Costume design of "Halston" by Jeriana San Juan. Courtesy Netflix.

The art and craft of costume design – interview with Jeriana San Juan

August 18th, 2021
Costume design of "Halston" by Jeriana San Juan. Courtesy Netflix.

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Jeriana San Juan. In this interview she talks about working at the intersection of Hollywood and fashion, differences and similarities between fashion design and costume design, doing research in the digital world, and keeping up with the ever-increasing demands of productions and viewers’ expectations. Around these topics and more, Jeriana dives into her work on the recently released “Halston”.

Jeriana San Juan

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and the path that took you to where you are today.

Jeriana: My name is Jeriana San Juan, and my entry into this business began when I was very young. I was dazzled by movies that I would watch as a child. I watched a lot of older movies and Hollywood classics. It was the likes of “American in Paris” and “The Red Shoes”, and other musicals from 1940s and 50s. That was the beginning into feeling immersed and absorbed into fantasy, and I wanted to be a part of that.

I loved in particular the costumes, and how they helped tell the story, or how they helped the women look more glamorous, or created a whole story within the story. Those were the things I was attracted to.

From a young age I was raised by my grandmother, and she was a seamstress and a dressmaker. She saw that I loved the magic of what I was watching on screen, and also that I loved clothes myself. I loved fashion, magazines and stores, and she helped initiate that education for me. She would show me how to create clothes from fabric and how to start manifesting things that were in my imagination. So I credit her with that.

But I didn’t know it could be a career [laughs], to specifically costume design. I thought I wanted to be a fashion designer, because I knew that could be a real job that I could have when I grew up. And as I grew up, I learned that my impulses were more of a costume designer than a fashion designer, and so I moved into that arena later on in my career.

Kirill: Where do you draw the line between the two? Is there such a line between being a costume designer and a fashion designer?

Jeriana: There are two different motivations with costume design and fashion design. Fashion design, to me, can be complete storytelling, but you make up the story as you design it. Costume design is storytelling with the motivation of a specific character, a specific point of view, and a specific story to tell.

My impulses in clothing are through more character-driven costume design and story-driven costume design. That’s my inclination. I feel that there are some bones in me that very much still are the bones of a fashion designer, and to me it’s not completely mutually exclusive. Those two mindsets can exist in one person.

I look back at those old 1950s movies that were designed by William Travilla and Edith Head and so many other great names, and those Hollywood costume designers also had fashion lines. Adrian had a boutique in Los Angeles and people would go there to look like movie stars, and he also designed movies. So in my brain, I’ve always felt like there’s a duality in my creativity that can lend itself to both angles.

Kirill: You are at an intersection of two rather glamorous fields, Hollywood and fashion, and yet probably there’s a lot of “unglamorous” parts of your work day. Was it any surprise to you when you started working in the field and saw how much sweat and tears goes into it?

Jeriana: Never. I come from a family of immigrants, and I’ve seen every person in my family work very hard. I never assumed anything in this life would be given to me free of charge. That’s the work ethic that I was raised with, so to me the hard work was never an issue because I’m always prepared to work hard.

Yes, it’s a very unglamorous life and career. Day to day is not glamorous at all. It’s running around, it’s 24/7 emails and phone calls, it’s rolling your sleeves up and figuring out the underside of a dress. It’s very tactile. I don’t sit in a chair and point to people what to do. It’s very much hands-on, and that never scared me at all. It excites me.

Costume design of “Halston” by Jeriana San Juan. Courtesy Netflix.

Kirill: Do you find it difficult sometimes to convince people that it’s not as glamorous as it sounds from the outside?

Jeriana: I think people always see the red carpet elements of movie making, and the awards shows. But I don’t really have to convince people. When people want to come to work for me, they’ll learn if they don’t know already.

Kirill: Getting closer to “Halston”, how much work goes into researching and preparation, getting the right look and the right costumes for the characters and for the story?

Jeriana: It’s a lot of work and a lot of time. I had about 2.5 months of preparation before we started shooting “Halston”, and before that I probably had another month when I knew I was going to be doing the project and I began my research.

Kirill: Was this production a bit more challenging since it involves your own world of fashion design, but also a world that has been in living memory of his contemporaries that are still alive today?

Jeriana: That is always a challenge in doing a biographical story. There are always going to be the people who were a part of that life and part of that story on some level. That includes everyone from André Leon Talley who was alongside Halston at Studio 54 to my own mother who ran into Halston himself on the beach [laughs].

I spoke with so many people who had firsthand connections to Halston. There is a wonderful part of the process in research when I can talk to people who had a relationship with him, and that was a great gift so that I can be better informed of the story and understand this world really well in order to recreate it. When we get to the actual storytelling elements of the story that we’re telling, it’s not entirely accurate. Not every moment in the story is a reproduction or a recreation. It’s still ultimately about storytelling, and creating a mood and an energy swing for the audience.

