By M. Sharpe
From Reba McEntire and Bob Mackie to The Closer‘s Brenda Leigh Johnson and his own clothing line, Greg LaVoi has spent his career telling women’s stories through the clothes they wear. Whether with sequins, spandex, floral prints, or Armani suits, in LaVoi’s hands, clothing isn’t merely a mode of expression; instead, it lets us see how women in power actually look. Now, as Major Crimes enters its second season, LaVoi continues to chart the evolving female leadership of the LAPD, as we watch Captain Sharon Raydor’s life develop both within and outside the squadroom.
Although it might not seem a likely place to develop a passion for costume design, LaVoi was surrounded by fashion while growing up in Colorado; his father owned a clothing store and his mother was a fashionista. This flair for the dramatic first led LaVoi into the theater. But, after being told he wasn’t leading man material, LaVoi gave up on his dreams of acting. As disappointing as that was, it proved to be an auspicious event, because, as LaVoi explains,” I got upset and went to the other side of the stage, and that was costumes, because I had always loved fashion, and I would sketch outfits all the time.” In the mid-seventies, with Sonny and Cher and The Carol Burnett Show at the height of their popularity, LaVoi fell in love with the strong, flamboyant designs of Bob Mackie. Rather than attending fashion school in New York, he headed west, enrolling in Los Angeles’s Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising.
Within a year of graduating he got a job as a sketch artist for Bob Mackie. “I liked it,” LaVoi says of working for Mackie. “I didn’t love it – because it wasn’t what I thought it was going to be – but I learned so much from the experience.” So much so that when industry strikes hit Hollywood a few years later, LaVoi took his skills back home to Colorado and applied them to an unlikely source. “I thought, you know who could use the skills that I’ve learned? Country music artists. And my father was connected with the rodeo in Colorado Springs, and Reba McEntire was appearing at the rodeo that summer. So I got to meet her and showed her my work, and she asked for a dress to wear at the Country Music Awards that October, and that started my career in country music design.”
Calling his creations Country Couture, LaVoi was able to meet and to design for many of the reigning queens of country music: The Judds, Roseanne Cash, Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette. He continued to design for Reba and The Judds and Roseanne Cash for years, until, in the late eighties, when he says, “I decided I was a little tired of sequins and spandex.” He returned to California to make it as a movie costume designer and soon began working with director Roger Corman, eventually designing costumes for over 25 low budget horror movies.
Though LaVoi had originally hoped to pursue a career designing for film, it wasn’t in the cards. “The producers that I met went towards the TV arena, where other producers that friends of mine were working for went to the movies, so I never got the movie design career that I dreamed of, but I’ve made a really nice career as a TV costume designer.”
From TV horror films and then TV movies of the week, he moved to sitcoms, becoming the costume designer for the Mel Harris sitcom Something So Right. “The show was so fun, it was a like doing a Broadway play every Friday night.” He then began working with the Shepherd/Robin production company in 1999, designing for all their projects, including an assortment of TV pilots and the WB’s Brutally Normal. In 2004, he met James Duff, who was writing and producing The DA starring Steven Weber, Sarah Paulson, Felicity Huffman, and Bruno Campos. That show was short-lived, but it proved to be a gateway to something much bigger, when Duff asked him to work on a new show that he had written and produced: The Closer.
As the head costume designer for TNT’s hit series The Closer, La Voi was responsible for designing the wardrobe that became indelible to the titular character. In fact, several of his designs from the show are now on display at the Paley Center for Media and part of the Warner Brothers Touring archive. In keeping with the character’s displaced Southerner transplanted to Los Angeles background, Brenda’s wardrobe featured bright colors and bold floral prints, but according to LaVoi, that’s what made her so special.
“With Brenda it was such a joy, and a costume designers dream, to get a character like her and an actress like Kyra Sedgwick, because often times actresses are quite demanding and they could care less about their character growing up Southern and not having much fashion sense. They all want to wear Gucci and Dolce and Gabanna and all of that. Kyra was the direct opposite of that. She totally understood where I was coming from in my design, and totally embraced every awful outfit she was wearing.”
According to LaVoi, Brenda’s fashion sense improved somewhat over the run of the series. “I must say the outfits got less awful as the years went by, but they were still pretty unique in the sense they were the pastels and the odd color combinations and the vintage jackets, so I don’t think I’ll ever get a chance to design a character like that, or work with an actress like Kyra, because it was just unbelievable.
