By Lolis Eric Elie
Most of the time, costume designer Alonzo Wilson's work appears quietly on your television screen. He is one of the many professionals who make our show look natural and unpremeditated, even though there is plenty of thought and meditation that goes into the work. Don't trust my word on the subject: The Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising featured his work in its Outstanding Art of Television Costume Design exhibition. Interviewing Alonzo was really an opportunity to educate myself about his craft. I hope you learn something as well.
I don't remember costume designer being one of the options offered at my high school career day. How did you get into the field?
Alonzo Wilson: In the early '80s Dino DeLaurentiis opened a film studio in my hometown of Wilmington, N.C. My older brother worked as a welder for the company. He built the sound stages and later became the studio's welder for sets and construction. He told me the PA/driver/ assistant for a designer was fired and they were looking for a replacement. I was at UNC-Wilmington at the time working summer stock theatre. I had no experience in costumes. I interviewed and got the job as the PA for a costume designer, Clifford Capone. He became my mentor and ushered me into a new career. It was a serendipitous moment. He saw something in me and started teaching me everything he knew.
Until I started working on 'Treme,' I didn't give a lot of thought to what a costume designer does. It goes far beyond merely picking clothes that match. At what point in the production cycle of a television show or feature do you become involved?
Alonzo Wilson: Basically once a costume designer is hired, the process begins. Most of the time, the costume designer is not the first creative headhired--usually that is the production designer. I feel we should begin at the same time, but that comes down to the money and prep-time the production has budgeted. Reading, breaking down the script, and budgeting are the first steps. I usually present concept ideas as soon as I can to get feedback from the producers or directors. In television, the creator and the creative producers drive the creative team's efforts. In features, the director is the point person. Indeed, there is much more to the job than shopping and putting together outfits.
Once you've read the script, how does your process begin? What do you consider in choosing wardrobe for a particular character?
Alonzo Wilson: This is the point where I will present sketches, research, tear-sheets, anything to convey my ideas for the characters costumes for the project. This is a jumping-off point for creative dialogue and to see if we are all on the same page with the concepts and the vision of the producers and director of the project.
Could you name some television shows or feature films where the costume designer did a particularly good job or where the costume designer's work enhanced the production particularly well?
Alonzo Wilson: This is always a difficult question to answer with any brevity. All shows have qualities which make the project special from a costume designer’s point of view. It is not always what is noticed about costumes, but what you don't notice. Meaning, especially in contemporary work, most costume designers work to make the characters’ costumes organic, and fit the characters in such a way where the costumes are practically undetected and are in-character. This is when viewers don't see anything about the costume that breaks their viewing moment. Everything is fluid and believable. It always appears the most work goes into period costumes, but the truth is contemporary design is much harder in my opinion.
I assume that designing and crafting the Mardi Gras Indian suits for Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters) was a different kind of challenge for you. How did you prepare for it?
Alonzo Wilson: First of all, designing Mardi Gras Indian suits was an honor. The secrecy surrounding the culture was a factor in researching the construction of the suits. [Executive Producer] Nina Noble set up a few contacts for me, and we went from there. It was a challenge to complete the suits in the limited time frame and construct them in the traditional way, but it is my job as a costume designer to design the costumes. I have to do the research and execute the design based on the findings and what is required for the characters. It doesn't matter whether it is for television, features or stage. The job is the same process.
Were there any other unique challenges you've faced in conceiving and constructing costumes during your three seasons on 'Treme'?
Alonzo Wilson: For now, let's talk concept. Each season I try to incorporate the theme of the season's arc into the design of the patches and the colors of the Mardi Gras Indian Suits.
Season 3 possesses a unique arc, but perhaps none as powerful as the character of Albert Lambreaux. I focused more on his arc-- his thoughts and his challenge to finish his suit. The lime green color is a huge part of the concept, the story–not just because of the beauty of the color of the plumes and trim, but the meaning behind the color. I don't want to say too much about the meaning.
In addition to Indian Suits, there are unique challenges within the time frame 'Treme' takes place. There are times when the costumes require replicating graphic T-shirts of the period, whether it be for a band, politics, or a memorial T-shirt for funerals and second lines. The uniforms at a particular venue, school uniforms, crime marches, or city hall protests. The list goes on and on because 'Treme' is unique in every aspect of production.