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Style's Hidden Persuaders

updated 03/28/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/28/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

The man is making his usual rounds. Tall and handsome in jeans and a bomber jacket, he cuts a curious figure as he darts in and out of the trendy women's boutiques on Montana Avenue in Santa Monica. He picks out several feminine sweaters at a shop called Three Bags Full. Then PATRICK NORRIS steels himself for the toughest part of his trip, a foray into Victoria's Secret, where he'll drop several hundred dollars on scanty lingerie.

"It's embarrassing," says Norris, who, as costume supervisor for the yuppie chronicle thirtysomething, dresses a dozen regular characters, half of them women. "This being Los Angeles, people just naturally assume it's for me."

Norris is a member of an unseen but powerful elite who influence how we dress, what we buy and how we feel about the faces we see on the screen and the page, in ad campaigns and on album covers. Behind the scenes, costumers like Norris and stylists—who work in advertising and editorial photography—shape the pretty images we often mistake for reality. They are professional shoppers, schleppers and tastemakers, helping their clients look better than they really are, whether by stuffing shoulder pads in the anchorman's jacket or by placing framed family portraits on the politician's desk. They set the tone for the times, and we never even know they're there.

If you've ever wondered why movie stars always look so great, the answer is it's no accident. Stylists, wardrobe supervisors and image consultants get paid anywhere from $150 an hour to $1,200 a day to perfect that high-powered look, onstage and off. When actress Demi Moore appeared in public for the first time after the birth of her baby sporting a whole new wardrobe, it wasn't just a maternal whim, it was the work of stylist Jane Ross, a former Vogue staffer. And when Jodie Foster turns up on TV promoting her latest movie, her classy elegance isn't entirely homegrown. Before the debut of The Accused, Foster's mother called celebrity stylist Sharon Simonaire and asked her to puhlease find Jodie something to wear on interviews besides her customary gym clothes.

If stylists have one universal complaint, it's that people never really appreciate what it is they do. For Norris, who spends 60 hours a week trying to give the thirtysomething characters that label-conscious suburban look, the reward comes from the hundreds of letters he gets from viewers who are convinced the actors are actually wearing their own clothes. "I get all these letters asking, 'Where does Nancy buy her sweaters?' " he says. "People are used to fantasy like Dynasty and Dallas. Because this show is more realistic, they don't think I do anything. But making things look real is much harder."

Of course, Norris's industry peers understand that and last year awarded the 36-year-old an Emmy for creating thirty something's slightly preppie, irrefutably yuppie look. Each cast member has a complete wardrobe, from underwear and socks to suits and coats, that Norris has painstakingly hunted down and purchased at local department stores, boutiques and thrift shops.

Norris arrives at the set at 6:30 each morning and pulls out the appropriate threads for the day's shoot from each character's closet. Hope, for example, played by Mel Harris, wears mostly casual pull-ons from mail-order catalogs like Tweeds and J. Crew, a practical choice for a busy mother. Her husband, Michael, played by Ken Olin, favors Armani suits these days to indicate that he's hit the fast track. For Elliot, played by Timothy Busfield, Norris personally designs colorful retro-style shirts and ties because he can't find enough unique pieces in the right sizes in antique-clothing shops.

"Elliot is artistic, a maverick," explains Norris. "He's secure enough to wear a $3 tie with a $1,500 jacket. He does it to be different." Happily, Norris's idiosyncratic designs for Elliot have gained so much admiring attention from fans that he and a partner, Charles Winston, are launching their own moderately priced men's label, called CHARLESPATRICK, that will be available in stores for Christmas. "Hey, it's neat," says Busfield, putting on a tie Norris decorated with orange basketballs, an inside reference to the game Busfield and company like to play every chance they get.

Norris, who has no formal training, has been working as a costumer for TV and movies for 16 years. His first job was washing David Carradine's costumes for the Kung Fu TV series. But there's little doubt he inherited his sense of style from his mother, Patricia Norris, an Oscar-nominated costume designer whose credits include Victor/ Victoria and Blue Velvet. "This job is fun, but it can be exhausting," he says. After plunking down $515 at Tommy Hilfiger for several oxford-cloth shirts and stopping at a half-dozen other boutiques in search of sweaters, blouses, jewelry and jackets, Norris has to head back to his office to read through tomorrow's script. "It's like I have to get a dozen children dressed and ready by 7:30 each morning. Only then can I sit down and have a cup of coffee. Now I know how mothers feel."

The first thing any stylist or wardrobe supervisor will tell you, in fact, is that there is nothing glamorous about their line of work. Even in feature films, the crème de la crème of costuming, it's one hard, grubby job. GLORIA GRESHAM, 44, whose recent films include When Harry Met Sally...and The War of the Roses, spends weeks before each picture in hot, dusty costume warehouses, often perched on a ladder 12 feet in the air, thumbing through rack after rack of old clothes.