When Brenda left the squad room that last day, she was wearing a Dolce and Gabbana suit, but it was so much fun to send her off out of her old vintage clothes into her new world, still with the pink blouse, but with a totally new attitude. I thought, my god, she’s earned it after all these years, she’s earned that Dolce and Gabbana suit.”
A New Role
When The Closer ended its seven year run last year, La Voi, along with most of the cast and crew, followed along as the series spun-off into Major Crimes, and LaVoi is embracing the opportunity to create another powerful female lead, albeit one very different from Brenda – Captain Sharon Raydor.
“As far as Sharon goes, when (the character) came onto The Closer, the only thing I was told by the producers was that she was ‘powerful and streamlined’ – the direct opposite of Brenda – although Brenda was very powerful, but she was not streamlined or sophisticated.”
Instead of design, it was the breakneck speed of the TV production schedule that wound up being responsible for what has become part of Sharon Raydor’s own iconic look. “The Armani suits that I put Raydor in truly came about because Mary McDonnell got cast on a Wednesday, and she was going to shoot on a Friday, and I literally talked to Mary and said ‘what do you look good in, what fits you well?’ And she said ‘well, Armani fits me well.’ And literally that character was born because of that line, ‘Armani fits me well.’ Because I went to Neiman Marcus that afternoon and pulled every single suit that looked like it would be nice for a cop, and that’s how that character was created. Truly, just saying it fits well.
The nice thing is, with the backstory of Raydor, where Brenda couldn’t have afforded Armani or Dolce and Gabanna or any of those things, Raydor the character could afford those, and would not go to the extreme fashion that Brenda had, but kept it very professional. So now we’re getting to know more about Raydor and seeing her at home and with Rusty; that’s giving me such a great freedom to explore who Raydor is off hours, and off the clock.”
As a new show, Major Crimes has made a variety of subtle changes to its tone and nature, and those changes have extended to how LaVoi approaches costuming Raydor and the rest of the characters around her. “With Brenda I used to do a color story every week, and it would be based on Brenda’s wardrobe, so if she was wearing pink then the pink would be carried through on the squad, then the opposite color would carry through on the bad guys. But now on Major Crimes, having Raydor in blacks and blues and gray, it’s hard not to make the show look monochromatic, but that’s kind of what I’m doing, I’m giving it an all-over monochromatic look, in a good way, and then playing my guest characters with the prints and colors and all that. But then throwing all that out the window when Raydor’s at home and being able to put her in a blue hoodie or a grey cashmere sweater with a lined top underneath and jeans, and I think that’s exciting.”
When asked if the occasional change in Raydor’s wardrobe incorporating more colors and florals was a conscious decision to move away from the black power suits that were her staple in The Closer, LaVoi says no. “In my backstory, Raydor always had these things in her closet, we just never saw her enough in The Closer to get to see all these different facets over her, and whenever she was on The Closer it was just for these quick story points, and so now you’re getting to see a well-rounded character from her interaction with her crew and co-workers to Rusty and her husband and also we’re seeing her at home, so you’re really getting to see her as a fully realized character rather than just someone that comes in as a nemesis to Brenda.
And with the episode we’re shooting here this week, we get to meet her husband. So putting all that together has been fun. There’s no real color story, but what I’m doing more is playing with color as a power tool. For instance, on the episode with Raydor’s husband, I want her to be very powerful, so it’s going to be all about black and white. That’s what I’m doing now, rather than trying to do this wonderful painted picture of color throughout the episode; it’s fun to play with the dynamics of color. And if you notice I think last year my overarching color theme was lavender or purple. I had her in a lot of lavender and purple, and perhaps this season I’ll find out it’s a lot of black and white and grey.”
While the leading ladies tend to receive the most attention, LaVoi is proud of the distinct styles that he’s created for the rest of the cast – and some of the fashion trends he’s perhaps introduced – even though the actors aren’t always the biggest fans of their characters clothes. “With Tao, Michael Paul Chan hates his clothes, but he wears them well. He would never in real life wear a plaid and a check and a stripe, but that’s what I put him in. But if you notice Banana Republic and J. Crew a few years ago came up with these styles of mixing plaids and checks and stripes. So I always like to pat myself on the back thinking that some corporate designer at Banana Republic must be a Closer fan because they have embraced Tao’s style. Just as I think Michael Kors must have had someone on his design team watching The Closer, because when I started putting Brenda in the vintage dresses, the next season you saw a vintage dress in Michael Kors line. So I thought maybe someone is watching.”
