At this point in her career, Kelli Jones has established herself as one of the top costume/wardrobe designers in Hollywood, with credits like Sons of Anarchy, Parks and Recreation, and now the much-buzzed about Straight Outta Compton under her belt. But when the Portland, Oregon native moved to Los Angeles as a young woman, she did so as a fashion model. She’d spent a few years modeling overseas, mostly in Milan, and was moderately successful, but she eventually grew disenchanted with the industry and made her exit. It probably didn’t help that she hates to have her picture taken.
Ahead, Jones talks about how she made the transition from model to in-demand costume designer, shares some of her experiences working in Hollywood so far, talks about how she got her big break with Sons of Anarchy, and which character has been her favorite to dress, among other things. Oh, and she also addresses that whole Eazy-E/White Sox hat controversy as well.
How did this job, Straight Outta Compton, come about? Obviously, you’ve built a pretty good resume so far. But how did the crew behind this movie find you?
It was pretty random. One day I just got a call from my agent, and they said that they got a call from one of the producers who was working on the N.W.A. movie and they wanted me to come in and do a preliminary meeting. And I was like, “N.W.A. like the rap group?” I had never met Gary (Director G. Gary Gray) before, and I had never met the producer, and I’d never done a movie for Universal before. So I started doing the research, and I caught on really quick that it was just coincidental that on Sons of Anarchy I dressed those guys very similar to how the N.W.A. guys dressed back in the day, so there was a massive parallel between what Charlie (Hunnam) would wear — all he wore for seven seasons was Air Force Ones and baggy jeans and Dickies and t-shirts — and what they wore. So it was a very similar vibe, and I kind of gathered that was the reasoning behind the initial meeting. I put together some images of how I’d make it a little more today, so it wouldn’t look so just ’80s and ’90s, and I kind of went from there. Gary’s a tough director, but I hit it off with him. And then I got a call about a week later saying that I got the gig.
That’s really interesting, the similarities between the way biker gang guys dressed and how rappers from inner city L.A. in the ’80s dressed. That’s kind of wild.
It was totally wild. I remember talking to some of the Hell’s Angels that were kind of around for Sons of Anarchy, and I didn’t notice it at first, but a lot of younger guys in motorcycle gangs dress really hip-hop. I took that element from some of those guys, and I brought that into Sons of Anarchy. That look was kind of romanticized by Dr. Dre and Ice Cube back then. I had to do a ton of research about N.W.A., and luckily Cube and Dre were on hand and were very, very amazing when it came to the research and the photos and I would see the videos from back then, and they were always very willing to just answer any question. They were there anytime I needed them, so that was awesome.
With most biopics the subjects are dead, much less involved in the project in a very hands-on way to a point where they’re able to say “No, I wouldn’t wear that…yes, I would wear that.” I’m guessing that made your job easier than harder?
That actually made it much harder.
Yeah, because they’re not dead. Eazy-E was the easiest — no pun intended — because I literally recreated some of his exact looks from photos that I had on my research board, which were the ones I got from Tamika, his widow. I met with Tamika and she gave me photos from their private photograph books — like on their vacations and stuff — and I would go out and find those outfits or I would have to make some stuff.
When you have people that are still alive and still really relevant it’s a little bit more difficult because there was Gary and Gary had his vision as the director, and then you had Dre and Cube. I would have Cube look at something and he’d be like, “Absolutely, yes, yes, yes” and then we’d go to set and Gary would be like, “No, that’s not right.” Also, Dre and Cube pretty much dress exactly the same now as they did back in the late ’80s and ’90s and they were like, “We want people to dress like this now…we want to make this cool again.” So I took the coolest elements and the ones that really I thought could translate into today and I tried to use those.
I think biopics are challenging in general, but I think there were a different set of challenges with this one because Dre and Cube are still in the public eye still. So there was little room for error. No room for error even on like a shoelace.
Interestingly enough, there’s been some “controversy” about the White Sox hat the Eazy-E character wears in the film. Some people are upset that he wears a hat from the ’90s in a scene that’s set in the ’80s. What’s your response to all that?
The fact is, that font came out in the 50’s, I believe. It was reintroduced in’91. So it’s not a font that we just made up. It’s a font on a hat that people associate Eazy-E with. In that scene, we’re setting up the movie, and a lot of people associate Eazy with that hat. So the only time we took creative license was with that hat. But that font was introduced decades before, so it’s not like I pulled a font from the future. Do you know what I mean?
Yeah. Makes sense to me.
