How 'Compton' Revived N.W.A's Iconic '80s Style

Costume designer Kelli Jones has a knack for capturing the right look for the toughest characters in movies and TV. With leather cuts and motorcycle club appeal, she gave us the distinct and memorable appearances of the bad boys and girls of SAMCRO in Sons of Anarchy. Recently, her creative eye and talent to dress a group of badass people was easily transitioned into Straight Outta Compton where she brilliantly transformed actors Corey Hawkins, O'Shea Jackson Jr. and Jason Mitchell into the iconic members of N.W.A — so much that they could easily be the doppelgangers of Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and Eazy-E.

"My favorite thing about the fashion from Straight Outta Compton, is that they made their own fashion statements in that era," says Jones, speaking with Bustle. "The beauty of N.W.A. is that it didn't matter how much success they got, their fashion stayed the same. These are boys from Compton, they aren't rocking stuff that you buy on Rodeo Drive. Their voice is strong and their fashion needed to match that. It's a strong, solid look. That spoke volumes about them."

Yet trying to achieve the authentic Compton look of the late '80s and early '90s was quite a task for Jones. She was able to scour vintage shops and rental houses for some of the pieces, and Nike and Adidas provided her with shoes and other throwback items. But for some of the more signature N.W.A. pieces, she had to recreate them — specifically the Raiders gear. The snapbacks N.W.A. wore signified the team's time in L.A. — now, they're in Oakland. As Jones discovered, there aren't that many L.A. Raiders snapbacks and jerseys around.

"The hardest thing to recreate were all of the sports gear," says Jones. "All the Raider gear we had to make. We were at the swap meets everyday on the weekends and getting a lot of stuff embroidered. It was like a mad, wild goose chase."

It's that kind of dedication that shows how hard Jones worked at maintaining an authenticity that many musical biopics tend to lack. Because the movie took place in the '80s and the '90s, things could have leaned towards the corny and kitschy side of fashion. Luckily. Jones and director F. Gary Gary did not want that to happen. They kept it simple, because that's what Compton style was all about during that time: Dickies, baggy jeans, Air Force Ones, Chucks, Cortez Nikes.

Unsurprisingly, Jones was a top choice of Compton executive producer Adam Merims and director F. Gary Gary for the movie's costume designer. She explained that they recognized the distinct style she created for Sons of Anarchy, and thought she could bring the same interesting fashion choices to the N.W.A biopic, a challenge Jones was more than happy to take on.

"I can differentiate, in a cool way, a group of cool guys, who dress the same — without making them too flashy and make them have their own style," says Jones.

The Portland native was only 11 years old when N.W.A. became a huge force in music. She says she really didn't have a feel for hip hop until Ice Cube and Dr. Dre went their separate ways from the group a few years in, jokingly admitting that after having "No Diggity" on her iPod for years, she never realized that it was Dr. Dre rapping on the song. That being said, she really didn't have a point of reference for designing the costumes for a hip hop biopic — which actually turned out to be a good thing.

"An advantage that I had of not knowing their music and learning about it afterwards was that I can do the research without having something set in my mind," says Jones. "I spent sleepless nights researching. I talked a lot to Dre, Cube, and looked at vacation photos that Tomica (White) gave me of Eazy-E. I needed to see their whole look."

With all her research, Jones was able to hone in and give an all-encompassing sense of N.W.A. style that went beyond what the general public saw. She says she approached the characters the same way she approached SoA; she wanted to dress them as a group, but with each one having their own specific style. In real life, Dre wore a lot of sweatsuits whereas Cube wore lots of Dickies, Eazy-E was more costume-centric on stage and wore his clothes a lot baggier than the rest of the guys, DJ Yella had more flair, and Ren was always seen in long-sleeved black shirts. Jones put huge effort into not costuming the actors to a point where they mimicked the rappers and simply became "characters."

Instead, says Jones, she "wanted to dress them like they were these guys."

Straight Outta Compton is in theaters now. Watch the trailer below:

Editor's note: Previously, the post erroneously referred to N.W.A as '90s style icons, when in fact the movie mostly takes place during the late 1980s.

Images: Jaimie Trueblood/Universal Pictures (4)