How The Bear Became High-Key Fashion TV

Costume designer Courtney Wheeler gets candid about Carmy's iconic white tee, that Thom Browne moment, and the stealthy style of kitchen culture.
Published: 24 July 2023

The first episode of The Bear features Carmen Berzatto, who is miserable and in serious debt. He inherited the restaurant that his brother left to him before taking his own life. With the restaurant came hundreds of thousands of dollars in bills and loans that must be repaid, and not a single helpful hint from his brother on how to locate the money to save his mess of a sandwich shop. So, Carmy does what anyone in his situation would do—he goes home, opens his oven, and takes out a few pairs of the really rare, antique denim items he's been keeping there. (There are even more in his closet; the oven only serves as a storage space for extra goods.) Then, he organises an impromptu meeting in a parking lot and sells them.

We see Carmy's first journey into the realm of menswear ten minutes into the popular FX series, and it won't be his last. After The Bear premiered in 2022, all anyone could talk about was the show's fashion—and for a show about the art of making and serving food, that's kind of a big deal. The costume design in The Bear isn't as outrageously over-the-top as it is in Sex and the City or Emily in Paris, where the scene changes constantly. It isn't even Succession, where, for the last few seasons, catching moments of stealth wealth and unbranded luxury goods turned into a Sunday night sport. It's a show about family, trauma, chefs, cuisine, and forgiving, and among it all, fashion is the main character, the common denominator that threads it all together.

The outfits on The Bear might not look like anything overtly ostentatious—but for the niche menswear fanatics, isn't that the best way to go? It's about everyday, real-world fashion—a streetwear brand here, a designer item acquired on the spur of the moment there. Carmy's attire is understated, yet if you have a keen eye, you can see he obviously knows his stuff. He's rarely seen not wearing a white shirt and black pants—a classic combo, sure, but also a meticulous one consisting of a perfect (yet niche) tee and just the right fit of pants for a character that is obsessive and habitual and appreciates craftsmanship and history.

"Chefs have a particular eye for detail and what looks good—quality, cut, colour, which I think has come through with Carmy, with Syd, and with Marcus," says Courtney Wheeler, the show's costume designer. Carmy, the quintessential workwear king, is wearing a 75-euro German-made tee, Dickies, and Birkenstocks to represent the current gods of fashion. Everyone's favourite sous-chef, Sydney, has more unique vintage items on her person than the eye can see. Marcus, the beloved pastry-chef, who is rarely seen without a streetwear (or streetwear-adjacent) logo, whether it be Carhartt or Jordan or Fear of God. It's all done with intention and months of sourcing, plotting, bidding, and buying. Everything from the custom Thom Browne chef coat Carmy gifts Sydney to the USD2,500 waistband of the 1950s Levi's Carmy wears around his kitchen comes from Wheeler and her team diving into the characters' histories, their arcs, their thought processes, and the basements of every store in Chicago.

Wheeler discusses everything from the most significant events in season two to the final red Carhartt beanie in existence.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Before we even get into talking about The Bear itself, I’m so curious to know what your reaction is to seeing everybody on the Internet freak out about the style of the show and the hype around the fashion.

It's really surprising. What we thought was going to be a very niche show, well-loved by the restaurant industry, turned out to be this bigger thing, which we're all stoked about. I think it happened to be a style show just because chefs, if you get to know them, have their own personal and unique style. So we definitely wanted to put that in the show and to put a point of view of real people who are in the world and have an interest in clothes.

I think that [The Bear] is true to that, in that I think chefs have a particular eye for detail and what looks good—quality, cut, colour, which I think has come through with Carmy, with Syd, and with Marcus. It's been really cool to see the reaction, it's really awesome that people appreciate the clothes. Even on set and in our personal lives, the cast and crew are all constantly looking at each other like, "Where'd you get that? What are you wearing?" We're constantly going back and forth. I do think we are a cast and crew that like clothing.

Did you go to restaurants and draw inspiration from the teams there for the show or was this something you noticed before even working on The Bear?

You'll always see someone and you'll make a note of that person looking good, but you don't really truly connect the dots until you start working on a show like this. And especially as a costume designer, you're always looking at people like, oh, that's great. But especially since The Bear started, I will never walk into a restaurant the same way. It was definitely a moment of always looking over the counter, always seeing what front of house is wearing, what back of house is wearing, asking them questions, like, "Why these? What pants are you wearing? Why? Tell me your decision-making process."

