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American Idol Tracker: Miles Siggins, 'Idol's' fashion police

May 12, 2008 | 12:33 pm

When “American Idol” sneezes, American culture catches pneumonia. Across the Internet, beside the water coolers, on magazine covers and morning news chat shows, every inch of each week’s show is subjected to scrutiny worthy of an International Atomic Energy Agency spot inspection team. Every misstep comes under the remorseless spotlight of America’s pundit army.

And of all the iffy decisions each contestant makes, none –- not picking a terrible song, forgetting a lyric or flubbing an interview segment –- is as likely to earn a singer the collective wrath of the nation as a bad fashion choice. “Pitchy” singing can be forgiven. Skeletons from one’s past are gladly shoved back in the closet. But if you are a 17-year-old singer with a reputation more wholesome than Betty Crocker's, as David Archuleta's is, and you step on stage in leather pants, neither God nor man nor the Fox network can save you.

Who’s riding this bronco? As it turns out, it’s one thin, dapper, soft-spoken Brit by the name of Miles Siggins. Having emerged from the U.K. punk scene, launched the Stussy line and worked to dress some of the giants of music before joining “American Idol” in its second season, Siggins still finds himself somewhat unprepared for the intensity of the microscope he lives under today, as the show’s chief stylist.

Asked about the above leather pants incident, he took a deep breath and emitted a rueful chuckle.
“They weren’t leather pants, believe it or not,” he said. “They were like kind of a shiny wool .... I didn’t think they were going to be quite as shiny on camera. And when I saw them in dress rehearsal, I was like, oh, my God, Simon [Cowell] is going to flog me.”

There have been other firestorms, as well.

“It’s crazy,” he said. “I mean, the ways that people kind of pick through every single thing on "Idol," and they’ll pick up every kind of little nuance. It’s unbelievable.”

“American Idol” is a special challenge for a stylist who more typically works around an established image. On “Idol,” Siggins is responsible, as much anyone, for taking unformed talents and turning them into stars.

“It’s kind of a very, very unique job for a stylist because you get to work with these people for 16 weeks,” he said. “So, you get to kind of help them progress and help them change their image and help them become, you know, a star. With the Idols you can kind of — you take your time, relatively anyway, and just kind of build up toward the finale.

“It’s got to be baby steps. You can’t take David Archuleta and stick him in a three-piece suit, because you know, for one thing the audience will be like, what is a 17-year-old kid — what is he wearing? And also he’ll be like, ‘I’m not used to wearing this.’ It’s all baby steps.... But I always say to them, the first thing, when you walk out on that stage, people don’t hear you sing, people see what you look like. They have to make that visual impact as well.”

Having worked since Season 2 on creating fashion personas for all of "American Idol's" often inexperienced (and looking it) contestants, Siggins this season has focused his work exclusively on the 12 male singers who emerged from Hollywood Week.

When Siggins stepped in, he had a dozen new clients clad in God-knows-what, with all of several days to try to make them presentable before the first show of the season proper. The first step, Siggins said, was a bit of rapid-motion triage.

“You’re presented a challenge and you just have to say, I have to make the best of this as quickly as possible,” he said. “It is kind of, literally, they come in, they go over everything and I’m like, OK, that looks great with that. That looks great with that. And then over the first few weeks you get to know their personalities, and I see how I think they should be presenting themselves to the world.”

When the contestants survive to the exalted heights of the Top 12, the fabled shopping trips begin. Each week, Siggins caucuses with each contestant and maps out a strategy, attempting to guide them toward a discernible profile and away from some clear pitfalls.

“In the beginning they have a tendency to want to dress for the theme of the week. And I always say to them, you know Mariah Carey isn’t changing her image when she’s singing a ballad, and neither does Justin Timberlake. I mean, it’s kind of quite a harsh thing to say, but I say to them, ‘You have to kind of think of yourself as a brand now. You want to be an identifiable brand.’”

Game plan set, Siggins accompanies each contestant on a two-hour shopping trip (his favorite stores for the men include Bloomingdale’s, Traffic and Melrose’s Wasteland for its discount vintage designer wear). Each contestant is given a budget of $400 each week, and every dollar they spend over this limit comes out of the contestants’ own pockets, a sacrifice Siggins often encourages. “I say to them, it’s an investment in your future. I very much doubt you’re ever again going to be in front of 30 million people every week.”