I didn’t want to use a Raiders hat, because that was Cube’s in the next set up. And I didn’t want to use a Dodgers hat, because that was Dre. And the L.A. Kings hat didn’t work, it was just too much. But I thought the Sox hat worked really strongly for the opening scene. Most people just seem to associate Eazy with that hat. When you Google image search Eazy-E you see that hat. It was just a small creative license we felt we should use.
Any particular items that were really difficult for you to find?
A lot of stuff I had to recreate. I couldn’t buy some of that stuff. We had to remake all of the Raiders stuff because the fonts are a little bit different now. Same thing with Dodgers stuff. There’s almost nine hundred costume changes in this movie total, so I needed to kind of pull resources from everywhere.
Were you an N.W.A. fan growing up?
You know, I wish I could say I was a huge N.W.A. fan. I definitely was a fan of The Chronic because I was a little younger, but when N.W.A. were coming out, I don’t even think I was in high school yet, so I didn’t even know any of that music. Definitely The Chronic like when Dre went off and he did that, I know all of those songs, but I just didn’t know hardly anything from the original N.W.A. album. And I think that helped me, not having a set vision in my mind of what I thought these guys looked like. Same thing with Sons of Anarchy. I had a stereotype in my mind of what biker gang guys look like, but I didn’t have a set vision and I wanted to make sure to leave out the stereotypes that are a little cheesy in the biker community.
The same thing with N.W.A. and the ’80s. I have stereotypes about what the ’80s looked like, and I wanted to be sure to leave that out and only pull from the parts that I think would resonate today. I think it helped me that I wasn’t like a super uber fan.
Were you on set for the day of the whole Suge Knight thing?
Thankfully, I was not on set. There was a lot of drama throughout shooting the movie just because I don’t think Suge knew about it, I don’t think he knew the extent of how his character was going to be portrayed, but luckily I was too busy to really be involved in any of it. There was a drive-by shooting one day, just some random shooting in the first day we were in Compton. I was so busy I didn’t even know there was a drive-by shooting until someone was like, “Who’s that bloody guy running down the street?” I was like, “What? I don’t know, but I need to put this Raiders jacket on someone.”
Oh my. That’s crazy.
Yeah, I know. It didn’t hit me until like a week after we finally wrapped. I had people text me like, “Are you okay?” And I’m like, “Yeah whatever there was a drive by shooting, who cares? Like do you know how many clothes I had to put on these actors last week?”
The premiere garnered a lot of attention for the overwhelming amount of security that was hired in an effort to ward off any violence. What was that like?
It was insane. I mean, I don’t really know another way to describe how crazy it was. I’ve been to probably fifty plus premieres in Los Angeles and I’ve never seen anything like it. It was a total shitshow.
You mentioned Sons of Anarchy and I’m curious about something — where did the Grim Reaper design on the vests come from. Was that you and Kurt Sutter collaborating on that or was that something that was…
That was actually created by the production designer. He collaborated with Kurt.
A problem that we had with Sons is that the graphics were done and then the fonts were done and then we started shooting and I guess the images leaked or whatever and a biker gang, a very well-known biker gang, came forward and claimed that the fonts on the jackets were very similar to their own. Like, the L went out the same way, or the A looked the same, or the H looked the same. Something looked the same. So they sent this letter that was basically their way of saying cease and desist, so we had to throw all of those away, and remake all of them. The originals are now literally sitting in some box because everyone was scared shitless.
I’m guessing that a cease and desist letter from a biker gang includes threats of leg-breaking, busting skulls, stuff like that?
I don’t know the exact terminology that was used, but it made a studio that is very money conscious like FX — they don’t spend as much money as a network like NBC would — scrap all of the stuff we had made before, and spend probably about $20,000 to remake everything.
How bad did those leather vests stink by the way? I suspect they were a little gamey.
Yeah, they were pretty bad. Luckily, most of the guys were pretty good about it. You know, I don’t know if the leather smelled so much as some of their clothes because they would be wearing them under the leather and you just couldn’t get that smell out after six years. I think we washed Boone’s jeans once in like four years.
Boone (Mark Boone Junior). He played Bobby. We washed his jeans once. He wore the same jeans every single episode.
Did any of the cast members keep their vest after the show wrapped?
Yeah, they all did. They all got their vests.
Oh, that’s amazing.
That’s the one thing that the main cast all got as their wrap gift when we cut.
I didn’t realize until earlier today that you were the original costume designer on Parks and Rec.
So, you were largely responsible for creating the looks of some pretty iconic TV characters. People like Leslie Knope and Ron Swanson. And Jean Ralphio! What was that experience like?
