Costume designer Jeriana San Juan is certainly no stranger to recreating iconic looks from decades gone by. Previous period television titles for her include “The Get Down” and “The Plot Against America.” Now, she is Emmy-nominated for Netflix’s limited series “Halston,” which spans the life and creations of the titular real-life fashion designer, from his creating a hat for his mom as a young boy to collaborating with Martha Graham just a few years before his death.
There’s always a limitation to what can be sourced from the actual time when working on period pieces, but it seems like with Halston you might be even more limited due to the made-to-order business. How did that affect your plans for the series?
His pieces are very hard to come by, not to mention when I would find Halstons in the marketplace or with vintage dealers who specialized in designer, they were quite often well worn. And that’s because I really, truly believe women had a great time wearing their Halston dresses! They were [covered in] candle wax and cigarette burns and wine spills. So, oftentimes they weren’t quite worthy of looking perfectly fresh on the runway for our purposes.
In that instance is it more cost-effective to just make a new one than restore?
There are so many different elements involved — the actor that we’re dressing — and what’s genius about these dresses is they’re so perceptively simple. However, many times, the construction of a Halston dress comes together like complicated origami, so even tailoring one can be very, very difficult. They’re also oftentimes on the bias, which is tricky — over time they can stretch and grow out in funny ways. It does become more time-effective and cost-effective to create something fresh.
What was your philosophy around when to replicate an actual Halston when you couldn’t use the original, versus when to create something in its style but take creative liberties?
There are many pieces in the series that are authentic pieces that have provenance that are dated and are placed in the right place in our story, and then there is a lot of design that has happened. I would say the majority is really in the voice of [Halston], and that’s in order to really capture the spirit and the energy and the freshness of what he had created; it’s not all literal reproduction.
It felt very scary to approach something like this because there are so many pitfalls. I knew that a show like this would attract a very discerning audience and a discerning eye and many of his contemporaries are still alive — it’s just not that distant in the past. So, for that reason you know that people are going to be looking at this with their own memories and their own experiences, and a lot of comparisons will be drawn. And this also was a time that this was well-photographed — many of these events and people and places are all very well documented. There is a piece of me in doing anything where I really want to be a truthful storyteller and really root everything in authenticity, which I did do because I wanted to portray his clothes and his world accurately. But also, [I wanted to] find a place and a perspective in which to tell the story. I think that was the most important piece to develop a visual language for the show that would help educate an audience. I was always making this show for both people who are great fans of Halston, and notice his world inside and out, and people who don’t know him at all. I can help them guide people, visually, to see how revolutionary his clothes were.
As the show explores, he worked with the same fabrics in the early stages that would comprise his final product, which became an issue for his budget. I imagine even with a Netflix budget you can’t do that with the most expensive fabrics, so how did you approach what was used in scenes where dresses were partially finished versus that final runway look you referenced earlier?
I camera-tested different materials just to see the camera effect on crepe de chine versus georgette versus silk versus a satin. We were going to be manipulating many different raw materials on camera and we wanted to see kind of what was the most appealing, while also being, of course, truthful to the materials that Halston did use, like his hammered silk. There are a lot of places where we had to cheat because we’re a show on a budget, but we would find ways to come to something in a fabric that really was luxurious and elegant and had a beautiful drape.
A big slice of my work on “Halston” was working through the choreography of many of these dress creations that happened on camera. I would do that on a much more inexpensive, say, polyester blend material in order to hemorrhage that fabric because we are indeed on a budget and we don’t have a room lined with white orchids. I would mock up a dress and try different variations and film those variations so that we could find ultimately what we wanted to work towards. And then once we got closer to exacting that choreography, that’s when I would move into real materials.
I wasn’t able to work exactly as Halston, but I appreciate what he was doing because he was cutting out all of the nonsense and going straight into the material because he wanted to find exactly how that material works. And every different thread count of cotton or satin or silk or whatever would drape differently. So, as an exacting person as he was, I can completely see how and why he did that.