Working with Season 7’s contestants, Siggins said, has been much smoother sailing than in previous years. With a large number of the contestants singing in very well-defined styles, he has had clear personas to work with. “This year more than any, they know who they are. They’re more sure of who they are as performers. And, you know, they’re a lot more kind of savvy music-wise than previous years. They seem to be more open to what we do. In the previous years, we’ve had headstrong contestants who have their way of how they think they should be presented. And this year they’ve kind of let us run with how we think they should be presented. Which is a compromise, but I think, overall, the contestants have been really happy with what we’ve done.”

Looking back over this year’s Top 10, Siggins reflected on the male contestants.

David Archuleta: “Up until recently, actually up until the non-leather leather pants incident, I was quite deliberately keeping him young-looking because his fan base is, you know, 12-year-old girls, if we’re going to be truthful about it. They’re not going to want to see their Idol in suits. But we got so many favorable comments after that, you know, the funky pants incident. So, we’ve kind of taken it a little bit funkier. But you’re not going to really be seeing him a suit or anything soon.”

David Cook: “He’s like a total rocker. I think when he came through, he looked more like a cafe artist. Someone who you’d go down to the local coffee shop and see, with his woolly scarves and vests, so we’ve taken that and now he’s wearing a tailored suit jacket. Last week we had this guy called Logan Reese, who is actually doing the new 'Terminator' movie, you know the leather peeking out of the arm? Just to kind of twist things up a little bit with him. I don’t want him to come out wearing a regular suit jacket.”

Jason Castro: To me he’s kind of like a surf bum who has come into a little bit of money. And so a cross between Jack Johnson and Ben Harper. Jason when he first arrived was all about vintage, like kind of '70s Levi’s and tight shirts. So we took, basically, a modern interpretation of that. So, we kept him comfortable in the fact that he looked like he was wearing vintage but he was actually wearing kind of nice clothes, designer stuff. I really wanted to do that mix with a pair of dress pants a few weeks ago and he was like ‘No, no, no. You can’t mix denim with dress. It just doesn’t work,’ and he got all flustered. And eventually you get him around to thinking that way.

Michael Johns: Our basic influences with Michael, and we spoke about it with him, were Tom Petty and Scott Wieland. He wasn’t a pure rocker. He was more of a soulful rocker, kind of Michael Hutchens as well. We wanted to make him more kind of dandy.

Chikezie Eze: He at first was kind of tricky. He was one of those guys that, um, I get them every once in a while, who they love the first thing that you show them but then they want to see every other option. And you always end up coming back to the first thing. So, the first couple of weeks it was like, you know you’ve just got to pick one — we’re not going to have time, just go with your first instinct. It’s like, first instincts are normally pretty good!

In addition to working with the contestants, Siggins also has overseen the show’s greatest stylistic makeover — the seven-season-long transformation of Ryan Seacrest from T-shirt-clad surfer dude to jacket-and-tie-wearing man at the helm, a metamorphosis that has mirrored the show’s own growth and maturity.

David-Archuleta A firm believer in the importance of glamour and formality in menswear, Siggins describes his mission to bring the suit back as his major fashion cause. With Ryan, he recalled, “last year was the first year that we did all suits the whole season. But we did do some kind of plaid shirts and things under the suits as well. And this year we just decided we want to make him stand out from previous seasons and also make him stand out from other presenters on TV. So we just this year decided to go for a dark-colored palette, really classic colored shirts and skinny ties because, I mean, I’m still a firm believer in the skinny tie. I still love it. I think he still comes across as very, very approachable. But I think when you’re a host on literally the biggest show on TV, you have to kind of look the part as well.”

As for the show’s main fashion critic, Judge Simon, Siggins said of his barbs, “Most people look at Simon and they realize Simon shouldn’t be commenting on the fashion. And he’s the first to admit it as well. He’s got a good nature about it with me.”

Speaking about the most satisfying part of his work, Siggins remembers the journey he undertook with Season 6 contestant Melinda Doolittle.

“It was interesting because, you know, she had never worn a dress in, like, 10 years. And I got her into dresses pretty quickly, and she started getting kind of funkier and more comfortable with herself. It kind of gave her a completely different attitude. You know how she used to hunch her shoulders? It would look like she had no neck. She would stick a dress on and her chest would puff out and she’d become this proud person. With “Idol,” with the contestants, you can stick an outfit on them and they’re like, wow, I look fantastic. And you can just see their attitude change and them becoming proud of the way they look.”

And on such individual transformations are empires born.