Well, I was doing Sons during that. That was another really weird thing. My agents called me up and they said “Greg Daniels wants to meet you about this show called Parks and Rec.” I was doing Sons, but I think Sons was about to wrap, as I recall. It was something towards the end of the year, and I would have been available. Then I read the script and I laughed my ass off. I was like “this is hilarious” and Greg had done the American version of The Office, so I knew how funny he was. We had this meeting, the meeting was good then I got the call, got the pilot, so we did the pilot. It was my first time working with comedians, so I didn’t know really what to expect, but I’m telling you it was incredible because comedians are used to physical comedy, so they’re not as conscious of their physical appearance because they do so much crazy stuff, and they just take it a little lighter. When I first met Amy (Poehler), I went in and I was like, “Your outfits are going to be a little off … we’re going to do some weird shit” and she was like, “Cool. Sounds great.” And that’s how pretty much all of those guys were, just very easy like that.
I take it more “serious” actors are more difficult about the clothes they wear? Is that what you’re saying?
I’ve definitely worked with actors who kind of want me to dress them how they would dress in their life, and I’ve found that a lot of comedy actors are like, “Whatever is good for the character, I know I’m playing someone crazy, so fucking dress me crazy.” Some of the other actors who are just more used to the straighter stuff, they’re like, “Oh this is the jean that I always wear.” I’m like, “Yeah but you’re not playing you. You’re playing a character.” I’ve never met one comedian that does that. They really will let you just go with it.
Especially the Parks and Rec group. They were just so professional, and so that was so much fun. I did the pilot and the first two seasons, and then honestly at that point it was just too much for me to do both Parks and Sons. I was working from five in the morning until ten at night, so after two seasons when they got the third season pick up, I talked to Greg and told him that I physically just couldn’t do it anymore. Amy was sad and I was sad and she and I cried, but you move on. But when I would watch the last season, I was like, “Oh my god that’s the jacket I got Amy in season two!”
Of all the characters you’ve dressed what’s been your favorite one to assemble outfits for?
Gemma from Sons for sure.
Because she is such a transformation from what Katey (Sagal) really dresses like. She dresses very flowy and kind of hippie with a lot of linen. Kind of like a little country hippie, but just very, very soft, and I literally had to put Katie in these clothes that were skin tight, but I had to make sure that she didn’t look trashy or slutty or anything like that, so it would be sometimes very frustrating at times. And I had people tweeting me that they were just watching it for Gemma’s outfits, so I was like, “Oh my god that’s no pressure.” I’d rip an arm off one shirt, and we’d add it to a different shirt, and I was buying hides to make the leather jackets for her. But at the end when it would work out and and we found something that was perfect it was very rewarding.
How did you transition from being a fashion model to being a costume designer?
Well, I modeled for about five years. I wasn’t uber successful. I definitely made a living at it, but I never loved it. I just didn’t love it. I moved to Los Angeles when I was about twenty-two years old, and I was with an agency in Los Angeles and I was doing some Los Angeles modeling, which is definitely different from New York or Italy modeling because they’re definitely a little more commercial. After five years doing it I was just like, “I don’t want to do this.” I was in Los Angeles so I wondered, “Do I want to try to act?” so I went to an acting class one time and they filmed me doing a scene — it was some really random scene — and they played it for me and I was like, “Oh fuck no I am not going to be an actress.” I was horrified looking at myself on screen. I was just horrified, so I was like, “Okay I definitely don’t want to do this.” I wanted to start making stuff, so I started making jewelry and I made clothes, and I had like a little line for maybe two or three years but then I realized that wholesale sucks because everybody knocks you off overseas. But I definitely wanted to work in fashion.
That said, because you’re in L.A., you just meet people who are working in television and movies, so a lot of my friends were working in television and movies. At some point a light bulb came on when I was like twenty-five and I thought, “Oh maybe I want to do costumes for television and movies!” So I put a shark fin on my back and I went underwater and I just went for it. Like, I did every job I could that came with absolutely no money. I designed for a short film that I actually had to pay for out of pocket. I almost bribed someone to get into the union, to get into the costumers union, and I just kind of went from there.
What happened to me is all the people I started out with were also starting out, like Kurt Sutter. I was a set costumer on The Shield — that was my first job ever in the union — and Kurt was a staff writer on the show. Then he went from writer to producer. Then he went to executive producer. All of sudden he got Sons of Anarchy and he called me and was like, “I got this little pilot if you want to do it.” I said, “Yeah, sure. Fine.” He went with people that he knew. That’s the good thing about L.A. Everyone kind of comes up together. I’ve been here now for fifteen years and Sons of Anarchy was definitely my biggest break. I was working my ass off. Like my ass off in order to get that. At that time Kurt did not think that it was going to be a big show. No one thought it was going to be what it was. It was kind of like magic how that happened, but that’s how it transitioned.
And, now here you are.
Here I am. Straight outta Portland.