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What It's Like to Design the Costumes for Baz Luhrmann's 'The Get Down'

Jeriana San Juan discusses how her childhood influenced her designs and what America misunderstands about the origins of hip-hop.

by Mitchell Sunderland
Aug 15 2016, 3:23pm

Stills courtesy of Netflix

The Get Down sounds ridiculous. Moulin Rouge director Baz Luhrmann has executive produced the Netflix series about the early days of 1970s hip-hop, with fellow executive producers Nas, Grandmaster Flash, and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis. However, the show works: It tells a moving story about music and poverty, while still dazzling like Luhrmann's best film, Romeo + Juliet.

One of the most dazzling aspects of the series is the costumes, designed by Catherine Martin, a four-time Oscar winner—she won two for Moulin Rouge! and two for The Great Gatsby—and Luhrmann's wife. She crafted the wardrobe with a team that includes former Saturday Night Live costume designer Jeriana San Juan. Together, the pair created realistic 1970s ensembles that show how kids in the Bronx stylized their everyday wardrobes to look fresh, creating hip-hop and changing the world in the process.

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Juan took inspiration from lessons she learned growing up in poor neighborhoods in Miami, New York, and other cities. She spoke to Broadly about the difficulties of telling a serious story in a theatrical style, how her Miami childhood influenced her work, and what she learned from Grandmaster Flash.

Photo courtesy of Netflix.

BROADLY: The Get Down tells a realistic story about poverty in a theatrical way. How did you manage that balance?
Jeriana San Juan: That was a really delicate balance because, in its own way, it's really 70s and [also has] that gritty reality that was the Bronx of the time. We're at a spectacular time and it was theatrical—it was heightened in its own way. It really was about finding all the things that were true at the time that were also, I would say, kind of mythological. All the things that were true of the time that were also distinct and signature and iconic—and also yes, capturing that gritty reality and the truth that was the burning down Bronx of the time.

It was really important to portray the community and these people as what they were, which was very proud. I can speak to this very personally because my upbringing was sort of similar. My mom had immigrated here from Cuba, and we didn't grow up with very much. Not having very much [does] not always mean you're not very pulled together in your clothes. Clothing is a great matter of pride for many people... [Even though] this community maybe didn't have the most resources, they still found ways to put together looks without money, but instead with creativity and ingenuity, to create really cool styles. It's that story [that] I'm telling through the clothes, which is really the overarching theme of the show: creating something from nothing.

Stills via Netflix

How did your childhood in Miami affect your designs?
I was actually born in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and I grew up between New Jersey, Miami, New York City, Connecticut, and Chicago. I moved around quite a bit while growing up. My grandmother was a seamstress and was the first person who taught me how to sew—the first person who taught me how to look at a garment, find the things I did and didn't like, to copy them on newspaper, to create a sewing pattern, and construct a garment.

Also, I have two mothers. I have two lesbian moms—I'm very proud to say—and my biological mother's partner is a ballerina. When I was growing up, every day after school I would be picked up and dropped off to her dance studio, and I would spend my day in the costume shop with fabrics [and] tutus, sewing and creating clothes for my Barbie dolls.

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Although The Get Down feels like a musical, the show also seems like a naturalistic play. Did you look at certain photographers while researching for your designs?
In designing the show, it was really about getting a good understanding of the context of the period and the context of specifically of the Bronx and New York City. Basically, to do the research, it really started with books. It started with photos from Joe Conzo, who's a photographer from the period. He just had a camera and was documenting himself and his friends in classrooms in the Bronx in 1977. With Baz, basically, I'm able to contact Joe Conzo directly and... talk to him directly and get photos directly from his archives.

Did you collaborate with hair and makeup?
Working with Baz is a real privilege as a costume designer, because it's not often about just doing the clothes—it's really creating an image for each character. It's really about creating that harmony between how the hair looks, how the makeup looks, [and] how the clothes look. To create that harmoniously, it was important that I work really closely to collaborate with the hair artists and the makeup artists to create a full image with each look.

How did you end up working with Luhrmann and Miller?
I had worked with Kerry Orent, who is one of the producers. Baz specifically was talking to Kerry about doing this project, and Kerry knew that I shared a very similar aesthetic to them and greatly admired Baz and Catherine Martin. He basically saw this marriage between us and how I could offer an understanding of how to create something beautiful and something Baz-worthy, but on a television platform. They were unfamiliar of how to work within the parameters of a television series. It operates very differently than a film.

How do TV and film differ in terms of costume creation?
I think mostly in the scheduling and the timing. A film is one script. A television script is as many scripts as you have episodes. This eventually became a 13-hour film, so having one hour or one and a half hours to fill with story and costume—[as] opposed to 13 hours—is very different. Having the schedule constraints of shooting an episode for a certain number of days, and while you're shooting that episode, you're preparing for the next episode, which is going to shoot directly following—it's like a runaway train. Once you get started, it's really 100 percent about thinking on your feet and balancing a schedule. It's a process that's non-stop.

You previously worked on Saturday Night Live. Did that prepare you to work quickly?
SNL is an entirely different entity than anything else that's on television—it's also a television show that has been running for 40-plus years now. I think because it's been running for so long, it has a really kind of perfected formula of how it runs. Every week it's something completely different, but there's so much consistency in how Saturday Night Live is created and in how the team works that it's sort of a well-oiled machine.

What do you think is the biggest misunderstanding about the era that The Get Down captures?
I think the biggest misunderstanding—and I think Grandmaster Flash would agree with me on this, because he sort of schooled me when I first started the job—is where exactly hip-hop began. I think a lot of young people think that really old school hip-hop or that the origins of hip-hop [started in the early 1980s], but but hip-hop really started much earlier than that. It started with Grandmaster Flash and Kool Herc scratching records in the basement.

[The style] started with just someone having the accessibility to what young people wear—which is jeans, sneakers, and T-shirts—and finding it doesn't cost any more money to coordinate those items. If you have a red sneaker, wear a red T-shirt. Maybe your red T-shirt has some white piping on it, why don't you wear a white belt? Coordinating those elements are really about the origins of hip-hop and creating the fresh, or fly, style—that really started with just being able to use ingenuity to understand [how] to be creative with it.

It's not always about having a Louis Vuitton belt, but it's about having a cool color belt that you keep in perfect condition, or what the kids did: They kept toothbrushes in their back pocket to keep their sneakers clean, or would wrap plastic bags around their sneakers to get to the parties. They would take them off right before going in, so your sneakers look totally fresh. It's not about wearing labels, or expensive clothes, or toting how much money you have—it's really about being proud.