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It turns out, Sassy got it. While developing the wardrobe for the Netflix miniseries Halston, costume designer Jeriana San Juan could research public archival images of Liza, and Elsa, and Joe Eula, and Halston himself for inspiration, but what about the private moments that went undocumented, how do you dress these style icons for those?
“I wanted to know what this world looked like behind the camera,” says San Juan, an award winning costume designer who has also worked on The Plot Against America, The Get Down, and a Madonna tour, among many other film, television, and theater credits. “We got to speak to Halston’s assistant [and current New York real estate agent] Sassy Johnson. She was incredible. She shared private photographs of Halston, and I got to see details like what the other assistants wore to work. I wanted to unfold moments like what did Liza wear into a fitting, with sunglasses on, when no one was taking her picture. I don’t want only Liza with a Z. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the glamour and the red carpet version of everyone. Sassy told me things like how sometimes Liza would come in and pick out non-approved Halston pieces and they would all get into trouble if they gave her pieces Halston didn’t want her to wear.”
Creating costumes for a series about a man and a world focused on the visual—“his accent may have been put on,” says San Juan, “but the artistry was in his DNA. He was a man who saw and cared about the way fabric draped and caught the light, I imagine even his pajamas were exquisite”—was, she says, equal parts terrifying and inspiring: “but I live in the inspiring part. There are angels and devils on my shoulder that tell me both don’t fuck it up and you can do this. My parents gave me that balance. This group was a merry band of misfits and what each brought was something unique. I wanted to celebrate that uniqueness and also feel an impression of them, and deliver a memory for a modern audience.”
That audience, she realized from the start, would include a highly critical group, namely, fashion editors who either knew Halston the man or grew up in the industry with Halston the myth. There is also of course the library of the cultural imagination fueled by a myriad of images of Liza and Halston and Elsa and Victor and Joe at Studio 54, at the townhouse on East 63rd, around the offices at Olympic Tower, and out at the house in Montauk. How does a costume designer reckon with those visual memories? “I knew people would be googling Joe Eula and Victor Hugo and certain images would always pop up. I do the same thing when I’m researching. I want an intimate understanding of what people wore to Warhol private parties but I need to know what is out there in the world. I watched the Versailles documentary too in preparation— it’s important for me to understand what images have echoed in modern history—how would an audience consume this?”
For example: google “Liza Minnelli 1974 wedding yellow suit” and an image pops up of her wearing the ensemble her friend Halston designed for her marriage to Jack Haley Jr., whose father happened to play the Tin Man. The color is thought to be an homage to yes, the yellow brick road. How did San Juan take this moment the public has access to and create something true to it, while also staying true to the series and director Dan Minahan’s vision, not to mention making something actress Krysta Rodriguez would look and feel great in?
“First I told Dan I would make an homage to Wizard of Oz. He didn’t respond. I took that as a cue to live in a pastel world. I decided no one else would wear yellow to this wedding, the same way no one wears white to others. I took some creative license to make the swing jacket a bit more open in front, I tailored the pant differently. I wanted her to look like a beautiful bride. And I added an obi to the pant-to accent Krysta’s tiny waist. And the whole story I was finding a moment for the silk sarong dress, where better to wear something like that than a wedding on the coast in California? I put it on Elsa—a beautiful peach silk, hammered. I was dutiful, I had to find a place for it.”
Ah Elsa. “As far as my personal style inspiration,” says San Juan, “she is in my top five.”
“She inhabited her femininity. She had this relative androgyny in the way she dressed and carried herself, a quiet power. When she wears a billowing chiffon dress we pair it with a hair wrap so it doesn’t feel overtly feminine.” The character of Elsa Peretti, the iconic jewelry designer who collaborated with Tiffany on pieces like the Bone Cuff, presented a potential insurmountable challenge.
“There were certain points during this project where I thought, this is where I fall. And this was one of them. I could not do anything but the real thing. Gaining the sponsorship of Tiffany was a huge piece of the puzzle for me. Her jewelry could not just feel or look like the Bone cuff, especially with the critical fashion audience watching the show. We got access to commercial pieces and archival material like the chain mail bra, there is only one. And that massive snake belt, there are only a handful in the world. Victor Hugo wears a smaller snake necklace too. This was a creative community who thrived off each other—they would share jewelry.”
The question of authenticity is one that comes up with any biopic, and San Juan knows that especially when a designer or artist is involved, people are wondering what’s real and what isn’t. If the Peretti is, are all the Halstons too?
“There are a handful of pieces. His archive was disassembled by the brand Halston. People know how hard it is to come by. But for example in the tie-dyed show there are three pieces there are original Halston tie dyes. One I found from a vintage dealer from 1stdibs.com. Two others came out of the woodwork. I called everyone every one and their mother asking for any original Halston, people started coming forward to say you know the friend of a friend has one. The wonderful thing about his clothes is that they are so lived in. Which is hard for my work but makes me appreciate him even more. People really wore his clothes, there is candle wax on them and wine stains, and cigarette marks. People really enjoyed their lives when they were wearing Halston.”
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