In movies, the deadlines are longer and the budgets are bigger, so more of the costumes can be custom-tailored for the stars. Sometimes designing a costume proves easier than finding a dozen backups in the same size and color, which are necessary for any scenes involving stunts. When Charles Grodin was cast at the last minute in the stunt-filled Midnight Run, Gresham had to fly from Los Angeles to New York "and spend the weekend searching every corner of the city " to find 12 identical plaid coats.

Movie directors aren't the only ones who keep costumers and stylists running full tilt. SHARON SIMONAIRE, who assembles outfits and props for top celebrity photographer Herb Ritts, spends her days and nights scouring Los Angeles for whatever obscure object of desire he requires for his shoots, be it merman tails for Madonna's Cherish video or a sexy ankle bracelet of Tibetan beads for a Playboy spread on Brigitte Nielsen. "Working with Herb, I had to learn to find the most outrageous things," says Simonaire, who has been Ritts's stylist for the past three years. "He can always visualize it, and I nearly go crazy trying to find it."

One thing stylists never have enough of is time. Everybody always wants it yesterday. David Bowie once called Simonaire to say he had to have a particular white shirt for his upcoming tour—"part Errol Flynn, part pirate, but not feminine." From his five-minute description, Simonaire designed a shirt herself and had it ready three days later. Now she's in charge of all Bowie's tour clothes. Tina Turner also relies on Simonaire to put together her personal wardrobe, stage clothes and special outfits for music videos and album covers. "Sharon's got a keen eye," Turner explains. "She knows my look—Armani, Alaïa, Yohji Yamamoto—and she can go out and find things that are complementary. It saves me time, and I get exactly what I want without a lot of frustration."

Simonaire, 33, says she learned all about the power of clothing when she was in the sixth grade. Growing up in Baltimore, daughter of a nurse and an engineer, style meant little to her until a doctor's wife she baby-sat for gave her some expensive castoffs—a white minidress and matching go-go boots. "I wore them to school the next day, and as I climbed the steps, every head turned," Simonaire recalls. "It created this allure and mystique. In that moment, I realized the psychological importance of dressing."

Graduated from high school at 15, she immediately started working as a clerk in boutiques, later moving on to styling for magazines and fashion ads. As it happens, her latest passion isn't clothes at all; it's home furnishings. In her spare time, Simonaire has opened an antiques-collectibles shop in L.A. called Oddiyana, Tibetan for "beyond imagination."

When the final image reaches the public, no one person can take full credit for it. Movies and television are ultimately collaborative efforts, the wardrobe supervisor working closely with the director, producers and actors to create just the right visual cues. Unlike, say, the lighting, on which the technicians are deferred to, when it comes to clothes, everyone has an opinion. "The more contemporary the script, the more people think they know what you should be doing," says Gresham. "I've practically gotten input from the janitor."

Nowhere is this more evident than in commercials, where millions of dollars in sales are riding on the ads' ability to create an irresistible image for the product. Stylists and costumers alike describe advertising work as a "nightmare," and BILL FUCILE, a leading commercial stylist, wouldn't disagree. "In a music video, I can say, 'This is what you're all going to wear, because I like it,' " says Fucile, who has styled videos for Tracy Chapman, Rickie Lee Jones and Lou Reed, among others. "In a commercial, you have a lot of people with different ideas and very little time. I have to present five outfits, and the director and ad agency will agree on one. If there are 30 principal players, that's 150 outfits. And I have one week to get them together."

For the Levi 501 campaign last year, Fucile worked with 600 pairs of jeans, denim jackets and shirts, ripping, tearing, dyeing, fading and washing them until they conveyed a certain lived-in nonchalance. "Everything in those Levi ads looks real," explains Fucile. "But actually, it's created. Those kids don't just show up in that stuff."

Fucile, 31, studied at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles and at UCLA film school before becoming a stylist. Most of the accounts he works on, including Canada Dry, Sprite and Michelob Dry, are geared toward hip young audiences. "I spend a lot of time people watching," he says. "I go to Melrose Avenue and look at what the kids are wearing on the street. It's amazing how you can show something on TV in an ad and then see it duplicated everywhere a few weeks later."

Like most stylists, Fucile is keenly aware of how influential his craft can be. "Television is so powerful," he marvels. "People are so easily influenced by what they see. They don't realize what's going on. It makes you want to take that power and use it to send kids a message about drug abuse, alcoholism or AIDS, instead of just selling a product."

Because stylists spend their days realizing other people's visions, it's particularly important to them that they do something that expresses their own values on their own time. For Norris, that means spending Monday nights at local juvenile-detention halls working with teenagers with drug problems. "It's a commitment that matters to me, given what's going on in society," he says. "The kids are so interested in Hollywood, and I try to show them it can be real. For me, that's as important as anything I get out of this business."

Norris and Fucile believe there is a growing interest in the industry in using the tools of their trade to do some good. Fucile and several other stylists have decided to pool their time and talents to work on public-service announcements aimed at young people. "The '80s were so image conscious," Fucile observes. "In the '90s, I think we're going to see more concern for what's behind that image."

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