Jennifer Rogien discusses giving Natasha Lyonne the New York edge for Russian Doll
Costume designer Jennifer Rogien is in LA discussing the stacked jewelry look New York women carry off. It’s an interesting observation. In the hit show Russian Doll, Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) is trapped on her 36th birthday in a mortality loop. Dying every time.
How does costume designer tackle that wardrobe challenge? Rogien talks about why black was the perfect color, explaining the layers of armor that Nadia wears, and her signature look.
Russian Doll. Repeated wardrobes. New York. Where do you begin with this show?
I begin with an Excel spreadsheet quite frankly. The logic of the show is one of the big puzzle pieces. So, breaking it down and realizing that Nadia is only going to have four looks in the entire season and Maxine – surprise has two. It was taking the scripts and breaking them apart so that I could figure out exactly how many looks we were up against.
In Nadia’s case, how many multiples we were going to need and what that looks like and then matching it up with the characters. There’s so much information about the characters in the dialogue and in the scripts. Natasha and Leslye, as the series creators were with us every step of the way because they were also directors. Natasha was also producing and starring in it so I had that crazy level of information available to me at all times. I was also talking to our DP about the luxury of the prep time that we had as creative department heads. I hadn’t been on a show where we had so many meetings with the director of photography, the costume designer, the creator of the show and the production designer. We’d have meetings so we could figure out how to solve this puzzle. When things kept repeating themselves over and over again, what did that look like? When we see one outfit for Nadia, I had to look out for the sofas that she was sitting on. I had to look at what Maxine’s loft looked like. Michael Bricker started on that long before I started on Maxine’s clothes. I looked at what colors everyone was using and how we framed it so it’s a complete world. It was really gratifying.
When we first see her, she’s wearing black, from head to toe.
She’s wearing her armor.
How was that going to be her look? It’s such a New York look, but you also have her jewelry with rings and the chain.
There are a lot of pieces. A lot of that was done to keep the look very character driven. She’s got her guard up at all times. She’s a New Yorker. She has distilled her look to a uniform and it works for her and allows her to move through the city, her life and through events without changing her clothes a million times. She’s not a fashion-conscious character. She isn’t a fussy character. That’s where the tailoring and structuring start to come into play. That shoulder really specifically gives you an idea of who she is right away. There are literal layers to her look – she has a coat, a blazer and a blouse. There’s this bra. There are stockings underneath her jeans. It’s a lot of things to get through to get to Nadia both physically and metaphorically. Natasha, early on said it’s Joe Pesci meets Marisa Tomei. I translated that to vintage mobster meets 70s rock chick and gave it a very cool New York edge. I wanted her look to be a part of a universe that we were creating for our characters.
What about the coats that she wears?
She wears multiple coats. She has the hero piece by Helmut Lang. She wears that for the bulk of the season. A few times when she makes it to day two, she wears this beautiful black cashmere Polo Ralph Lauren coat. It’s almost a superhero coat. She has made it through and she’s going to work. At one point, she steals John’s coat and she’s wearing this gorgeous Navy wool plaid coat. There are a lot of coats in this season.
Part of that is because we were shooting in New York in April. It might be a beautiful Spring day during the day, but when you’re shooting at night outside, it’s most likely going to be 35 degrees and so there is that element of realism in that alone. We were shooting in New York and that’s something every New Yorker has to have in their wardrobes – a great coat because people don’t drive. We walk the streets and we go on the trains.
What about when she’s going to work and wearing the red? What’s the meaning in that color?
A little bit of that is optimism in that she has made it through the night and to the next day. A little bit of that is a visual signifier that it’s a different day. It’s a very quick and specific indicator that it’s no longer the day of her birthday party and she has made it through to another day. She’s also going to work. She works with a bunch of guys and she works in a tech office. How do you make a choice that is anti all those things- working in a startup, in a tech office, wearing hoodies and t-shirts? That’s not Nadia and not who she is. She’s still in her uniform, but her blouse has a different color.
Alan is introduced. How does his look compare to Nadia?
It comes from the same starting place. It’s really intensely about his character. We find out early on that he is a little OCD. He likes things a specific way. He’s figured out this looping thing and he’s embracing it and is using it to his advantage. He’s not worried about fixing it until he meets Nadia. All of that spoke to someone who has control over their life. All his things can be buttoned up or zipped up. He’s very pressed. He’s very layered. The layering is an effort to keep the costumes interesting over eight episodes.
You see it all fall apart when he goes to the party and wears this garish plaid shirt that’s yellow and out of left field. You see this very strait-laced guy wearing chinos and sneakers and a million functional layers. When he breaks his own mold, it dissolves.
How much fun was it to work with Chloe and her character?
Her character is Nadia’s mom. That in itself is an amazing challenge because we’re only seeing Nadia’s mom through the lens of Nadia. It’s a flashback that she is retelling and what does that look like? Chloe is an amazing actor and so that was insanely exciting because we were both coming at it from a character standpoint. What does 80s New York translate to when you’re dealing with a character that has mental health issues that had an effect on her loved ones and her daughter? What does young Nadia look like? How do you not make it look like an 80s flashback? How do you make it feel like characters that Nadia is remembering? It was a very cool thing to do. It was insanely comforting for me to do having worked with Natasha in that context. A flashback was really comforting to do. We ordered some amazing vintage things from eBay.
What about the jewelry? It’s such a New York thing, the stacked. Everyone I know stacks, the chains.
That’s so interesting. There’s a ton of jewelry on the show. Everyone has jewelry. Lizzie has it. Maxine has it. Charlie has no jewelry. He has his watch. Nadia has her stack. We created the pendant. You can not duplicate coins and I ended up working with a jeweler in New York who created a messed up coin so that it’s not currency. We set it in something to embezzle it. We sourced the chain so that it’s the right length for Natasha so you can see it in most frames but not see it all the time necessary. She has multiple rings. One of the watches shes wearing is a vintage timepiece and one is an Apple watch that sums up the time period. She has these snake earrings made of onyx that you almost never see, but Onyx has this significance and it was an effort to give characters their signatures.
Maxine has one thing too many because that’s her.
How many costumes did you have for Nadia’s look, in multiples?
We had 12. We didn’t have that in jewelry. I didn’t have Natasha’s stunt double wear the necklace as I didn’t want it to be an injury risk.
For the second look, we had 8. We had additional blazers and we made those into vests. We did tweaks where we could cheat the layers to make the fit more comfortable and less bulky where we could do that.