'I’m really proud': Austin designer Nina Berenato helps Megan Thee Stallion make swimsuit history
An Austin designer has again put some extra shine on a groundbreaking image of an iconic Texas artist.
Nina Berenato, a local jeweler and metalsmith, made a pop culture splash in 2019 when a gold face ornament she made was featured in the music video for Beyoncé’s “Spirit.”
“I was just, like, dying,” Berenato told the American-Statesman that summer about the blingy cameo. She also has made custom looks for “Good as Hell” performer Lizzo, another Houston music hero.
Now, another Houston music superstar is flashing a little Austin sparkle: Beyoncé collaborator Megan Thee Stallion. This week, the Grammy-winning rapper became one of the latest Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition cover models. In looks curated by celebrity stylist Eric Archibald, Megan wears handmade rings by Berenato.
After getting her professional start in New York, Berenato first moved to Austin in 2015 and started doing jewelry pop-ups in a boutique trailer. These days, the designer’s flagship Nina Berenato Jewelry store is located at the Domain Northside in North Austin.
Berenato got word in April that the rapper and her creative team potentially wanted to use the jewelry, she told the Statesman on Tuesday. The designer was busy helping her brother move to Austin from Lubbock at the time, so she was behind on emails. When she got a chance to catch up, she saw several unread messages with Megan Thee Stallion’s name in the subject line.
“Thank god they kept writing me,” Berenato says. “Immediately, I was like, ‘Yes!’”
The team needed the jewelry by the next day — “Every time I do something awesome like this, it’s on the craziest time schedule,” Berenato says — so she packed up a box with almost every single style in her line, about 200 pieces, and overnighted it to Miami.
Berenato also was excited about potentially being part of a new direction for Sports Illustrated. They touted the selection of the three women on this year’s covers as social change-makers who also represent beauty standards historically not highlighted by the magazine. The cover models each represent firsts for the swimsuit issue, too. Megan is the first rapper on the cover; Osaka is the first Black female athlete; and Bloom is the first transgender woman.
“Megan Thee Stallion doesn’t stay in one lane. In fact, she encourages everyone to be in multiple, and this is what we love about her,” Sports Illustrated editor-in-chief MJ Day said in a statement. “She captured the world’s attention with her music and style, but what caught our attention was her unfiltered approach to the way she makes you think. She uses her platform to push boundaries, dissect societal norms and encourage humans to think about the backward way our society continues to operate.”
Berenato tried to manage her excitement about even being considered, and the excitement of her staff, too. She knew that Sports Illustrated usually doesn’t feature jewelry prominently in the swimsuit shoots, and “my stuff is huge,” she says. The jeweler did not get word that her pieces were used until after the fact, or even get to see preview shots.
Once it was official, “we were counting down,” Berenato says of the wait for Monday’s big reveal. She got out of bed and started refreshing Instagram at 6 a.m.: “I was getting hyped.”
Megan wears four separate rings from the Austin company’s line in the photos, all in white gold, Berenato says. She’s also wearing the rings in a video interview with Tyra Banks released as part of the cover rollout, the designer adds.
All of the pieces used in the shoot — the Scale Ring, the Mountain Ring, the Fragment Ring and the Sacred Path ring — are staples of Berenato’s collection, “pieces that are super special to me, and that have stayed in the collection,” she says. And they’re all still available to purchase.
“I was really excited, because these are pieces that a lot of people have, especially a lot of girls in Texas,” she says. “I have people writing me like, ‘I have that ring! Me and Megan Thee Stallion have the same ring!’ That was pretty cool.”
Berenato is not 100% sure how her pieces caught the creative team's attention. Her line has been on the scene for about 12 years, and she regularly works with celebrity stylists, including Archibald. She wonders if the choice to use accessories from a Texas maker for another Texan’s groundbreaking shoot was intentional.
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“I was really kind of shocked, honestly,” Berenato says. “I wouldn’t have thought I would have gotten this particular job.” Though her pieces are fashionable, they’re ready to wear: “My rings are $70,” she says.
With the photos of her rings now out in the world, Berenato is feeling relieved and proud — of herself, of her team and of her latest model.
“I’m really proud of Meg Thee Stallion, honestly,” she says. “She looks amazing. It’s totally groundbreaking. They haven’t had many Black women on the cover of Sports Illustrated, period, especially someone who’s so outspoken and individualized, and who’s done so much for women.”
She’s also inspired by the “Savage” hitmaker’s public poise in the face of immense challenges, like the deaths of her mother and grandmother, as well as a highly publicized shooting last year that left her injured. (Rapper Tory Lanez was charged in the incident but has pleaded not guilty; the case is ongoing.)
During her October "Saturday Night Live" performance, Megan called for justice for Breonna Taylor, who was killed by police in her own home by Louisville, Ky., police. "We need to protect our Black women, and love our Black women, 'cause at the end of the day, we need our Black women," the rapper said on the stage. That same month, she wrote an op-ed for the New York Times, headlined "Why I Speak Up For Black Women."
“Of all the people who have risen to the top like that, she’s done it with a lot of grace, in my opinion,” Berenato says. “… Every time, she uses it as a way to bring more positive and good things to the community.
“Not to mention the body positivity. She’s got girls out here shaking their butts like never before.”