Costume design of “Halston” by Jeriana San Juan. Courtesy Netflix.

Kirill: Is there such a thing for you as your favorite time period, or is every decade its own challenge?

Jeriana: Every decade is its own challenge. It might be that the clothes don’t exist anymore because it’s a time long long ago. Or it wasn’t that long ago, but the clothes weren’t kept in very good condition, so you can’t really use them. There’s always going to be challenges with every period.

I can’t say that I have a particular favorite. I’m always interested in the things I have not done before. The things that are really enticing for me right now are the ’40s and the ’50s. I’ve been thinking a lot about that period lately, because I’ve never had the opportunity to do a story that takes place around the time of The New Look. I almost feel compelled to write that story myself, just so I can design it [laughs].

Kirill: You just talked about going out and talking with a lot of people as part of your research for “Halston”. There’s a lot of information that used to only be available in libraries and archives, and now there’s a lot of it that can be found online. Now that so much is at your fingertips, do you find that it is easier to do research? Does it maybe make people a bit lazier?

Jeriana: Absolutely it does. I was trained in the pre-digital age. I didn’t know I’d be formally using computers as a part of my everyday work life when I graduated college. It’s a wonderful tool and absolutely helpful to be able to access so many images and so much information. However, not everything is on the Internet or is that easily accessible on the Internet, especially when it comes to very specific categories of research.

When I was doing research for this project, I went to the archives of Conde Nast and leafed through old-bound issues of Vogue from the era of this of this show. I went back through the earliest mentions of Halston’s name. I also went through Women’s Wear Daily archives and microfilms to look back through the earliest mentions of Halston in reviews of his earlier collections, or mentions of his name as the designer of Jackie Onassis’s inaugural hat.

It was hard to find imagery. We had to recreate Versailles in the show, and that was a particular challenge. There’s been a great documentary which was recently released, which had done a lot of research already for me. And then I was trying to assemble additional imagery from different books that are not online. I was looking at different articles from French newspapers that had pictures that I didn’t find anywhere else. It’s still important to extend your mind’s reach beyond the computer.

Costume design of “Halston” by Jeriana San Juan. Courtesy Netflix.

Kirill: On a show like “Halston”, do you feel that your own work serves as documenting that particular era so that then others can use your work as part of their research down the linen the future?

Jeriana: That’s interesting. I feel like that’s never an accurate documentation of the time. It’s lit in a specific way, with a specific tone and point of view. And the clothes in this show function a specific purpose to illustrate Halston’s story. I don’t think that they are meant by any means to be an accurate representation of history.

Every costume, be it on a background person crossing the street of New York City or dining next to Halston and in the frame – “everything” has been manipulated in order to better enhance the story.

Kirill: The story is happening in the real world, and not even in that distant past. But if you don’t elevate it a little bit for me as a viewer, it might not be as attractive or as visually pleasing. How do you find this balance?

Jeriana: I always try to keep my feet standing on the ground, solidly in authenticity and in truth, but my head in the clouds with the story. It always feels a little uncharted. It always feels like you’re creating a path for the first time. It can be a little scary to navigate the voice and the visual language that you want to create.

In this particular story I wanted the clothes to echo Halston’s creative energy, his spirit, his point of view, and his artistry. The costumes to me were servicing as one of the primary ways that we would really absorb Halston in all of his creativity. So to me the color palette of all the clothes, the style of the clothes, everything was centered around Halston’s creativity.

Kirill: Looking at the last 10-15 years of episodic productions, that used to be on TV networks but now are also on various streaming services, there’s been a gigantic leap forward in terms of screen size and resolution of the TV sets that people have in their homes. Do you find that it places more expectations on how detailed and precise the costumes need to be?

Jeriana: Absolutely, it’s crazy [laughs]. There are two things happening. The first one is that indeed everyone’s screens are getting bigger and more high-definition. And the other thing is that there are no levels between television and film.

There used to be a world where a TV show was expected to be one thing, and a movie was expected to be something else. Now they are one and the same. The expectation level is that everything should feel completely real and unflawed. It doesn’t mean that every shirt should be perfectly pressed. What I mean by that is that there’s no point at which your eyes should find something that breaks the illusion. The demand has gotten intense.

I remember when this started, actually. I was working at Saturday Night Live as people’s screens started to get better and better. I remember starting to think about things like the texture of the fabric and how it started to matter more. You could get away with less and less as technology was getting better. You used to be able to fake a lot more things. If there was a print on a shirt that wasn’t quite right, you could almost paint it in with a marker. Now your screen would probably show you that, so you can’t do that.

