Wired for fashion

The Baltimore Sun

In the television crime drama The Wire, the criminal/vigilante character fans know as Omar is famous for wearing a heavy brown trench coat. He plots robberies in this Western-style duster, which flies in the wind, outlawlike, as he flees from the scenes of his various crimes.

The duster tells viewers, without words, that Omar is one bad dude. It works so well that even when he wears other costumes - a loose-flowing bathrobe, perhaps, as he goes to buy cereal from a corner store - you still know this man means business.

This is not simply an accident of fashion.

Behind the scenes of the hit HBO show, filming its fifth season in Baltimore, a team of costume designers plots and plans each character's outfits before an action- or intrigue-packed scene ever is shot.

"What it [the duster] says is, 'I'm a gunfighter,'" says Alonzo Wilson, the series' lead costume designer. "It's very Butch Cassidy. It says, 'I'm here to kick butt.'"

Wilson and his team think about each character of The Wire in a similarly deliberate way. Their work is equal parts science and art.

"We get a script, we read it and go over it," says Wilson. "Once we have [figured out] how many changes every person has ... we think about the relationship between the people and the sets and each other - then we get to work."

Every day, the costume crew combs the wardrobe room, which takes up an entire corner of The Wire's studio in an industrial strip in Columbia. Racks, marked with each character's name, hold clothing from past episodes and seasons that can be pulled for a scene. There's a section for Detective Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn), packed with fitted suits from Ann Taylor and Puma sneakers (the character's favorite) and Timberland boots.

A character like Kima would shop at Ann Taylor, says Wilson, because "she wants to go to the stores, she wants to buy the whole thing at one time and be done."

There's a long, long, long slot for all of mean ol' Marlo "Black" Stanfield's (Jamie Hector) many LRG shirts, jackets and jeans.

Marlo, a top-tier drug-dealer, wears each outfit only once, Wilson says. "I take into account that he could afford to have as many clothes as he wants," he says.

Look in the closet and find Omar's (Michael K. Williams) brown duster, from Outback Trading Company, hanging among his other fashion choices, including satin Superman boxer shorts.

Authenticity of details is crucial for a show like The Wire, says series creator David Simon, because his goal is to have the show be "of the moment in a real place."

"The show is making an argument about what are the problems in urban American cities and why we can't seem to solve the problems," Simon says. "Alonzo is essential and elemental to the show in that regard, because if you're making that argument about a city, you better be able to depict the American city. And that goes for everything - from art direction to wardrobe to the music you hear on the streets."

In any series shot on location, the fashion choices are important. Consider the lightweight pastels in the 1980s show Miami Vice. Or the gritty, street-savvy clothes on characters in NYPD Blue.

When Wilson was a costume designer on the soap-like high school drama Dawson's Creek, he says he shopped almost entirely at American Eagle, because that was "much more of a New England, teenaged mall store."

For The Wire, Wilson and assistant costume designer Amanda Johnson (who also worked in wardrobe for Homicide, another Simon-produced series filmed in Baltimore) put together, on average, about 125 outfits for a day's shoot.

On a recent day, Wilson had to fit Maria Broom, the actress who plays City Councilwoman Marla Daniels, in a suit for a scene in which she has a serious conversation with her estranged husband.

The suit was conservative, to match the character's demeanor and the seriousness of the scene. But there was color in the blouse, because "I always try to give her a little bit of a flair, because she is a woman of color," Wilson says.

If there are pieces missing when picking out an outfit, Wilson and Johnson hit the malls and city stores, supplementing an outfit with a new shirt or a pair of shoes, jewelry or maybe a coat. They shop incessantly; even with a closet of some 7,000 pieces, there is always something more a character needs.

"We try to support local boutiques as much as we can," says Johnson, a local artist and fashion expert with a keen eye for what clothes look and feel like in Baltimore. She's spent HBO's money on items from Mount Vernon's Katwalk, Zone and the new ultra-hip shop Gentei. And Johnson finds the majority of her Baltimore-centric fashions at stores in Lexington Market, on Howard Street and in Mondawmin Mall.

"We love Burlington Coat Factory," says Johnson. "And Eastpoint Mall."

For the actors who play homeless characters, Johnson has become adept at buying new clothes and making them look old (actors won't wear used clothes, Johnson says) - using bleach and shoe polish, to make stains, and a knife grinder for tears and rips, for example.

But for the production of the award-winning series' final season - which is scheduled to air this winter - the costume team has had to design a wardrobe for an entirely new group of players: journalists.

In shopping for the actors who will play the journalists, the team found clothes that were "not too hip," Wilson says, "but not too behind the times, either."

A female reporter's wardrobe was found mostly at Banana Republic, Ann Taylor, Nordstrom and Benetton. A male reporter's clothes came from Banana Republic and JC Penney. For a city editor, Wilson shopped at Casual Male. The higher-ranking managing editor's suits came from Men's Wearhouse.

"I've learned a lot about reporters," Wilson says. "Like, they'd wear sensible shoes because they do a lot of running around."

In fact, next season, look for a pair of black Banana Republic driving loafers on a female reporter. Wilson bought them recently for a scene where the reporter gets out of bed and hurriedly throws clothes on. Why? We don't know. The crew is loyal to the surprise element that has been crucial to the show's success and won't reveal even the tiniest hint about Season 5's plotline.

On a recent shopping spree, Wilson and Johnson spent more than $2,800 at The Mall in Columbia, buying jeans and tops for Dukie and Michael's brother "Bug"; shirts and ties for Detective William "Bunk" Moreland (Wendell Pierce) and State Sen. R. Clayton "Clay" Davis; athletic zip-up jackets for a female reporter, and the mysterious linen outfits for an unnamed character.

The wardrobe team shops two to three times a week. Wilson often tries on sports jackets to see if they'll work on similarly built actors.

Wilson won't say how much his budget is for clothes, but complains, "it's not enough."

Still, his aim for the look of the show, style-wise, is high:

"I don't want it to look like New York or California," he says. "I don't even want it to look like a TV show. I want it to be that we can take them off the set, put them into a real homicide unit or a real newsroom, and they'd fit right in."

The crew often accepts clothes from labels, such as Phat Farm, which send items that might fit the feel of the show.

Under Armour sends plenty of clothes. They make for great jackets on detectives, the crew says. Urban labels A. Tiziano and Indigo Red are brands Johnson really likes for street-savvy characters.

For apparel companies, having clothes seen on The Wire is worth as much or more than an average commercial spot, Johnson says.

"I've noticed, if I place something that hasn't really hit here hard, it'll be here next year," says Johnson, noting the local explosion of sneaker label Zoo York, since characters started wearing them. "Once, I met [Phat Farm] founder Russell Simmons and he shook my hand and said, 'I should be cutting you a check.' And I was like, 'Yeah, you really should.'"


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