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How Nancy Steiner Became the Most Influential Costume Designer You Hadn't Heard of

From "Come As You Are" to "The Virgin Suicides" to "Twin Peaks," Steiner is behind some of the most authentically cool looks you've seen on-screen.
Sofia Coppola, Nancy Steiner and Bill Murray on the "Lost in Translation" set. Photo: Courtesy of Nancy Steiner

Sofia Coppola, Nancy Steiner and Bill Murray on the "Lost in Translation" set. Photo: Courtesy of Nancy Steiner

In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.

From some of the most iconic '90s grunge music videos, to Sofia Coppola's first two films, to Showtime's upcoming "Twin Peaks" revival, costume designer Nancy Steiner's resumé reads like the Facebook profile of an incoming NYU freshman trying desperately to make sure they come across as cool and indie post-high school. 

But Steiner's career has been anything but desperate. In the mid-'80s, unsure of what she wanted to do, Steiner started working at NaNa, a Los Angeles punk clothing institution of sorts and the United States' first-ever distributor of Doc Martens. It became a resource for stylists she would go on to assist, and as the golden age of music videos was in full swing, she naturally became a go-to for bands including R.E.M., Red Hot Chili Peppers, Smashing Pumpkins, Stone Temple Pilots, No Doubt and Nirvana. She even put Kurt Cobain in that iconic green cardigan for "Come As You Are."

With a knack for thrifting and a social circle that included many of Hollywood's most promising indie directors, she naturally moved onto film — working with the likes of Coppola, Michel Gondry, Todd Haynes and Wim Wenders. 

Having just completed the upcoming, top-secret "Twin Peaks" revival, Steiner spoke with Fashionista about her career evolution, the current '90s resurgence, creating the dreamy '70s aesthetic of "The Virgin Suicides," why Scarlett Johansson didn't really "get" her look in "Lost In Translation" and more. Read on for the highlights.

Were you always interested in clothing? How did you first get started in costume design?

I love to draw and I was always drawn towards the fashion magazines and the models and the clothing. Then it kind of evolved into, "Oh, I can make my own clothes and I can draw my own clothes." I never thought about doing costumes. At first, I actually went to school for fashion design. I went to L.A. Trade Tech because I had no money and they had a two-year program. 

I got out of school and was a little discouraged because they kind of geared you to go downtown and work in a showroom or be a cutter, fitter, I don't know — it was just not what I wanted to do. And at the time I was working at a store in Santa Monica called NaNa, which was one of the first punk stores in L.A. We were the first distributors of Doc Martens and creepers in the United States, so there was a whole scene that kind of hung around that store and a lot of stylists used to come in.

This was 1982 to '85. I met some stylists that said, "Hey, if you ever stop working here, you should call me. You have great style." So when I stopped working there I did exactly that and I called a few of the stylists and just started working as an assistant and then realized, I do like this.

I'm told you were responsible for the green cardigan with which Kurt Cobain is now so closely associated. What was it like working with Nirvana?

Working with Nirvana was really exciting. I, at the time, was living with my boyfriend [Kevin Kerslake] who was the director of "Come As You Are" and "In Bloom," which were the two videos I did with them. He started a relationship with Kurt and they just hit it off and I was lucky enough to be his girlfriend and we worked together for over five years.

It's interesting. When I first met the band on the set of "Come As You Are," I had known Courtney Love since I was about 18 and Kevin, he did a whole video for Courtney and I was there helping with that, and I remember her talking about Kurt then, and that was probably, maybe a year before we did "Come As You Are."

How did you go about dressing them? I'm sure they already had their own distinct "grunge" aesthetic.

At that time, a lot of the guys dressed in thrift and so did I, and I just went out shopping and thrifting and found a bunch of stuff and it was like, "Okay, here's some stuff you guys. Pick what you want." It's like that with some of these bands because they just wear T-shirts and jeans, but it's the right T-shirt and the right jeans, and it's the one they want. It's not like he wasn't wearing sweaters like that already. I don't want to take credit for defining his style in any way because he very much had his own thing going on, but it's cool to be involved in it.