Of the process of shopping for the clothes each character will wear, LaVoi says it is a multiple-step process. “When we start the prep for each season, I do a major shop, I shop for each character. And we start prepping in spring and the show takes place in summer so that’s advantageous because the spring clothes are already out there, so it’s a very very big pull that we do the first month of prep, and then depending on what the scripts might bring to us then we go re-shop our main characters and shop every week for our guest cast.”
This year for Season 2 of Major Crimes, LaVoi says almost every one of the male cast members got new clothes. “That was great,” says LaVoi, “because during the seven seasons of The Closer, I very rarely added to their wardrobes, occasionally a suit a year. But I tried to shop like a real person shops, and you know they didn’t have a lot of time or money to buy new clothes each year, in their pretend lives. So you’ll see the same ties on the boys, but the suits were wearing out so we did a major shop on the male characters and they all got new suits and sport coats and all that, but still keeping within their closets.
But for undercover looks, we never know when that’s going to be, so we have a range of jeans and casual clothes in their closets too, but it’s fun to get these undercover episodes where we can play with some fashion with those, too.”
As for any fashion surprises to look forward to this season, LaVoi is mostly mum. “We have the new character, Emma Rios, so you can expect some fashion fun from her. And the fact that we’re going to see Raydor’s husband is interesting; his clothes define who he is – and who he was – and that’ll be fun.”
Aside from designing a host of new characters for Major Crimes, this past year LaVoi has also had another major project he’s been working on: launching the Irene by Greg LaVoi label, a new line based on the work of mid-twentieth century film fashion designer Irene Lentz. LaVoi is developing the line along with partners Melissa Kidd and Emilio Anorve.
The idea to re-launch the Irene line came as he was working on The Closer and came across her designs and began to incorporate them into the vintage jackets and clothing that Brenda would wear. “It was inspired by my love of what I did with Brenda, but also inspired by the modern woman that has gotten tired of wearing ‘fast fashion,’ and wants to start investing in her clothes once again.”
The line had its first fashion show on March 9th at Raleigh Studios in Hollywood (where The Closer and Major Crimes film) and was a huge success, garnering strong interest and excitement in the fashion industry. There was a great celebrity turnout for the launch, including many of the iconic women of TV and film with whom LaVoi has worked throughout his career. TNT even sponsored the after-party of the fashion show: “They’ve been a fan of mine and supporter of mine, and they were nothing but generous in sponsoring the after-party,” says Lavoi.
LaVoi is hopeful that the line may soon become available in department stores for Fall 2013. “We are reaching out right now to Neiman Marcus and various local boutiques in LA, so we’re following up with buyers packets and look books.” Of the line, LaVoi says the craftsmanship and attention to detail is extraordinary. “Everything is made in America, we’re using American-made fabrics as well as European, the construction work on it is absolutely gorgeous, they are works of art. I’m just afraid we’ve priced ourselves out of the retail market by adhering to many of Irene’s values like hand bound button holes, very fine fabrics, and all the intricate pattern work that she did. So this first collection, called Signature, truly was a signature homage to Irene. We’re hopeful; we don’t have any sales just yet, but if the department stores turn us down we’ll start an e-commerce site where fans and webshoppers can find us.
It’s very exciting. A lot of times fashion lines take a year or more to click, because department stores want to see that you’re going to be around more than one season. So I’ve already designed spring, and we’re starting to fabricate it now, so we’re just waiting on feedback from stores to see if we proceed with spring or not. It’s an exciting time.”
Between the success of the launch of Irene and the continued success of Major Crimes, now almost halfway through filming its second season, LaVoi is thankful for the experiences he’s had in his career. “It was such a blessing not only to start working for Shepard Robin but to meet James Duff, and then to have The Closer take me on such a ride for 7 years and work with Kyra and all these incredible talents, and then the fortune to have it spin off into Major Crimes. Looking back over all those years it’s like ‘wow, that’s quite a ride.’ It’s been such a really cool career and to be employed all these years, and now Major Crimes, it’s been incredible.”
For more information about Irene by Greg LaVoi and a video from their Spring Fashion Show, visit IreneGLV.com. You can follow Greg LaVoi on Twitter @GregLaVoi and check out his weekly blog on the fashion of Major Crimes.