breakthrough actress KiKi Layne returns to Bergdorf Goodman with Laura Neilson
“It’s so funny being back here,” marvels KiKi Layne as she steps inside Bergdorf Goodman to a vestibule resplendent with handbags and accessories. It is a late-May morning, barely six or seven months since the actress’ last visit to the store; however, the place feels only vaguely familiar to Layne. Such would be the case for anyone who had witnessed the store as she last had: reverted to the 1970s, with stacks of perfume boxes atop gleaming display counters and ladies wearing the most stylish fashions of that era. The transformation was a “pop-up metamorphosis” of sorts to shoot scenes for If Beale Street Could Talk, the latest film by Oscar-winner Barry Jenkins (Moonlight), for which 26-year-old Layne plays the lead character, Tish.
As we stroll, Layne leads the way, trying to reconstruct a sequence from the shoot in which Tish rushes to clock in for work. The story, based on a 1974 James Baldwin novel of the same name, introduces her as one of Bergdorf Goodman’s first black shopgirls, whose placement behind a perfume counter spoke to the progressive shifts of the time.
Despite the demands of an all-night filming schedule, using the actual Manhattan location was never a question for Jenkins: “There’s an urgency and authenticity to Baldwin’s writing that we tried to preserve at every turn. Bergdorf has been on that corner of 5th Avenue since 1928, a stretch of time that runs through many titanic shifts in American culture. No recreation in the world could contain the energy of the actual space,” he explained.
When it comes to fashion, Layne prefers to keep her style relatively simple—a tendency that harkens back to her youth. “We didn’t grow up with too much money, so there wasn’t much to splurge on,” explains the Cincinnati native. “It was more about what I could wear with the most number of things. But I play around a lot with accessories, like big earrings,” she goes on.
Despite some prior acting stints in film and television, Jenkins’ film will mark a major dramatic breakout for the young newcomer. (In it, her character discovers she’s pregnant shortly after her fiancé is imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit.) “I’m definitely grateful that my big break is happening with Barry. It’s nice to be introduced to the world with something that’s so authentic,” she smiles. She speaks with gravitas, while exuding a positive, youthful energy—something Jenkins recognized in casting her.
“I always saw the Tish of this adaptation as two women—both a girl, pure in the innocence of her first encounters with the world, and a woman forced to become wizened and seasoned far beyond her years. KiKi came in to audition and showed an abundance of both qualities, and the sensitivity to understand when to be and not be the girl or woman,” he noted.
We walk some more, eventually pausing at a selection of Fendi sunglasses. Layne slips on a pair of metallic cat-eye frames, and looks—in one word—fierce. “I love sunglasses. I think these are going to be my weakness,” she laughs. She may need them soon enough. For now, she’s still relatively unknown, but that won’t be the case when the film debuts in November. “I feel like I’m on a roller coaster going up. Just click, click, click…waiting and getting closer to that drop,” she says. “But I know it’s going to be an amazing ride when it happens.”