I have friends who are chefs who have great style, but I never really connected it to the industry until I started doing The Bear. Even within their uniforms, there's a way it hangs on their body and how they want to wear it. I love that. Especially the first season, we had the constraints of a uniform, but we get to bring people's personalities forward, in a way.

What was your process like in curating each character’s wardrobe?

When we first did the pilot, Cristina [Spiridakis and I] came in with a blueprint for the characters, and she came in with mood boards. As you go into fittings and as you start talking to the actors, you have to flow a little bit more, and you lean into what's working and what's not working. Especially with that first pilot, we had just seen everyone in uniform. That was all we had to go on for months about what was going to inform their personality. But even then, if you notice, Marcus is wearing a red beanie in the pilot, with these black work boots. And when I went back to shoot the rest of the season, I had a conversation with Lionel [Boyce], and he was like, "I've been training, when I went to Copenhagen I've been wearing this beanie and these Infared Jordans." He's like, "Can I bring them to the show? Do you think that Marcus would wear these?" And I'm like, "I think that makes total sense."

So Marcus wears the same beanie that Lionel was wearing. We took his inspiration. It's funny, because this beanie has come back to haunt my department. We usually have alts for everything, and alts for everyone's kitchen shoes. Every time you see them in the kitchen actively cooking, we have at least three versions of those, because we change them out. But with Marcus and this beanie [after the pilot], we could not find the [green] colour. We could not find the Carhartt beanie...Marcus must have literally gotten the last one in stock. We reached out to Carhartt, we were in Copenhagen looking for it, we could not find the exact colour match. It's kind of haunting us and we'll address it in later seasons in my mind, but I'll cross that bridge when I get there.

Your sourcing process sounds wild. There are three characters whose style I find so different, but so distinct, and those are Carmy, Richie, and Sydney, who cumulatively wear everything from vintage pieces to Adidas trackies to plain white tees. Where did you find their pieces?

Oh, man, literally everywhere. Me and my assistant and our shopper—we are leaving no stone unturned, especially when it comes to shopping in Chicago. The first thing I do when I arrive is hit the streets. Even if we're not buying anything right away, we're in the shops. We're talking to our vintage sellers in Chicago, we're seeing what they have. We're going to the independent stores, and there's so many great local shops in Chicago. We're making those connections and seeing what's out there. We're in basements. Carlos from Knee Deep in Chicago is one of my friends now, because we're literally like, hey, we're looking for this and this. He goes: Go in the basement. Here's some seltzer water, knock yourself out. And we're doing that, digging through [bags of vintage] trash. We're doing that all over town.

So when I tell you it comes from Chicago, it comes from the thrift shops out there, it comes from eBay, it comes from Etsy. We have people in New York. When I tell you it comes from everywhere, it truly comes from everywhere. Even Ebon [Moss-Bachrach], who plays Richie, loves eBay. That's his source for where he shops in his personal life. There’s this one shirt that we didn’t get to use this season that, trust, next season it’ll be on the top of the list. Ebon found it, and said, "Can Richie have this? Can you purchase it?" I’m like, bet. So I'm in eBay bidding war, making sure I get this item. I won it, which I’m proud of.

Oh my god, I can't wait to see next season what shirt that might be.

With Richie, his stuff is a mix of vintage and store bought. Even with his store bought stuff, sometimes we have to change the colour slightly and over-dye it, just in case it's a little too bright. Sometimes the accent colours pop too much, we have a wonderful dyer who will go in and hand-paint it for us. We’ve gotten Richie’s stuff from Adidas and Lacoste, but also, thrift stores and vintage markets. Some of his T-shirts are deadstock vintage. He’s a mix and Syd is a mix. Carmy, actually, we got one pair of vintage Levi’s for. I don’t think we see more than the waistband of them. Accounting will kill me—they know, they saw the receipt. It’s a pair of USD2500 vintage 1950s Levi’s that were beautiful, they’re gorgeous, Jeremy was obsessed with them because they fit him perfectly. We didn’t have to do anything to alter them, they were just perfect.

When you source things like those Levi’s for Carmy, are we as the audience supposed to read that as Carmy going and hunting down this really rare, expensive pair of jeans for himself? Or is it more like “if you know, you know,” but if you don’t catch it, then it’s just Carmy in some random pair of jeans?

Oh, that's such a good question. With Carmy, I will say he knows what it is. He collects denim, he probably has someone who he goes to, a source that he trusts where he’s getting these pieces from, because most of the people who collect denim do. So if he’s wearing that, he knows what it is. People were asking if Sydney would be wearing this Million Women March T-shirt she has knowing what it is, and I’m like, yeah! Sydney wearing a Million Women March T-shirt is not her buying it from Round Two or eBay like we did. She got that from her mom. That’s something that her mom wore that she’s holding on to. That Bulls T-shirt, she’s probably found in her dad’s closet and kept wearing it.

