As Baz Luhrmann's decadent hip-hop series hits Netflix, we talk to costume designer Jeriana San Juan about styling the musical subcultures of NYC and navigating the sneaker hierarchies of the early 70s.
The parkouring graffiti legend Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore) of Baz Luhrmann's decadent hip-hop origin story The Get Down is an almost mystical presence. In one of the earliest scenes, his biggest fanboy — aspiring graffiti artist Dizzee (Jaden Smith) — describes Shao's immense magnetism. "His Pumas are always pristine," Dizzee gushes. "His hands are samurai swords, and his pieces they're all fireworks, big, bright, explosive." His Pumas are red suede Puma Clydes, the Walt Frazier-endorsed court staple that became one of the most aspirational kicks on the market during the early years of hip-hop. The ragtag cast of kids that populate the show's crumbling South Bronx setting are as obsessed with clothes as they are music and whole-car graffiti: fresh-out-the-box sneakers, Cazal glasses, and colour co-ordinated Kangol bucket hats. The Get Down obviously blends a big dose of fantasy into hip-hop's gritty history, but the wardrobe is a factually accurate guide to outer-borough fashion when disco died and rap exploded. Grandmaster Flash, one of the genre's founding fathers, was not just a presence on the series but an associate producer and a behind-the-scenes advisor to ensure historical accuracy.
The Get Down's costume designer is Jeriana San Juan, a self-described 80s kid who comes to the Luhrmann epic from early 90s New York rock comedy Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll. As The Get Down captivates modern-day audiences across America, we talk to San Juan about styling the musical subcultures of NYC, sourcing the crispest vintage threads, and writing poetry on a 40s flight suit with Jaden Smith.
How familiar were you with the 70s hip-hop scene in New York before you started working on the show?
I'm not a child of the 70s, I'm a child of the 80s. So it was a lot of research that brought me to the point of really understanding the period and being able to achieve the authenticity of it. Baz and Catherine Martin had done about 10 years of research leading up to shooting. It's remarkable because I was handed this incredible collection of information on everything from what the political landscape was like and what the economic climate was like to what neighbourhoods had money. Baz also had relationships with the real people who are interwoven into the story, including Grandmaster Flash and Kurtis Blow. It was amazing for me to be able to directly download from them what teens were the coolest, what pants were desirable, what was aspirational and what most people had. The hierarchy of sneakers, because sneakers are so integral. The food pyramid in terms of sneakers, what were the most available that most people wore, and what were slightly cooler, and what were the sneakers that nobody could afford but that everybody wanted.
Sneakerheads are particularly obsessed with authenticity. How did you ensure that you got them historically accurate?
I did a lot of research into what colourways were available in terms of sneakers, and that led to a lot of conversations with the actual designers who still exist today — like Converse and Puma. With Pro-Keds it was kind of a miraculous thing because they were in the middle of relaunching their brand. They are going to be relaunching in the United States and it was kind of kismet because they were in the middle of that and we were in pre-production for the show, so basically they went to the factory and produced several thousand pairs of sneakers for our show exclusively, before they were even in production.
Shameik Moore's character, the disciple of Grandmaster Flash, would wear red Pumas and that really stems just from all of the researching leading up to us producing and creating the first episode of the show. That was built into the script because of the amount of research that Baz and Catherine had done. Puma made a Clyde sneaker that was modelled after Walt "Clyde" Frazier who was a football player at the time. It was the most desirable sneaker and it wasn't available to the public. So it became that this character would be a fashion-forward, dapper, stylish, cool, and forward-thinking kid of the group.
What other articles of clothing were also extremely important status symbols?
