'The Get Down' Costume Designer on Letting Jaden Smith Paint All Over His Costumes

'The Get Down' costume director explains what it was like collaborating with Jaden Smith and Grandmaster Flash.

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Complex Original

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Baz Lurhmann's big shiny show The Get Down, about the beginnings of hip-hop, officially touched down on Netflix Friday. If you've spent any time with the show, you'll certainly have noticed Lurhmann's signature glossy production and the unique wardrobe, worn by the likes of Jaden Smith, Shameik Moore, and Justice Smith, which looks to accurately capture what these hip-hop creators were wearing in the year 1977. 

Building the wardrobe was a monumental task for the show's costume designer Jeriana San Juan, who had to create most of the items from scratch, since most genuine pieces from the era had spent the past 40 years decaying in vintage shops. San Juan was also working with a director who emphasized authenticity; she told Complex that every item she presented to Lurhmann had to be accompanied by a piece of photographic evidence that people from 1977 were actually wearing the clothing she was creating. 

That's not to say San Juan didn't have a bit of help along the way. She worked in tandem with legendary rappers like Grandmaster Flash, an associate producer with the show who steered San Juan in the right direction throughout production. Even a newcomer like Jaden Smith was able to contribute to his artistic character's more original wardrobe. "It was a really cool collaboration on his costume that we got to work together on and vibe off each other as artists," San Juan said. "I would use something or write something and give it to him, and he'd write or draw something, and he'd give it back to me and I'd write more." 

Read our full interview with San Juan below. 

Why do you think the relationship between clothing and rap music is so strong?
I think a large part of hip-hop is the fashion. Essentially what happened in 1977, in the story The Get Down is telling, is this big bang of culture that evolves into a few different art forms. One of which is graffiti, one of which is dance, one of which is, of course, the music, and then the fashion. And they're all different branches of what we know as hip-hop. One was made possible because of the other. Fashion was a way to be expressed and for this movement to be expressed. So, it's all equally important. 

What is your personal relationship to hip-hop?
I'm a fan. I was a child of the '80s, and it was a large influence in my life. I grew up between New York and Miami, and I very quickly fell in love with hip-hop music, with dance music, with electronic music. And also with classical music. I never committed myself to one genre of music, but I was always a hip-hop fan. In a large way, it shaped the things I was appreciating in culture. I even had a signed poster of Ol' Dirty Bastard above my bed when I was a kid. 

Yahya Abdul Mateen The Get Down

What was it like then when you got the call to do this? Were you immediately on board?
Immediately. Once they said Baz Lurhmann, I said I don't need to hear anything else; I'm on board. He's such a visual director and to have the opportunity to have my costumes on a show that he would be producing or directing was such a huge opportunity, there's no way I could have said no. 

Baz Lurhmann is known for these big, beautifully produced movies, so how much creative license did you have with that versus trying to remain true and authentic?
It was a delicate balance between reality and magnifying everything a little bit. It was always part of the discussion that the way that Baz wanted to see this world was from the perspective of the kids. We had long conversations about how we viewed things in our history and our own childhoods in an amplified perspective, and I think this holds true for many people. When you think back to your childhood, you remember things often kind of fondly and a little bit brighter and a little bit more glossy and a little bit more spectacular than things might have been in reality.

But, we wanted the show and the look of the show to come across very vibrant and very fresh and electric. So, there was a lot of taking real research and 100% authentic photographic research from Joe Conzo or Jamel Shabazz and taking those images and pushing them even further. Pushing the fit a little bit further, pushing the colors a little bit further, making everything seem crisper and sharper and a little bit more magnetic. 

Can you tell me what it was like working with Jaden Smith? 
He's awesome. He's a really cool guy and he's very much an artist. I didn't really know what to expect, but I learned very quickly that he is a very, very cool, down-to-earth guy. And we connected right away. I was a little bit scared showing him the rack of clothes that I had collected for him, because I didn't know if he was going to be completely onboard with where I was going with the character. The character he plays is an artist who thinks outside the box and doesn't dress like everybody else. When you look back at the research from 1977, you can't find a piece of research that is exactly what Jaden is wearing in the show, and that's because we wanted him to be a true original.