For characters like that, they're just picking up whatever. Someone who would be a little different would be Marcus, who’s wearing a Black Ivy T-Shirt. He knows what it is, he knows what it means. He knows what his T-shirts stand for. He's wearing it because he's like, oh, I don't wear this out anymore, I'll just wear them to the shop.

What was your thought process when curating Carmy’s wardrobe?

Carmy is a creature of habit. When we established him at the beginning of the season, for the pilot, we already knew he was going to wear the Merz B. Schwanen shirt. And then he was wearing the Carhartt Work In Progress pants, and then he had Dickies. He would flip between those brands, but he also had a couple different workwear pants. Also, for season one, he wore Whitesville T-shirts and he wore a Supreme T-shirt. But as it went on, especially for the second season, Jeremy and I streamlined him a little bit more. He truly only really wears the Merz white T-shirt, and he has a bunch of the Carhartts. Sometimes he'll wear his Dickies, but we wanted him to be focused more.

He knows what he wants, so he just buys more of that. He already has honed his style. Especially for this season, we're kind of playing with the idea that he's moving in now. So instead of the one blue sweater, you’ll see him in the grey one. Maybe he has another sweater. He'll start playing with it more, just because he probably unpacked, but unless you see him in flashbacks, he’s pretty focused and established in what works for him.

Of all the plain white T-shirts in the world, why did you settle on Merz B. Schwanen?

That was established in the pilot. By the way, fun fact: Right now, we shoot in a big studio out in Chicago. But for the pilot, our offices were across the street from Mr. Beef, which is what The Beef is based off of, but it was a defunct restaurant called Brunch. So we're sitting in the middle of this defunct restaurant, facing each other, being like, "What's a good T-shirt?" Kind of screaming to each other across the way. But Chris Storer loves the Supreme x Hanes, so we got some Supreme x Hanes in there. Then we got regular Hanes. We got some ALD T-shirts. When I tell you we got T-shirts from literally everywhere, I think we had about a dozen different brands. Jeremy walked into the fitting and it's literally just white T-shirts and black work pants and Birkenstocks. He looks at us, like, "This is what I’m doing?" We said, yeah, this is what you’re doing, and he said, “Okay, great.”

The Merz just fit him so well. And it's such a great cut. The white T-shirt is perfect. Merz has a perfect cut, it truly is a great T-shirt.

I saw a report that searches for “The Bear sweater” spiked on Google after season two came out, referring, obviously, to that grey sweater of Carmy’s. Can you tell me about that piece?

I think that’s so funny. I’m like, "You go, men of the world, finding things!" So that sweater is J.Crew men. I was always a J.Crew fan. It's just so classic, and their menswear has always been pretty strong, and lately it’s been even more so. With Carmy, we go where the classics are. Whatever is well made, whatever has a great cut. He's not a fussy guy. Yes, he has a thing with denim, but I think it’s different. He likes the history behind the denim, he likes how it’s made, and he’s someone who appreciates the craftsmanship.

I think for his everyday wear, he just looks for pieces that have great quality and cuts. If he just blindly picked a top and bottom up off of his floor or in his closet, they would go with each other at all times. It doesn't matter what he has chosen. Everything is just—he wants it to look good, but he does not want to think about it. And I feel like that sweater is just a natural progression of that. He can appreciate the sweater, the knitwear is there, and we just wanted to play with a new colour for Carmy.

Okay, we need to talk about that custom Thom Browne moment in the penultimate episode of season two. What’s the story behind that, and why Thom Browne?

This is such a good story because it really means a lot for the show and means a lot for Chris Storer. But also, it was just a full circle moment. Syd’s pilot episode shirt is this beautiful Thom Browne embroidered shirt from Dover Street Market. Me and Cristina were shopping at Dover before we left for Chicago, and she came from one end of the store, and I came from the other end, but we were both homing in on that shirt.

Chris was stoked about it, and it also reads so beautifully. In real life, if you look at it, it might be too precious for the kitchen, but on TV, it just added so much depth and it looks so good. So that was Syd’s pilot shirt, but then she also wore the classic Thom Browne button-front for a lot of season one as well. The Thom Browne of it all comes from Chris kind of paying homage to his sister, who wore a lot of Thom Browne shirting when she cooked.

