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'Mad Men' Costume Designer Janie Bryant Revisits the '60s With New Project

But you won't see any of it on TV.
Janie Bryant next to a sketch of one of her uniform designs for The Watergate Hotel. Photo: Janie Bryant

Janie Bryant next to a sketch of one of her uniform designs for The Watergate Hotel. Photo: Janie Bryant

It looks like the '60s aren't over for "Mad Men" costume designer Janie Bryant just yet — although her latest project throwing back to the era doesn't have anything to do with dressing characters on TV. Instead, Bryant is creating modern, mid-century-inspired staff uniforms for the fall reopening of The Watergate Hotel. Yes, the storied, luxury hotel (and former playground of the rich and famous) that's associated with that Nixon burglary and wiretapping incident in 1972. But Bryant wants us all to move on from that.

"I felt like [designing the uniforms] was more about creating a new path and new memories for The Watergate, as opposed to living in the past and the scandal surrounding it," Bryant told me when I met her at another hotel, the Gansevoort Park in Manhattan, about 15 minutes before she had to catch a flight to Los Angeles. 

As part of building the Janie Bryant Brand empire, the prolific designer looked to the historic hotel's signature colors and rectangle check patterns to create a collection of uniforms for the entire staff — including bellmen, valets, bartenders and the housekeeping staff. Bryant gave me a sneak peek of The Whisky Bar servers' outfits, which include a gray, sweetheart neckline shift dress with an adorable pleated panel at the back and that's flecked with cognac and whiskey-hued windowpane checks. "I love incorporating the accents of the liquor — the whiskey, I should say — into the colors of the servers' [outfits]," she said.

Bryant is used to working off a script to design costumes in support of a TV series, but creating staff uniforms for an iconic hotel has its own plot line, too. "There is a story to tell about this historical place, so I did approach it as storytelling," she added. "I wanted the guests to have this amazing, luxurious experience."

The Whisky Bar server uniforms, leather apron included. Photo: The Watergate Hotel

The Whisky Bar server uniforms, leather apron included. Photo: The Watergate Hotel

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However, Bryant did have to adjust a bit when it came to the actual design process and think outside of her usual comfort zone. "With hotel uniforms, I really had to keep in mind the practicality of fabrics, the durability of fabrics," she said. "I’m thinking, 'Okay, how many dry cleanings can this take?' Or, 'Can this employee move his arms and be able to work?' So it's very different." Of course, Bryant's experience with "Mad Men" did come into play.

"I designed a lot of uniforms when I was designing 'Mad Men,'" she laughed. "There were flight attendants, waiters, mâitre d's... There were so many uniforms during the course of the seven seasons. But I think just being immersed in the 1960s and the formality of that period for the service industry — that was very inspirational for me; to be able to translate that in a very modern and luxurious way into The Watergate Hotel." (See: Shelly, "the Stewardess.")

Her next small-screen gig is designing costumes for "Hot & Bothered" (which stars Eva Longoria), and Bryant is moving out of the Eisenhower era. "It’s all about glitz and glamour, and it’s super dramatic," she said about designing the steamy looks for the telenovela-show-within-a-show. "It'a half-hour comedy for NBC Universal and I can’t wait for it to be out. [It's] over-the-top glamorous — my favorite thing in the whole world. It’s really fun and Eva's amazing to work with."

After two collaborations with Australian brand Shoes of Prey, Bryant is taking that experience and merging it with her day job. "For 'Hot & Bothered,' I’ve been designing shoes as well," she explained. "They're so beautiful. I'm really excited about that."

Bryant is also thrilled to be transitioning from an hour-long, super-intense drama into lighter comedic fare, which is a first for her. "From a costume design perspective, being a comedy really lends itself to more color and more vibrancy," she said.  "Especially when you're evoking a mood... It's really fun. I can use a lot more color in a comedic series as opposed to a dramatic series, when it's really heavy or the tone is more sad or somber." Here's hoping for more post-'60s double-denim moments, too.

Homepage photo: AMC