The 1970s was a formative decade for American luxury designers who began to revolutionize fashion. It was the first time American garment designs created an iconic fingerprint, which impressed the industry with its relaxed silhouettes and ready-to-wear aesthetics compared to the more habitually copied French & European haute couture styles.
Many of today’s Fifth Avenue moguls were at the precipice of becoming household names, including Roy Halston Frowick — known as the mononymous Halston, one of the foremost visionary designers of the time. In May, Netflix debuted a limited miniseries to depict the personal story, rise to fame, and legacy of the late mid-western born and raised designer and his significant contribution to the essence of American fashion that persists today. Alongside Halston, played by Ewan McGregor, the series features his entourage of larger-than-life celebrities, socialites, and models, such as singer Liza Minnelli (Krysta Rodriguez), artist Victor Hugo (Gian Franco Rodriguez), model Elsa Peretti (Rebecca Dayan), and illustrator Joe Eula (David Pittu). They were muses for Halston’s archival creations of kaftans, halter gowns, Ultrasuede coats, and other pioneering styles in the biopic.
Cuban-American tv and film costume designer, Jeriana San Juan, was selected with the unique opportunity to bring Halston and the revolving cast of characters to life through the wardrobe. San Juan’s journey to costume design began when she learned to make clothes with her Cuban grandmother at their kitchen table in Miami. Later, she earned a fashion design degree from FIT (The Fashion Institute of Technology) in New York City. With her hands-on experience and aesthetic knowledge, she is well versed in the visual language of garment design that was translated through Halston’s character. Additionally, San Juan’s costume expertise from her impressive roster of work in other well-renowned tv shows positioned her as the perfect fit to recreate and interpret the stylistic world of Halston on-screen, making the series an enthralling visual treat to watch.
We spoke with San Juan — who is now nominated for Outstanding Period Costumes in the 2021 Emmys — to gain insight into her process for dressing the Halston biopic, her costume design career in the tv and film industry, and advice for Latines interested in pursuing costume design.
Are fashion design and costume design mutually exclusive for you? What were some factors that drew you closer to costume instead of a career in the fashion industry?
Fashion and costume design differ for me when it comes to having to design around an ideal [person]. In costume design, you’re designing around a story and a character so, that to me is where I found myself completely aligning with a costume designer versus a fashion designer. I still find fashion very appealing. I love fashion, and I love how fashion uses storytelling to combine ideas, fabrics, and silhouettes. I love that aspect of it, but I still consider myself a costume designer because my primary focus is always on a character and story.
In your opinion, what were Halston’s main style contributions that became pillars of American fashion?
Halston’s primary influence in fashion was minimalism and celebrating very complex ideas by doing it in— what would seem to the naked eye— a very simplistic way. That idea of using a head-to-toe singular color on a woman — and color blocking is an idea that’s now very common and modern but, it was an initial Halston idea. His designs are very bifurcated and unfussy, and freeing against the body. At the time, women wanted to, and still want to, feel uninhibited and comfortable in their clothes while feeling elegant, sophisticated, sexy, and attractive. I think his clothes hit those notes by simultaneously allowing women freedom mixed with glamour and elegance.
You’ve mentioned your early childhood experience of making ballet-inspired clothing for your barbies at the rehearsals your mother brought you to when she danced at the Joffrey Ballet. Was the Persephone Ballet scene in Halston a full-circle moment for you to re-interpret those looks?
There’s a part of me as a designer that really understands Halston’s work in that he really loved celebrating movement and the body. I loved that aspect of designing costumes for this ballet and emphasizing the lines and shapes the dancers were making with their bodies and designing around those movements.
We were incorporating some of the ideal shapes that Halston had created for dance and using some of the fabrics he used. I loved the marriage of all of those different aspects.
What was the process like for building the costumes? How did that differ among the characters who had larger-than-life personalities versus the less well-known characters in the film?
The designs for some of the characters that are very well documented, like Halston and Liza [Minnelli], for example, are a little tricky because it’s always about finding the nuance and balance in not exclusively doing replicas of things that they’re documented wearing. That’s in part because I’m really trying to give them the dimension as a fully realized person and not just a caricature version of a famous person. It’s a hard balance to strike, but it’s definitely a primary focus of mine when I’m doing it with someone that is a very famous or well-documented person.
In doing characters that are less well known, such as Joe Eula and Victor Hugo, there’s enough imagery that I could find of them to have touchstones to understand and unlock the sensibilities in how they dress themselves. But it allowed me much more freedom because people aren’t necessarily going to be able to be fact-check the clothes. That being said, I still wanted to treat it according to who that person is, and I still want to make sure everyone has a slightly different flavor. They’re all like spices. I wanted each to be exact, deliberate, and specific from one another.
I imagine you had a big hand in Ewan McGregor learning some design skill-sets that were conveyed through Halston’s work on screen. What was that experience like for you to build the costumes and, in some ways, direct and teach someone to look like they’re making it themselves?
I’ve never had an opportunity quite like that! I also had the thought of, “Who am I [to be] this self-made costume designer teaching Ewan McGregor to be Halston?” It felt very odd, but I realized when I started to show him the details in how I work with an actor– even in a fitting–– or how I refer to a mirror in a fitting. Also, how I look at clothes, how I hold them, how I manipulate fabrics, there’s a very specific second nature body language and muscle memory to all of that. He was very good at learning and observing all those details on drape or pull fabric and using scissors and pins. We trained the entire length of the show, even until some of the last scenes in the fitting rooms, he would come to work with me and the tailors on some of those details. He was a very quick study, and he’s very much an actor in that he was able to be a chameleon and learn very easily.