I love that suit on him. I think it's such a great character moment. And if you notice in that episode, he does go from what we're used to seeing him in—The Beef T-shirt, a pair of sweats, his Members Only jacket, which was another vintage find—to what he’s wearing in the restaurant. He has on a dark-coloured Ralph Lauren chino with black Timberland boots, and it’s like, yeah, that’s what he would wear. He also wore those boots for his date scene last season. That’s what he would put together for himself to say: This is me trying. And for him to go from that to borrowing the blazer from the restaurant—which, by the way, restaurants like that really do have a stock of shirts and blazers and ties in the back. But to go from that to the next episode where we see him in his suit, he’s thinking, "This is what makes me feel good. This is what makes me feel good about myself. This is how I'm going to dress for the day." It’s a form of using clothing as armour, clothing as a tool to help you. I’m so glad we got to to that for him.

Where was his suit from?

The suit is Boss. We played with different ones, in terms of process. We did a suit which was Boss, which was, say, between $700 and $800. Then we had suits for the fitting that were at a $500 price point, slightly lower. And then we did a really high-end suit that was about $2,000 or $3,000. It was about finding a middle ground, and that happened to be the middle price point we did. With Ebon, how it fit and how he felt in it was really important. The brand is not supposed to be important at all for his storyline, but I honestly do think it’s believable that Richie said, I’m going to go out and buy this suit. It’s recognisable, it’s what a guy wears who knows his stuff.

Do you personally have a favourite character or episode to costume design for?

That’s like picking your favourite child. I do love dressing Richie. It's so much fun. I mean, all of them are great, honestly. Even characters like Ebra, a lot of his shirts we have to build just because we shoot in the wintertime and I have a very particular way that I want his shirts to look, and it’s really hard to find those patterns in those tones in winter. Marcus this season was so much fun to dress. Syd is obviously great. They all bring me so much joy for so many different reasons, because they all have this one thing that I'm obsessed with looking for for them.

Sydney, it’s good vintage. Fak, it’s T-shirts and hats. The workwear that Fak wears is actually Matty Matheson’s own workwear line, Rosa Rugosa. It wasn’t out the first season, so we basically asked them to make things for us, but this season, it’s available and we used it for the staff at The Beef. They all have particular things that I like to home in on and look for for them. With Richie, it’s his track pants. With Tina, it’s her accessories. Liza [Colón-Zayas] is so funny, she’ll be like, “Tina needs a bag. She needs a backpack, just in case she has to run.” I’m like, okay.

You know who was really fun to dress, even though we only got to see him for about two seconds? Chester, Marcus’s roommate and friend. We put him in a lot of vintage suits, a lot of Drake’s, a lot of Brooks Brothers. He’s stealthily one of my favourites.

My favourite episode this season, just because of how crazy it was, is definitely “Fishes.” It was three weeks of madness to do all of those fittings and shop for all of those clothes, I'm glad I have such a strong team. It was all hands on deck. My tailors, my dyer, my coordinator, my PA. We went to L.A. and had to do a fitting there for 36 hours, it was so involved. But we got to do such specific characters in one episode, and it was so great. All the guest stars were so collaborative and so down with what we were doing. It was crazy, but so satisfying.

I felt like all those characters had such distinctive personalities, and you can see that in their style, but then Mikey just wearing a T-shirt at this formal family event. What was the reasoning behind that?

Mikey is one of those guys where if he's wearing an Under Armour shirt and clean jeans and a sneaker, he's like, "Yeah, this is me." I also don’t think he’s in the mind state to try. He’s just waking up every morning and surviving, at that point. It is what it is. We did play around in the fitting and see if we should do a nicer sweater, but for where he is in his mental state and who he is, it felt like that was where he was at.

Can you share some of your favourite style Easter eggs from this season?

This isn’t an Easter egg, but me and Jeremy just got a kick out of it. His jeans for “Fishes” are the A.P.C. classic jeans. We were like, of course Carmy, in his hunt to hone his style years ago, landed on the gateway to liking denim. Of course he’d be wearing that jean. I would say his whole look from that episode—he’s wearing a Palace x Polo Ralph Lauren collaboration rugby shirt, it’s just so specific to that time. He would definitely be like, “Yeah, this is what I’m wearing now,” coming back from his travels.

There’s so much that we put into it, and we are appreciative that people are noticing it. We did try to add a lot more kitchen workwear, even for people who are back of house and in the kitchen. Connor is wearing this white kitchen workwear jacket, we started putting people in Blundstone because that’s what the kitchen world is wearing now. There are little things that we tried to incorporate for the characters to make it true to the world.

Originally published on Esquire US

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