Welcome to Emmy Contenders 2019. This month, SYFY WIRE is speaking to a long list of actors, artists, and artisans whose work earned them Emmy nominations this year. Today we speak with costume designer Jenn Rogien, nominated for her work on Netflix's Russian Doll.
The characters in Russian Doll — including the show's protagonist, video game designer Nadia Vulvokov — have become surprise style icons. This is a tribute to costume designer Jenn Rogien, who previously worked with the show star and co-creator, Natasha Lyonne, on Orange Is the New Black. Rogien says she used a mix of high and low fashion (H&M and Forever 21 for some pieces, Rachel Roy and John Varvatos for others) to create distinctive looks that would hold under the wear and tear of Nadia's endlessly relived days.
Rogien chatted with SYFY WIRE about some of her most unusual costume choices, the subconscious color palette, and the nearly criminal accessory at the heart of the show.
Production designer Michael Bricker told us that he helped come up with a concept of the world mapped out like a Russian Doll, with concentric circles. The further away Nadia goes, the more she's off track, the less saturated colors become, the more things disappear. And this apparently helped inform how you approached costumes?
Yes, yes. Russian Doll is one of the shows I've had the most cross-collaboration across departments, because everything is so repetitive, and in the repetitiveness, there's that development of degradation in moving away from home, or the center. As you get away from the center, from the area that Nadia is safe in, or feels safe in, things start to fall apart.
So we had a lot of conversations at the beginning about color, mood, and tone, to make sure the costumes were in the same world as the production design and the lighting, how they were going to shoot it and frame it, making sure that all of these things worked together. Blue is a real baseline in human experience. Our sky is blue. Water is blue. It's a calming color. It's a comfortable color. And if you try to minimize blue, it helps support the feeling that Nadia is out of sorts, off-balance, and uncomfortable. So from a costume perspective, that's what we were trying to achieve by limiting blue and green, extracting that color from the wardrobe, which is actually logistically very challenging!
But then we also exploited our own rule with Maxine, who isn't following any of the rules. She's throwing a party for someone else, but she's also the center of attention, and one way to do that is by breaking our own color rule. She's not wearing a hit-you-in-the-face green, but if you think about it, it becomes sort of glaring that Maxine is in this color that isn't anywhere else in the show. There's some amazing lighting when we see Wardog and Dr. Daniel manufacturing ketamine, and the doctor's shirt in that scene is actually an amazing tropical print floral that you don't even see. The lighting is so eerie and so strong, all the colors went flat in his costume.
Did excluding blue and green from most of the costumes help make the blue in the bathroom door seem more otherworldly?
Ooh, that's a beautiful question. That could have been part of it. [Laughs.] I will say that Maxine wasn't completely plotted to be in a color that was excluded everywhere else. We tried a range of things on her, and the sea-foam green ended up being our favorite, based on the silhouette, the layers of all the jewelry, and the quirkiness of that look. We definitely had some non-blue/green options in there, but I think we may have succumbed to our own subconscious exclusion of the blue. And it really did telegraph so much about Maxine the very first time you see her on-screen. I do think the color was really a strong part of that.
You shopped for the outfits quite a while back. Are any of them still available, should anyone want to recreate a character's look?
Funny you should ask! I found Nadia's Helmut Lang coat at Saks Off 5th last week, and I was about to put an Instagram shot of it up when I thought, "That's just mean," because there's only one left hanging on a clearance rack here in New York. I mentioned this to a designer friend of mine, and she was there the next day to buy it. [Laughs.]
So for the most part, I think most everything is gone. Lizzy's look is one that could be recreated because it was originally sourced from eBay, vintage stores, thrift stores, and it's a pair of Levi's white overalls, so there are a lot of close approximates in the world.
With Nadia, there are things in the world that look similar to the pussy-bow blouse, with the black sheer sleeves. I have not been able to find those jeans again. It's actually not a suit, ironically enough. It's a black H&M blazer on a really high-waisted pair of Gap jeans that had three exposed buttons on a really wide waistband, which we then tailored to the exact shape we wanted. I haven't seen anything like them since we bought them last spring.
Perhaps the lingerie look would also be easy to replicate.
The big secret there is that it's an amazing brand that Natasha actually introduced me to called Lonely. It's got an amazing fit and amazing styling. And we ended up adding an elastic harness over the top of it, to add the criss-cross around the neck because we wanted the idea of a cage bra. It's one more layer, a sort of defense mechanism. She's got so many layers on that even when you strip her down to her lingerie, she's still got something complicated to get through. It's really interesting to look at, and it works well for the character.
One of the things I really appreciated is that Nadia doesn't use a handbag. Her clothing has plenty of pockets, which remains a big wish-list or fantasy item for a lot of women.
Yes! I will say, with the community of friends that I have, any time we find a dress with pockets, it's a real win. With all the devices we use, it's shocking to me that women's clothing hasn't adapted to carry more items.
Menswear has. And that inside pocket is a lifesaver. I do carry a bag, but the days that I don't have to, I'm so happy. When you're on the train, the bag takes [up] extra space, so there's something liberating about being more streamlined.
You apparently wanted Nadia to wear an actual coin for her pendant passed down from her mother. At what point in the process did it dawn on you that it would be a crime to counterfeit a real coin, even for wardrobe purposes?
[Laughs.] Well, it should have occurred to me right away that reproducing real money is a felony! I know that. We all know that. Growing up, you want to recreate money and your parents are like, "No, you can't just Xerox a dollar bill." But the coin in question was originally inspired by a Krugerrand, which is a South African coin made of real gold.
We started doing research thinking we might be able to get our hands on a real one. It turned out that wasn't possible, both because of availability and cost. But because it was going to be featured so heavily on the show, and we needed it to be something like a coin, I reached out to a jeweler in New York, Donna Sackowitz, with the specifications, as well as for the kind of chain and the kind of bezel, and she came back to me and was like, "I can't duplicate a real coin. That's illegal."
And so then we had to try to figure out what we could use that would visually fit the idea of a Krugerrand, still look like a coin and have two sides to it, and Donna suggested that we use an ancient Roman coin that we could rework, damage, and make our own. That way, it's not actually money or currency!
We need to talk about cutting board couture…
That was really fun. They were still writing Episode 5 when we were doing the costume fittings, but they hinted that something was going to be coming up in that episode. The idea was that both Nadia and Alan armor themselves when they got out into the world, once they've connected some of the dots, and they said it basically needs to be things that might exist in Alan's apartment, although he might have stuff leftover in his apartment from high school, so we did everything from kitchen to sports gear.
But Natasha had to get in and out of it in different locations over different shooting days. And she had to be able to interact with people and have it not be prohibitive with the intimate character moments between Nadia and John, Nadia and Ruth. So we ended up paring it down to the minimal version for Natasha to play the role in, so you just get the sense that she's preparing herself for the outside world. And we rigged the cutting boards so that Natasha wouldn't have to get re-taped with duct tape every time she wore it. Ironically, my senior thesis in college was a duct tape dress, so I have a lot of experience with limited materials going way back! [Laughs]