How Jonah Hill Nailed Classic Skate Style for Mid90s

The first-time director (and genuine style icon) walks us through his film’s costumes.

No nostalgia porn and no skate porn. Those were the only two guiding rules Jonah Hill had for Mid90s. The film, which centers around a clique of young Los Angeles skateboarders in—yep—the middle of the 1990s, marks the two-time Oscar nominee’s debut as writer-director. “Those things make things corny,” says Hill. “This stuff is so easily fucked up in movies because skateboarding is always butchered so badly. Our marching order was to respect skateboarding.”

The newly minted filmmaker is right—few movies about skateboarding have ever gotten it right. Historically, they have skewed campy and try-hard, usually handled by someone who seems to have only glanced at the source material. Mid90s is not that. It’s painstakingly detailed, from the way the teenage skaters talk with each other all the way down to the baggy jeans and too-big T-shirts. Costume and wardrobe is crucial to any movie, but especially so for a project like Mid90s: a story set amid a hyper-specific and fiercely protected subculture, an era recent enough to be vividly remembered—and guarded—by many.

And when it came to recreating the authentic look of a 1990s skateboarder, Hill had only one person in mind: costume designer Heidi Bivens. “I hired Heidi three years before we even started shooting. I knew very early on who I wanted to do costumes,” says Hill. “Everyone I hired for this film had a very organic connection to this scene.”

Bivens, who had previously worked with exacting directors like David Lynch and Harmony Korine, already knew the ins and outs of skateboarding culture. “I didn’t really have to do that much research because I lived it,” she says. “Jonah knew that I grew up around it. I was in New York during the mid-‘90s—not Los Angeles where the film takes place—but the whole community of skateboarding on both coasts was doing similar things style-wise, so it wasn’t a huge departure.” And Bivens isn’t exaggerating when she says she lived it: at 18 years old, she appeared as an extra in the 1995 movie Kids, Larry Clark’s harrowing street-cast tale of troubled teens set within New York’s gritty downtown skate scene.

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Hill also hired Aaron Meza—whose own background spans over 20 years working for iconic skate brands like Girl and Chocolate and even a stint as Editor in Chief at Skateboarder Magazine—as the film’s skate consultant. (“An OG in skateboarding,” says Hill.) Meza kept an eye on everything from the tricks and skating styles to the sneakers and T-shirts of each individual character, making sure everything felt true to form. Mikey Alfred, who runs skate company Illegal Civilization and is a fixture in the Southern California’s youthful skate scene, was also enlisted to help Hill with the film’s casting.

Anyone who grew up in striking distance of the era will recognize the brands featured throughout: Girl, Chocolate, Blind, World Industries, Shorty’s, Droors Clothing. But Bivens, Hill, and team were extremely mindful of which person wore which brand. When it came to sneakers, the film’s wide-eyed 13-year-old protagonist Stevie (played by newcomer Sunny Suljic) wears LA Gear while the older, more experienced—and much cooler—skaters wear the likes of Adidas, Vans, and éS. When we first meet Stevie, he’s wearing childlike shirts with ‘90s cartoons like The Ren & Stimpy Show on them, not skate tees. These type of in-the-know details that are scattered throughout Mid90s. They won’t be caught by everyone, but it was important to Hill that the film get them right.

Hill and Bivens didn’t look back on the era with rose-colored glasses, but rather with a magnifying glass. “Each [apparel] graphic we used were ones that existed in ‘94 or early ‘95,” says Bivens, who, by an unbelievable coincidence, had kept all of her skate magazines from 1994 through 1996. “Unless I could find a photo in a magazine or online of someone wearing a particular graphic during those years, then we just didn’t use it.”

Bivens scoured vintage shops and reached out to her contacts in the skate world to try and source original tees, but ended up having to recreate many. “Not a lot of people kept their archives of skate stuff,” says Bivens. “I don’t think people realized it would be worth something.” She explains how they frequently had to track down art files so her department could remake graphics. The support they received from the skate community was overwhelmingly positive: Bivens said she never got a “no” when requesting outside help to reproduce skate merch.

And how did Hill get his cast members—most of whom were born in the ‘90s—in the right headspace for the film? “I played them tons of footage from the era,” says Hill. “And I took away their cell phones.”

Alexa Demie, who plays the Estee in a particularly memorable party scene, mentions how the distinct feel of the costume made it easy to get in character. “Between the wardrobe, the makeup, and the set design, it totally put me in that world and it helped change the way that I spoke and my mannerisms,” she says. Na-Kel Smith, who acts as the group’s coolheaded elder Ray, offers a similar take: “It was kind of like time traveling,” he says. “Once you’re on set and get really in tune with it, I’d damn near lose myself.” The biggest hurdle for Smith, a professional skater in real life? “I definitely had to learn how to skate in the puffy shoes and the big pants. Certain tricks felt totally different. It took some getting used to.”

Watching the film, it’s hard not to notice how many 1990s motifs are back in style. Skinny jeans have given way to looser, baggy pants. Today’s sought-after sneakers are essentially as big and chunky as the skate shoes of yesteryear. Graphic t-shirts made by skate brands like Palace and Supreme continue to rise in popularity. “I remember driving around Los Angeles when we were shooting and half the street corner would look like they were on our movie—straight out of the ‘90s,” says Bivens.

But the way skaters approach style today is drastically different than it was some 20 or 30 years ago. Other than outliers like Mark Gonzalez and Jason Dill, the average skater’s style in the 1990s was designed to fade into the background, not to stand out. “People care a lot about style now—and a lot of people care about standing out,” says Smith, who will also have a part in Supreme’s forthcoming video “Blessed” by longtime collaborator William Strobeck. “Expression is key. All of the tricks have been done. It’s not about what you do, it’s about how you do it. How you wear it.”

When I ask Hill when he started to picture the visual texture of the film—the shirts the skaters wear, the posters on the walls, the scuffed-up sneakers—he tells me those details and the story are inseparable. “The emotions in the story and the people are first, but if you’re the writer and director, you’re imagining the world in such detail as you’re writing,” he says. “You can’t really separate any of it. The posters and T-shirts are all written into the film.”

The clothes of our youth often stick with us—and it is clear that Hill’s have stuck with him. Hill—now in his 30s—has rocketed into the fashion zeitgeist by doing nothing so much as being himself. Mid90s highlights the fraught moments of being a teenager—the time when we were all figuring out who we were, brimming with emotional intensity, and longing to feel apart of something bigger than ourselves. It may not be nostalgia, but the film taps into something similarly evocative—baggy jeans and all.

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