"Well, well, well, look what the cat cleaned up, showered, exfoliated, powdered, lipsticked, Guccied and dragged in," teased Karen Walker (the inimitable Megan Mullally and her high-pitched tone), during the third season of "Will & Grace." You know, back in 2000, when Tom Ford was the Creative Director of the revered Italian fashion house and George W. Bush beat Al Gore in the presidential election. Now, 17 years later, with Alessandro Michele at the helm of Gucci — and one of Karen's New York society friends as the current POTUS — the socialite/office assistant's high-fashion-referencing squeaky banter fits right back into the conversation.
"Will & Grace," the hit NBC sitcom that ran from 1998 to 2006, is back, picking up in the present day (and completely ignoring that 20-years-forward series finale even exists, kind of like the "Gilmore Girls" revival). In the reboot, Will (Eric McCormack) still lives with his single interior designer BFF Grace (Debra Messing). Struggling actor neighbor Jack still bursts into the apartment sans knocking (and avoiding doorbells like the millennial he probably wants to be), and Karen still throws out those snarky observations and just-offensive-enough commentary.
In its first run in the late '90s and early aughts, the series was celebrated as groundbreaking for bringing a positive and ultimately relatable portrayal of LGBTQ characters into America's network TV-focused living room. Of course, that concept isn't so envelope-pushing now (although two grown-ass professionals still needing to live with a roommate might be.)
Costume designer Lori Eskowitz-Carter has been with the series since the very beginning and even dressed the reunited cast — plus Rosario! — for the 2016 election special (sigh), which spurred the full revival. NBC has already given a second season a green light. Like the original series, the revival is filmed in front of a live studio audience, essentially the best way to see how the jokes land, especially ones written on the fly about Grace's Reddi Wip-reminiscent ruffle-front shirts.
"I've worked on a million shows in my career and to have a show like 'Will & Grace' to dress the way they do — and producers appreciate it — is a really special fun thing," she says. "They don't care if my costumes steal focus from what the actors are saying."
When I caught the costume designer on her Los Angeles commute, she was on her way to the studio to film the sixth (out of 16) episodes. Lucky for me, LA traffic is a bish as always, so Eskowitz-Carter had plenty of time to dish on the fab four's fashion (but not so much emotional) evolution, the Grace looks that will hopefully elicit zingers from Karen and her favorite costume moments from the original series.
For Will, Grace, Jack and Karen, how have their styles evolved — and what has stayed the same? How do the outfits tell us where everyone is over a decade later?
Everyone had a specific look when we shot the show 11 years ago, so I wanted to stay true to that. Their styles have evolved a bit, but it's still reminiscent of what I did back then because I felt like people were used to looking at them a certain way. They've all become slightly more modern versions of themselves.
Will always wore very sleek suits, and his signature look is a repp tie, and I still stay true to the repp tie, but there are obviously skinnier repp ties than there were when I dressed him in the early 2000s. And then Sean [as Jack] was always super preppy with a sweater vests and had a J. Crew kind of feeling, and he's still like that, but it's slightly more sophisticated, like his silhouette is much skinnier. He wears ties sometimes now, which we never really did on him before.
With Megan, who plays Karen, hers has evolved. I feel like now, it's slightly more fashion-forward. I feel like she wasn't trend-following back then — she was just über sophisticated and now I feel like she's more current and more of a fashion risk-taker. I feel like her [style has changed more than anybody else's on the show]. She was more conservative back then, and now I feel like her stuff is maybe sexier. She can wear anything, and she has so much personal sex appeal that I feel like that really oozes out of her character. She's wearing a lot of Fendi. A lot of Giambattista Valli. She's wearing a ton of Gucci. Tons of it. A lot of Dolce [and Gabbana], too.
Grace is — she was always the one who was the most eclectic. She could wear anything back then. She wore everything from a t-shirt to the highest-end designer out there. And we're still kind of doing that. She's wearing stuff that is still reminiscent of Grace — we're still bringing out the pearls and she's still wearing a lot of wacky pieces mixed in with regular things — but it's slightly more grown up.
What are some wacky pieces to look forward to?
Coming up, she has a sequin trench coat that's really fabulous. She has a shirt from Barneys that looks like a straightjacket, but obviously it's not. She has a beautiful faux fur vest. Some big pieces with ruffles, which was her signature look, too. I'm still trying to stay true to what people think of when they think of her clothing. You know, like the signature pieces that jokes were written about.
