Costume designer Sarah Laux came from the world of Broadway musicals to take on the street vibe of Hulu’s High Fidelity. The Hulu reboot cast Zoe Kravitz in the role John Cusack made famous on film. High Fidelity is Sarah’s first experience doing costume design on television. We discuss that transition from stage to TV, as well as the challenge of maintaining the authenticity of the show’s scrappy NYC characters while also giving them a distinctive style that fit each cast member.
As a person who ran a record store in the ’90s, I can say Sarah and her crew got the vibe more than just a little right.
Awards Daily: How did you come to the project?
Sarah Laux: Colleen Atwood, who is the visual consultant for the series, is an old friend and mentor of mine. I’ve done a lot of theater design and I’ve found more and more that my obsession with real clothing and the accessorizing was leading me toward wanting to do more film and TV. So, I emailed Colleen maybe the second week of March last year to say I was interested in pursuing more TV and film, and if she knew of anything on the East Coast that I could help her with. Ten days later I got an email from her saying I think I have something, and I called her back. She said have you heard of the film and the book High Fidelity, and I said yes. She said this is what we’re going to do. We’re going to do the pilot together so that I can get you up to speed and then you’re going to do the series. How does that sound? And I said, ‘That sounds perfect!’
I felt like I was a really excellent choice for it because I have a pretty intense music obsession and I really enjoyed the film and the book. I’ve been collecting old rock T-shirts since probably 1994 or so. I think I’m the right age bracket as well, because I’m 43 and I remember the film coming out. The way that we styled the show it’s sort of like a ’90s revival with a little ’70s and a little ’60s mixed in. I’ve already seen all of this, and so getting a chance to update it into something contemporary was really exciting.
AD: You mentioned that you came from the theater where you did costume design for Spongebob and Shrek. How did that experience impact your work on the show?
SL: I think there was some benefit to having experience in dealing with a lot of things happening at once. Shooting a TV show is a very different thing than doing a play or a musical. With a play or musical you can keep working on it throughout the preview process. Even during test you start at the beginning and you go to the end. There’s like a clear arc that you can get, whereas when you’re doing episodic television, sometimes you’re shooting episode seven before you’re shooting episode three–just based on availability or whatever. You have to keep all of that (continuity) in your head. I was excited to find that all of that training that I’d had doing big musicals really helps me keep all those plates in the air, and to be able to juggle all of that while learning a new vocabulary.
The theatrical experience is good as well because I’ve learned through the years how to work with a lighting designers, and set designers, and a sound designers, and so on. So, I’m able to be part of the group as opposed to saying that only my section matters. Because frankly, I think one of the biggest things is to remove your own personal ego out of it as much as you can. My personal aesthetic obviously is there but I’m going to a collaborator. I think having experience with certain lighting designers that will blast you with heavily color light onto the costumes was helpful. When we would have club scenes in High Fidelity, I knew that we were going to have that sort of more intensely colored lighting. So, then I amplified the costumes and the clothes a little bit so that they could stand up to the lighting, but not be completely running the room. Also because theater never really has any money that has given me sort of a scrappier aesthetic.
AD: I would imagine having a scrappier aesthetic would be helpful in costuming the characters on High Fidelity.
SL: Definitely. One of the goals that we have is that it never look like all of these beautiful shows that sort of celebrate New York City and celebrate clothing– like Sex and the City, or Girls. We didn’t want High Fidelity to look like that. We wanted to keep it as gritty as possible. If we made an outfit that was really awesome, something in my gut would tell me, it looks like an outfit–it looks like a “costume.” Which means we need to fuck it up a little bit–it needs to be more demented. Because people’s real clothes–especially in New York City–celebrate the weird. We celebrate not traditionally beautiful things.
AD: Having been someone who ran a record store while I was putting myself through college, the style of the people you work with, the band t-shirts they choose to wear say something about their character, and they are aware of that. The character of Simon is very much that way.
SL: Absolutely. I worked a lot with David Holmes on the character of Simon. Simon wears a lot of band t-shirts. It’s his thing and it’s also part of his arc that he sort of moves out of them as he starts to develop an interesting relationship. But it had to be music that I believed and that the actor believed that character would listen to. Putting something like that on someone while you’re watching them talk, you shouldn’t be asking “Why are they wearing that shirt?” You should almost be able to forget about it.
AD: I think Simon is great example of finding that line between hip and too hipster. Simon has to be on the verge of being too hipster without quite going over. But he has this integrity about what he would wear. Can you talk more about dressing that character?
SL: One of the things that was really amazing in the casting with this show is all of our actors, and especially in our principal cast, brought a lot to the table personally. David Holmes himself has a very cool style that’s kind of all of his own. He personally wears his pants cropped to that weird length and a little bit tapered. What’s funny is that when you put him in “regular” jeans it kind of takes away his power. I feel like there’s a really fine line there with working with the actor and what they bring to the table to incorporate into my vibe and aesthetic, so that it still feels like a real person, and it’s not the clothes wearing the person. There’s that one episode where he’s wearing that hideous pill shirt. (Laughs). That was a definite decision to put him in something that when I found that shirt, I thought, ‘Oh my God I don’t know.’ (Laughs).
Everything that he wears is distressed. Even if I had to buy a new t-shirt–which I tried not to–I would distress it and break it down really intensely before it ever went on his body, so that it would look like It had come from a pile on the floor. We really worked together. Like David Holmes wears suspenders with t-shirts in real life. So, I was like I’m going to bite this style from you and we’re going to incorporate it in so that everything just feels legit. The actors are complicit and are participating as well.
