One look at a wide-lapeled satin jersey shirt or embellished leather jacket and you know immediately where you are in the Zeitgeist of history. And thanks to Netflix’s original series THE GET DOWN we are transported there on a sensory level. Created and written by visionary director Baz Luhrmann, THE GET DOWN is a perfect combination of costume, production design, cinematography, and music, immersing us in one of the most significant periods of music history, immersed in a world that some lived, some only dream of, and some now experience for the first time. And that’s where costume designer JERIANA SAN JUAN comes in.
Focusing on the disco-ending 70’s and the emergence of Brooklyn-based punk and hip-hop, from the iconic Bronx tenements to the SoHo art scene, from CBGB to Studio 54, and even the monied business world of Manhattan, THE GET DOWN is the story of a group of kids in a decaying and dying world who give birth to the future of music, and the future of the Bronx.
I had a chance to speak with the innovative and creative costume designer JERIANA SAN JUAN, and talk about the era, the music, the dichotomous worlds of the Bronx and Manhattan, and the influences on the fashion, the costumes, the fabrics, and the visual look she now brings to life in THE GET DOWN.
Well, the first thing I have to do is reference and congratulate you on is the incredible costume design that you did on “Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll.” Absolutely fabulous. I don’t think anybody has ever dressed Elaine Hendrix so perfectly ever for a role.
Thank you! Oh yeah, she was just a Barbie doll. She’s amazing.
But then I take a look at THE GET DOWN and I’m blown away, just blown away by the way you worked hand-in-hand with production designer Karen Murphy with your color palette in using reds and blacks, and various shades of that, and then eye-popping it with blues and silvers. Gorgeous attention to detail. How do you go about approaching costume design for a series like THE GET DOWN? 1977-78 was a very pivotal time in music, very pivotal in what was socially happening in the Bronx region, and actually across the world, in terms of music and how people were dressing to reflect their musical influences. You’ve got the attire for the fictional “Platinum Boogie” tv series akin to Soul Train. You’ve got the costuming of “The Get Down Brothers”, but then you’ve also got the drug dealers and the pimps and the gang-bangers of the day. How do you go about approaching costume design for a series like THE GET DOWN? What is your approach to honing in on each of these archetypes and developing a look for them?
Well, it was looking at all of the different dimensions of what was happening in New York at the time. I think that one of the greatest influences shaping the direction in shaping the costumes and the show came from Baz [Luhrmann] who uses costume and production design in order to exaggerate and tell that story. It was really important in approaching each of those different things, whether it be an Ivy League social club or a “Platinum Boogie” disco show or the Les Inferno club or a hip-hop party, that each one I approached with an entirely different set of rules. That to me was about defining a specificity of a palette in each particular thing and even fabrics. I tried to use denims and cottons and more street wear fabrics in THE GET DOWN, and then when it came to Les Inferno, for example, it was all about silk jerseys and lame and the bright, shiny disco fabrics, payettes, sequins, and diamonds. It really was about just finding each specific thing and giving it a visual language. Sometimes that even means writing for myself a little list that really will help me focus and zone in on the essential elements of something.
I have to say the MC at Ruby Con – that costume – a stunner. The black and the blue and the gorgeous Joel Grey cabaret facial makeup, that was stunning. I felt like I was watching a cross between Studio 54 and Baz’s “Moulin Rouge!” and Harold Zidler.
Right? Yeah. That costume, actually that character, came together because as we were honing in on that story, there needed to be an MC to narrate through that event. That was something that really came about as to how could we possibly wrap up a Studio 54 MC and give him this elevated and classic yet period look? I covered a white tuxedo vest in silver studs and it started from there. We just built him up like an onion. At the very end of course he got a large rose boutonniere to really top off the look. I gave him a little bit of an exaggerated top hat. It’s almost like a Willy Wonka-esque top hat that I coated in black sequins. The beauty of working with Baz is that you can never go too far. It’s rare that he would ever pull me back.
I was looking at the Ruby Con sequences, and even just the costumes in the crowd, and all I could think of was the signature line in “Moulin Rouge!” Spectacular, Spectacular!
Great! Well, that particular scene was such an incredible joy as a costume designer to put together because it really was a matter of just gathering an insane amount of research and really starting from there and looking at photos from Studio 54, of patrons at Studio 54, and different couples that would frequent Studio 54. I would send Baz this image of a couple. There was a couple that both painted themselves head to toe in gold and performed sexual acts on the dance floor. He would say, ‘I love it!’, and then we’d literally cast people to pay tribute to that. Then I would find this story of this elderly woman who used to come every Saturday night and we paid tribute to her. It was a way of celebrating all of these iconic and very New York and essential figures of that night life scene and paying tribute to each one. Truly with each one of those backgrounds, with over 150 backgrounds, I approached each one as if it was a principal costume and gave each person a specific look and character and specific references and would build an elaborate costume for them.
