When "American Idol" sneezes, American culture catches pneumonia. Every inch of each week's show is subjected to scrutiny worthy of an International Atomic Energy Agency inspection team. Every misstep comes under a remorseless spotlight. 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 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 leather pants incident, he took a deep breath and emitted a rueful chuckle: "They weren't leather pants, believe it or not. They were kind of a shiny wool. . . . I didn't think they were going to be quite as shiny on camera. 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. 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."
"Idol" is a challenge for a stylist who more typically works on an established image. "It's kind of a very, very unique job for a stylist because you get to work with these people for 16 weeks. So you get to kind of help them progress and help them change their image and help them become, you know, a star. . . . "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.' . . . 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 fashion personas for all of "American Idol's" often-inexperienced (and looking it) contestants, Siggins this season has focused his work on the 12 men who emerged from Hollywood Week.
The first step, Siggins said, is a bit of rapid motion triage.
"You just have to say, 'I have to make the best of this as quickly as possible,' " he said. "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 weeks you get to know their personalities, and I see how I think they should be presenting themselves to the world."
Each week, Siggins caucuses with each contestant and maps out a strategy. "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 is given $400 a week, and every dollar spent over this limit comes out of their 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 smooth sailing. "This year more than any, they know who they are. . . . And you know, they're a lot more 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 on this year's Top 10, Siggins reflected on the male contestants.