“Well, Idris is 6-foot-2 and he loves sharp clothing,” says Cheryl Konteh, who has the best job ever.
We all know that Idris Elba looks amazing in pretty much anything: A super-villain suit, a natty wool coat, reading glasses and even chunky fur outerwear and a floppy hat with cat ears. Of course, those are just the Golden Globe and double SAG winner’s on-screen roles.
Because Elba’s real-life style is just as compelling and consistently dapper — often in a thoughtfully experimental way — for red carpet appearances, magazine covers, ad campaigns and his utterly charming TV appearances. Whether he’s wearing a sharply tailored monochrome suit, an explosion of designer prints or a relaxed, but always perfectly fit T-shirt, jeans and sneakers look, Elba never fails to make an impact.
Obviously, his evergreen style appeal can be ascribed to inherent swagger, which rightfully landed him the People‘s “Sexiest Man Alive” title in 2018, but credit where credit is due to his longtime stylist, Cheryl Konteh.
“I think I’ve been working with Id now for maybe, almost 10 years?” she says, over the phone from London, as I died a little bit on the other end. (She calls him “Id.“) Sounds about right, based on Elba’s proud Instagram post praising his stylist — or “my sister,” aw — when they both appeared in the prestigious The Hollywood Reporter “Most Powerful Stylists” issue.
Konteh, who started her fashion career in editorial at the Sunday Times and InStyle U.K., first met Elba on a magazine shoot. “We got on and then he booked me for something else and something else and the rest is history,” she explains. “Now we collaborate on lots of projects.”
Nearly 12 years in, Konteh still works with Elba on his editorial moments, including that long overdue People issue and, recently, the “Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw” cover feature in Entertainment Weekly. He wears his signature tailored suit aesthetic, but, intentionally, not in as pristine shape as it normally would be for the red carpet (above).
“I’ve got the picture of me jumping up and down on [the suit] and dirtying it. That was insane,” she laughs, about the shoot on a Universal sound stage in Los Angeles. “That’s the first time I’ve ever had to do that to a suit.” Konteh can’t recall the brand, but it’s fine because it’s not like she had to return the suit after her, erm, customization process. “No. Uh, no. Absolutely not.”
The two also collaborate on 2HR Set, Elba’s new gender-neutral streetwear collection, which is inspired by additional segments of his prolific career: music and DJ’ing. (Related PSA: Please watch him essentially live his best life playing a ’90s one-hit wonder DJ with a nanny side hustle in “Turn Up Charlie” on Netflix. It’s adorable.)
“Styling Idris for events is really cool, but working with him on our own line is really, really exciting,” says Konteh. “I love it and he loves it. But the one thing I know is when Idris wears something, people go crazy about it.” (She finally joined Instagram in November 2018 to tag her top client’s looks because she was receiving an overwhelming amount of email inquiries after each appearance.) Konteh and Elba work with a design team to create the 2HR Set “drops,” for which she also styles the ad campaigns.
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In a moment of synergy, Elba fast-tracked a one-of-a-kind T-shirt from his line to wear to the “Hobbs & Shaw” premiere in London. “Idris designed [the T-shirt] in two days and we had it made,” she says. Konteh coordinated the black tee with red linear graphics, showcasing a well-placed 2HR Set logo, with Nudie jeans and white sneakers by Amsterdam-based Filling Pieces (below).
“We wanted to go really casual. It’s London,” she says about his hometown premiere. “On that particular day, it was one of the hottest days. It was really bakin‘ and we just wanted to keep it cool.”
But even when Elba opts for a relaxed aesthetic, alongside Queen Helen Mirren and Princess Margaret (a.k.a. Vanessa Kirby of “The Crown“) in cocktail-wear, there’s no question he and Konteh put in the thought and effort. He looks especially dashing while comfortably lounging on the hood of a sports car with Dame Mirren.
“We wanted to do something special, something different for London,” adds Konteh. “That’s the great thing about his style. He can go super cazh and still look incredibly stylish.”
After working with him for so long on so many projects, Konteh developed a natural instinct for what works on Elba. “I know 90% of what Idris likes. I know the kind of styles, where to go, the shapes. It’s not difficult,” she says, possibly with a shrug. And, as many of us can relate, Konteh always has him on the brain — but professionally speaking, people, professionally.
“With Idris, I think about his wardrobe and the next looks with a 360 approach,” she explains. “I’m always thinking about it. So if I see a pair of trousers, for instance, I’ll think, ‘Oh my god, I love these Stella pants. They’d be great on Idris.’ I block them at the back of my mind and then when I’m doing a fitting, I’ll know this outfit will be perfect for this event.”
For his recent appearance on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” (and attempt to explain the plot of “Cats”), Elba also went elevated casual. “Well, Idris is 6-foot-2 and he loves sharp clothing,” explains Konteh. “Yet for that particular outfit, I felt it was time that we did something a little bit different. We both love color and we love prints, but this is like a really cool kind of collaboration with color and with print, but with still keeping that classic silhouette.”
“I adore Stella McCartney — I love what she stands for — and I love those pants,” says Konteh. “But rather than go for a plain T-shirt, we teamed it with a Givenchy T-shirt and, sadly, you can’t see [on TV], but the bottom third of the panel on the back of the shirt has an amazing print.” (Yup, the print is pretty dope.)
The pair also sought out Givenchy artistic director Clare Waight Keller for Elba’s custom clergy-inspired tuxedo (in the gallery below) for the 2018 “Heavenly Bodies“-themed Met Gala. “Her tailoring is second to none,” says Konteh. “We wanted a one-of-a-kind, but yet totally cool at the same time.”
For this year’s “Camp: Notes on Fashion” Met Gala, Elba also deftly and rakishly channeled the tricky theme in a custom Atelier Versace Barocco-print tuxedo jacket, but in a bright neon and accented with shimmering Swarovski embroidery. “We wanted to do a print and nobody does a print louder than Versace. We absolutely adore Donatella,” says Konteh.
“He had so much fun,” she adds. “He absolutely loved it. Loved it. We were both excited because Idris wouldn’t necessarily wear this on an every day basis, but it allows us to just do the theme.”
Together, Konteh and Elba “always push the boundaries” in his style, but there are limits. “There are lots of things that I wouldn’t necessarily pull for Idris because they’re not him,” she says. “I personally wouldn’t style Idris in huge, oversize, baggy trousers or joggers that are like 10 sizes too big. I wouldn’t style Idris like that.”
Konteh continues support the duo’s fashion relationships with “our favorites and the classics,” while keeping an eye out for new brands to experiment with and keep things interesting. “I always switch it up. Always keep it moving,” says the stylist, who also counts Elba’s fellow British national treasure (and co-star in 2017’s “Mountains Between Us”) Kate Winslet as a longtime client.
With the “Hobbs & Shaw” promo tour sadly over, Konteh has time to stockpile looks for future opportunities, like, perhaps, all the “Cats” premieres and appearances to come in December.
“I’m going to think about that one,” she says.
Enjoy a few more of our favorite Konteh-Elba style outings in the gallery below.
Follow Cheryl Konteh on Instagram @cheryl_konteh.