Tessa Thompson is no stranger to the world of couture (she’s attended shows in the past, and worn couture during red-carpet events), but attending your first Chanel couture show is always a big deal, no matter your level of high-fashion expertise. So, to mark the occasion, Thompson went appropriately big. Hours before the show, she was preparing in her Paris hotel room, slipping into punky “lady in red” makeup and a rockabilly hairstyle to match her all-white skirt-and-top set and black quilted leather belt bag. “I think if you’re going to do couture, Chanel is the most quintessential couture house,” she said with a smile. “I’ve seen videos and images of the show, but I think nothing compares to being there. Seeing those garments up close, the incredible amount of artistry and the spectacle of it all, is exciting.”

Thompson knows quite a bit about the artistry of clothing—or, at least, the magic of suits. For the past five months, the actress has been working on the upcoming Men in Black: International. Nearly every day of filming, as the character Agent M, she wore a tailored suit by Paul Smith. “The suit was incredibly well made and well tailored. There was one scene where I’m out of the suit, and I was definitely excited,” she said. “I think wearing a suit for that long, sometimes you’re like, How do I express myself? You also realize that men’s clothing is a lot more comfortable!”

With that lesson learned, Thompson has been wearing a lot of suits beyond the big screen as well, particularly vintage ones. “Before I could afford fashion, I was always into thrifting,” she explained. “My parents are big thrift shoppers. I grew up with that aesthetic. As much as I love really clean lines and stuff, I’m also attracted to things that feel ornate and that have a story. I think the thing for me that’s exciting now is to find vintage pieces that just feel like they were made yesterday.”

Tessa Thompson getting ready in her hotel room before attending the Chanel haute couture show on Tuesday, January 22, in Paris. Photograph by Elodie Chapuis for W magazine.

When asked to name her favorite L.A. thrift shop, she refuses to share, because it’s just so good she doesn’t want people to know about it. She is, however, happy to rhapsodize on those who inspire her personal style. “All the people I love in fashion are the ones that don’t get boxed into one space, in terms of gender,” she said. “They have a fluidity. I like Prince, David Bowie, Grace Jones. Sort of bold and distinctive. I’ve always been inspired by those folks.”

Just as MIB: International’s Agent M added suits to her wardrobe, other characters have left their own stamp on Thompson’s closet. Take, for example, Sorry to Bother You’s Detroit, a free-spirited performance artist. “The idea that I spoke about with the director is that she uses her whole self as a canvas,” Thompson said. “In terms of her makeup, we did really bold, far-out looks. She wore a lot of graphic tees; one said, ‘The future is female ejaculation.’ The whole idea was using yourself to say something, and I think, in terms of Hollywood, there can be a conscientiousness about what people are going to say or how they’re going to feel about what you’re wearing. I think a character like Detroit reminded me that the way I dress and the way I do my makeup can be an extension of how I feel, what’s important to me, and what I’m thinking about.”

Tessa Thompson getting ready in her hotel room before attending the Chanel haute couture show on Tuesday, January 22, in Paris. Photograph by Elodie Chapuis for W magazine.

Tessa Thompson getting ready in her hotel room before attending the Chanel haute couture show on Tuesday, January 22, in Paris. Photograph by Elodie Chapuis for W magazine.

In addition to getting her into suits, MIB also has the actress re-teaming with her Thor: Ragnarok costar Chris Hemsworth. “Chris, he and I are, at this point, good friends and very comfortable with each other,” she said. “I had so much fun, and the studio was really excited to get us together again. They just really trusted us with improvising. Our favorite thing would be to get to the end of the scene and just be convinced we were never going to work again. It was so weird what we were doing.”

Besides being comfortable with the chemistry on set, another thing that drew her to the project was the female lead character. “I’m such a fan of the Men in Black movies,” she says. “I think there have always been women inside of the franchise, but they’ve never been at the center. I’m really looking forward to a time when it’s not noteworthy that women are at the center of the narrative.” Likewise, the women involved in her other big 2019 release, the indie film Little Woods, have played a starring role in Thompson’s life. “The writer and director has become a really good friend of mine. Women are at the center, and it’s directed and written by a woman, all the producers, including myself, are women. Again, I hope we get to this space where this isn’t noteworthy. But to be on that set, it was very different, and it felt great.”

With that, it’s time to head out the door, as finishing touches are put on her red eyeshadow, the color a nod to the favorite hue of Coco Chanel herself (a fact that Thompson learned on a tour of the legendary fashion designer’s apartment the day before the show). Adjusting her harness-esque Chanel bag, Thompson can’t help but reminisce on some not-so-couture—but no less stylish—memories. “When I was young and in my Annie Hall days, I’d come to Paris and go to the flea market,” she said. “I’d get four big hats for $20 and feel very proud of myself.”

Tessa Thompson getting ready in her hotel room before attending the Chanel haute couture show on Tuesday, January 22, in Paris. Photograph by Elodie Chapuis for W magazine.