Dressing The Best-Dressed Cast On TV: A Q&A With 'The Get Down' Costume Designer, Jeriana San Juan
The new Netflix series The Get Down is a mythic retelling of the origins of hip-hop, folded into the stories of young Bronx natives Zeke, Shaolin, Marcus, Boo-Boo, and Ra-Ra in 1977. The series revolves around the influence of the legendary artist Grandmaster Flash, who served as a consultant on the series, but if Flash’s contributions to the art form move the story of the show forward, The Get Down’s style is all thanks to its showrunner, executive producer, and ringleader Baz Luhrmann.
As with any Luhrmann project, the visual style of The Get Down is of utmost importance to making the story become the kind of spectacular fantasy he prefers. Once his longtime costume designer Catherine Martin stepped into the role of executive producer, Luhrmann turned to Jeriana San Juan to fill this crucial role in the show’s development.
San Juan has worked as a buyer and costume designer for series like The Americans and Sex and Drugs and Rock ‘n Roll, and she designed many of the costumes for the The Get Down herself. Her work is one of the most distinct elements of the show’s appeal, with much of its eclecticism coming from her picks of items like Bruce Lee belt buckles, fur-lined vests, and tube socks. She called in to MTV to talk about short shorts, polyester, and working with both Grandmaster Flash and the grandmaster of flash, Baz Luhrmann.
MTV News: Was there anything you tried to do to differentiate the young characters in the show from the adult world around them?
Jeriana San Juan: In many ways, it separated itself on its own because what youth culture was wearing at that time was so specific. It really was a t-shirt and jeans and sneakers kind of look. The thing that presented a challenge originally was really finding the specific identity of each of the characters and figuring out how they were really going to look different from one another. I really wanted to create an iconography behind each of the characters, so that when you saw Boo-Boo as opposed to Ra-Ra, you really saw their look as distinct from one another.
How did collaborating with younger actors influence the characters’ looks?
San Juan: I think the greatest thing was actually working with Grandmaster Flash and Kurtis Blow, since they were able to say exactly what was cool during that time. We were doing the archeology of what was the most expensive sneaker and what was the most affordable that most of the kids were wearing to really find exactly the landscape of fashion at the time. Our show’s kids weren’t alive in 1977! So it was actually more of a process of collaborating with the OG originals, getting all that information and then translating it to this young group of actors who really had no social context for what was happening at the time period and what their character would be wearing. So once I had helped identify and created the look and identity of each character, it really was a close process with the actors to adjust to the difference in how things fit back then and how things looked back then. They very quickly grew into the look of the characters, and they helped embody the characters.
Putting shorts on Ra-Ra for example, because of his long legs — that look is his signature and it’s iconic to the late 1970s. He’s wearing jean shorts, tube socks, sneakers. And I looked at him and just thought, This is going to look so sensational on you, because it almost made him look like a cartoon character, it helped exaggerate his body and it helped create a more mythological character. Skylan, at first he kind of went, “Oh my god! I've never seen my legs so much wearing shorts!” And then only a week later he was going, “I love these shorts, I wanna buy them, I wanna wear them!” Boo-Boo, played by TJ, I put a bucket cap on him with a short-sleeved striped shirt and some plaid pants in his preliminary fitting, and then his eyes adjusted and he saw in the look what was so cool about it. And I said to him, “You’re gonna wear this bucket cap, and you’re gonna be one of the first people in 1977 who starts wearing this kind of look.” And of course, very quickly, this becomes a signature thing to wear Kangol bucket caps with a track suit. It becomes what we think of as a classic hip-hop style. So all of those elements start to be introduced on each of the characters, whether it’s the tube socks, the bucket cap, the leather jacket that Shaolin wears, and all of those elements start to gain momentum and you start to see them as early-’80s style and old-school hip-hop style. All those elements get introduced separately and then start to get styled together.
What was your approach to stylizing the larger-than-life mythology in the show’s design?
San Juan: It was part of my original conversations with Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin that we would try to create an icon in each of the characters and try to push the look of the show to really exaggerate it, but also to remain authentic in contributing to all of the things that were happening in fashion at the time. In order to create that mythology, it really was a process of stepping into the child’s eyes in a lot of ways. I had a conversation with Baz where I had described to him that when we look back at our memories, we sort of amplify things — like colors, you remember brighter than what they were. You remember bell bottoms as being bigger than what they were. So it was about seeing it through the kids’ eyes and portraying that style as a slightly heightened version of what the reality was, and I think that helps to give it a newness and a crispness. It gives it a vibrancy that modern audiences would identify with.
What was Luhrmann and Martin’s involvement like with the costumes?
San Juan: Originally I got involved with the project by way of Kerry Orent, who is one of the executive producers of the show. I was doing another series called Sex and Drugs and Rock ’n Roll with Kerry and he had mentioned that he met with Baz and he was discussing producing this project with Baz for Netflix. I was skeptical, I never thought I would have the opportunity to work with him because I knew that traditionally Catherine Martin was always his production designer and costume designer. So I had a meeting with Catherine and discussed exactly how it would work and exactly in what capacity I would work, and she explained to me that she was stepping into an executive producer position on this project and would be working alongside Baz to produce the show and I would be the costume designer of the series. She explained how we would all collaborate on the first episode together and then I would take the reins and design the rest of the series. And we moved past that plan very quickly, once I understood the realm of what I would be doing, and we just got to talking about Baz’s general creative approach. I got on Facetime with Baz — his assistant was holding up my cell phone and Baz was directing from the other side. And we talked about how everything that you see within the frame is part of the visual canvas, it’s part of the canvas that we see. He explained to me how important composing all of that was for him. It's not only where that person was in the shot but what clothes were they wearing and what color were those clothes in front of the color of the background, down to what were the colors in the makeup and the hair and how important all of that was to compose together.
