How Cuban-American Costume Designer Jeriana San Juan Created the Fly Looks in ‘The Get Down’

Photo Courtesy of Netflix

Jeriana San Juan had quite a task ahead of her as she re-created the nostalgic hip-hop style of the late 1970s for the Netflix original series The Get Down.

“It was difficult because there are so many different looks during this period,” the Cuban-American costume designer recalls. “’80s hip hop was not the original style. It was the introduction of the elements that created ’80s fashion.”

Born in Elizabeth, New Jersey and raised in Miami, New York, Connecticut and Chicago, San Juan is not unfamiliar with hip hop, and considers herself a “hip hop fan.” Understanding the importance of the culture, she made sure to conduct intense research to present the 1977-79 time period of the South Bronx in the most authentic way possible. Her methodology included looking over legendary Bronx photographer Joe Conzo, Jr.’s archival photographs (both published and unpublished) to accessing major hip hop influencers of the time including Grandmaster Flash, Kurtis Blow, and Kool Herc, who all worked as consultants on the project, says San Juan whose mom is Cuban and father of German descent.

“They contacted me before starting the filming, in research phase,” recalls Conzo, Jr., who is part of the Bronx collective Los Seis del Sur. “We met at Bronx Documentary Center — they brought a team, saw my images and next thing you know they are inviting me to the set. Baz loved my story so much. To the point — that a character in first episode – a Latino with an afro mimicking me taking pictures was featured. It was very humbling.”

San Juan nailed the fashion by authentically presenting the eclectic look of urban youth and sportswear. No detail, no matter how small, was overlooked — from the long white-striped tube socks, paired with vintage Pumas in red, green, and blue color waves or low-top and hi-top PRO-Keds; to the striped knit shirts and Lee jeans for the fellas; to Halston-inspired disco dresses for the ladies during early dance scenes. Members of the hip-hop generation could get a bit misty eyed as they see a bit of their childhood on screen in terms of fashion and nostalgia, while millennials get an up-close-and-personal look at how complicated being ‘fresh’ was back in the days.

Photo: David Lee/Netflix
Read more

The Get Down centers around the lives of six high-school-aged South Bronx kids living at the height of New York City’s fiscal crisis, skyrocketing unemployment rates, increased poverty, plummeting property values, and empty abandoned buildings, under New York City Mayor Abraham D. Beame and President Gerald Ford. The old, run-down version of the South Bronx becomes the backdrop to this new hip hop-inspired, action-packed modern-day telenovela conquering love, friendships, family dynamics, and survival skills while mixing historical events and real people together with pure fiction to the tune of disco and hip hop.

No detail, no matter how small, was overlooked — from the long white-striped tube socks paired with vintage Pumas, to the striped knit shirts and Lee jeans.

It stars Shameik Moore (Dope) as graff writer/deejay superhero-like Shaolin Fantastic; Justice Smith (Paper Towns) as the half African-American, half-Puerto Rican poet-rapper Ezekiel “Books” Figuero; Jaden Smith (The Karate Kid) as the artistic Dizzee Kipling; Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Crescendo) as the gangster Cadillac; Latina Herizen Guardiola (Runaway Island) as the Boricua disco singer Mylene Cruz; Giancarlo Esposito (Once Upon A Time ) plays the strict evangelical Pastor Ramon Cruz; and Boricua Jimmy Smits (Star Wars: Episode III) plays the notorious Francisco “Papa Fuerte” Cruz; as well as Dominican-American actress Judy Marte (Raising Victor Vargas) as Ezekiel’s aunt; Skylan Brooks (The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete) as Ra-Ra Kipling; and newcomer Tremaine Brown Jr. as Boo Boo Kipling.

The Get Down is from the Australian Moulin Rouge writer-director-producer Baz Luhrmann and a team of collaborators including four-time Oscar winner and fellow executive producer Catherine Martin (who is also his wife), legendary MC and executive producer Nas, pioneering deejay and associate producer Grandmaster Flash (whose also portrayed in the series), Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, co-creator and executive producer Stephen Adly Guirgis; and hip-hop historian, author-filmmaker and supervising producer Nelson George. Several notable hip hop pioneers served as consultants including Kurtis Blow, DJ Kool Herc, Graf artists Christopher “Daze” Ellis, Boricua John “Crash” Matos (also portrayed in the series) and Ecuadorian Lady Pink.

Photo Courtesy of Netflix
Read more

“Jeriana took on a monumental task — creating costumes from one of the most flamboyant fashion periods in history, while having to tailor the clothes to the needs of our storytelling,” says Nelson George, supervising producer of The Get Down. “But from the use of red Pumas as sign of passion to evolving a prim church girl into a Halston diva she gave our production incredible style.”

Earning her Bachelor of Fine Arts from the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), San Juan’s early recollection of fashion was of her late abuela Clara, who was a seamstress and made patterns from her husband’s old newspapers. San Juan has always had a love affair with fashion as she recalls loving classic films like Cover Girl with Rita Hayworth and On the Town with Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra. “I used to watch these movies over and over again and I just felt very drawn to the music, to the dancing, to the costumes.”

San Juan has built hefty credentials in the worlds of film, TV, music videos, and theatre. Her credit highlights include the MTV series, I Just Want My Pants Back, where she created the ‘ultra-cool’ and effortless street style of young adults living in Brooklyn; NBC’s Saturday Night Live, for which she designed parody commercials, music videos, styled photo shoots, and promos; to USA’s Sirens; and FX’s Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, where San Juan designed the eclectic look of rockers hoping to make a mainstream comeback. It was there that she worked with The Get Down producer Kerry Orent, who recommended her for the job with the Netflix series.

Photo Courtesy of Netflix
Read more

“It was very important in early stages of developing the looks that each character became [his or her] own icon, own superhero and find signature elements,” she says.

Ezekiel’s character is academic and well-read, so Ali became an inspirational figure for his development. For Shaolin Fantastic, his signature colors became a red, white, and black color palette. As disciple of Grandmaster Flash in the show, Shaolin Fantastic got some of his style inspiration from the hip hop legend. “He was one of the most fun [character] to dress. He is in the forefront of fashion in terms of street style. He has a story to tell and is always dressed iconic… the early ’80s Jamel Shabazz iconic fashion.”

Cadillac, the gangster of the group, maintains a dapper fly sense, whose large inspiration came from Frazier with custom-made suits. Dizzee, the artist of the crew, shared similarities to Smith. San Juan called on Lady Pink to create his signature vest from a Lee denim jacket. Other fashion highlights include Mylene and her girls in the series. Part one of the 13-episode one-hour series premiered last Friday on Netflix, which also happens to be the birthday of San Juan’s late grandmother.