Actually, in that [upcoming new] episode, you'll see Grace wearing a white ruffle shirt. The jokes always came from what I put her in, not the other way around. That's how I dressed her. So when I shop, I always have that in mind, like, 'oh, maybe they could write a joke about that.' Because some of her stuff is so silly, but it works on her because she can wear anything.
So do the costume-inspired jokes come from the actors ad-libbing or the writers?
This is how we do our show: You shoot the scene one time with the words on the page and then [the writers rewrite the] jokes that don't work and we shoot it again. There's a whole team of writers that are standing there, and they write for five minutes. Then they throw new jokes out, give them to the cast, who memorizes them in two seconds — it's insane, you should see them do it — and then we do the scene again with the better jokes. We have an audience there, so [the writers] know right away what they're laughing at or not. If [the cast members are] wearing something and I think there's a really good joke there, then that's when that joke will be placed into the episode.
Do you remember a moment in the original series when one of your pieces elicited a memorable Karen joke?
When Grace was in a cow print skirt one time, and when she walked in and Karen said to her, "got milk?" That was when the advertising campaign first came out. It was really timely and funny.
What was it like for the four actors to get back into their "Will & Grace" costumes?
It was really, really emotional when we did the voting special for YouTube. Putting on their clothing was crazy emotional. But also, they were nervous. It was a really exciting night when we pulled that thing off in secret. It felt like we hadn't skipped a beat in a weird way. They still have a ton of chemistry. When we wrapped 11 years ago, it was very emotional. But then getting back together, [we have] the entire crew and the entire cast and we've had a lot of our most fun guest stars back already, so that's a really exciting thing, too, to see them all.
What costume developments should we expect for the guest stars?
Everybody has fun doing our show because they get to wear fun things. Having Harry Connick Jr. and Bobby Cannavale back was really fun. Minnie Driver as [Karen's husband Stanley's mistress — and daughter of her previous husband] Lorraine Finster is one of my most favorite characters that we've ever had on the show, and to have her back was amazing. She's really fun to dress, and the character is so silly. So just being able to find the wackiest dress for her was amazing. I feel like we did it. I can't talk about the episode because it's a big secret, but you'll see. The dress she's wearing by Redemption is incredible.
What are some of your favorite costume moments from the original series?
A pair of striped Paul Smith high boots that Grace wore and Max [Mutchnick], our executive producer loved them so much that he had her put her foot up on the table during the scene and say something about the boots. Max really appreciates the clothing and costume. He's all about it. He's our biggest cheerleader when it comes to having enough money to shop high-end for them, because with most TV shows, you don't get to buy stuff like you do on 'Will & Grace.' They're wearing stuff that looks great, but it's not fresh off the runway.
Early 'aughts and late '90s fashion is back again, but what looks would you not want to revisit?
The show was too sad for me to watch for years because I missed it so much. So I hadn't watched any of the reruns, but I just started watching it again, and I did notice was that when we first started the show, I didn't really do designer. I don't think I had money to shop [designer], and I feel like you can see how their clothes really evolved into true designer stuff. I feel like I made them look good at the beginning with not a lot of money, and then when we became a huge hit, the budget went up so much and I was able to really [dress them in designer fashion].
Right, because the show started airing before H&M opened in the U.S. in 2000 and fast fashion really proliferated.
Right, like now, with H&M, Zara, all those places, you can really be trend-following for not a lot of money. But back then it was like Banana Republic, J. Crew and stores like that and they weren't exactly — they didn't look like stuff from Paris. If you watched the old episodes, like, especially Karen, she was wearing August Cashmere sweater sets and pencil skirts from Macy's. She looked good, but then all of a sudden you can see her switch into Yves Saint Laurent, Dolce and Louis Vuitton. I feel like for her, you can see the switch. I was watching a show, she was in a J. Crew sleeveless shift dress. And now I wouldn't put her in that. She would be in the Céline version of that.
Congratulations on the second season pickup. Will you be working on that one, too?
Of course I will. I've done every episode of the show, so there's no way in hell that I would let anybody else do it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
"Will & Grace" returns at 9 pm, Thursday, Sept. 28 on NBC.