Empire Records is the box office bust turned stylish cult classic
Even 25 years on, the movie's costumes perfectly depict its oddly lovable characters.
Still from Empire Records.
In 1995, the way people discovered new music was usually by hitting up the local record store (if they weren’t given a mixtape or CD by a friend or crush). Nowadays, because we can listen to practically any song we want at any given time, making a special trek just to buy new music, let alone new records, is almost an inconceivable notion. But that’s just one of the many reasons that the nostalgic teen movie Empire Records hits differently than others that came out around the same time.
When it was released exactly 25 years ago, on September 22, 1995, Empire Records wasn’t a massive hit. In fact, it only grossed around $300,000 in the couple of weeks it was in theaters, making it a certified box office bomb. But it would soon get its flowers, becoming a well-quoted cult classic that’s loved by many today. It’s even one of the few films to have its own unofficial holiday — similar to May 4 for Star Wars, October 3 for Mean Girls and April 25 for Miss Congeniality’s “perfect date,” Empire Records is celebrated by the citizens of the internet every April 8, also known as Rex Manning Day.
The cast is full of bright young stars who were newcomers at the time, including Liv Tyler, who was fresh off her father, Steven Tyler’s new video (Aerosmith’s “Crazy”) opposite another breakout star from the same year, Clueless’ Alicia Silverstone. It also had a pre-Jerry Maguire Renée Zellweger, Robin Tunney (who would star in The Craft the following year), as well Ethan Embry, Rory Cochrane and Johnny Whitworth.
Some point to Empire Records as having a similar vibe to The Breakfast Club because it takes place over the course of one day, and is centered around a motley crew of record store employees. They include Corey (Liv), the goody-two-shoes who secretly pops speed to maintain her GPA; Gina (Renée) the “turbo-slut”; A.J. (Johnny), the sensitive artist-type who plans to confess his love for Corey later that day, goofy stoner Mark (Ethan); suicidal Debra (Tunney), who shaves her head upon arrival to her shift and Lucas (Rory), who sprouts beatnik wisdom after he gambles away the store’s earnings in an attempt to save it from turning into a corporate chain called Music Town. Chances are, you identified with one of the lovable-but-fucked-up characters yourself, or they reminded you of someone you knew.
Because the characters have such distinct personalities and the movie takes place in the span of a day, the costumes, as one could imagine, must be carefully chosen. Susan Lyall, the film’s costume designer, says she finds one-day stories challenging in the prep stage, but easier in the shooting phase. “The hard part is when you wish maybe you had done something differently — there’s no undoing,” she says. (Susan also worked on 200 Cigarettes, another ensemble film that takes place over 24 hours).
There couldn’t have been anyone more perfect to design Empire Records’ costumes than Susan. After all, she was a musician herself, and was more than familiar with the record store setting. “I didn’t need to do any research, I had that down. I lived in the East Village in New York for a long time, and went into record stores all the time. That’s just kind of what you did,” she says. “As a performing musician, you’re definitely tuned into what fans look like, what people are wearing and what to perform in. I had that under my belt, too.” Susan’s former band, The Band of Susans, also has a sort of Easter egg in the film, as the set decorator used one of its posters in the Empire Records employee break room. (It’s especially visible in the scene where Lucas and A.J. rock out to Joe’s drumming of AC/DC’s “If You Want Blood”). Susan sourced most of the costumes and vintage looks, from Patricia Field, Canal Jeans and Urban Outfitters, save for a couple of pieces that were either from the actors’ own or randomly found on set.
If you google “Empire Records Halloween costume,” the results usually show fans wearing Corey’s pastel blue sweater and plaid skirt combo. Although it may not be as iconic as Cher Horowitz’s yellow tartan, the thing about Corey’s look is that it’s accessible. A fuzzy blue sweater and a matching skirt isn’t too difficult to find, making it a good choice for an homage to Liv’s character. The popularity of Corey’s outfit is actually surprising to Susan, who considers it to be the most ordinary out of the bunch: “I thought everyone else’s had so much more personality to them.” According to Susan, the original look for Corey’s outfit was edgier, but the producers wanted something “sweeter.” They also had her wearing Converse, but ended up using Liv’s actual black combat boots (which she told Vogue in 2015 was “a little fuck you thrown in” as a response to the producers changing her outfit). But, in the end, it made for a pretty memorable outfit. “Because she was the brainiac character going off to an Ivy League school and because she was the good girl, we went for the pleated skirt, which is both ‘good’ and a little fetishistic as well,” Susan says. “A little plaid skirt has a lot of meaning, and, to me, it actually worked pretty well for this. And then we tried her boots and everyone loved that.”
Susan says Robin’s costume probably had the most thought put into it. “She wanted to wear something that hid her body, that someone who is depressed would like to hide in and that had some ‘insider’ cred,” she says. The result was “70s old man polyester pants” that were bought at the Salvation Army and tailored to hang off her character Debra’s hips, while her sweatshirt was a shrunken boy’s size 10. Her undershirt was also from the kid’s department, but Susan dyed it and screened on a drawing from an album by the 60s/70s girl band The Shaggs.
For A.J.’s grandpa cardigan, it was Johnny’s very own Armani Exchange sweater, and the checkered v-neck he wore underneath was a vintage one that Susan says he gravitated towards — which was worrisome at first. “I didn't really want him to wear it because I needed doubles for everything. But he loved it so much, we ended up having fabric made to match it and making a duplicate that never got used,” she says. “Somehow, miraculously, that thing held together.” Ethan also gravitated towards his character’s costume, a red Chainsaw Kittens ringer tee that was sent to set by someone promoting the band. “He just loved it,” Susan said. “They were young actors who were sort of cast to type, so if he really loves it, it means he's connected to it somehow, and I was all for it.” Coyote Shivers, who played the rocker Berko (and was also Liv’s on-set guardian because he was married at the time to her mother, Bebe Buell), suggested they cut the sleeves off his character’s Comme des Garçons button-up. “It was so beautiful and looked great on him,” Susan says. “But I’ve got to give him credit for that. He was a guitar player, and it was just kind of Keith Richards-y to do that.”
Director Allan Moyle came up with the idea for Lucas’s black turtleneck, and for Rex Manning’s unforgettable sleazy look, Susan went for a mix of “glitter rock, Tom Jones and 80s boy bands.” The purple satin shirt was from NYC’s Trash & Vaudeville (where she also picked up some costumes for 200 Cigarettes). “It’s basically a Western-cut shirt and I added tassel to the back to give it a little more swagger,” she says. Debi Mazar, who played Rex’s assistant, based her character on Madonna’s publicist, Liz Rosenberg. The black newsboy cap, she dons in the role came from Rosenberg, but the red wig was actually Carol Burnett's.
There are also many subtle moments in the film where the costumes come into play: the red bra Corey wears to seduce Rex; the orange Music Town apron Gina fashions into a barely-there dress to protest the “no revealing clothing” company policy; the oversized PNB Nation jacket Warren uses to hide his stolen CDs, the navy blue Jockeys Gina correctly predicts Rex is wearing underneath his pants; even the sneakers Lucas changes into to chase Warren.
For Susan, working on the seminal film was so enjoyable that she doesn’t even mind when people text her “Happy Rex Manning Day” on April 8. And even though she’s surprised by the enduring appeal of Corey’s blue plaid number, she appreciates it. “You really never know what will capture the popular imagination,” Susan says. Which is true. Even though Empire Records was far from a hit when it first came out, it grew into something incredibly cherished by fans 25 years later. Damn the man, save the empire!