Costume designer reveals secrets from the set of The O.C.
THIS week marks the 15th anniversary of The O.C, a show whose smart blend of self-aware humour and soapy drama made it a pop cultural phenomenon over the course of its four-season run.
But while the teen drama offered a fascinating glimpse into the scandalous (and stylish) lives of Newport Beach, California’s elite, building convincingly fancy closets for the show’s cast wasn’t always a breeze.
“We started with a little, tiny budget, which was a challenge because everything had to look super high-end,” season one costume designer Alexandra Welker told Page Six.
“There was absolutely no borrowing [from brands] involved either, because nobody had ever heard of us, so they were very leery of loaning anything.”
As a result, Welker had to get scrappy when outfitting the characters for the black-tie events featured in most episodes.
“In the pilot, I remember we did a fashion fundraiser,” Welker recalled. “I called every designer out there to explain what we were doing and who I was, and they all turned me down. So for those runway looks, we used everything from sale-rack clothes to things from costume houses to things I’d designed myself.”
Gathering clothes for the show’s heroine, Marissa Cooper (Mischa Barton), who toted designer bags to school and dressed in head-to-toe labels, proved particularly challenging.
“I’ll be honest: those Chanel bags that she carried, those weren’t something I could have on my budget,” Welker said. “But I found this amazing store in Downtown LA that sold the best-looking fakes I’d ever seen. So we used some really, really good knock-offs.”
Luckily, the wardrobe team was able to swap those fakes for the real deal once the show started to take off.
“I’ll always be grateful to Mischa Barton. She started doing a lot of modelling because of the show, and the folks at Chanel loved her,” Welker said. “They actually loaned me a couple of samples, and once we started using real Chanel, of course, I had to let those fakes fall by the wayside.”
Still, Welker said, she had to do a lot of “high-low shopping” to ensure she stayed within her budget.
“I literally shopped everywhere from Neiman Marcus and Saks in Beverly Hills to Forever 21,” she said. “And if I was able to splurge on a Marc by Marc Jacobs piece, for instance, I’d pair it with a denim miniskirt and flip-flops.”
The costume designer also leaned heavily on smaller California brands she discovered in LA’s Fashion District.
“I’d visit the showrooms, introduce myself to the reps and try to meet the designers,” Welker said. “I made connections with all these great local brands like Joie, Corey Lynn Calter and Petro Zillia. Brands that were just starting to take off at the time, and that I ended up being able to shop wholesale.”
The O.C. went on to earn both popular and critical acclaim, and its cast turned into superstars almost overnight.
“We had our heads down, hard at work — and all of a sudden, you’d pass a newsstand and every magazine would have an article about us,” Welker said.
“I remember Rachel [Bilson] and Adam [Brody] coming back from lunch one day, and they were like, ‘The weirdest thing just happened. We were just sitting there eating, and people came up to us asking for our autographs.’ It was really cool and terrifying and exciting to be part of it as it was blowing up, and the fact that the show launched fashion trends is pretty fantastic.”
As a bonus, Welker said: “By the season one finale, brands were falling all over themselves to lend to us.”
“Marissa was the golden girl of the show. I wanted her to seem effortless. One of the fun things about her look, though, is that during the day she’d be in capri pants, Vans and a cute little midriff top, and then at night she’d come out in some jaw-dropping dress, like that sparkly Missoni [for the boat party].
“She almost always wore flats, both because of Mischa’s height and because that’s such a classic, chic look.
“People got really worked up over that Chanel bookbag; they thought that the idea of a teenager carrying one to school was obscene.”
“Ryan was our bad-boy outsider, so I looked to all sorts of iconic bad boys of the past — from Matt Dillon in The Outsiders to Marlon Brando in The Wild One to Steve McQueen in anything — and then tried to do the modern version of that. I did a lot of darker colours for Ryan, and blue to make his eyes really pop, whereas with Seth we used warmer earth tones to make him seem more approachable, friendlier.
“When I was rewatching the pilot recently, I was wincing at how brand-new his hoodie looked, but I felt really good about his boots and jacket. And man, we sanded down and deglazed that jacket and those boots.
“We thought Ryan’s white tank top would be just for the pilot, but everyone loved it so much that he was like ‘I’m gonna be wearing this for the rest of my life, aren’t I?’
“Ben actually told me the funniest story. He went home to visit his family and when he showed up, every male member of the family, including his grandfather, was wearing a white tank top with a little leather cord around his neck.”
“Seth’s clothing, to a degree, was influenced by grandpa golfwear: the little Members Only and Penguin jackets, the tattersall and striped shirts. My friends at Paul Frank were responsible for a lot of his great T-shirts — remember how there was that whole early-2000s trend of wry, ironic hipster tees?
“I used to joke with [the show’s creator] Josh Schwartz about this, but he’s a little like Seth himself. When season one premiered, Josh was the youngest ever showrunner in TV history — he’d just turned 26 — but he’s an old soul in this young, hip body, just like Seth.”
“I loved Anna, and Samaire [Armstrong] was so fun to work with. She was super quirky, so I used a lot of vintage pieces for her. She also had a bit of that Japanese, Harajuku cutesy thing going. And menswear influences. Even if she was in a short skirt, it was likely a tailored Glen plaid or something like that.”
“If Marissa’s character was the effortless one, Summer was a little more calculated. We went a little more boho with her, and had a lot of fun with colour. Where Marissa wore a lot of neutrals and pale tones, Summer looked great in gold, hot pink, orange and turquoise. And Summer was all about statement jewellery, whereas Marissa wore very little jewellery at all.”
“Marissa’s mum was the ultimate gold digger, with her Juicy sweatsuits and crazy manicures and perfectly flat-ironed hair. Those Juicy velour sets were specific to a certain type of woman back then, and it’s so funny looking back at that now.
“Melinda [Clarke] loved that character, and we had so much fun with her.”
SANDY AND KIRSTEN
“I loved that The O.C. was as much about the parents’ drama as the kids’. And it was fun for me too, figuring out how Sandy Cohen [Peter Gallagher] — who grew up in the Bronx and was kind of a tough guy, but moved to California for his wife because he loved to surf — how would he dress?
“And then you had Kirsten Cohen [Kelly Rowan], who was elegant and WASP-y and represented the old money of Newport Beach, versus Marissa’s mum who was the complete opposite.”