'Straight Outta Compton' Costume Designer on the Challenges of Dressing N.W.A. in 2015

And why Kelli Jones thinks it's a good thing that fans are so analytical about the film's wardrobe details.
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And why Kelli Jones thinks it's a good thing that fans are so analytical about the film's wardrobe details.
Clockwise from left: DJ Yella, Ice Cube, MC Ren, Dr. Dre, Corey Hawkins as Dr. Dre, Aldis Hodge as MC Ren, Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E, O'Shea Jackson Jr. as Ice Cube and Neil Brown Jr. as DJ Yella. Photo: Universal Pictures

Clockwise from left: DJ Yella, Ice Cube, MC Ren, Dr. Dre, Corey Hawkins as Dr. Dre, Aldis Hodge as MC Ren, Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E, O'Shea Jackson Jr. as Ice Cube and Neil Brown Jr. as DJ Yella. Photo: Universal Pictures

The N.W.A. biopic "Straight Outta Compton" blew original box office expectations right out of the water opening weekend with an over $60-million debut, making it the fifth-biggest opening in August, ever. But then, the success shouldn't have been that much of a surprise. In the late '80s and early '90s, the legendary hip-hop group disseminated crucial social commentary to the masses via innovative beats and rhymes and insightful, at times incendiary, lyrics — messages that still resonate nearly 30 years later. They also had a critical influence on fashion across all demographics and socioeconomic levels. We have Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, the late Eazy-E, MC Ren and DJ Yella to thank for the popularization of the still-sartorially relevant Dickies, pre-Nelly Nike Air Force 1s, monochrome sports-themed starter jackets and caps and all things Raiders. (Remember how all the suburban kids rocked their Specialties team caps way back when?)

"They were just as strong in their way of dressing as they were in their words," said the film's costume designer Kelli Jones, whom you may recognize for dressing legions of SAMCRO and fellow motorcycle club members on seven seasons of "Sons of Anarchy" — which, incidentally, put her at the top of "Compton" director F. Gary Gray's and co-executive producer Adam Merims' list. 

Photo: Universal Pictures

Photo: Universal Pictures

"Gary and Adam really put together the parallel between 'Sons of Anarchy' and 'Straight Outta Compton,'" she said. "Just the style, the design. [They're both a] group of guys that predominantly dress the same, yet were very individualized." 

"I know one of them is fictional and the other is N.W.A., but that was the thing. They're pretty much fashion icons within that world and they created this style without being slaves to fashion," Jones added. "So that's what I wanted to hit on and I wanted that to resonate with people today."

Of course, it also helps that the signature style of co-producers Dr. Dre and Ice Cube (played by Corey Hawkins and Ice Cube's son O'Shea Jackson Jr., respectively) really hasn't changed that much since the late '80s — even if their bank accounts have. "N.W.A. — even as they evolved as very successful rappers and they came into a lot of money — their style stayed the same," Jones said. "And that's what made it so powerful and what people wanted to emulate." 

Photo: Universal Pictures

Photo: Universal Pictures

As co-producers, Dr. Dre and Ice Cube were very hands-on when it came to dressing their on-screen portrayals. "The first thing Dre said to me when I met him was, 'Whoo, you got a lot of work to do,' laughed Jones. "Cube was like, 'You know what, here's the deal, we want people to look at us today and think that what we're wearing is cool, even though we wore it back then.'" Despite an impressive 866 precutting room wardrobe changes and 10,000-plus pieces, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and director Gray wanted collective approval on every, single, outfit.

For costume inspiration, Jones scoured the Internet and watched all the N.W.A. videos available, in addition to looking at co-producer Tomica Woods-Wright's personal collection of photos of her late husband Eazy-E and never-released videos from Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, including "some footage of the pool parties that you didn't see." She wanted to make sure the onstage recreations that are already seared into the public's collective memory were just as on-point as the unseen private moments.

Jones likens sourcing the film's vast wardrobe to a "wild goose chase" around vintage stores, costume shops and swap meets. Although, thanks to N.W.A.'s enduring fashion influence, many items are still on the shelves, like Dickies baggy pants, but with slight tweaks to reflect technological advancement since 1989. "Trying to find Dickies today that don’t have cell phone pockets... " Nike and Adidas provided items for the movie and a few designers even recreated archival pieces, including Pendleton and hip-hop favorite Karl Kani. "[Kani] made a couple of throwback sweatshirts and sent them to us," she said. "Corey [Hawkins] wears one in the scene when they're out by the pool."

Eazy's mesh gloves, check. Raiders font? Close. Photo: Universal Pictures

Eazy's mesh gloves, check. Raiders font? Close. Photo: Universal Pictures

Jones was also aware that loyal fans would be able to spot inaccuracies. "Like the net gloves that Eazy wears," she said. I’m sure if I put just regular leather fingerless gloves on, somebody would be blogging about the fact that he wore net gloves [in real life], which is just hilarious." After the film's debut, she experienced just that when impassioned, eagle-eyed viewers noticed inaccuracies in sports team logos — most notably the anachronistic Chicago White Sox logo on a cap that Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) wears in a pivotal scene and the questionable font on then-Los Angeles Raiders snapbacks worn throughout the film.

"We had to recreate the Raiders cap because it’s Oakland Raiders now," Jones explained. "So we had to put the L.A. Raiders in. We went through all of the fonts that they had and then we were down at the swap meet getting those hats embroidered pretty much every day." What some loyal viewers might also not understand is that a movie featuring so many sports teams and logos involves a labyrinth of legal and licensing issues. (Similar to Debra McGuire dressing a young Eddie Huang in '90s hip hop T-shirts on "Fresh Off the Boat.")

"This isn’t going to be a movie about N.W.A. without Raiders [gear] in it. But there were little things that needed to be really spot on when it came to the licensing and approvals," she said. "So some of those [tiny logos] we may have had to leave on or there would have been a big legal thing." And as for the uproar over wardrobe inaccuracies? Jones is cool with it.

Photo: Universal Pictures

Photo: Universal Pictures

"I think it's a good thing that they do that because that means that they really care," she said. "I’m telling you right now, if this movie only made $5 million, no one would be saying anything about any of it. I think that the more people that are talking about the littlest things, I think that's great. It just shows the intensity that N.W.A. sparked in general."