If you look at old movies on a nice 4K system, you can see that the makeup just looks clumsy and not airbrushed. It’s been a challenge to chase the technology on that level, and enhance and support this illusion, because that’s what it is. It’s an illusion. And you want to create this illusion, and have it be excellent both from the back of the theater house and seeing it when you stand right in front of it. That’s a particular level of excellence that I carry all the time, and it’s been cultivated in me from watching technology evolve and always trying to guarantee that that illusion won’t break.

Costume design of “Halston” by Jeriana San Juan. Courtesy Netflix.

Kirill: Speaking about keeping up with these expectations, do you find that is there such a thing as enough money and enough time, or are you always running short on both?

Jeriana: Always running short on both [laughs].

Kirill: How do you solve it?

Jeriana: There is no solving it. You have to work within the constraints you have, and find what’s going to be important. I always have to find what the director’s point of view is. I have to work closer with the director, the director of photography and the production designer, and that collaboration has to be strong in order to understand what is going to be the motivation and importance of each scene. You need to know where you can focus your energy, and make sure that you’re supporting the story and that illusion, and where you’re able to hide a few more flaws.

Kirill: Has it ever happened to you that you had a wardrobe malfunction on set that had to stop everything on set, while you had to figure out how to fix it?

Jeriana: Part of the demand from costume design is that you don’t hold production. Every minute on a set costs the production money, so it’s a really bad thing to be the person responsible for holding the camera. You want to pre-vet every problem that could even potentially come up so that it’s not going to come up on the day.

There’s been situations like the lack of time to properly hem a dress, for example. This is something that happened once when I didn’t have enough time to hem a dress, and we wound up cutting the hem and leaving the hem raw. It was a chiffon that was clean-looking just when it was cut, so we didn’t bother with the hem. And so the more and more the actress wore the dress and danced in it, the more and more the threads started to fray. We watched the camera, and when I started to notice it on camera, we would go in and continually trim it. By the time we were done 5 hours later, the dress was 2 inches shorter.

Costume design of “Halston” by Jeriana San Juan. Courtesy Netflix.

Kirill: Going back to “Halston”, you were also a consultant on the show. How did it feel to balance those two separate roles?

Jeriana: It was all one and the same. In order to design the show, I really had to understand Halston inside and out, to understand his creativity and his point of view. And as I was creating things in tune with the story and as a part of the story – and in some ways as their own characters within the story – I had to work through the choreography of how a piece of fabric would be turned into a dress, and what dress it would become on camera.

So it was natural for me to be able to work through that with Ewan McGregor and the director, and talk through all of the elements. We talked about what initiated the concept for the design, which I think Ewan found helpful to understand the thinking behind the particular garment that we would be constructing on camera. And then we were able to work through the physical action of producing a dress on camera or draping on a model. It was quite natural and was really lovely. It was a wonderful opportunity to be able to be a part of the storytelling on such an intimate level. It felt like a joy for me.

Kirill: How many costumes have you created for the show?

Jeriana: The number is unclear, but I think it’s close to around 2,000.

Kirill: How did you split your time before the camera rolls, and when the camera started rolling.

Jeriana: When the camera rolls, I’m always there for new establishing costumes. When a costume is first seen on camera, I’m typically there with the costumer and the actor to ensure that the clothes are set and worn correctly as intended. And once costumes are starting to live more than one time, I will use those opportunities to get back to my shop, and work on upcoming work and do the designing. That’s when I have to be in my studio, to work with my tailors on things that we are manufacturing, to work with the shoppers on things that are coming from stores. There’s fitting background or looking at photographs of upcoming background that are going to be established so I can get in front of any problems.

But I always have to be in three places at once pretty consistently.

Costume design of “Halston” by Jeriana San Juan. Courtesy Netflix.

Kirill: You mentioned how the worlds of feature films and episodic productions started getting closer and closer to each other in the last few years. Did it feel that you were working on one super long movie on “Halston”?

Jeriana: Absolutely, because we had a whole story to tell from beginning to end that was his life. We were also shooting multiple episodes at the same time. So it very much felt like we were shooting a 5-hour movie.

Kirill: Do you have a preference between prep and shooting? Do you like one more than the other?

Jeriana: I like the prep more. I like the design process. That’s my happy place. Actual shooting of it can be quite challenging. The hours are all over the map, whether we’re shooting in the morning or at night. The production hours can be challenging, and I definitely don’t thrive at two o’clock in the morning, but oftentimes we have to shoot at two o’clock in the morning [laughs]. I find the most joys in the fittings and in the preparation.

Kirill: Not trying to predict the future, but do you see your job changing significantly with the impact of Covid?

Jeriana: I don’t know what the long-term effects of Covid are going to be. It’s made me value a lot more the interpersonal relationships that I have through my work, the ability to work tactilely with clothing, and work with tailors and fabric and dress forms. I have a whole new appreciation for the practical nature of what I do.