Shortly after that we did "In Bloom," which, of course, I got them all these dresses. Again, I brought some clothes and they picked what they wanted and then we got the dresses that they could change into and also the matching striped suits. It was very fortuitous to find three matching suits in all three sizes because, of course, Krist is big tall guy, Kurt was a tiny guy and Dave was in between.

Nirvana on the set of "Come as You Are." Photo: Courtesy of Nancy Steiner

Nirvana on the set of "Come as You Are." Photo: Courtesy of Nancy Steiner

As I'm sure you've noticed, the '90s grunge aesthetic is back in full force. What's it been like to see all of that come back around from a time when your career was picking up? 

I think there's always these eras that come back around and it seems like every 20 years, 20 to 25 years they come back. I remember in the '80s a lot of people were into the '50s. I'm personally not into floral baby doll dresses at all, and I never really was back in the '90s... I think it's interesting to see the way kids are reinterpreting it and making it their own.

I feel like it's also partly the internet.

Yeah, I mean so much is accessible now. I lived at a time when there was no computers, no phones and you had to find your style. You couldn't just look it up online. You just couldn't go into Nordstrom and buy jeans that looked like they were 30 years old as people do these days. 

I feel that fashion in that way is fake to me, all that distressed stuff and the stuff that looks used. That kind of bugs me, even though I'm wearing faded jeans right now that I bought at the store. Back then you had to hunt for it in the thrift stores and find the right thing and you put it together in a way that was totally new and different, and when you were walking down the street you could tell if there was someone from your tribe. It was very obvious. Nowadays we all kind of mesh and look like each other.

How did you start working with Sofia Coppola?

I met Sofia socially. We were all in that music video world. I knew [Coppola's ex] Spike [Jonze] from that world. She was actually going out with another director that I knew and we met around that world, and then I remember a gang of us started going out to Musso and Frank's for dinner every few months. One night we were at dinner and she said, "Oh my god, Nancy, we just watched that movie 'Safe' and I didn't realize you did that and I love that movie and I'm going to do a movie and would you come to Canada and do 'Virgin Suicides' with me?" And I said yes.

People are obsessed with the '70s costumes in that, especially in fashion. Where did you start?

I knew it like the back of my hand. I had grown up in the '70s, that was totally familiar to me and I just knew it. I'm not going to say it was an easy job at all, but as far as the styling went I knew, and also with Sofia's vision — she's got a really great sense of style and we just worked together really well. It was a great, great collaboration.

The Lisbon Sisters on set for "The Virgin Suicides." Photo: Courtesy of Nancy Steiner

The Lisbon Sisters on set for "The Virgin Suicides." Photo: Courtesy of Nancy Steiner

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What is she like to work with? She's so stylish, obviously, and has an interest in clothing.

Yeah, well, of course she was already doing Milk Fed, her clothing line, and she knows exactly what she wants. This was her first film, so there's a dialogue that you have to find, kind of the way you work together. We looked at images of course, you do research and you get images together, and we'd talk about the vibe of the girls and how we wanted them to feel and kind of just went from there.

I started prepping it in Los Angeles and then went to Toronto. There was some thrifting that I did there, vintage shopping, but there were details that I couldn't find in Toronto and so I would call back to L.A. and ask a friend to go to the costume house and rent me '70s belts or puffer jackets or little things I couldn't find up there. You just pull it together from all over the place when you're doing vintage, when you're doing period stuff.

In fashion, people tend to describe the "Virgin Suicides" aesthetic as "dreamy." What were you aiming for in terms of the vibe?

I don't remember the exact words we used. We wanted each girl to have their own character and have their own style, so we talked about that Lux was obviously the sexiest one and we tried to separate them a little bit in the way they dressed. 

