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From Idaho to Yale to "Girls": How Jenn Rogien Is Making It as a Costume Designer

The woman responsible for dressing the cast of "Girls" and "Orange Is the New Black" spoke about making a career in costume design at Fashionista's June meetup.
Jenn Rogien and Fashionista's Dhani Mau. Photo: Meghan Uno/Fashionista

Jenn Rogien and Fashionista's Dhani Mau. Photo: Meghan Uno/Fashionista

Charismatic, whip-smart, self-deprecating — those are ways one could describe Jenn Rogien, the Emmy-nominated costume designer behind hit TV series "Girls" (HBO) and "Orange Is the New Black" (Netflix). In just under a decade, Rogien has climbed the ranks from personal assistant to lead costume designer on not one, but two enormously popular shows, while embarking on collaborations with big-name apparel brands, including American Eagle and Sorrel, on the side.

During her school years, Rogien never thought of becoming a costume designer, she recalled at our "How to Make It in Fashion" meetup in New York on Wednesday evening. Though she was involved with her high school theater in Idaho, she entered Yale intending to get a degree in chemical engineering. As Rogien tells it, she spent so much time working on plays that she nearly ended up failing a couple of classes her second semester, and so she refocused on art and psychology, planning to embark on a career in fashion.

Rogien's first job was in the buying department of Saks Fifth Avenue. She continued to do theater on the side, helping former classmates who were launching theater companies or working off Broadway, often sitting at a sewing machine until 4 in the morning — and showing up exhausted for work the next day. She decided to quit her job at Saks and began studying fashion design at Parsons. While there, she connected with a director looking for a [personal] assistant, though she still wasn't thinking about a career in costume design at that point.

"You take the first in you can get," Rogien said of her first PA role. "It's so rare that the first job you get is the thing you most want to do."

Photo: Meghan Uno/Fashionista

Photo: Meghan Uno/Fashionista

There are several ways to break in to costume design — though, as those working in the field know, it can be years before you get to do any real design work. Although Rogien got her start in film, Broadway is a popular path, as is the theater scene in London, she said. There are differences in the work: Theatrical design tends to be more period-driven, with stronger colors and crazier prints, while TV and film call for subtler work suitable for a camera lens.

Mark Bridges, the BAFTA-winning costume designer for "The Artist," was the first designer Rogien worked for, on the 2006 film "Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus," starring Nicole Kidman. Rogien wasn't, of course, doing any design work at that point — her sole task was to schedule fittings. Her next project was a live-action film with Disney, "Enchanted" (2007).

In the later 'aughts, Rogien began to focus on TV, just as it was "emerging as a storytelling forum that was really unique," she said. She worked as an assistant designer on a number of shows, including "Lipstick Jungle," "Kings" and "The Good Wife" before landing her first lead costume design role for "Girls."

Photo: Meghan Uno/Fashionista

Photo: Meghan Uno/Fashionista

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"I had to write the most important cover letter of my life," she recalled. "I kept it to five lines, then interviewed. I believe very strongly that you do not go into an interview for a design job without something to show. You can't walk in with just your résumé." There were four lead characters for "Girls," but Rogien arrived at the meeting with design boards for 12, which she displayed on an iPad.

Talk to any costume designer about her career, and she'll inevitably repeat the words "hard work" — and not just to describe her early years in the field. For Rogien, it's not unusual to be on set as early as 4 a.m. for fittings, to run to a thrift or department store to pull a few things and to submit a round of looks for approval to a director, all in the course of a day. Shooting days can last as long as 12 hours, and there are no days off between episodes. "It's rarely glamorous," Rogien said. "I had one glamorous moment recently shooting at the Plaza, but more often I'm in the Salvation Army and a wall of clothing falls on me. That literally happened last week. It's just one day per season you get to shop at Bergdorf."

In recent years, Rogien has found jobs through her network and her agent. "Film and television are incredibly networked businesses," Rogien explained, noting that few jobs come through job boards. "There's a PA program, and that's really the first step. There are lots of teams that fall together organically and travel together [from project to project]." Rogien was working on "The Good Wife" when the "Girls" job opened up; a producer working on both shows recommended her.

The audience had, of course, many questions about Rogien's strategy for dressing the cast of "Girls" and "Orange Is the New Black." For "Girls," Rogien said she shops where she thinks the characters would — for Hannah (played by Lena Dunham), that's a lot of vintage and thrift shops mixed with Zara and Topshop. She describes the overall look of "Girls" as "realistic with a bit of lipgloss," adding that she's careful to steer away from trends because by the time a season airs, they may already be out the door. Personal details are key to dressing the cast of "Orange Is the New Black" — a lip color here, untucked socks there. The characters wear uniforms from a real prison uniform manufacturer, and Rogien says they aren't altered unless an actor is especially petite.

No matter what the show, the script is Rogien's most important tool. "A script [will tell you if a character] is snarky, poor, rich, works for this kind of company, drives this kind of car. My job is to filter that out and put together a look that will also tell you things." Somewhat surprisingly, Rogien said she wants her costumes to be unnoticeable. "They shouldn't be stealing spotlight from the characters. There are moments where the clothes are meant to steal the show… [But] none of [the shows I'm working on] are fashion shows," a la "Gossip Girl" or "Sex and the City," she explained.

Beyond costume design, Rogien also freelances as a stylist and has begun to collaborate with brands, including American Eagle and Sorrel, which she says is a great opportunity to connect more directly with fans. "I think costume designers have a unique approach of storytelling that can work really well with brands, to contextualize a product. It's not just a pair of boots, it's a pair of boots helping to tell a story of [the person who's wearing them]."

When asked if there was a moment where she felt like she'd "made it," Rogien recalled opening the New York Times Styles section and seeing a photo of the four lead characters of "Girls" in costume. "I never dreamed something [like] that would be in my life [when I was in] college hand-painting a Chinese parasol for a play," she said. "You don't anticipate those moments and those are the really gratifying ones."

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