Every costume on HBO's "Vinyl," a new series about the fast-paced and debauched music business in 1970s New York, was vetted by Mick Jagger, the show's co-creator and executive music producer. So the pressure was certainly on for costume director John Dunn, who is well versed in bringing period pieces to the screen, having worked on HBO's prohibition-era "Boardwalk Empire" which, like "Vinyl," was produced by Martin Scorcese and Terrence Winter.
"There's much more [vintage] 1970s clothing out there than there was for the 1920s," says Dunn. "That said, there's a lot of bad '70s clothing out there as well, so one of the challenges is just wading through the racks and racks of clothing that nobody ever wants to see again in order to find those wonderful pieces that I wanted to present in our show."
Indeed, the show is a rich visual and musical look into the chaotic music scene in New York at the time, when punk and disco and hip-hop emerged and lived side by side. Bobby Cannavale stars as record company president Richie Finestra — a man with a drug problem, serious debt and a quest to discover real talent bubbling in the city's underground clubs and outer boroughs. Olivia Wilde plays his newly domesticated wife Devon, who dreams of her wild past as part of Andy Warhol's inner circle; Juno Temple is Jamie Vine, a young assistant looking to make a name for herself by nurturing a punk band named The Nasty Bits. Add in a murder, some explosive musical performances, mountains of cocaine and sketchy dealings with mobsters and there's enough action set up here for many seasons to come.
Dunn has amassed what he calls a "little 1973 department store" on the set in Brooklyn from which to pull when he has, for example, two days notice to dress an actor playing John Lennon. "We can do a lot of our shopping over the Internet and we do have a large network of nationwide vendors who are really into the '70s," says Dunn. "We'll shop out of what they send us and of course its a constant dialogue back and forth: We're looking for a spandex silver jumpsuits, do you have anything like that? We send the word out nationwide and see who comes back with what." Dunn cites New York's Cherry and Ritual as key vintage sources. "Rock T-shirts are insanely difficult to find because we are often in competition with collectors," he said. Men's platform shoes are another rare find since it was a short-lived trend. "Those are the holy grail of vintage world for us."
For Wilde's character, Dunn had two sets of inspiration points: for flashbacks to the '60s, he riffed on the most iconic Warhol muse herself, Edie Sedgwick. "[Devon] was so just new on the Warhol factory scene, and he became fascinated with her in a way that he often became fascinated with a particular woman at the time," says Dunn. But when the show begins in 1973, Devon is a wealthy Connecticut wife and mother with hosting obligations. "She really was mindful of the fact that she had to play that role, so we were doing Yves Saint Laurent and Halston for that part of her character, but there still was that bohemian part of her that used to live at the Chelsea Hotel and was very artistic," he says, "We introduced Ossie Clark and Biba because it just has a wonderfully flowy, romantic but artistic look to it."
Dunn uses vintage for 90 percent of the costumes, especially for the leading characters, though he does sometimes reproduce pieces in-house. "We will find a piece and for various reasons that piece may not work — it could be size, color… or not striking the right mood," he says. "I find a piece and painstakingly reproduce it as best we can because I wanted to pay homage to the original designers."
Dunn's favorite character to dress was Temple's Jamie because her wardrobe was an eclectic, distinctive mix. "It is really the dawn of people first wearing vintage clothing," says Dunn, who would put Jamie in '30s and '40s pieces, but never head-to-toe. "She introduces little 1930s dresses but she would wear them with contemporary shoes 1973 shoes... she was also very edgy in that her musical interest was really in what's happening in the punk world," he says. "There's a real rock and roll edge to her wardrobe." Dunn also put her in a lot of leather pieces and even made her a pair of leather pants based on a pair from California brand East West, which is a coveted label. "[East West] designed a lot for the rock world out there," says Dunn, who cited suede jackets with painted panels and appliqués as an example of the brand's pieces he's found. "You refer to East West in hushed tones because it's so special."
That's not to say that Dunn and his team didn't take advantage of today's '70s trend when possible. "I very, very rarely in my period pieces use contemporary clothing but the dialogue going on right now between contemporary fashion and 1973 — you can't ignore it," says Dunn. "It used to be taboo for me to introduce contemporary pieces but I decided to go for broke and actually put a contemporary piece on my leading man." The piece in question is a John Varvatos black leather jacket worn by Cannavale's Richie. Dunn also shopped from Zara, H&M, Topshop and even Madewell for its classic '70s jeans. He said Zara in particular had great '70s fabrics and silhouettes that were helpful for costuming Nico of the Velvet Underground, played by a 5'10" actress for whom vintage clothing proved difficult to find. The actor playing Alice Cooper's white jeans were also from a contemporary brand.
"Vinyl" is full of real life musicians in addition to actors playing Lennon, Cooper and Nico: David Bowie is slated to appear later in the season, too. And this is the third time Dunn has brought Andy Warhol to life on screen. He dressed Bowie when he played the artist in "Basquiat," Guy Pearce in "Factory Girl" and now John Cameron Mitchell as "Vinyl"'s Warhol. So how does Dunn approach dressing an identifiable person without relying on cliches?
"I often do early research through photo documentation and written text of how a person dressed and what they looked like," says Dunn. "But I try to invent something new because I think the actor needs to feel like they're not in a wax museum. So rather than doing a 300 percent carbon copy of something that might be totally documented... I always try do my own riff on it so that that actor can feel like I was creating something for them, and not just painting them in a box."
It's important to mention the massive amount of research that goes into any of Dunn's period projects, especially since "Vinyl" features so many different communities and icons. "We had to research everything from cool downtown folk at the Chelsea Hotel in the '60s and '70s and Andy Warhol's world and Max's Kansas City," says Dunn, who also consulted modern music documentaries, '70s fashion magazines like Vogue and the work of street photographers covering the music scene at the time to get a sense for "the real mood of what was going on."
And because the core of the show is the music, Dunn listened to the records of the period as part of his research, too. "There were many different ways of dressing depending on what your particular tribe was and I think that really is reflected in the music," says Dunn. "I think it was important to listen to the seminal early music of punk and the latin music for the beginning of disco. We would just really sort of immerse ourselves in that sort of music... I think the rhythms of both of them are manifest physically in clothing." It's a succinct description of the tight bond that has always existed between music and fashion — albeit never quite as alive as in the '70s New York of "Vinyl."