I think we just wanted them to feel vulnerable in this way... and the palette was softer, and being true to the period as well and that time, where you could only get stuff that was local. Her mom was very frugal, so there was hand-me-downs I thought about and, for instance, the girls' prom dresses, I made those with the thought that her mom bought a single pattern at the fabric store and made those four dresses out of the same pattern.

For Trip, I designed that burgundy velvet suit. We made that so that he could stand out from the other boys because he was just so hot.

Original sketch of Trip's costume for "The Virgin Suicides." Photo: Courtesy of Nancy Steiner

Original sketch of Trip's costume for "The Virgin Suicides." Photo: Courtesy of Nancy Steiner

Were you surprised that the film's aesthetic became so iconic and inspirational?

I never thought of it that way when we were making it all. I don't ever think I'm making a statement, really; it's just serving the story. I never thought it would be so popular, and "Lost in Translation," the same thing. That was kind of a phenomenon too. 

Could you tell me a little bit about the process for "Lost in Translation," especially in terms of dressing Scarlett [Johansson]?

For that, it was very much in line with Sofia and the way she dressed at that time. And actually, Sofia's pretty classic and kind of not showy, but always beautiful and we wanted Scarlett to feel like that, too, like she was effortless.

We were trying to get as much as we could free, actually, because the budget was so low, so a lot of my time was spent trying to get people to give us product placement. And then it was just reaching out to these different designers that [Sofia and I] had relationships with. A.P.C. helped us. Agnes B. helped us. We got a few pieces from the Milk Fed line, and just mixing it up, making it into this simple, sophisticated, young woman.

Scarlett, at the time, dressed nothing like that. She was much more trendy and she was young — she was 18 years old. She hadn't come into her own yet.

Did she not get it as much?

It didn't seem like she did. I love Scarlett. Don't get me wrong. I think she's great and she was great to be around, but I think it was kind of plain for her.

Would you say that Sofia was more involved in dressing that character because, as you mentioned, it was a little bit inspired by her?

I think Sofia on both films was very involved in choosing the costumes. That is something she loves. She knows what she wants. She told me that at one point she had wanted to costume design "Virgin Suicides" herself, but she realized it's too big of a job.

Nancy Steiner. Photo: Katrina Dickson

Nancy Steiner. Photo: Katrina Dickson

I don't know how much you can talk about "Twin Peaks," but I'd love to know how that came about, and what direction you were given going in.

I can tell you that it was a really great experience. I felt very flattered to be chosen to do the job. David Lynch had worked for many years, mostly, with a designer named Patricia Norris, and she's the person who did the pilot "Twin Peaks" with David. She had passed away not too long before we were going to start shooting. I would imagine she would have done the job if I hadn't. I got called because David's producer, Sabrina Sutherland, and I had worked together on a film called "Million Dollar Hotel" in the late '90s, and she remembered me; she, in the last seven or eight years, has been working strictly with David as his producing partner.

She brought me up to David and I got a call from her saying, basically, "If you want the job, it's yours... but you have to commit for the full project," which was 10 months, which was a long time. I haven't done a lot of TV and TV's quite different from film in the way they shoot.

We had over 200 cast members — that's speaking parts — which is quite a lot. I felt like it didn't stop pretty much for 10 months. It was a great experience. I worked with a ton of amazing, different actors. We weren't allowed to even talk about that until the day after we wrapped. I would be doing fittings with someone and they'd come in and say, "Who's playing my wife?" and [I'd say,] "I can't tell you, you're going to find out on the day." That's just how it goes. It was the most top-secret job I've ever worked on, I'll say that.

In terms of what David was like to work with, did he have a very specific idea of what the clothes would be?

Sometimes he did and sometimes he didn't. Sometimes I had to do people over — he would give me a direction and then maybe change his mind, but you can't really ever know what's in David Lynch's head.... I feel very, very responsible to the fans of "Twin Peaks."

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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