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Immediately it put us on the right foot and the right track together. I had ideas about doing some Basquiat-inspired painting on his jeans and he loved it. And I started painting something and I hand him all of my tools that I was working with, or that I had graffiti artists working with, on his pants and give it to him. He went into his trailer and he would come out an hour later with a whole poem written across the back of his shirt. So, it was a really cool collaboration on his costume that we got to work together with and vibe off each other as artists. I use something or write something and give it to him and he'd write or draw something and he'd give it back to me and I'd write more.

Did he have any familiarity with the clothing from the era or any emotion attached to it even though he wasn't around to live it?
I think it was a brand new introduction of this time period to all of our actors because all of our actors are under 30 years old. So it was a new concept. I think what was really cool about all of our actors, including Jaden, is that this was their first time trying on a '70s pair of jeans or a tank top or anything that was authentic to the period. They all really celebrated it and didn't resist. 

I think that being so willing to transform like that is a real true mark of a great actor. As an actor, their intention is to become somebody else and I think they were just really open to doing that. 

Can you tell me how Grandmaster Flash and Nas contributed to the costume side?
My collaboration with costume was really much more with Grandmaster Flash. He was very present in the design process and as I would create something or have things made I would show them to him and he would give his blessing of 'Yeah, that would be cool,' or 'Yes, somebody would totally wear that.' He came through the office very early on as I was starting to collect vintage and I showed him through the pants, for example, and I went, 'Are these too old-fashioned? In 1977 was this considered outdated? What was everyone wanting in 1977 that they couldn't afford? What was the kind of pants that everyone was wearing?'

Because in fashion you have the things that are very readily available and everyone has then you have the things that are tired and old-fashioned and no one wants to wear anymore then you have the things that are just being introduced that everybody wants. So he helped me really find that needle and where that needle was going in that particular moment in time: what jackets everybody wanted and what jackets everybody was starting to have and maybe in two years, in 1979, what everybody was going to have, but in 1977 nobody really had just yet. And he helped me really navigate that all and find that. 

There's was a little chatter about Baz, a white man from Australia, taking this sort of topic on. What measures did he take to ensure it was authentic as possible on the wardrobe side? 
Baz was very present throughout the research process and was always very vocal that he wanted all the clothing to have a root in history and a root in a real photographic reference from the time period. And he always wanted to see a photo alongside someone actually wearing it from the time period. 

There are some shorts that the character Yolanda wears in the pilot. He went, 'I don't know, those shorts seem so short for a girl to wear to high school.' And I was like, 'Well, here are some real pictures of young girls in high school.' And there's this photo of this young girl with hot shorts on, chewing on a lollipop. He loved that image and was like, 'Absolutely, let's go for it.' But everything had to have a piece of research alongside it that proved that it really existed. 

Justice Smith and Herizen Guardiola The Get Down

Are there any labels today that you think embody the style? 
Maybe there'll be a Get Down collection at your favorite store, and you'll be able to embody what the characters on The Get Down look like. 

Oh, wow, is that actually happening?
It's potentially going to happen. It's a possibility. There's been some talk about it because there's really nothing our there that looks like what the show looks like. Of course, there are the brands now that are such classics they haven't ever changed their style, like Kangol, like Cazal, like Converse, like Puma, like Pro-Keds, that existed back in 1977 and were so ultimately cool and classic that they still exist today and have not changed anything about that design—I think that speaks to how cool they are. 

If I were trying to get 'The Get Down' look, what would be the single more important item for me to have?
I would say a fresh, pristine pair of sneakers—probably Puma or Pro-Keds. I think you'd want to look fresh to death, maybe you'd have a crisp T-shirt on, a cool baseball cap, a pair of Cazals, and a crisp pair of jeans with a crease still in the front. 

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