The attention to detail is staggering. Again, in looking at the Ruby Con crowd scene, you’ve got the blonde-haired or Titian-haired woman with a flip back-do, the epitome of “Saturday Night Fever” with the gold silk jersey shirt, wide lapel collar, button-down. Each of these things stands out and just speaks directly to all of the meld of people that frequented all these places and that populate THE GET DOWN.
Well, a main element in the principle of THE GET DOWN and of the story is that our central characters are really creating something from nothing. There’s so much about that time that’s just riddled with inspiration because it’s people just sourcing either vintage clothes or store bought, department store clothes, and just styling them in an interesting way or pairing them in an interesting way or wearing a skirt as a dress and making a flower to put in their hair and covering themselves with glitter. Each image that I’ve seen from the period is really just a testament to imagination, and I really wanted to pay tribute to that.
Did you have the opportunity to actually buy vintage costumes from the period or was everything done from the ground up?
For the principals I built the clothes. For the majority I built the clothes and designed each piece. In dressing hundreds and hundreds of backgrounds there’s a lot that is sourced. Many times I’ll source things and then manipulate them, either change the sleeve or the collar or change the fit or dye it a different color, but for the principals it was really important to be really specific about their palette and also really have a very fresh vibrancy in their clothes. We at no point wanted this story to look dated or dusty or old, and in order to achieve that it really was about building things from the ground up and really being very specific about, for example, Shaolin’s color palette and narrowing down his references, his Asian-inspired references and Chinese color palette of red, white and black. Then pulling references of a young Kurtis Blow and mimicking some of the leather jackets that he wore and incorporating references from a Samurai that he would’ve thought would be really cool. It really allowed to tell a very specific story with each character when you build the clothes.
Because there is a lot of dance choreography and performance choreography, did you have to take that into account and did that influence your design for some of the clothes for purposes of movement and navigation?
Absolutely. Working with this team, with our creative team, was without measure the most incredible experience because I was able to attend a rehearsal with Rich + Tone [Talauega] and describe to them exactly a sequin fringe, or it was actually a rhinestone fringe sleeve outfit that I was making for Mylene for Ruby Con, and then they would manipulate the choreography in order to really enhance the arm movements to accentuate it. Or, vice versa, they would show me this list that they wanted to do and I would adjust the costume in order to work around that. We really worked in tandem, everyone, from Karen designing the color of a dance floor or the background of a DJ booth, and then I would always make sure to highlight their work and they would do the same for me.
Was this a case of an embarrassment of too many riches when it came to researching the period?
Yes. In many ways it’s hard to edit because editing almost becomes the hardest part because it really is just brimming with spectacular imagery and research. Seeing photos of different celebrities, for example, or Bianca Jagger riding into Studio 54 on a white horse and feeling, ‘Well, how do I top that?’, or ‘How do I even make this look not too made up for the story?’ It’s pretty amazing. The period we were working with was limitless.
You also have a chance in there to bring in the legendary Robert Stigwood. Even the character Dee Dee Ramone pops up so you can bring in a little bit of that CBGB influence that was happening then.
Was there anything so far in the series that you have not been able to include that you would like to include from a costuming standpoint?
Well, I think from a costuming standpoint I would love to take the story even further. Where we end the story is right at the true public burst of hip-hop and right when hip-hop breaks through a mainstream audience. To end our story right when we did was really right before the hip-hop looks gets more branded and polished. I would love to get my hands on a second season of this series and really be able to give an audience the next level of the hip-hop fashion when it really broke through to custom, full leather, branded suits and really take it to the next level.
Of course then you still would have the benefit of countering that and exploring the other side of the country.
Right, exactly. We haven’t even left New York yet!
Just one more thing that I want to ask you Jeriana, and that is, what is the greatest gift that costume design gives to you? There are so many different disciplines, artistic disciplines, within film and television, what’s the gift that costume design gives you?
I think the gift that it gives me is really being able to tell a story through clothes. I am a bit of a clothes fanatic, a costume fanatic. Every detail, whether it be a zipper or a button or the lining of Cadillac’s suit as he dances around, allows you to know a little bit more about the character and the story. I think that’s my greatest gift; watching something at the end of the day, watching an episode of THE GET DOWN and feeling like you know Books a little bit better because of the fabric in his shirt or the rumpledness of his sweater. That’s probably my greatest gift at the end of the day.
by debbie elias, interview 4/27/2017