One of the biggest markers of cool in the late 70s was not just having a very tight colour palette within the wardrobe and having things well coordinated, but to be in the freshest, newest condition possible. Because the story is really about this group of kids who are living the Bronx and living in an area which is very underprivileged, they have very little resources. So with little resources comes ingenuity and creativity and being able to create something new and stylish and simplified. It is just coordinating a red hat with your red sneakers to create great style. That was pretty amazing to me. To have the freshest or the crispest style is still inherent in hip-hop culture today, down to leaving the sticker on your hat or leaving the price tag on something. Grandmaster Flash explained to me that he would carry a toothbrush in his back pocket, and if his sneakers would get dirty then he could give them a quick cleaning job. Sometimes people would wear plastic bags over their sneakers to keep them perfectly fresh until they got to a party. Certain desirable key pieces would include Cazal glasses, Kangol hats, and having a gold chain was a bit of a badge of honour.
The fresh-out-the-box prerequisite must have made it very difficult to source much vintage from the era.
Absolutely. For the most part it was very important to maintain a vivid, crisp look. In order to really achieve that and visually experience it as if you were stepping back in time, you really had to achieve a certain level of freshness to the look. That meant re-creating a lot of things, building a lot of pieces from scratch, actually designing pieces from pen-and-paper to fabric. That's how most of the most of the costumes on the show were created. A great amount of the clothes for the background actors were deadstock vintage, which is found and curated by a few different companies including Rue St. Denis, which is a fabulous store in New York that finds deadstock vintage — specifically unused, unworn stock.
What was it like working with Jaden Smith? He's very experimental with his wardrobe in real life as well as on the show.
He is a really wonderful collaborator. I love how uninhibited he is. It was actually really freeing as a designer, because his character marches to the beat of his own drum. He's meant to stand out from the crowd and be quirky and visionary. When I was thinking about what some of his pieces might be or some vintage that he might be excited about, I was pulling all these pieces together and I was a little bit concerned that he might not be open to getting so into it. But he walked into the room and immediately jumped right into the water with me. He was very willing to explore and try different silhouettes, and wear pieces in funny ways and make things a little weird. It was a wonderful process. Sometimes he would come up with an idea and I would work it into the wardrobe. I came up with the idea of a vintage 1940s flight suit to wear for one of his looks, and I scribbled all over it in poetry and paint, then I would hand it to him and he would write poetry on it.
What were your style references for dressing the women on the show?
The women for the show are all over the place. We have everything from a pentecostal minister's daughter to the biggest, baddest crime boss of the Bronx. It was so much fun to find those characterisations in womenswear to make Annie more powerful or Marlene more sweet, as opposed to Regina, who is a little more sexy. To find all those relationships to the clothes is really exciting. One of the most fun things for me was looking back at the trends and what young girls were looking at and aspiring to in that time period. Disco magazines, or Vogue covers, and finding what young girls would lust after. A denim jumpsuit similar to Pam Grier, or a pair of hot shorts. There were a lot of really fun trends to play up and pay tribute to in the story.
There is a lot of reference to the disco scene and Studio 54. Did you have any particular iconic figures in mind for that scene.
I love everything about the fashion at Studio 54. Particularly I went after icons like Jerry Hall, Bianca Jagger, Diane Von Furstenberg — also all of the amazing characters who were at Studio 54, like Disco Sally, who is not very often talked about but she's a fantastic character. There were so many fun characters in the scene, which gives such a lush backdrop to creating that landscape within Studio 54 set. Somebody glides along just covered in sparkle and cream basically, almost nude, to someone else who might have grey hair and lush oversized fur. It was really exciting to pay tribute to the many different characters that were part of that scene. I created this pretty dense book of images collected from online and books that I was starting to collect of old photographs and published photos of Bianca Jagger and the VIP booths and the whole thing. I put together all these images of specific people who were part of the Andy Warhol group, and the Studio 54 group, and basically tied with some of the background to pay a little tribute here and there.
The 70s was also the birth of NYC punk. Will we see anything of that scene?
I don't know if I can entirely reveal that, but we definitely see much more than Studio 54 and the underground parties of the Bronx. Our show travels all over New York City and the different musical scenes, and how they are related to one another.
Text Hannah Ongley