How did you approach designing with Ace bandages for the ballet in the finale?
It was written into the script, and some of the other elements weren’t necessarily scripted as, “He creates a one-seam caftan on her.” They were just like, “He creates a dress.” So, in creating a dress I really had to go back to what was he doing at the time? and really start to develop what would be the right message to tell in what dress we create, and then how do we work backwards into creating that visually on camera? On some level, I really had a good hand in the storytelling visually because of that; that was such a gift of this job. And when we got to the ace bandages and working up to “Persephone,” I just ran to a drugstore and sent my assistant to another drugstore and another drugstore and we gathered a mountain of Ace bandages. There was no template to work from, but know it’s there in our story and I really wanted to see something that would convey his immense creativity and convey his use of creating symmetry and geometry on the body.
I had our costume coordinator, who was like my in-house Halstonette, wear leggings and a tank top, and I just sat with her and draped bandages on her in a million different ways. And I would take pictures and video and review them with Dan Minahan, our director, and found a few different shapes that he particularly liked and that I felt like [had] the beginnings of an idea — little seeds of ideas that would ultimately mature and be fully realized on stage later.
So, that was all really workshopped, and then ultimately kind of pinned intact and made into these crazy things so that we could have actors on the day step into them.
How adaptable can you be for different bodies in that situation?
Not very. Everybody’s quite different, so it was complicated but I really live in touching, fabric and materials and draping. That’s where I find a creative spark quite often in costume design. So, a lot of times, I’ll just take material and start dripping on a dress form to start to find the idea. And so, that’s not that foreign to me. That was bred into me very, very young as a matter of fact. My grandmother taught me how to sew and how to manipulate materials and drape and start to imagine things that aren’t there. I really credit that to her and in my entire life and in my entire career I really have found sometimes those magic moments really happen when you’re manipulating the fabric and working on a dress form or with a model, finding shapes on the body. That’s, to me, sometimes where the magic happens.
Laboring over how we would wrap up this story and his work visually, it weighed very heavy on my heart. Truly, I just felt like I had him on my shoulder. I felt like I had to quite often see through Halston’s eyes and creating things in his voice and so, in order to do that I really had to learn the DNA of his voice and study not only what he had created in the span of his career, but [also] what developed his visual aesthetic, and what designers was he looking to as he was cultivating his own aesthetic? And what music did he love, what people did he surround himself with? It was a huge part of my research because I really wanted to understand his voice, truly and holy.
His voice and his designs change over time but were so unique and high-fashion, so how did that affect how you dressed characters in everyday scenes?
There’s a certain point in which Halston’s life and creativity and career become synonymous: he becomes a walking brand, and that was a big part of his story, it’s a big part of his legacy — how he really leaned into branding and marketing. That became, to me, an obvious point to make visually. So, to move everyone from very individualized looks to ultimately very much living within the same palette within the same fabrics, as if it’s all being produced in the same workroom with the same materials, was a very conscious choice in order to reflect this branding image. He did dress everyone from his lover to his Halstonettes in the current collection at the same time was very much a conscious choice.
What is your favorite Halston look from this show?
It is a “Sophie’s Choice” moment [but I will] say that my favorite collection in this show was the tie-dye collection. It came from thin air and the collection of research I had to obtain to even start to get clues into what tie-dye he was doing, what colors he was using was very extensive. I had to go everywhere from text — reviews — of his early tie-dye pieces to some images that exist in in the Patricia Mears book to images from editorials at the Condé Nast archive at Vogue. I had to assemble all of these different images and imagine a collection that was exclusively going to be batik and tie-dye.
I brought up to Dan that I thought we should make our premier collection that we show in that in that showroom the tie-dye collection because it made so much sense to transition us out of the ’60s into the ’70s. Tie-dye had been so associated with Woodstock and it is feels so birthed of hippie culture, but what he did with it really elevated it to this whole new level.
It really felt like this wonderful moment to celebrate pattern and color and his caftans, which are so iconic. In my design head, I was having a complete party!
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