Before costume designer Patrik Milani began work on Showtime's "The Chi," an upcoming drama series centered around the lives of residents of Chicago's South Side, he had been to Chicago — but not really, he'll admit.
"I've gone there for the museums and I ended up going there for social events, but I didn't really know Chicago that well," Milani told me over the phone from Los Angeles this fall. "And it's such a nice city. It's such a cosmopolitan city. It can be so sophisticated."
Milani had visited Chicago in a way that many do: perhaps, a crowded afternoon trip to the Art Institute's Impressionist wing; a 1:10 p.m. Cubs game, if the boys are in town; a 45-minute wait, followed by a deep dish dinner at either Giordano's or Lou Malnati's. But there's a dichotomy between that Chicago — the city confined between the Chicago River and Roosevelt Road — and the Chicago that contains everything else, which, historically speaking, includes the South Side. "The Chi" is hoping to disrupt that. "This sounds stupid to say, but even people from Chicago [have never been to the South Side]," said Milani. "But it's not all violence, and unfortunately, that's all that gets in the news, you know?"
The Crown' Costume Designer on Dressing a Royal Wedding, Jackie Kennedy and the Sexy, Swinging '60s in Season 2
The Costumes in Marvel's New Teen Superhero Series, 'Runaways,' Include Pink Pussy Hats and Feminist Slogan T-Shirts
"The Chi," which was entirely filmed in Chicago, is a homecoming of sorts for its co-executive producers, South Side natives Common and Lena Waithe; Waithe, of course, made Emmys history this year as the first African-American woman to win for comedy writing with "Master of None"'s masterful "Thanksgiving" episode. Back in October, she told EW that she never thought she'd write about her hometown, but suddenly, things changed. "I just got to a place in my life where I think it was so misunderstood," she said. "It's a different side of my voice, about being black and human and trying to survive and have a dream. It's raw. It's real. I'm not sugar-coating. It's not, 'Let's show black people in Chicago in a positive light.' It's, 'I want to show people in a human light.'" Waithe's frustrations were, and are, real. The area is preceded by its history of poverty and violence, but the South Side is also a vastly underrated capital of art, architecture, food and culture. "The Chi" hopes to spotlight those latter stories, yet won't shy away from the aforementioned, more commonly heavier-hitting issues, either.
Milani joined the "The Chi" team when he learned that Rick Famuyiwa — with whom he worked on 2015's "Dope," a coming-of-age film set in the crime-frequent neighborhood of Inglewood, Calif. — was directing the pilot. To bring the vibrant South Side to life, Milani spent his four weeks of preparations camped out at a coffee shop called Currency Exchange Café, located just a block west of Washington Park, the runner-up location for Barack Obama's forthcoming presidential library. "I met a lot of interesting people, whether artists or non-artists or sneakerheads — it's sort of a hub of culture [on] the South Side," said Milani. "And for me, it's important as a costume designer to really live it."
Milani also became intimately familiar with Family Thrift, a trio of thrift stores located throughout Chicago which provided a hefty chunk of "The Chi"'s wardrobe. "Family Thrift, I swear, I just love them," he said, laughing. "I'd say 50 percent of the costumes come from Family Thrift." He mentioned that Family Thrift came in handy for one character in particular, Milani's favorite: Laverne, an alcoholic, former South Side "It" girl, played by "The Wire"'s Sonja Sohn. "Her era was 2001, 2000, so her whole look was leggings and a red leather coat," he said. "I would literally just spend hours [at Family Thrift] just digging, digging, digging, looking to find the perfect pieces for Laverne. We were super happy with the way she looked."
With "The Chi"'s ensemble cast, Milani was tasked with outfitting men, women and children of all ages in ways that were also genuinely representative of the actual South Side. It was important to both Milani himself and the greater series that the characters be as fleshed out — and for some, as recognizable — as possible. "Like [with] you or me, it's not just our clothes. It's our haircuts. It's how we walk," he said. "I really tried to get into creating characters that are really three-dimensional, and not just dressing up for the part." He established a lengthy rapport with the hair, makeup and props teams — "we had a lot of meetings, which I think was probably unusual for TV," he said — to ensure that characters were being represented holistically. Then, everything was decided at the costume fitting.
"We also created color palettes for each character," said Milani. "We did a lot of pre-work ahead of fitting them. And I think a lot of the actors really trusted Lena, they trusted Rick. I explained the boards to them about who [their] character is and why [they're] a certain way, so it went really smoothly."
Milani wasn't without help: Showtime worked to get both Nike and Adidas (as well as Air Jordan, as a sub-company on Nike) on board to provide a number of limited-edition sneakers for the sneakerhead characters — most notably Emmett, portrayed by 21-year-old Jacob Latimore of the Sundance-beloved film, "Sleight." "He's sort of based on a couple real people in Chicago, on the South Side," said Milani. "In one scene, he has these hunting camo pants with a military jacket. It's not really what you'd expect people to see, but if you really go to the South Side and look at sneakerheads, that's how they dress."
It wasn't long into Milani's six-odd weeks in Chicago that he realized how integral its sports franchises — including the NBA's Bulls, the NHL's Blackhawks, the NFL's Bears and the MLB's Cubs and White Sox — are to the city's DNA. "Just as a foreigner coming to Chicago, the first thing I noticed was that there's a lot of red," he said. "You see it everywhere in people's clothing. All the teams have red." While "The Chi" couldn't get permission to use any official team merchandise during filming, Milani was cognizant of incorporating the shade when appropriate. The Chicago flag, too, is ubiquitous throughout the city, and Milani printed it on a sweatshirt for Jason Mitchell's character, Brandon, which can be seen in the series's trailer. ("He's very Chicago," added Milani.)
As Milani and I wrapped up our phone call, we made additional conversation about Chicago. "Again, I hate to say this, I had only been in the Loop. I hadn't been anywhere else," he said. "I really immersed myself. You have to. I don't know how I could've come up with characters if [I didn't] really just immerse [myself] in the city."
"The Chi" premieres on Sunday, Jan. 7 at 10 p.m. EST on Showtime.
Homepage photo: Shamon Brown as Papa. Photo: Matt Dinerstein/SHOWTIME