Funeral services were held Saturday for costume designer Louis Wells, whose clients included Prince, Earth, Wind & Fire, Natalie Cole and Bobby Brown, among others.
Wells, 61, died of lung cancer on July 19, according to his brother Charles.
Despite his decades long career with Earth, Wind & Fire, Wells is widely associated with Prince’s “Purple Rain,” which he worked on with his longtime collaborator Vaughn Terry and the costume designer Marie France. While Earth, Wind & Fire’s Egyptian and spiritualism-inspired identity was inherited by Wells and Terry, Prince had not established his on-stage persona. After Earth, Wind & Fire’s management started representing Prince, they tapped Wells and Terry. “They said, ‘Go work with the kid. He’s going to be someone big.’ Begrudgingly, we went with that. That was a down step to us. Prince, c’mon? This was an artist about to be recognized and going on tour on a tour bus,” Terry said.
Taking over from a local seamstress — the sister of Prince’s bass player André Cymone — Wells and Terry were at that time transitioning from groups with “very cartoony imagery” to more stylish statements, Terry said. Their six-year run with Prince helped to define his international influence. “I would say we influenced the world of fashion with Prince. You would characterize Prince’s influence with the ruffle shirt, the purple trenchcoat, the fitted pants with the shearing up the side, the diagonal fly with the big, 20-mm. buttons, certainly the leather jacket with the scarf with the tassels and the motorcycle,” Terry said. “Even now, we’re still using it. I do storyboard references at Coach [where he freelances] pulling out Prince pictures. It’s still influencing fashion tremendously.”
Born in Camp Irwin, Calif., Wells was one of 10 children raised by a U.S. Army master sergeant father and homemaker mother. At Rock Island High School in Illinois, he first took to fashion as a home economics student, outperforming the rest of the all-girl class, his brother said. He vowed to help support his family financially at the age of 12, but couldn’t do so until landing his first job at 15. After earning degrees in clothing and textiles and business at Western Illinois University, he received a BFA in fashion design from the School of Fashion and Design. His career started with Bill Whitten’s Studio 27 who was handling the “Red Smith Show” at that time.
Wells and Terry met in the Eighties through Whitten’s Workroom 27. Terry said, “We called Bill the black Bob Mackie of the day. He had almost everybody in R&B — the Jacksons, the Commodores, Earth Wind & Fire …” Initially, Wells managed the band’s wardrobe with Whitten producing their looks. “In the Eighties, Earth, Wind & Fire was probably one of the last of the supergroups, and the costuming was an actual production,” said Terry, noting how clothes would be designed “to rip apart” for lightening fast on-stage wardrobe changes. “So the lights would go down, you’d rip some tuxedos off them and underneath would be glittery clothes. It was actually a broad range of theatrical staging so you had to know something about clothing to actually do it, and not just pull something off of a hanger.”
When the band’s relationship with Whitten deteriorated, “the group turned to us to start making clothing for some of the side acts that accompanied the group and some of the dancers. We were not only managing the wardrobe that we had gotten from Bill, but we had to start designing on the road, and that ended up including all of the guys. Kind of by default, at a time in our career where we weren’t ready, we ended up with the biggest name in the business as a client, just because we were there when the main relationship fractured,” Terry said.
Earth, Wind & Fire’s Verdine White said, “Louis was with us for 40 years. He was actually a kid when he started with us after an apprenticeship with the late Bill Whitten. He traveled with us a lot on the road, and he made all of those wonderful costumes for us. And outside of that, he was such a sweetheart of a person. I don’t like to go back too far. What I think about with Louis is that he was just a wonderful, great person. He was in this time as well, not like the Seventies. The dexy for writers is they are just locking into the Seventies because of the costumes. But he was great up to the time he passed.”
As for how many different costumes being on tour with Earth, Wind & Fire required, Terry said, “You don’t count. That’s like asking somebody ‘How many cookies do you make now that you own the bakery.’ You’re baking everyday. There’s no count. You’re just constantly producing stuff. That became our reputation and it carried over to Prince and all these other people.”
Traveling with a shop of their own on tour, Wells and Terry would also hire sewers in each U.S. city they visited on tour. (They relied on their own sewing abilities for European tours.) “There was always something in production. Sometimes it was coming off the sewing machine five minutes before you had to run down the backstage hallway for the wardrobe change,” Terry said. “Lewis was very easy, humble, calming and certainly the more sensible of the two…not to paint him as some goody two-shoes. We were both up to our ears in entertainment mayhem. That’s for sure. It was just frivolity around the world especially for two heterosexual males traveling with a group that attracts all sorts of attention.”
So much so, that every member in the group wondered what kind of party the pair would throw each night. A hotel in Brazil once banned them from having any more company, after taking over the hotel, Terry said. “With the old-school entertainment lifestyle back then, your personal behavior wouldn’t be as scandalized as it is now…you know the whole after-party, groupie scene, wild living was something that was expected, not something that you were called out for. Now it might be, ‘This is crazy. What are you talking about?’”
Recalling their days working with Prince, Terry said, “Prince was very much a dichotomy. Certainly, there was a public. No part of what the public saw and heard was an exaggeration. He certainly liked the mystique of trying to be unidentifiable. Is he black or white? If he straight or gay? He wasn’t gay because he had a half-dozen women out on tour. It became a hornet’s nest at times. Oh my God, was that wonderful,” Terry said. “Controversial and in the beginning he was more insecure, egotistical. Nobody could be bigger than him, greater than him, more than him. Out of all the wonderful things that I will certainly not downplay, there are some things had he been older, more mature he would have done things differently.”
Reflective of Wells’ humility and his effect on people, Terry described how Prince and Prince’s giant bodyguard “Chick” and Wells, a former high school wrestler, were roughhousing. “They were playing around and Prince jumped into it on Louis’ back. Louis went into his wrestling mode, flipped Prince over and tossed him on the sofa. He didn’t hurt him. Everybody was working out. Prince wasn’t fragile. He was an athlete. He used to be a basketball player in high school,” Terry said. “But the point of that was for the next few days that’s all that Prince could talk about. Louis brought this guy down to humanity and Prince enjoyed being a real person. Prince jumped into a wrestling match, got tossed around, and that was more important to talk about than him getting ready to go to the Grammys. That was indicative of what Louis’ influence on people really was. You can go back to being Prince and I’ll go back to being your employee. Right now we’re just guys kicking it.”