‘This Is Us’: The Fashion Behind The Backstreet Boys

By Rahsian Parris

With newly released album – This Is Us, the follow up to 2007’s Unbreakable, and in the midst of their This Is Us World Tour, the Backstreet Boys have no qualms about remedying myths that they are no longer a household name; but seven albums, one departure and over 100 million record sales later, how do these megastars of the 90s stay fashion forward without compromising the trademark style and personality that the world fell in love with over a decade and a half ago? Innovative stylist and costume designer for the Backstreet Boys, Nicole Janowicz, enlightens us on what goes into styling, for the stage, one of the biggest selling artists of all time.

It is a bitterly cold evening in Glasgow and as the heavens open up, showering the unmissable buzz of the city center with the patter of winter rain, it is easy to get dragged into the drab feeling of the night as more and more bodies climb in and out of taxis, typically headed for mundane Saturday night bar crawls; but a little ways into the city, laying abreast the north bank of the River Clyde and next door to the famous ‘Armadillo’ there is a different kind of hum. Hearts are pounding, screams of excitement crescendo out of the SECC Arena and into the Scottish air; behind the curtains the Backstreet Boys prepare to burst out onto the stage, ready to live it up, dressed to kill.

Nick in his first outfit during 'PDA'

Opening with 1997’s top ten hit Everybody (Backstreet’s Back), Howie Dorough, Nick Carter, Brian Littrell and A.J McLean grace the stage in suave black and white with lashings of denim. A.J and Howie wear predominantly black cotton with vibrant monochromatic patterns on their ties, A.J in an almost mafia-esque suit and trilby which clearly indicates his naturally ‘edgy’ look and Howie in a fitted black shirt and jeans. Humble. Chic. Brian, on the other hand dons more fitted trousers and a black blazer broken up by a dynamically patterned, monochrome tie and white shirt; this is topped off by a baseball cap which he wears back to front, a notable reflection of his ‘on tour’ attire of the early Backstreet Boys tours and a depiction of his bright personality and love of sport. Nick never fails to surprise and since the notably uncomfortable Never Gone era – in which he never quite seemed content – the youngest member of the Backstreet Boys has gone from strength to strength and looked especially dapper in a white shirt, black fitted waistcoat accompanied by dark jeans and stylish trainers, looking ultimately comfortable in his own skin. Individually they could all easily have been your mildly eccentric boyfriend on his first dinner date and together, in theory, these outfits should not work, but yet they do; oozing style and individuality that many musical groups of today irrefutably lack, whilst gelling to form a bond that amends any fashion faux pas. Nicole Janowicz, the secret weapon behind the newly resurrected fashion of the Backstreet Boys says “Every guy [in the group] has a different personality and style so the most difficult part of my job is consolidating everyone’s personalities and moods to find the happy medium where both are reflected yet they look like a cohesive group. Just like everyone else, the guys’ moods change and sometimes they just want to be comfortable in jeans and sneakers or they feel like dressing up a little more. The most rewarding aspect of dressing the four guys as a group is seeing a photograph, music video, TV show, or concert where they look great and the guys’ reactions are “Wow! We look good together!””

Stylist and costume designer Nicole Janowicz has been working with the Backstreet Boys for over three years now. After graduating from the University of California, Los Angeles, where she majored in psychology, she turned her hand to fashion journalism for a spell before deciding to pursue a career in fashion styling. Having styled various clients including actor Adrien Grenier (Entourage) and musical artist Kid Rock, as well as styling for a variety of magazines, she was lucky enough to cross paths with the Backstreet Boys. “[They] were preparing to launch their album, Unbreakable and wanted to revamp their image. After seeing my work they contacted me and asked me to style them for the Unbreakable cover. After shooting their album cover and Inconsolable music video together, we developed a great working relationship and they asked me to style and accompany them for their promotional tour. While we were out on tour, the guys started brainstorming ideas for their Unbreakable World Tour and asked me to do the costume design as well as go out on the tour with them. We have been together ever since.”

Brian in the 'BSB' hoody

Five tracks in and the swift disperse and disappearance of the boys signals a wardrobe change, with a short video interlude creating valuable dressing time. The boys emerge as the title track of the album begins and in contrast to the first set, are kitted out far more casually for what eventually becomes the trade mark ‘slow’ section of the concert where the majority of the chosen ballads are performed. Each backstreet boy is uniformed in an achromatic T-shirt, matching gray, jersey, zip hoodies with ‘BSB’ embellished on one breast in sparkly ruby red, (similar hoodies appear as part of the tour merchandise that can be bought at the venue on the day of the show) and a pair of jeans and trainers. The style choice for this section of the show seemed slightly questionable at the time, but proved to be a fresh, contemporary perspective on the matching suits and trilbies that usually accompany this section of a Backstreet Boys show. Janowicz reassures saying: “Costumes play a large role in the show. They communicate the theme of the songs in a particular section and the theme of the show overall. They tell a story. They have to be visible to everyone in all seats of a venue, but not overpower the performer; but at the same time, I have to remember that the costume has to last for many, many shows. They will get sweaty and have to be washed and repaired. When designing a costume, I have to ask myself, “If I am in the middle of nowhere with only the supplies I packed and this piece breaks, how will I fix it?” If the answer is “there is no way I can repair this by myself”, then I do not use it”. With that said, there is something about the hoody and jeans combo during the ballad section that makes you feel at ease. No longer does it feel like a regimental stage production (however exciting it may be), but when the boys climb down the metal stair cases on either side of the stage and get closer to the crowd, a sudden feeling of nostalgia swoops over you like a gust of warm air from the pacific. If only until the next part of the show, you are fifteen again, back in your baby pink wallpapered bedroom, wrapped in the fluffy dreams of your favourite Backstreet Boy as you sing along to All I Have To Give; be it only for a moment, everything in the world feels right again.

