New York in the 70s: a city on the brink of bankruptcy, swelling with the rhythms of disco and funk. The nocturnal worlds of voguing clubs and Studio 54 spilled out onto sidewalks littered with poverty and destitution. While Downtown heaved with contrasts, crime and creativity, there was a revolution taking place Uptown. Out on the streets of the South Bronx, hip-hop was born, a new genre that borrowed from jazz, funk, and Caribbean music, and encompassed fashion, graffiti and dance. Pioneered by DJ Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash, what started as a rebellion went on to provoke a cultural upheaval so seismic that today hip-hop, constituting a significant part of America’s cultural identity, has unashamedly entered the mainstream. Jay Z claims to be on texting terms with Barack Obama and, although the President denies the charge, he did admit that–if it came down to it–he would back Kendrick Lamar over Drake in a rap battle.
It is the emergence of hip-hop that forms the subject of Baz Luhrmann’s new Netflix series, The Get Down. His first foray into television, it follows a group of teens between the years of 1977-1979, fighting their way through the burning hot streets of the Bronx—broke, but fearless and talented. While some recognizable characters from the time are twinned into the plot—Herc and Flash both make appearances—the majority of the characters are fictional, inspired by archetypes. There is the artistically-minded Dizzee (Jaden Smith), the dancer Shadin (Shameik Moore), and Ezekiel (Justice Smith), an avid reader also known as ‘Books’, who pens poetry whilst wearing a disco suit.
Luhrmann, the Australian director of Romeo & Juliet and Moulin Rouge!, is known for his sumptuous style, creating carnivalesque movies that dazzle with gaudy opulence. He is perhaps not the most likely of candidates, then, to chart the gritty and quintessentially American tale of an inner-city urban borough blighted by deprivation. But no one is more aware of this than Luhrmann himself, so after a decade of research, he assembled a formidable team of advisors to help him construct his tale. Flash, Herc and Afrika Bambaataa were all on call, and Nas was commissioned to write the music. But the most pivotal member of the team was his costume designer, Jeriana San Juan, who was charged with constructing a visual identity for the show that grounded Luhrmann’s riotous tendency for theatrics in authenticity.
When San Juan was first approached by Luhrmann, she assumed there must have been a misunderstanding–the director normally collaborates with his wife, Catherine Martin, on costume. But Martin was set to be an executive producer on the show, and they needed a designer who was creative, frenetically visual, and used to working at the gruelling pace demanded by TV.
If working on The Get Down has been the defining moment of San Juan’s career, it has also been the most challenging. Hip-hop had been the soundtrack to her teens, and she wanted to tell its story with integrity. Luckily, she had Luhrmann’s advisors on call. At first, it was hard to not just to be a fan (having Grandmaster Flash’s name pop up on your phone takes getting used to), but, as they regaled her with countless stories from their youth, they soon became friends. “I think they were very proud to talk about this time and the birth of their culture, because it has also been very under-represented in the media and in our history,” she says.
They told her how they used to leave the price tags on their hats, and how some teenagers would carry toothbrushes in their pockets to scrub their sneakers clean. Others used to cover them with plastic bags, shuffling awkwardly to parties only to reveal a pair of pristine white kicks. Rapper Kurtis Blow would wear an audacious gold chain tucked under his T-shirt, which he would proudly pull out whenever he arrived at a club. It was at this time that the expressions ‘fresh to death’ and ‘looking fly’ were born. “It was the creation of something born out of the South Bronx, and they were using whatever resources they had not only to give them their own cultural identity, but to elevate their status,” San Juan explains.
If San Juan was anxious about working with Luhrmann, the pair soon proved to be a natural fit. In one of their first meetings, he likened looking into the frame of a camera to looking at paint on a canvas. “I had been using that expression for years,” she says. “It was like finding a kindred spirit.” She found it easy to reconcile his signature aesthetic with the period. “There is actually a lot about hip-hop style that is hyperbolic and magnified. What I did was magnify that style, and turn up the colour and volume.” She allowed herself creative freedom by approaching the costume design from the perspectives of the teenagers that she was dressing. “I think we all understand that when you look back and remember your childhood, you see it as a little more colourful, a little larger than life.”
San Juan went to superhuman lengths in her quest for hyperreality. For one of Jaden Smith’s outfits, she enlisted the help of Lady Pink, ‘The First Lady of Graffiti’, who designed a custom-made panel for the back of his jacket. In another scene he wears a 1940s flight suit, entirely embellished with his own doodles. And, after immersing herself in the world of sneakers, she decided she needed to get hold of all of the original styles, but couldn’t track them down. Her solution? To reach out to the brands, and enlist their help. Her tenacity was remarkably effective. Pro-Keds agreed to manufacture a special run of 10,000 pairs of sneakers, and Converse provided her with their designs and colours from the era.
This level of access was crucial. As well as working with huge corporate designers, San Juan took to the archives of high-end fashion houses, pulling disco dresses from Halston and Diane von Furstenberg. Look closely and you’ll also see pieces from the current Gucci collection–the vogue for 70s style proved enormously helpful. But her favourite piece from the show was hand-crafted. It appears in episode six, when the cast head to a voguing club. A singer called Flawless Sabrina appears, wearing a shimmering gold dress. “I created this beautiful gold dress that everyone was in love with,” she says. But then, at the last minute, she decided it needed something else. “The tailors looked at me, and they closed their eyes.” Wielding a pair of scissors, she hacked a gaping gold heart right out of its back. “I think those moments are quite spectacular.”
Many of The Get Down’s spectacular moments emerge from San Juan’s unfaltering faith in her intuition. Her aesthetic bristles with colour, and textured layers of reference. To echo Luhrmann’s phrase, she paints with clothes. “I feel very instinctively if it’s going to work or not,” she says. “I know when to pull the trigger.”—Isobel Thompson
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