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Michael K. Williams on How 1980s New York Influenced His Fashion Sense

In the late 1980s, “When They See Us” star Michael Kenneth Williams wore the dark puffy jackets, designer jeans and sneakers that were popular in his community. “But when ‘wilding’ started going on in New York City, that was the attire for them as well,” says Williams, who changed the way he dressed out of fear in the wake of the Central Park jogger case. Now, the four-time Emmy nominee goes for clean, classic clothes with “a little pop.” “I like to bring a little bit of my personality and my flair to the tradition.”

Being nominated for a second time with the SAG Award-winning ensemble of HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” — as well as with the cast of 2013 film “12 Years a Slave” — left Williams with the stressful decision of with which production to sit. “I found myself bouncing from table to table,” he recalls. He got his navy Ralph Lauren Black Label tux at a reasonable price, and jazzed it up with this Gucci bird-patterned shirt and orange bow tie. “That bow tie was an ode to Chalky. I learned how to tie a bow tie from ‘Boardwalk Empire.’ That character, that show, impacted me and how I dress, a lot.”

“That was a gift from a mentor of mine, Sean ‘Puffy’ Combs,” says Williams of the three-piece suit he wore to the following year’s SAG Awards. “To be honest with you, I was broke, and no one but Sean John would dress me. And I was honored.” Williams was raised in the East Flatbush area of Brooklyn by parents who worked in the garment industry. His mother, an immigrant who learned to sew in the Bahamas, taught him about fit and which colors complement his skin tone. “I don’t ever consider myself a ‘fashion guy’ because I grew up poor. I just know what works for me aesthetically and color-wise.”

Williams received the Gotham Awards’ Made in NY honor following his Emmy-nominated turns in “Bessie” and “The Night Of.” “Freddy was a very dark character — the closest I’ve been to [‘The Wire’s’] Omar,” says Williams, who modeled the inmate on his incarcerated nephew. “That was some heavy lifting, emotionally.” He chose this Topman suit after admiring the burgundy hue on Ryan Seacrest, and invited his mother and sister, who’d witnessed his struggles. “I could have easily been the sixth member in the Central Park Five saga, so to be recognized in my city, with my family there, was humbling.”

“I understand [Bobby McCray] because that’s me,” says Williams, Emmy-nominated this year for his role as the father of the wrongly convicted Antron McCray in “When They See Us,” based on the Central Park jogger case. “I understood his fear [and] his ignorance to how things really work.” When Oprah Winfrey hosted an event for the project, Williams didn’t want to wear anything “too big” that would take attention away from the real-life men. But for flair, Williams chose these Jay Kos pants. “I wanted to blend in with the young brothers, still being my fun-loving,
colorful self.”

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