Nick in the 'pops of neon' outfit

Half way through the show and after another brief interval accompanied by a video clip, all four boys take to the stage again to up the tempo of the show with 2001’s epic single The Call. This time around you get a real feel for the Backstreet Boys as individuals. At first glance you would not even think they were ‘styled’. A.J looks like he has just popped out to the supermarket in a casual slogan tee that reads ‘never grow up’ and a pair of dark jeans with a ‘worn’ look on the thigh. Nick masters the art of the blazer/jeans look with a fantastic white jacket with an adorning large print on the back, a white and silver printed tee and dark jeans accessorised with a red striped belt that adds a bit of Rock ‘N’ Roll grit to his outfit; so effortlessly that you could swear that there is a fashionista brewing inside him just bursting to get out. Brian teams a light blue, retro print T-shirt with a black PVC looking ‘puffer’ gilet, washed out jeans and high-top trainers; adding retro/cool to an otherwise sporty concept. Howie knits the individual looks together by wearing a modern interpretation of the gilet in black and white which ties in with Nick’s monochrome attire and is also wearing a print tee; his jeans, that are very similar to Brian’s, mean that two of the boys are wearing dark jeans and the other two boys wearing lighter jeans.

Janowicz tells of how she captures the boys’ individual styles and how that translates into how they look as a group: “they all have very strong personalities which naturally come through. Brian is very athletic and sporty and loves textures and colors. I have him wear distressed jeans, really soft cottons, cashmere, things that are very comfortable and colorful. A.J is very rock ‘n’ roll so I focus on pieces that have an edge and are very unique. He likes taking fashion risks and loves to shop with me. Nick is preppy with a little urban twist. I use a lot of patterns and colors, while maintaining an effortlessly cool look. Howie is chic but youthful. He looks so great in a suit so I like to pair suit pieces that are a little more sophisticated with casual pieces. I also include my own style preferences”, and what about when the boys do not agree? “They know I am really serious about a particular look when I say, “As your stylist, I feel really strongly about this.” If we are divided on something, we all take a vote and the majority wins. Sometimes I come in with a look and they have their own suggestions to add. In that case, we collaborate and develop a really great look.”

AJ and Howie
A.J and Howie in the Larger Than Life costumes

I wonder if this was the case for the next couple of outfits that hit the stage, notably Nick’s addition to the Trance inspired ‘Pops of neon’ outfits, where his pair of skin tight ‘skinny jeans’ come ‘treggins’ (a hybrid between trousers and leggins) gave many a Backstreet fan a show they had not bargained for. Be that as it may, the visual highlight of the show was undoubtedly the stage costumes from the performance of Larger Than Life (although Nick’s ‘treggins’ came in close second). An innovative blend of military chic, android attitude and traces of inspiration from the official music video made Larger Than Life a visually stunning spectacle. “Those costumes evolved over a month and went through many trials” says Janowicz “The choreographer originally had a vision of building a robot on stage. While I was pulling clothes for the Straight Through My Heart music video, I saw a piece of gear for motorcyclists that I thought could look really great if I somehow turned it into robot armor[…] I called every set designer I know and did an extensive internet search. Eventually, my friend at Set Masters developed a way to form and bolt polished aluminum to motorcycle protective gear. The resulting costume along with the music and choreography has become a highlight of the show.”

As Straight Through My Heart belts out its last anthemic chorus and multi-coloured confetti showers the audience from above, it feels almost ludicrous that such a brilliant show is about to come to an end; but as A.J, Brian, Nick and Howie hold each others raised hands as they plunge forward in a large bow, the reality dawns upon all. However, with all great concerts there is one reassuring factor and that is that the greater the show, the more the memory of the night stays embedded in your mind. For years I figured this was down to just how well an artist sung, but there is so much more that goes into a great live show other than good vocals (of which the Backstreet Boys are masters of the trade). What we remember primarily is what is aesthetically pleasing. Without the expertise of innovative and creative stylists and designers such as Nicole Janowicz, would we even remember what happened at a concert? It is true that all the major points and structures of a good show are marked by wardrobe changes which ultimately signifies the immutable connection between fashion and music. So next time you are at a live show, as you chant along to your favourite song, stare dreamy eyed and your favourite artist, remember those few individuals behind the scenes that spend untold amounts of time helping to make the memories you will have for a lifetime.

As I slowly leave the Glasgow SECC Arena, trying to replay every moment back in my mind like a vivid home video, I do not even notice that it is still raining and that I’m being bumped every which way by over zealous Backstreet Boys fans still very much on cloud nine. The horns of near by traffic are completely drowned out by my own mental rendition of Straight Through My Heart and I smile to myself; maybe because that was the best show I have ever been to, maybe because I feel like a teenager again or maybe it is because I have just remembered the ‘treggins’.

The Backstreet Boys This Is Us World Tour hits London’s O2 Dome tonight – Doors – 18:30. For more UK dates visit Backstreetboys.com

From Store to Tour: Want the Backstreet look? Get some inspiration from some of the designers and brands that the boys wear themselves: Dior, Dolce and Gabbana, Gucci, Hysteric Glamour, H&M, Joe’s Jeans, Levis, Marc Jacobs, Nike and Reebok