The first Monday in May is considered the Super Bowl of high fashion—the zeitgeist moment when designers, models, actors and recording artists, all wearing jaw–dropping couture, storm the grand, red-carpeted staircase of The Metropolitan Museum of Art on Manhattan’s Upper East Side to preen and be the scene. The Met Gala, hosted by Vogue’s Anna Wintour, is the hottest ticket on the planet, one of the most coveted invitations in the world, an annual extravaganza that lights up the globe in a blaze of glitz and glamour. For one night only, this exclusive bash is the epicenter of pop culture, overtaking headline news and flooding social media timelines with an -explosion of content, curated memes and comments—to the tune of 12.3 billion impressions related to the hashtag #metgala within two days of the event.
Needless to say, the Met Gala sizzles with ultra-VIP energy. And this year, while all eyes were expected to be on co-chair Michaela Coel and other attendees including Rihanna, A$AP Rocky, Anok Yai and Lil Nas X, there was one star whose presence at this hyper–visible, megawatt media spectacle stole the show. Keke Palmer, who had given birth to her son, Leodis “Leo” Andrellton Jackson, just over two months before, stepped onto the red carpet and ate.
In that shining moment, Palmer used fashion and grown-ass Black-woman beauty to transform herself from former child star, girl next door, and America’s sweetheart into a gorgeous woman with dangerous curves, high-octane confidence and a newfound glow-up that had us all transfixed. Palmer’s secret weapons were Black motherhood and the red-hot fashion designer Sergio Hudson, who not only dressed her for the event but oversaw every detail of her hair and makeup, ensuring that the slayage was real, atomic and iconic. Palmer, clad in a pale gray tweed strapless gown and a pale blue maxi opera coat, and serving flawless glam, landed on just about everyone’s top-ten best-dressed lists. The headlines, too, said what needed to be said: “Nope, We Won’t Get Over Keke Palmer’s Radiant Met Gala 2023 Look”—E! “Keke Palmer Wows In Strapless Gown At Met Gala 2023 After Welcoming Baby Boy”—Page Six. “Keke Palmer’s Sergio Hudson Met Gala 2023 Gown Tapped Into ‘Glamorous, Gorgeous’ Old-Hollywood Vibes”—Vanity Fair. And on the red carpet, Palmer, with Hudson right by her side, teased one gobsmacked reporter: “Don’t play with it!” Period.
“I feel like I was the most beautiful woman there,” Palmer says now of her Met Gala evening. “I knew that my hair was on point. I knew that my makeup was on point. I knew that my look was on point. And then Sergio being beside me made the whole thing that much better, because he was acting like my mom, Sharon. It was so funny. He was like, ‘Get out there and talk to these people. You need to work the room. These people need to see how good you look.’ He was breathing so much life into me. It makes me feel a little bit emotional now, talking about it, because I honestly feel like he brought me back to the world, honey. He really did.”
Hudson felt the magic, too. “Keke was so happy in her skin,” he remembers. “The challenge was that she literally had just had the baby. So she was changing by the day. I think we measured her like three or four times. And when she actually came to the final fitting, we had to take the dress in like maybe two, three inches. It was a lot. Her body was ever-changing, is still changing—so it was fun to make her feel confident in that moment.”
The element of fun and playful camaraderie is very much a feature of Palmer and Hudson’s relationship. In their shared dressing room at the ESSENCE cover shoot, it’s a party—both of them laughing out loud and talking nonstop like lifelong besties. Their chatter ranges from the legacy of Lil’ Kim to marketing advice from Missy Elliott, to the iconography of Janet Jackson and Whitney Houston. And in between it all, Hudson is DMing Palmer vintage dance videos of Paula Abdul, alongside swoop and updo hairstyles.
In her new season of motherhood, Palmer has especially appreciated how protected Sergio makes her feel. “During the whole process leading up to the Met Gala, I didn’t have to be insecure about my body—especially the fact that it was a brand-new body,” she says. “When you’re doing something in fashion, it can be quite overwhelming. The fashion world, the Met Gala, all of that can feel very elitist at times. And Sergio is not that. Even though he understands and knows fashion backwards and forwards, his point of view isn’t to shut women like me out.” Rather, Palmer notes, Hudson is all about making women like her feel beautiful, and like they absolutely deserve to own the stage.
