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Inside the Colorfully Costumed World of 'Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt'

Tina Fey and Robert Carlock's new Netflix series has people talking about more than just the comedy.
Females are strong as hell. Photo: Eric Liebowitz/Netflix

Females are strong as hell. Photo: Eric Liebowitz/Netflix

When Tina Fey and Robert Carlock's new comedy "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" debuted on Netflix March 6, it felt like all anyone was talking about on social media was the show  — especially my friend Max, who insisted it was like seeing a version of me on television. Forget cultural buzz: You have to watch a show when it's basically about you, right?

Now I understand the hype. The show chronicles the adventures of Ellie Kemper's character, Kimmy Schmidt, who moves to New York City after she's freed from a bunker, where she was held with three other women by a crazed preacher. Sounds like a dark premise, right? Thanks to a cast of rich characters (literally rich, in some cases), Kimmy's unerring optimism and a surprising amount of heart, it's actually pretty hilarious.  It also has the most catchy theme song in recent memory. Seriously. It's going to be in your head for the rest of forever.

One of the best parts of the show is the incredible costuming, from Kimmy's sunshine-bright, post-bunker clothing to Titus's over-the-top audition outfits. Like any well-wardrobed show, the cast's clothes help the storytelling. In some cases, hilarious plot points revolve around the garments themselves — which is why I wanted to get the inside scoop on how they came together from costume designer Tina Nigro. 

And suddenly, I need a pair of Swedish Hasbeens. Photo: Eric Liebowitz/Netflix

And suddenly, I need a pair of Swedish Hasbeens. Photo: Eric Liebowitz/Netflix

How did you get involved with the show?

I had worked with Jerry Kupfer, who is one of the producers, before, and he got me in to interview with Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, so I got the job that way. I've always wanted to work with them, so it's pretty cool!

Was there something about this particular project that was exciting for you? I was looking at your reel and it just seems different from other stuff you've done. [Nigro's previous work includes "Oz" and "Law & Order."]

I've gone on interviews for comedies and they'll say, "Oh, your resume is so dark!" — but I do characters, so to me, it's no different. I mean, the color palette is usually a little different in drama than comedy [laughs]. You can't get away with so many colors in a drama. But I think the script is a little off and quirky and dark, so that's what appealed to me about it.

You mentioned the use of color — how did that become important for the show?

I think for Kimmy, it just shows how youthful and optimistic and bright she is; we definitely wanted her to stand out from all the other people in New York, especially when she first gets there. It's just her personality — it's bright and cheery — so we just reflected that in the clothes. We did a couple of looks and I showed them to Tina and Robert, and they sort of chose what they like best.

She's been in this bunker since she was a teenager, so she still dresses a little bit like one, right?

Exactly. And also things from the '90s that remind her of the last time she went shopping, without looking like she only just shopped in a thrift store. There's her backpack, her scrunchie and fanny pack when she goes jogging, or her necklace, which is one of those block name necklaces that was popular back then, and the light-up sneakers. Even some of the shapes that she wears, the little flirty skirts and the light-colored jeans with a white belt, are all sort of reflective of the '90s without looking like she's an ad from a '90s catalog. It's things she finds in the stores now, but they're things she's drawn to because that's what she remembers.

Where were you finding those clothes?

Everywhere. She doesn't have a lot of money, so we didn't go to Barneys or anything like that. It was JC Penney, Forever 21, Topshop and American Apparel. Some things were thrifted, but mostly those lower-end teen stores.

Seriously, check out those light-up sneaks. Photo: Eric Liebowitz/Netflix

Seriously, check out those light-up sneaks. Photo: Eric Liebowitz/Netflix

How did you find those light-up sneakers?

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They make them for kids, and you know, pre-teen sizes still fits adults, and we just altered them for television to make the lights glow brighter and to go on when we wanted them to as opposed to just when she stepped. 

It's not just Kimmy, but all the characters in the show have really strong costumes that seem to say immediately who they are and where they are in life. What was that process like for the other characters?

Exactly, like Jacqueline [played by Jane Krakowski] wears designer all the time; she wants everyone to know that she spends a lot of money on her clothes. We would joke that her knock-around shoes when she's in the house are glittering Christian Louboutin platforms. Her daughter, meanwhile, doesn't want to look like she spends money, but yet spends a lot of money on her clothes. Dylan [Gelula, who plays Xan] is sort of anti-fashion, but while being very fashion-y. Titus [played by Tituss Burgess] is a mix of thrift, Forever 21, his own stuff. 

Their clothes do reflect who they are, and I think sometimes in drama, the scene or the emotion is stronger — not that the clothes don't play a part in telling that story, but sometimes you want it to take a backseat. In comedy, sometimes the clothes are the story, which is fun.

Homemade Upper East Side chic. Photo: Eric Liebowitz/Netflix

Homemade Upper East Side chic. Photo: Eric Liebowitz/Netflix

There were two specific costumes I wanted to know about, because they're hilarious: Titus's breakaway plumber's uniform, and Kimmy's party outfit that Titus puts together for her.

For Kimmy's outfit, the writers had shown me a YouTube video of all these people wearing basketball shorts as dresses — a lot of them being men — and I vaguely remember in the '90s, I used to wear pants as jackets. It went from there, where they were like, "Find stuff around the house that he uses to make her an outfit," so we were like, what about a bathmat as a shrug, using the toilet chain and crystals as a necklace? We made everything — it really was a bathmat, it really was a can. 

Titus's outfit, we took a coverall and did the velcro stripper rip-away thing [laughs]. And he's great — he's so comfortable, and it's fun to dress him.

The Mole Women in the bunker. Photo: Eric Liebowitz/Netflix

The Mole Women in the bunker. Photo: Eric Liebowitz/Netflix

What about doing the costumes for when the Mole Women are in the bunker — did you look at real women who were in those situations for those designs?

They're kind of based off of a lot of different religions that have their women dress modestly, not one in particular. We also went back and forth with the color, and we decided those pastel Easter egg colors would be sort of funny in the bleak set that they were in for the bunker. 

It seems like Kimmy, at the end of the season, is still dressing brightly — but it's a bit toned down. Was there an evolution for her?

Yes, and I think it will be interesting to see what she'll do. I see her as a sponge, and she'll try a lot of different styles. Some of them might work, some of them might not work, but I think her style will evolve as she spends more time in New York.

Do you personally have a favorite costume, or a favorite character to dress?

Dylan's more my style [laughs]. But I liked doing the Times Square pieces — "Miss Piggy" and all those robots, because it's something I've never really done before. My favorite Kimmy outfit is probably when she went to sign up for school in that blue jumper dress with the yellow clogs. 

The Times Square thing was such a great gag, too, because obviously, anyone who lives or has visited here knows you walk through Times Square and you see those weird, slightly off-brand characters.

Yeah, and we made them because of legal reasons and whatnot. We had to change them slightly, I had to mock them up and show them to legal, and they'd be like, "Oh we need to change the eyes a little bit more," or, "Oh that one is changed enough" — it was fun.

Season 1 of "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" is available to watch now on Netflix.