New York City may feel like the epicenter of all things cool right now, but it went through an evolution to get there. The ’70s were an evocative era for the city, specifically in its later end when disco was dying out and hip-hop was on the rise. The Netflix original series The Get Down explores this through the eyes of Zeke (Justice Smith), a young poet who ends up working with a DJ who goes by the name of Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore).
The Baz Luhrmann-directed show is set in the Bronx and follows the duo and their friends as they try to break into the hip-hop scene as “The Get Down Brothers.” This is contrasted by Zeke’s love interest, Mylene (Herizen Guardiola), who’s trying to become the next disco star. Add in some truly spectacular musical numbers, gangsters, violence, and visually-stunning costumes and you get one of the most entertaining shows Netflix has put out.
Part 2 of Season 1 just dropped, and we had the opportunity to speak with Jeriana San Juan, the mastermind behind the show’s costuming.
Read on to learn what San Juan had to say about creating SO many costumes, how she found inspiration, and those amazing bomber jackets worn by The Get Down Brothers.
HelloGiggles: Can you tell me a little bit about how you started working on this project and your background with costuming?
Jeriana San Juan: I started with Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll, which is musically oriented. There had been a conversation with Baz (Luhrmann) about The Get Down and how we wanted to work with Netflix on bringing this story to life. I was just floored to have the opportunity to work with Baz Luhrmann. I had a meeting with Catherine Martin, who is Baz’s wife and creative partner and costume designer for all his projects, and they wanted to partner with a costume designer who is familiar with television. Catherine and I met and had a wonderful conversation about everything from styles that we love, to certain images from the era of this show that we particularly responded to, to a little bit about my upbringing. This show was particularly pulling for me because I grew up a first-generation American citizen from a Cuban family in Miami that didn’t have a lot of money. And there was something really spectacular about this story because it spoke to me. It’s about kids who are creating the most with very little and making something from nothing by using ingenuity and creativity. It’s something that meant a lot to me. And low and behold, a month later I was planning the series.
HG: Are the characters in TGD wearing vintage pieces or did you make them for the show?
JSJ: It was a combination of both, but for most of the characters I designed every single costume — it was all custom. That was required of us for two reasons. One, we were telling a very stylized and heightened story and wanted to be able to control the color palette really well. I wanted it to have a very vivid and crisp look. Two, the 1970s were a long time ago, and the clothes didn’t hold up very well, especially a lot of the athletic clothes we were doing in this story. I looked at archives from Halston to Diane Von Furstenberg and I did special recreations or reinterpretations of them.
HG: Did you have one thing that influenced you more than anything else?
JSJ: Probably Grandmaster Flash. He was a consultant and producer on the show and he was one of my most invaluable resources because he was really able to tell me firsthand what pieces were cool and what pieces weren’t. Even down to the detail that Lee Jeans were more popular than Levi Jeans and what the two different brands meant in the cultural context of the time, which you can’t get from looking at old photos. To be able to go through a rack with him and pull out a polyester pant because it was nicknamed “the teardrop pant” versus another polyester pant that would have been worn by an older man; it’s really cool to go through it all with somebody who remembers every little detail.
HG: What are some of the challenges that come with doing an era piece like this?
JSJ: As much as I wanted the clothes to be fresh off the rack and ready-to-wear, they really weren’t. Even when it came to dressing the hundreds of background we had, it was a lot of customized pieces as well. It’s the nature of clothing to decompose over time and to keep that heightened, classic look through the show, it really meant a great deal of finding contemporary pieces and then restyling them or Frankenstein-ing them and using certain parts and changing the fit of them. What really wasn’t a challenge at all were the actors; they were so much fun to work with and so open to trying out different things with me. Like being in the room with Jaden [Smith] trying on a pirates hat, or a flight suit or a pair of cut off denim shorts that I painted all over. He was really open to all of it and excited to experiment with the character.
HG: What’s it like to dress individual characters? Were some more difficult to dress?
JSJ: The only difficulty came with the character of Papa Fuerte and that’s in part because the look of a leisure suit, which is very much what that person would have worn; it looks very dated to our modern eyes. In order to give that a more modern tweak, we ended up making it into the look of a uniform. We adapted some of the parts of the leisure suit and gave it a twist like a uniform, sort of like what Fidel Castro would have worn.
HG: Do you have a favorite piece or outfit you did?
JSJ: One of my favorite characters is probably Regina. She’s a fantastic, spicy Latina and there’s a lot of elements about the way that the actress snaps and it just feels like my inner self. I think I just really relate to that character and who she was. In a secret way, I’m designing for myself in the ‘70s.
HG: How did you make the bombers the Get Down Brothers wear?
JSJ: The bombers were really to signify that group of boys had polished their image a little bit and united as “The Get Down Brothers.” The satin bombers actually came from research from the period. A lot of early hip-hop groups used to wear their sports jackets or their suit jackets all the same as a way to kind of unify the group. These jackets were all custom made, and the color palette from them really came from the mythological unity between Books and Shaolin. Shaolin kind of carries this red color and Books kind of carries this blue color. So the jackets is really about celebrating the unity of Books and Shaolin, the wordsmith and the DJ.
HG: How did you work with the makeup team to create the final looks for the show?
JSJ: I am involved to a certain extent. Linda, the makeup artist, exclusively takes credit for the makeup, but from time to time I’ll have a certain opinion. As I was designing a certain costume I saw whoever might have a pink lip with it. Or I’ll give Yolanda a cherry red top and I’ll talk to Linda about how a red lip would like right. I’ll work with hair on a style I found in research. Each costume is a story within a story so it helps to have makeup and hair to help tell that.