"Arrested Development" costume designer Katie Sparks, whose efforts on the first two seasons of the Fox sitcom earned her a 2006 nomination from the Costume Designers Guild of America, was tapped by series creator Mitchell Hurwitz to work on the new streaming-to-Netflix season that will be released May 26. She recently spoke about her work on the original series and the challenges posed by revisiting — and re-dressing — the quirky Bluth family after a seven-year hiatus. And, for the first time, she explained how she found a perfect pair of denim cutoffs for the "never nude" Tobias Fünke.
How did you approach dressing the "Arrested Development" cast at the outset?
Mitch gave me pretty free range to explore things, which was really great. For the pilot, I remember him talking to me about the characters — which I like because my [costume] design is very character-driven. I like to ask: What kind of car would they drive? Where in L.A. would they live? What kind of people do they hang out with?
Were there any specific costume design requests?
When Mitch was talking about Michael Cera [who plays George Michael Bluth] for the pilot, he said, "I want him to wear Reyn Spooner shirts, the ones from the '70s" ... I did some research and ended up buying a ton of them from a vintage store. Mitch used to wear them when he was in high school, so there are parts of him in [each of] these characters.
Tell me about family matriarch Lucille Bluth. Is her look inspired by a real person?
I have a mother-in-law who is a real doll. She's a Southern belle who lives on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina. And when she comes to California, the thing she hates the most is that kids don't dress properly. First thing in the morning she's got her lipstick on, her jewelry — everything.
So it's a little bit her but more exaggerated and self-involved. I saw Lucille [played by Jessica Walter] as the kind of woman who is always pulled together and doesn't even think about it — one of those women who lunch, golf and raise the kids.
What was the biggest challenge in revisiting these characters and their wardrobes after so long?
Basically we had nothing. And since there are flashbacks to things like the final scene [of the final episode] on the boat, we had to duplicate some very specific pieces. Portia de Rossi's dress in that scene, for example, was this pretty royal blue dress with these little bugle beads that I'd bought at Barneys or some place. We had to remake that. And Alia Shawkat's dress in the same scene.
Were there any other specific pieces that had to be duplicated?
In the first couple of seasons, Gob Bluth [played by Will Arnett] wears this vintage black satin robe from the '50s that I'd found at a thrift store or a flea market. … We looked at some costume houses and couldn't find it, so we put the scene up on the screen, looked at the fabric, made a pattern and had a duplicate robe made.
Where did you shop — for both the original run and for the new episodes — to dress the dysfunctional family from Orange County?
Well, the stores have all changed. Nordstrom was always the go-to conservative store. Now they're trying to be hip so now you go to Brooks Bros. for that. I went to all the different malls in Long Beach and Costa Mesa. I also went to Barneys and Saks and Neiman. I would also go to thrift stores and flea markets looking for unusual things.
What other changes have you noticed?
After I finished working on the second season ... I didn't set foot on another set until coming back to the same show seven years later. When I came back, everybody had their nose buried in an iPhone. It was like a time warp because I hadn't seen the progression. The technology has made my job easier — if I send someone out shopping, they can send me back photos of different options — but it's also made it trickier because everybody expects things faster.
The biggest difference for me is that it's easier now to get multiples of things. Before, I might have been able to get two shirts at Barneys and they could call a store in New York and maybe have one sent overnight, but now I can just order six at a time and they'll be here the next day. It's like Christmas! That was an amazing change.
The most iconic piece of apparel in the original series run has to be Tobias' "never nude" denim cutoffs. Where did you find those?
Mitch said, "Let's do some cutoffs for Tobias" [played by David Cross] and — I've never told anyone this — I was in Neiman Marcus and saw these cutoffs in the women's section. They were just low enough to cover everything, but they were short-short and had a little fringe. I thought: 'Oh, my God — these are hysterical!' They were $150, and I felt like an idiot for buying them ... I wish I could remember the exact brand, but they were definitely designer — Givenchy or something. But they were so perfect because they were cut for women and came so high up they looked like underwear.
So that's how he ended up wearing women's cutoff jeans from Neiman Marcus.