Just think: If Carrie and Big ditched the Manhattan luxury apartment (and walk-in closet), moved to a white clapboard house in Westchester to raise two preteen kids and then hit yet another rough patch... actually, that still would be nothing like "Divorce," Sarah Jessica Parker's new series on HBO, also the home of the show with which we will all always associate her, "Sex and the City."
Executive produced by Parker and created by Sharon Horgan of "Catastrophe," "Divorce" is a quieter, subtler, darker comedy that takes a deep dive into the dissolution of the 17-year marriage between Frances (Parker) and Robert (an excellent Thomas Haden Church). Aside from also having a tight group of girlfriends (played by the hilarious Molly Shannon and Talia Shire) to lean on, Frances has nothing in common with Carrie Bradshaw and that's how everyone — including Parker and costume designer Arjun Bhasin — wanted it.
"I mean, there's no getting away from that show," he says about the "Sex and the City" legacy. "It exists. It is amazing. It had a great fashion moment. But it was a while ago and I feel like it's important for us to not follow in the footsteps of another show and really create a new identity."
In anticipation of the Oct. 9 premiere of "Divorce," veteran designer and stylist Bhasin, whose resumé also includes Elle Fanning's "About Ray" and "Life of Pi," took some time to chat with Fashionista about working with new dress designer SJP and avoiding designer labels to outfit Frances. (Well, to some extent. Parker is a massive fan of fancy shoes...)
How does Frances's wardrobe convey where she is in her life and her marriage to Robert?
I made a decision not to do any high-end fashion stuff. For one thing, it's been done. And B) I feel like it doesn't really belong in the world of this character at all. So we made a decision to stay away from the fast pace of contemporary fashion and to create a wardrobe for Frances that really conveyed a sense of history and nostalgia for that character. It creates a story of the years that went before the moment of this crisis, which was very important to me. It wasn't happening really quickly. It was stewing and building up. So we decided that we were going to go with a more retro style, rather than a more immediate fashion-y trendy style. And that also meant that we could reference the past in a way and reference the history of the characters.
Frances consistently wears '70s silhouettes, like soft blouses and printed midi-dresses. What drew you to that decade and style?
When Sarah Jessica and I talked the first time, she was interested in the films of the late '70s and it's my favorite period to reference. There was a film called 'An Unmarried Woman' from '78. She was just really drawn to the character [played by the late Jill Clayburgh] in that. Then I brought other films to the table, like 'Kramer v. Kramer,' 'American Gigolo' and some of the Woody Allen films from the '70s, 'Annie Hall' and 'Interiors.' We talked about those characters being real New Yorkers and having a real New York-ness to it... And those became our go-to silhouettes.
I didn't set foot in Bergdorf or Barneys or Saks. We did all the clothes from flea markets, vintage [shopping], eBay and Etsy. We found pieces that were like comfort clothing almost for her — like the equivalent of comfort food — things that made her feel attractive and sexy, and yet they were part of the history of her life.
What are some of the pieces that are like her comfort food?
Because it's a winter story, I didn't want her to have 20 different coats in 10 episodes. I just wanted her to have two really important winter coats. There's a sense that she hangs it up on the door and she puts it on when she leaves. It's the reality of a woman in New York in the winter.
Where did you find the coats, dresses and other pieces?
From the Manhattan Vintage show, that was a great resource. We started trying her in things, and saying, 'this feels right,' 'this feels real.' She wanted things to look used and to look like [Frances] owned them. We did a lot of micro-prints on silk midi-dresses. The dresses were all vintage, and we were finding them in size 12 and size 14 and then having tailors dismantle them entirely and put them back together.
What did you look for in terms of shoes for Frances?
Well, shoes are tricky with [Parker] because she's such a shoe person. We tried on a bunch of different vintage shoes, like green snakeskin shoes from 1980 and brown wooden heel boots from 1975. Then, of course, we had to throw in a Manolo here and there. Just for fun.
I noticed that she wears a lot of opaque tights. What’s the significance in that?
We came at the opaque tights purely from a practical standpoint. Because it was so cold and we were outside. We were like, 'would Frances really be bare legged in the snow?' It doesn't make much sense. And yet, we didn't want her to be in woolen trousers the whole time because that really wasn't the way we wanted to see her. So I thought it would be exciting to mix the two ideas. Mix up wool and soft silk together to create a soft femininity, but yet allow it to be practical.
I love the contrast between Frances's look and her friend Diane's (Molly Shannon) and her too-tight, too-short, sparkly bandage dress in the pilot.
I mean that's the great thing about having different characters on the show. They can all play off each other and highlight the other person's, either normal-ness or richness or craziness or madness or fun-ness.
What was the inspiration behind Robert's signature, but slightly awkward, wool blazer, plaid shirt and tie combo?
He has a thing where he's always one step on the wrong side of fashionable. Like he tries to make it work for himself with what he has, but he's a simple guy. He just thinks if he throws a tie onto a plaid shirt, it makes a formal outfit, which I think is a lovely and very endearing thing about him.
What type of input did Sarah Jessica Parker give you and how did you both work together to create this character?
She's very interesting because she's very, very stylish, of course. Obviously. And yet she's very thoughtful and authentic. She's very true to the lines on the page. She's very true to what's happening in the script and she's very, very open to people's ideas and suggestions. So if you have a plan and you have a reason why you have a plan, she'll go with it , which I think is fantastic.
So I was like, 'maybe [Frances] would wear tube socks in bed because she's freezing.' And [Parker is] like, 'I love it! Let's do it.' It was all about the moment of what was happening in the script and we would just make it all work. We would just play around with it to create a magical moment.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
"Divorce" premieres at 10 p.m. on Sunday, October 9 on HBO.