I find myself now in the research part of the process, sitting in the meetings at a computer a lot more than I used to. I think that’s what I didn’t like about fashion – sitting in front of a computer all the time, because the fashion industry is quite corporatized. I hope that things will return more to in-person when it’s over.

Kirill: Would you say that your department was one of the more heavily affected because of how physically close you get to be with the cast?

Jeriana: It’s quite intimate with the cast, but also with every member of my department. We look at shopping, we look at a dress on a dress form, and that proximity and the tactile nature of what we do is unavoidable.

Kirill: Movie theaters have been on this forced hiatus in the last 18 months due to the global pandemic. Do you see a near future where going to a movie theater is seen as an oddity, rather than “the” way to experience movies?

Jeriana: I hope not. It’s a wonderful thing to have a shared experience with an audience, whether it’s a movie or a Broadway show. When you see a movie on the large screen, you also have that ceremony of getting your favorite treat and having popcorn, and that experience is always going to affect people in such an emotional way that it won’t become this retro sentimental thing.

Maybe it’ll be a crazy rise in home theater for people who prefer to have the experience in their own houses. But I love the experience of sharing something with strangers, and sharing that experience with an audience.

Costume design sketches for “Halston” by Jeriana San Juan. Courtesy Jeriana San Juan.

Kirill: Maybe specifically for “Halston”, or maybe in general, do you read reviews of the shows that you’ve worked on?

Jeriana: I don’t read reviews [laugh], because there’s too much of myself that I’ve put into the creation of that story, and it would hurt me too much emotionally to be effective either way. It’d either inflate my head too much so that I become overconfident, or depress me too much that I become too sad that someone didn’t understand what we were trying to do. I try to remain steady on my own path and not to pay attention to the reviewer’s opinion. But it’s never a bad thing to be received well [laughs].

Kirill: Now as “Halston” is still fresh in your memory, how did it feel to watch the final cut with all the music and color grading and editing, and see months of your work condensed into these five hours?

Jeriana: It’s interesting. It’s definitely a hard thing for me the first time I watch something, because I am policing my own work to ensure that I’ve done a good job. And then I have to watch it 3 or 4 more times before I can start to remove myself from it emotionally and mentally, and watch it like a person who just thought “This looks interesting” and clicked play.

When I watch it like that and I’m able to separate myself a bit, it’s always learning. I’m learning about how things come together, what choices I made that had more impact than I even thought at the time, or what things I dwelled on that I didn’t even notice. That’s always a learning curve for me.

Kirill: Do you ever catch yourself wishing that you could go back to the past and redo some of your earlier work?

Jeriana: All the time [laughs].

Costume design of “Halston” by Jeriana San Juan. Courtesy Netflix.

Kirill: You used the word “illusion” a couple of times earlier. How do you make that illusion feel real for me as a viewer?

Jeriana: To me it starts with the actor. The better I can support an actor in their inhabiting of a character, the better it will be for everyone. You need to get your actor feel supported in their character, whether that is by helping to motivate them with glamour, or helping to motivate them with discomfort. Maybe their character is a little uncomfortable. Maybe they are motivated by wanting to be bigger than they are, or smaller than they actually are. Whatever that is that I help them find, that begins to me the process of creating that illusion.

When an actor feels like the costume is really allowing them to fully realize this person, then many of the other pieces of the puzzle naturally fall into place. So it always begins with that.

There was a situation on “The Plot Against America” where I had actresses who wanted to wear the appropriate girdles and undergarments of the period, so that they could feel better exactly how a person would have felt wearing that. And some others didn’t want to wear them. They didn’t need that to continue to do what they wanted to do.

Kirill: Does it feel like there are more stories that are finding their way to be told in the last few years with this “explosion” of streaming services?

Jeriana: Absolutely, a hundred percent. There’s so many things going into production and so many stories being told. I’m grateful that because of the Me Too movement and the Black Lives Matter movement, there are more stories being told from a woman’s perspective and with a woman’s voice, and more stories about different cultures and different races. That has been extremely exciting to be a part of, and it’s something I hope to continue doing.

Kirill: If you look back at your younger self that wanted to be in this field, do you say to her that she has made the right choice?

Jeriana: If I went back to my younger self, I would probably tell myself to be less scared of everything. I would tell younger me that she made good choices, and that the hard work paid off because it’s been a lot of hard work.

Costume design of “Halston” by Jeriana San Juan. Courtesy Netflix.

And here I’d like to thank Jeriana San Juan for taking the time to talk with me about the art and craft of costume design, and Leni Weisberg for making this interview happen. You can find more of Jeriana’s work on  Instagram and Twitter. “Halston” is streaming on Netflix. And if you want to know more about how films and TV shows are made, click here for additional in-depth interviews in this series.