To me, it’s how I’ve always approached design for film and television and for stage, so in a lot of ways it was like meeting a creative partner that spoke the same language. We were very much in tune with one another in how we saw the art of costume design. So it was really exciting to me and it sort of went from being a possibility to then me actually being selected to design the project, and I basically passed out because I was so excited. It was an amazing opportunity and not a task that I took very lightly. Baz’s projects are so visually spectacular, and I wanted to honor that and I wanted to honor the time period and telling this story, because it’s really one of the first times this story has been told on this platform. So it’s just so exciting to be a part of this on many different levels.
How coordinated was everything on this show between the different design teams?
San Juan: We were all very much able to collaborate with one another in the early phases of the process, which is something that Baz does very, very well. He brought together all the creatives from the show and the actors from the show and we were all really able to workshop the characters together. By sitting around in a room and discussing the character of Zeke with Justice Smith, we were able to define the kind of books he would be reading, the kind of famous figures he would be looking to as role models and inspirations, and from that stemmed what kind of books were going to be next to his bed, and what his color palette would be that he would be attracted to. Being able to work together as a group on that process really helped to find the characters, to find all the nuances that create a special touch onscreen.
How much of the clothing in this series was purchased and how much was made?
San Juan: Basically all the costumes that are on the principle actors I’ve custom designed and made, and that was in large part out of a desire to create a very crisp and fresh and bright look for this show. That can only be done by very carefully, curating and building all those clothes. Beyond that, there's a great amount of clothing in this show that is actually vintage. Thankfully, polyester is an indestructible fabric, so a great amount of the ’70s clothes do hold up relatively well. I used a large amount of deadstock vintage, which was incredible. Sort of the holy grail of vintage is to find deadstock vintage that is unworn and may still come in the packaging. And there's a good amount of reproduction in this series. The ’70s look is very much in fashion at this moment, and that was a blessing because I was able to use pieces from Topshop, for example, or from Gucci. Gucci always pays an homage to its ’70s roots, so being able to use contemporary pieces helped further push the fashionable look that’s on this show and give it that contemporary appeal. What I would often do with contemporary ’70s-inspired pieces was adjust them in one way or another, whether it’s taking off a sleeve or changing out a collar for a new collar or shortening something or changing the fit of something. There’s always manipulation that I do to all the clothes, but especially the contemporary clothes I was using.
Sometimes you watch period shows and the fit of costumes seems just a bit off. You wonder if that character would really wear those pants or if you’re just watching a costuming gaffe — but the tailoring on this show is noticeably clean and exact. Was there a creative reason for the choice to keep everything so precise? How much effort went into tailoring?
San Juan: The jeans and the denim culture were a big part of the late ’70s. Jeans are such an important thing through time, really, through history, and getting the right fitted jeans means everything. Even today people spend upwards of $500 for the right pair of jeans that are going to fit well that are going to look perfect. I'm guilty of that personally, and I deeply believe that people can look incredible in a t-shirt and jeans as long as it’s the perfect t-shirt and the perfect jeans that fit perfectly. So all the characters on the show that wear jeans, I have designed each and every pair of them and oftentimes based elements of the design on actual vintage piece and then had each one of them made. There’s a fabulous denim maker who makes custom jeans — his name is Jimmy McBride — and I worked with him on creating the perfect pair of jeans for each character.
Were there any characters that were particularly fun to dress?
San Juan: Cadillac is an incredibly fun character to dress. He’s this cool gangster who has a disco edge. There are just so many fun elements there to play with. I used elements from disco culture, using a little bit of shine in his palette. We pulled elements of animal print because he moves like a panther. We used elements from everything, from the choreography to the historical research to the kind of people he would be looking at for style influence. A big style influence for Cadillac became Walt “Clyde” Frazier, who to this day is always dressed in custom-made suits that are really spectacular and over the top. He kind of defines Cadillac’s style. Also Yahya Abdul-Mateen III, the actor, has an incredible body to dress. He really transforms the clothes and elevates them and really helped to bring the character and the clothes to life.
It’s rare to have the kind of resources that Netflix and Luhrman made available for this show. What was it like working on a project as big as this one?
San Juan: It takes a lot of people to get something like this made. I had an incredible team, but it’s no small undertaking, that’s for sure. When I was able, I would basically come up with collages. I’d see specific pieces and I’d try to either find the original source to see how something was made or I’d bring it to a manufacturer to recreate the same kind of execution and then find the right fabric that’s going to produce the same kind of look. It’s a huge undertaking. I really didn’t sleep for about a year. But I think I understood the magnitude of this project and I wanted to do justice to the story. I wanted to tell the story in a fantastic and fashionable and cool way, because it’s the first time the birth of hip-hop is being told in this medium in this way. So it was a heavy baton to carry, but I’m happy for its reception and I’m really happy for people like Grandmaster Flash, who invented the ingredients that people use to create the pop music of today. We’re actually in talks to do a fashion line together because he and I vibed so well in our creative collaboration.