The comfort and connection between the two artists was so inspiring to both of them that they decided to keep that energy going: Hudson now serves as Palmer’s Creative Director. “I’ll tell you this, there has not been a day since the Met Gala that we have not talked,” says Hudson. “There has not been a look that she has stepped out in since Met Gala that my hands have not been on. It’s just a natural thing.”
Palmer agrees. “When I’m with Sergio, we live for each other in a way that is just so authentic,” she says. “From the moment that we met, I was just like, ‘Okay, now what is this judge you’re giving me?’ And he was like, ‘And what is this judge you’re giving me?’ And we just saw it in each other—this feeling that you can’t describe that just makes you feel safe.”
As far as Palmer is concerned, her collaboration with Hudson could not have come at a more soul-soothing time. For the two Los Angeles residents, their initial connection soon after Leo was born was like kismet—almost as if they already knew each other and were just picking up where they’d left off. “It all happened quite fast,” Palmer explains. She already knew that she wanted Hudson to dress her for the 2023 Met Gala, as she had worn one of his designs as a correspondent at the event the year before. But she had never walked the red carpet herself, and she had also never met Hudson.
“After he asked me, and I agreed he would officially dress me for the upcoming Met Gala, he came to my home to take my measurements,” she remembers. “He told me a little bit more about how the dress would be and showed me some of the fabrics he was playing with and shared where he was in the process. Right from the start, I knew I was in good hands—because if you look at his designs, they’re all about accentuating a woman’s body in the best way. The cut of the dress, the cut of the jackets. The grosgrain in the dresses. Like, it’s all meant to accentuate your body, to accentuate the waist and the breast line and the area underneath. All the cuts he makes are for a woman to feel good about her body.”
At the time, being able to feel good about her body was exactly what Keke Palmer needed. Since becoming a mother, the actor has been extremely candid about her new focus on herself—not just on her body but on her mind, spirit and consciousness. “I almost had to submit to myself in a way,” she reveals. “Like there were so many things I was always trying to change before. But now, my being enough for my son has let me know that I’m enough in the world. I think my breastfeeding journey was also very empowering, because it was so difficult. And I wanted to give up at so many different points, but I just kept pushing myself and kept trying to figure it out. So the relationship I had with my son during that process empowered me to get back up and do things for myself again. In the midst of trying to work out and do things that I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to do—like going to the Met Gala—I was able to say, you know what, I’m gonna get out there and experience everything again, and I’m still gonna be there for my boy. That kind of resolve built so much confidence and so much strength in me. I just got this overwhelming sense that I can do anything.”
Keke Palmer has entered the chat. Aside from savoring her cocooning moments with Leo, Palmer is definitely out in these streets. She just turned 30 and is calling this new chapter her #BigBossSeason—and she means it. In 2022, she launched KeyTV, a digital platform to amplify the work of Black creators. The Emmy Award–winning actor and singer also released a new album and an accompanying 41-minute film entitled Big Boss, detailing challenges that she faced in the male-dominated music industry in her early 20s. In July, she performed songs from the album at the Broccoli City Festival in Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, her podcast—Baby, This Is Keke Palmer—asks “questions for days, about everything under the sun,” with guests like Abbott Elementary creator Quinta Brunson, actor Raven-Symoné, Academy Award–winning costume designer Ruth E. Carter, personal-finance guru Suze Orman and Vice President Kamala Harris. Palmer also appeared on Terrell Grice’s popular YouTube series—and gave us everything we ever needed, including singing Rihanna songs, sharing the challenges of baby brain and offering a revealing story about going broke. And her read of Clair Huxtable as “uppity” stirred up much debate about respectability politics on social media. They don’t call Palmer the Meme Queen for nothing.
