Gabrielle Union has had a busier year than most. With her husband, NBA champion Dwyane Wade, she’s spent the better part of her summer jet-setting the globe from Paris to Positano and Martha’s Vineyard. (She’s playfully dubbed her international travels “the Wade World Tour.”) The next stop? The 2021 Met Gala, where the theme is “In America: An Anthology of Fashion.” For the occasion, Union wore a sculptural custom Iris Van Herpen piece that took over 1,400 hours to make at the Dutch designer’s atelier.
The Iris Van Herpen team described what is known as the “Aeternus” gown to W via email. “Over 10,000 spheres are cut and layered in size gradients from a translucent white ‘liquid’ fabric and laser cut with a fine silver reflective outline,” they said. “The innumerous spheres are then hand stitched individually to create a seamless and multilevel optical illusion, from which three-dimensional waves flare out weightlessly.”
As she prepared for the red carpet, Union welcomed W into her hotel suite around the corner from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and turned down the R&B playlist on her phone to let us in on what the Iris Van Herpen ensemble symbolized for her, and how it tied into this year’s theme. The tight, conceptual piece involved a plunging neckline, nodding to Union’s sense of sexy confidence and her aspirations to revolutionize the way “the foolish think about Black women,” she said. “I always want to come out with a left jab to the face of anti-Blackness, so I want to be my full Black self on every red carpet.” For the hair and makeup, though, she kept it simple. “The dress says so much, so I can say less with the glam.”
“I don’t want a uniform,” Union said of the look. “I want to be known for change, and constantly pushing my personal envelope so no one can easily guess what I’m going to have on my body when I walk down a carpet.”
Van Herpen first reached out to Union in April, as soon as the date for the 2021 Met Gala was announced. This initial ask came as a surprise to Union, who did not expect to hear from any designers until the last minute. “A lot of times, Brown girls, we’re towards the end,” she said while giving a knowing glance. “For someone I respect and who is so avant-garde to think of me first? If you’re good with Solange, you’re amazing with me!”
“We had so much time to brainstorm,” Union said of the collaborative process with Van Herpen. “We landed on a dress that is almost alive with change. Staying on theme, it’s the changing of America. I wanted to go into the changing face of America, and as the dress moves, it changes,” she went on, later adding, “I come through like, change, today! But sometimes you catch a lot more flies with honey than vinegar.”
Gabrielle Union gets ready for the 2021 Met Gala in New York City on September 13th, 2021. Photograph by Rasaan Wyzard for W Magazine.
Union spoke about the ensemble in conceptual terms, too. To her, the Iris Van Herpen creation represents transformation and evolution. “Some see different colors, some see different shapes, but it changes and that’s what it’s supposed to be. As you move, there should be change, it shouldn’t be static,” Union told W. “It should feel a little weird to some, beautiful to others, out there to others. You should be able to have an opinion on it that doesn’t match anyone else’s because it’s about the evolution of what’s happening in America.”
“Working closely with Gabrielle Union on a custom creation for this year’s Met Gala has been a very memorable experience. From the moment I met her, I felt inspired by her ambition to drive positive change on so many levels of today’s society,” Van Herpen said in a statement to W, echoing Union’s sentiments. “I wanted to create a garment in perfect symbiosis with her and her ambitions, to show her beautiful mind to the world, and to embody our shared vision for a better future."
While on their world tour, Union and Wade broke Instagram nearly every time they stepped out in coordinated couple outfits. “We’re just having fun,” she said. “We stopped doing things for the reaction. If someone can caption a picture of our joy in the moment and we happen to look amazing in these great outfits, that’s what makes the picture awesome.”
She gave credit to her stylist, Thomas Christos Kikis for curating her recent “summer vibe.” When asked by Kiki what she’s feeling, Union answers, “Sex, because that’s what I’d like to inspire, to have happen a lot on this trip,” she said with a laugh. “We go from there, reimagining what sexy can be—sometimes it’s less, sometimes it’s tight, sometimes it’s structure, but at the end of the night I want some action, and that’s why my husband didn’t have a shirt on for any of his suits. I was appreciative of that!”
The Met Gala was just the latest stop of the day on her press tour for her upcoming book, You Got Anything Stronger? Earlier in the day, she could be seen stunting in vintage Isaac Mizrahi and paying homage to Cicely Tyson with a look designed by Sammy B. Union has a game recognize game mentality. “Sammy B. is everything to me—she’s an amazing Jamaican American designer who’s next. Well, for me, she’s now—I’ve been wearing her for a while, and I wanted to show her my love for centering us and not leaving us as an afterthought,” Union said. “People don’t give it up enough to the greats who came before you, and he was one of the first people to give it up to me when I first started and no one gave a shit, certainly not about Black talent—when Ms. Tina and Beyoncé talk about that, it’s real,” she went on. “If you didn’t want to dress Beyoncé, you sure as hell weren’t dressing the girl from Bring It On, but Isaac was one of the first to give me an opportunity and I wanted to give that honor back to him.”
She never thought of herself as a fashion icon, and it’s only with age that the actress has begun to consider clothing so abstractly (“I used to walk in the mall, see a whole outfit in the window and say, that looks perfect!” she said). The title of style icon, according to Union, belongs to people like Diahann Carroll, Solange, and Rihanna. In other words, anyone who “just doesn’t give a fuck” and knows how to “make fashion their bitch.”
“Even with my opinion or speaking up, I used to just be a mannequin and whatever someone else thought was good, that’s what I would put on my body,” Union explained. “I didn’t have the confidence in myself to be like, actually I don’t really like that, or, actually that designer is problematic and I don’t want to promote what they’re doing. I never spoke up, I just felt lucky to be invited. As I’ve gotten older, fuck that. I have a voice, I have an opinion, and it’s a complete collaboration.”
In addition to being the fashion couple of the moment, Union and Wade have become known for how supportive they are as parents of their children, including aspiring model Zaya Wade. “We want to show that it’s okay to meet your children where they’re at and let them lead,” she said. “We get a lot of parents of kids in the LGBTQ+ community who say, ‘I don’t know how to love them,’ which sounds wild, right? But because we get so much we’re like, okay maybe we’ve got to show people what that looks like. We can show you that we’re not pressed about much of anything, as long as they are kind, courteous, compassionate, and respectful. Home should be your child’s sanctuary.”
This Met Gala evening was not even close to being the last big moment of the week for Union—it also doubled as the eve of the publish date for her second book (which follows her first bestseller, We're Going To Need More Wine: Stories That Are Funny, Complicated and True, which she released in 2017). “I love writing, and I never thought it would be something I thought anyone else would be interested in,” she said, thanking “a lot of fucking therapy” and growing older for giving her the confidence to write a book that she hopes people find in their teens and twenties so that they “don’t waste their life feeling unworthy of basic courtesy.”
And next, she’ll star in The Perfect Find, Numa Perrier’s adaptation of Tia Williams’s bestselling novel of the same name for Netflix, which she promises will be a sexy ode to fashion and Black designers. “In finding love of self, you can appreciate everything differently,” she said of the forthcoming film. “Love, fashion, art, music, sex—when you combine them all, it’s fucking delicious,” she said. Until then, she’s just reveling in the moment she’s in this year: “I want to serve every time. I want the gagging. That’s when I know my work here is done.”