From a very early age, Jeriana San Juan knew she wanted to be in fashion. "I feel like I never elected to do this with my life," she told the audience at Fashionista’s New York City meet-up event on Monday, moderated by Contributing Editor Fawnia Soo Hoo. "It kind of chose me." But just because your career path chooses you doesn't make it easy, as San Juan would attest. "It wasn't handed to me," she said. While her love of fashion and '40s and '50s musicals may have lead her to her dream job as a costume designer, it's the work she put in along the way that made all the difference.
San Juan got her start as a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, working with a theatre corps and cold-calling costume shops through the yellow pages, offering to do literally any work they needed done. That perseverance lead to an internship at Parsons-Meares, a revered costume shop. "When you want to do something, and you're passionate about it, there should be nothing that stands in the way of you and that goal," she said of her time there. "It evolved from me sweeping the floors to pattern making for some of their smaller shows." It was there that she was able to make contacts with other costume designers, which lead to an internship at "Saturday Night Live" and a gig as an assistant designer at a prestigious summer theatre festival in the Berkshires.
When a friend had to leave work on "Gossip Girl" for another film job, San Juan stepped him and found herself with a dream opportunity. As assistant costume designer, she got to work on several major episodes, including the high fashion prom. The experience led San Juan down a path towards her latest high-profile work for "Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll" and Netflix's "The Get Down," which offer her opportunities to flex both her fashion and design muscles.
"When you're designing for television, you wouldn't believe — from the time I get the script to the time it has to be on set, fitted on the actor, is 24 hours, 48 hours, so I'm very proud I can design on my own and think on my feet," said San Juan. "Sometimes what you find in the store isn't going to be perfect, so it's about being scrappy and making it happen. I find the fabric, I find somebody who is willing to work overnight — that has happened before! — and build the thing."
She doesn't just use her design chops in a pinch: it also allows her to ensure perfect fit and use hard to find fabrics. For example on the "The Get Down," San Juan custom-designed jeans and T-shirts for every single cast member and the denim suit with rainbow leather detailing that Ezekiel wears in the first episode. It was an important moment for the show, and for her as a costume designer; she found inspiration in a pile of vintage denim and stayed up until 3 a.m. sketching the custom piece.
"I couldn't find what would become a signature, and that's a thing that's become big in television and film today, because there's so much of it. How does something look different than anything else?" said San Juan. "Once I get an idea going, I just have to go with it. I showed up to Baz [Luhrmann]'s office first thing in the morning, waiting for him with my presentation like, 'Hi! I have something to show you!'"
But to get to that point, San Juan said she had to "learn how to speak Baz." Luhrmann has typically collaborated with his wife, Catherine Martin, on the costumes for all his films. When embarking on "The Get Down," Martin was unsure of how television worked, so a mutual friend put the duo in touch with San Juan. San Juan calls her partnership "an odd-couple marriage," but after some meetings with Martin and one elaborate FaceTime with Luhrmann (which involved his assistant spending several minutes framing her correctly), they quickly found that their visual languages were actually quite similar. Martin and San Juan worked together on the pilot.
"When I first started getting the clothes, to go through the racks with [Martin] and get her aesthetic, that's important," she said. "That's how you develop the visual language of the show. When I'm seeing, 'Hate this, love this,' it's immediately creating, for me, a divide of — this is more the world they want to live in, as opposed to this world. It was a learning process. It created, for me, the rule book."
San Juan's philosophy for putting together costumes comes down to the importance of idea before execution. "Let's not make it about how, let's make it about what - what does it need to be and after we figure that out, I'll make the 'how' happen," San Juan explains. For "The Get Down," that meant working with Martin, Luhrmann, and — believe it or not — Grandmaster Flash to get the ideas and the inspiration just right.
"He actually became one of my main sources of inspiration," she said of the rapper, who also served as her date to this year's Met Gala. "He taught me what was cool, what did everybody have, what did some people have that everyone was crushing on but maybe could afford. He taught me the ABCs of fashion, and I was able to get information from the source, which was the most authentic thing I could do."
As San Juan moves on to new projects, she said the most important thing an aspiring costume designer can do to prepare for any job is develop a vast well of visual references. Even unrelated images can be helpful, if it gives the energy that you want. "Whatever it is, as long as you have some kind of photographic evidence, it helps the process," she explains. And as for what's next, she hinted that design collaborations inspired by her work on "The Get Down" could be coming to shoppers soon.
"I love doing things that I don't think I can do, because I really learn a lot about myself," San Juan said. "Back when I was building the show and creating the show, I discovered how inspiring this time period is and how wonderful of an influence it can have on contemporary fashion, and that's actually something that could possibly be brewing."