Speaking of social media storms, there was that time onstage at the Usher Las Vegas Residency, on July 5, when Palmer was crooning with the R&B king in a sheer, black, sexy Givenchy dress. The moment became a lightning rod after Palmer’s partner, Darius Jackson, tweeted, “It’s the outfit tho….you a mom.” Twitter lit up—Black feminists cried foul at Jackson for appearing to publicly shame Palmer for her choice of fashion. In response, Palmer posted more images of herself in the dress on Instagram, with the caption, “I wish I had taken more pictures.” Jackson took a lot of heat, but don’t get it twisted, he and Palmer are still business as usual. In fact, on the day of the ESSENCE cover shoot, Palmer is busy multitasking with gold under-eye patches—sitting in the chair getting her hair, makeup and nails done while simultaneously FaceTiming with Jackson about taking care of Leo (“You need to walk with the baby and burp him”); how often to feed him during the day (“Every four hours, Darius”); and the shelf life of breast milk when not refrigerated (“Don’t give it to him if it’s been out more than an hour”).
Palmer takes being a mother and a Big Boss very seriously—which means that more than being an entertainer and an It girl, it’s all about service for her. “My parents always told me that me being an entertainer could never just solely be about me entertaining,” she says. “It had to also be about finding a way to connect things back to my community—so that other people could dream, and they could know that their dreams could come true, too. So at a very young age, they had me do community service, because they wanted to make sure I would never forget how much that mattered.”
Her mom, Sharon Palmer, remembers those years well. “Very early on, her dad told her that occasionally she would need to use her voice to help others, just like Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee and Muhammad Ali did. So from the beginning, we would take her to do events with the NAACP, the MLK Foundation and the Boys and Girls Club. The goal was to keep her rooted in the community—to make sure she learned that a good life is a life of service and when much is given, there is a responsibility to give back in return.”
Giving back is at the heart of Palmer’s newest mission to raise awareness about maternal mortality—according to a recent CDC report, Black women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy complications than White women—and to ensure that -mothers and children have the right support. Palmer recently visited the White House with baby Leo for her podcast, recording a conversation with VP Kamala Harris. Her goal was to help listeners better understand the issues around maternal mortality and what can be done to sustain mothers-to-be.
“Me being a mom and understanding maternal health care, we’ve got to do better,” Palmer says. “We’ve got to do better for the moms. And we have to do better with helping people understand what the moms are going through. Like Madame VP was saying—if you care about the world, then you gotta care about the mothers, because the mothers are the ones raising the children, and the children are the ones who are gonna be running things tomorrow. So we need to do better in supporting the mothers, because that will help us to raise better children and have better people in the world.”
Sergio Hudson knows about the power and the influence of mothers. As a young boy growing up in Ridgeway, South Carolina, he would sit next to his own mother, senior pastor and Doctor of Theology Sheldon Hudson, as she sewed clothes for his older sister Tonya Jenkins, a runway model. His mom was “obsessed with fashion,” Hudson says, and she served as his first muse. She would often ask young Sergio his opinion about outfits. “We would be out shopping and my mother would say, ‘I have this mustard suit. What color shoes should I get to wear with it?’” he recalls. “And I would say ‘purple.’ I was already crafting what my style would be as a designer. I feel like it was just something very natural. As a trained artist and designer, I know that, of course, mustard and yellows are on this end of the color wheel and purples and blues are on that end, and they go together perfectly. But at that young age, it was just innate for me to know these colors play off of each other naturally.”
His other fashion reference point, growing up, was CNN’s Style With Elsa Klensch. “That’s how I got introduced to all these designers, like Gianni Versace, Patrick Kelly, Azzedine Alaïa and Gianfranco Ferre,” he says. “Those were my main inspirations. When I saw them getting interviewed or backstage at the show, I realized, Wow, you can make clothes for women for a living. And that’s how I decided to be a designer.”
As a teen, he would dream up outfits for people in his town; then his mother would sew them. Hudson later enrolled at Bauder College, in Atlanta, to study fashion design. Afterward, he returned to Ridgeway and began creating clothing for women. He got his first big break designing for Lisa Wu, who was on The Real Housewives of Atlanta. “She was the first person to pay me a decent amount of money to make clothes,” Hudson says. “When she wrote my first check, I was like, ‘Oh my God, there are three zeros!’ I had never got a check over a thousand dollars from anybody. She wrote me that check just to thank me for making the clothes for her. She taught me at a very early stage in my career that I was worth being paid.”