The garments took on their own character role within the series. How did your approach to design differ with this project compared to some of your other work that builds style attentive to the story’s context but might not be a main focus of the storyline?
In deciding on the scenes where Halston is building a dress, for example, on paper, all it said was “Halston’s building a dress.” So, for me to have the ability to have input on not only which dress but how it would be built and how we could choreograph around that was a participation in a show, unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed. It was so exciting to be a part of that process and to help the storytelling along. As a costume designer, you’re always storytelling first and foremost in the palette, the textures, and the shapes. I was able to do two things. One of which was to showcase Halston’s legacy and find moments to highlight some of the artistry that made his work uniquely wonderful. But also, find moments where we could highlight a pivotal color in his legacy and revolutionary silhouettes for their time, like a halter dress. The idea that he would even be draping a halter dress was exciting because it looked so great on Krysta while also discovering how to create these visual touchstones for Halston’s legacy and the character’s journey that would help see this story play out.
The Halston series spanned over four decades. So many styles were packed into that timeframe, which was done so fluidly and is a testament to your work. What are some considerations that go into making those seamless transitions for the audience to take them from one decade to another?
It’s quite difficult because, in just one episode alone, we were trying to capture all of the 1960s. In doing that, I really had to make a very clear vocabulary of color, silhouette, and pattern that we would key into all those different time periods so that we would really help to immediately register for an audience exactly what year we were in. For example, the textiles at the time during the ’60s, we used a lot of paisley patterns. As soon as we were out of the ’60s, we were conscious of removing those patterns so that the audience could feel the time shift. I went to great lengths to study the textile design for the different time periods, the fashion designers of every period, and the popular colors through some of the periods so that we could again distill each decade with a very clear visual vocabulary and not cross those up too much to take the audience on a clear journey visually.
If there were to be another biopic series to interpret the life and work of another fashion designer, which other designer would you love to do costume design for?
I know who I’d want to do! So, this is a movie idea that I’m trying to get rights to, but I’m going to go ahead and say it. I would love to do the story of Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley. She was an African-American women’s dress designer. She purchased her way out of slavery and became the dressmaker for Mary Todd Lincoln and many other Washington DC political elite fixtures. Her story is absolutely fascinating, and it’s moving and inspiring. She’s the absolute definition of a self-made woman. Her aesthetic and craftsmanship were incredibly stunning. Her work changed her entire life, and that’s been a story I’ve always been attracted to. It’s very different from Halston because Halston became such a commercially successful name and people know the name “Halston.” They just don’t know the person behind the name. But, Elizabeth Keckley’s legacy is very hidden, yet she’s one of the first female African American fashion designers in America.
It was great to see two Latinx actors that played leading roles as Victor Hugo and Liza Minelli in Halston. Lately, there’s been more awareness to diversify TV and film, and Latinx folks are among the demographic that are underrepresented in the industry. I imagine that’s also true behind the scenes. I was wondering what your experience has been?
For me, the whole concept of diversifying behind the scenes is still far less prevalent because people don’t often do that much homework about who’s behind the scenes in a show. I haven’t felt that much of a shift in my time in the industry. I’ve always found myself never seeing anyone who looked like me in this field and who did this job in which I could look up to, that was a Latinx costume designer, that I knew first hand or could have a close relationship to be a mentor for me. Representation matters and it means a lot when the cast is diverse and has Latinx representation as well, but I think it means just as much to have that behind the scenes.
Seeing how Latinx representation behind the scenes is also few and far between, especially in costume design, how does it feel to be at the forefront of being a part of representation in that space for others?
I’m very proud to be part of that movement. I’m very proud that I have Latin heritage, come from a Cuban family, and that my first language was Spanish. To me, every marker of success that I’ve attained I completely credit to my family. I think there’s a lot of my own success that I attribute to the fact that the road was never as paved for me, so I had to fight even harder, and I think that’s something I now turned into a positive attribute since things weren’t as available to me.
The Latinx parts of myself used to be the parts I tried to hide because it was always about blending, and “I’ll succeed when I’ve blended with everyone else, and I’m not too ‘Spanish‘ so they’re not scared of that element of me.” It’s a weird existence to live in because I think many Latinx people can identify with that. It’s important to draw from all of those different experiences and have a diverse experience of culture and life because it all comes into the work. There are parts of my work, even for Halston, that my Cuban grandmother directly influenced, so it’s just a matter of putting everything that you have, the experience, the culture together and using your vessel to express it all.
What advice would you give to anyone interested in becoming a costume designer for TV & Film?
My first piece of advice is you’re never too young to start learning in a tactile way. You really have to work within the industry to know the exact working styles, all of the specific elements to how this job functions, and how it functions as part of a greater machine in the movie and tv business. So, as soon as you can get an internship, get one. For my first jobs, I would call up costume shop after costume shop, asking them if I could come in to sweep the floors and organize the books or put swatches in order–– whatever I could do to offer my support and to help to be in that place and learn. If I can tell anyone anything, it’s to take all of the things that people can mark against you and turn them into the things that make you unique and amazing.