A few years later, a friend was returning outfits to the Style PR showroom in Los Angeles and had some of Hudson’s designs in the mix. The showroom people liked what they saw and asked if they could represent Hudson. Soon, Hudson was dressing celebrities like Nicki Minaj, Jennifer Lopez and Britney Spears. A major turning point was when he styled Kendall Jenner in a risqué black jumpsuit for her twentieth birthday party. And then he started designing for Beyoncé. His star steadily on the rise, Hudson premiered his first runway collection in February 2020 at New York Fashion Week. His designs were met with rave reviews and appointments from department store buyers—and then COVID hit. As the fashion world ground to a halt, Hudson was devastated. A few months later, George Floyd was murdered and the nation was in chaos. But out of tragedy, opportunity emerged. Diversity became a rallying cry across America. Everyone was looking for Black talent, especially the fashion industry.
“In 2020, the CFDA and Vogue donated $1 million to our non-profit, ICON360, from the Common Thread initiative,” says Brandice Daniel, CEO and founder of Harlem’s Fashion Row, which aims to showcase gifted Black fashion creators. “This allowed us to give over 20 financial awards to Black designers. Sergio Hudson received a top prize of $100,000, voted on by a board that reviewed his detailed application. Sergio’s extraordinary talent and unwavering dedication to his craft made him a deserving recipient of the CFDA/Vogue Common Thread/ICON360 grant. Our hope was that the funds would allow the designers to survive through the pandemic and to keep their businesses open. Harlem’s Fashion Row takes immense pride in championing visionary designers like Sergio.”
Hudson isn’t just a visionary; he’s also bold. One day while scrolling on Instagram, he noticed that Michelle Obama’s stylist, Meredith Koop, was following him. “So I jumped in her DMs and was like, ‘I would love to dress Mrs. Obama.’ And she messaged back: ‘Cool.’ And it was like the easiest thing that ever happened,” Hudson says, beaming at the memory. He went on to dress Mrs. Obama for her Becoming book tour—a purple jumpsuit in Atlanta and a midnight blue sequin jumpsuit for the ESSENCE Festival of Culture in New Orleans, both times with his signature Sergio Hudson belt. Koop then asked Hudson if he would dress the Forever First Lady for the 2021 Inauguration.
When Mrs. Obama walked out in the monochromatic Sergio Hudson burgundy coat, turtleneck, pants and belt, wearing a black face mask, she took the world’s breath away. “You know what, it was humbling,” Hudson says now. “You work so hard, and you plan so firmly to have these moments as a designer. If anybody tells you they don’t plan for these moments, they’re lying. We all plan for them, because we know this is what’s gonna make your career. But to actually get that moment—it’s like a kiss on the cheek from the universe. You’ve been really grinding and trying and believing in your destiny, and trusting in God to make this happen. And then it did!”
That Michelle Obama moment changed the trajectory of Hudson’s fashion brand in one fell swoop. “All of us can remember when we saw our Forever First Lady grace the Inauguration stage,” says Daniel. “I realized it was a Sergio Hudson design when I saw the belt. That iconic moment was an endorsement of Sergio Hudson. It opened doors to prestigious retailers like Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and Net-A-Porter. It not only elevated Sergio’s career but also signaled a movement of support for Black designers.”
Hudson happened to be in Washington, D.C., to deliver Vice President Kamala Harris’s looks for the Inauguration events as well. “When I saw Mrs. Obama walk in, it was like chills went down my spine, and I felt a shift,” he remembers. “I knew this was different. And in that moment, I could feel that my entire life had changed. For sure. I always say that my life before January 20, 2021, and after is like night and day.” Everyone else knew it, too. That afternoon, Hudson boarded a flight to Atlanta for a photo shoot—and when the plane landed, there were 20 press requests for interviews. The Sergio Hudson website crashed with all the searches, requests and orders. And just like that, luxury retailers welcomed Sergio Hudson inside.
Today, Tracee Ellis Ross, Issa Rae and Blake Lively all wear his clothing—and his Sergio Hudson X Target collaboration has further broadened his territory. “The collaboration with Target showcased Sergio’s brilliance for design and his attention to quality, even at a lower price point,” says Daniel. “It not only expanded his reach to a wider audience but also exemplified his commitment to accessibility and inclusivity in the world of high fashion. And the collection, like all of his work, was stunning. I bought several pieces myself.”
Both Keke Palmer and Sergio Hudson agree that their creative partnership is the perfect next chapter for their two storybook careers, promising an iconic visual legacy for both artists. This sort of designer-and-muse relationship is historic in the fashion industry, harkening back to Yves Saint Laurent and Betty Catroux, Willi Smith and Bethann Hardison, Azzedine Alaïa and Grace Jones, Patrick Kelly and Josephine Baker, Hubert de Givenchy and Audrey Hepburn, Olivier Rousteing and Beyoncé, Halston and Liza Minnelli, and so many more.
“Until now, the only muse I ever had a relationship with was my mom,” says Hudson. “But when Keke and I first met, immediately there was this click. We were right there. She said she had this immediate trust in me, and all I really wanted was to make her look as beautiful as she is. She so inspires me. Her talent is limitless.” Hudson admits that his husband, Davon Jenkins, probably gets tired of him talking about Keke. “She’s like my work wife at this point,” the designer says with a laugh. “And I’m always telling him, ‘God, babe, she’s just so talented.’ It’s so inspiring as a creative to work with somebody who’s that talented and that brilliant. She’s like 10 years younger than me and just so wise beyond her years.”
In this artistic collaboration, all the feelings are mutual. “The first time we met, it was like very chill,” Palmer recalls. “And then as time went on, he kept showing more of his personality—and I think what really inspired me was that he was living for me so much. It was empowering me. And I guess I was inspiring him as well.”
Hudson doesn’t take lightly Palmer’s faith in his ability to create the right looks for her. “I think the designer-muse relationship is like give and take,” he says thoughtfully. “She pours into me, and then I pour into her and onto her. I see a vision of who she is and where she should be, style-wise. I can relate her to the Sergio Hudson customer, because she’s a beautiful woman. She’s brought new joy into what I do—because sometimes when you get into this business, you can lose your joy in what you’re doing. I had found myself in that place right before the Met Gala. And I feel like my relationship with Keke is a gift. It rejuvenated me. It was like, Okay, this is what you need to be doing. This is where you need to be going. Keke got me excited about fashion again.”
Even Palmer’s mom can see that, as designer and muse, these two were meant to be. “I love it because they are having a ball together,” says Sharon Palmer. “I mean, it isn’t work for them. It’s truly two creative people who enjoy each other’s company. Keke is playing dress-up with Sergio Hudson.”
And yet Palmer understands better than anyone that her partnership with Hudson is about more than play. It’s about doing the work brilliantly and having its genius be recognized. “When these designers go to the Met Gala, especially if they’re not someone like Michael Kors, their hope and their desire is to put their art at the forefront in a place where there will be eyeballs, and where there’s gonna be appreciation for their level of creativity,” she explains. “So I was excited for Sergio to not just have my look but also three other looks there that showcased him as a designer—and let people see just how talented and fabulous he is. But the best part for me was that I got to share that viral moment with him: Our first time together at the Met Gala.”
Photographed by Shaniqwa Jarvis
Styled by Corey Stokes, Keke Hair by Tamika Gibson using The Hair Diagram, Keke Makeup by Kenya Alexis using 111SKIN at Opus Beauty, Keke Nails by Rhayne Lodevico, Sergio Grooming by Ivan Castro using Le Métier De Beauté and MANTL, Set Design by Carlos Lopez at Winston Studios, Set Design Assistant: Julia Choi & Iman Jordan, Photo Assistants: Phil Sanchez, Scott Turner, and Patrick Molina, Digitech: Zach Callahan, Tailor: Shirlee Idzakovich, Hair Assistant: Keshaun Williams, Stylist Assistant: Kristtian Chevere and Victoria Jackson, Production Managers: Alaura Wong and Christina Najar , Production Assistants: Malek Mahones, Jai Wilson, and Sylvia Barjolo, Shot at Studios60, Post Production by picturehouse + thesmalldarkroom, Production by The Morrison Group