AD: With Zoe’s personal style and background in music through her dad, she seemed like the perfect choice for the role from the jump. Can you talk about what she brought to the show?
SL: I almost can’t say enough wonderful things about Zoe. She’s a great collaborator and she’s hyper-smart and has a really good head on her shoulders. She has a good collection of true vintage rock t-shirts that she just brought in. Our vibe with her was a throwback to Courtney Love, Patti Smith, and Winona Ryder from the ’90s–sort of tomboy chic–where it’s sexy because of the person that’s wearing it. We dressed her like a little old man a lot of the time too. It was just finding a few key pieces. We knew that we wanted to have the leather jacket as an homage to the film. Almost everything in Rob’s wardrobe is either thrifted and heavily distressed, over-dyed, altered, or custom-made.
There’s a few high-end pieces that were not messed with, but for the most part when people ask me if they can get their hands on her clothes I’m like I just did it. (Laughs). Or, it came from her closet. Everybody talks about her boots which we had copied from a pair of boots that Zoe herself owned that are not obtainable any longer. We had them made and I still to this day wish that I’d had a pair made for myself because we’re the same size and I lust after those boots. We don’t show too much skin because she’s tough, and she’s running a record store, and we need to feel like she’s been in New York City for a really long time. We need to feel like she’s been thrifting for a really long time, and has this aesthetic that isn’t necessarily going to be the thing that everybody else is going to want. And also because she’s so slim. we were really playing with the oversized aspect of her clothing. I had a good time with that just because when it’s time to show off her beautiful self, we do, but I really enjoyed this sort of aggressive casual mess of where we went with her style.
AD: It’s almost like armor.
SL: Absolutely. The second episode, when she’s in those gray pants with the stripes and Cherise says, “You know that’s not an outside sweater, right? It was definitely a way for her to hide. When we do the flashbacks, there’s more of her exposed, and she’s wearing more color, because she’s in the bloom of love. For the most of the series we see her recovering from this thing and then having it all get dredged back up again. It’s like she’s not looking to dress to catch people’s attention. Most of the time she goes to bed drunk and rolls out of bed and goes to work. It’s not about her trying to catch the next dude.
AD: Da’Vine Joy Randolph was just coming off of the Eddie Murphy-Dolemite movie which had all these elaborate costumes. She has a different, but very definite sense of style in High Fidelity too.
SL: I have a real love for dressing body types that are not your standard size zero. It’s pretty easy to make somebody that’s a size two or a size zero look good. But I love dressing a fuller figure, and Da’Vine has a fantastic figure. I’ve lived in New York City for almost 22 years and it had to look like we were doing the show in the neighborhood that we were setting this in. Those ladies in Crown Heights, they show their figures. Also, throwing back to young Aretha Franklin, Queen Latifah from the ’90s–like the Living Single era-were touchstones for me.
We put her in men’s stuff sometimes, because she’s got beautiful broad shoulders, and she can take the scale of a men’s track jacket, for example. Then I would just fit it down so that we could really showcase her figure. One of the things that was super helpful for me was that we made the decision early on that her hairstyle and her nails would change every episode. Hair and I would would work really close together. I think she looks really beautiful in the box braids. We pushed that mid-90s stuff forward, but we also let her character have this really good arc. The way she looks at the beginning and the ways she looks at the end of the season is pretty different. She’s getting stronger and coming into her own. I wanted to make sure that we were referencing a lot of different musical resources as well. She has the flier that she puts up in the record store of what she’s looking for and all of her inspirations–it runs the gamut, as it should for someone like her who is so knowledgeable.
AD: I also wanted to ask you about dressing Parker Posey, who is nothing like anyone else in the series in terms of character and style.
SL: Parker is really fun. I had a good time working with her. She’s extraordinarily collaborative. Even when she’s just reading before she comes on set, she’s thinking about her costume because she’s such a grounded actor. She and I spoke a lot of times on the phone. I was fortunate that she was cast pretty well in advance of her episode, which doesn’t always happen. Sometimes you get a principal person maybe a day before they’re on set. So, you have to make sure that you’ve got a lot of stuff and that it all fits well. She and I had talked back and forth and just figuring out like what that lady would do, what she would wear–it was really important to both of us that she felt very high money, but also still a little bohemian. That’s why we went with that jumpsuit. We also wanted to have something that was like a smock. That’s what she’s wearing when we first see her when she’s got the paper mâché all over her hands.
That’s something Parker and I came up with together. That way we could have a big reveal that she’s truly an artist who is making these things. So, despite the way the character comes across is a little bit out there, she is also an artist who is suffering because her husband has taken up with this young woman. We wanted to make sure that we established that she’s truly a working artist. I had gotten a bunch of vintage stuff–sort of like weird old hospital gowns and stuff like that–and I bought a a drop-cloth from a vintage store that was covered in paint and made that smock for her. It’s not only like a sort of a couture piece, but it’s also seems legit, because it’s made of something that’s already old. Then when we reveal her beautiful self and this weird jumpsuit with little distressed white tennis shoes. She’s the perfect combination of all of those things that we were going for.
AD: You are still waiting on word for renewal. I assume you are hopeful and excited about the prospect of a second season.
SL: I’m super hopeful for season two. I had a really wonderful experience working on the show, and I love the cast and all the people that I was working with on it. I would be over the moon to get a chance to continue pushing all of these characters forward. Zoe and I have a file of future Rob clothes. We’ll be scrolling around like you do, and I’ll get a text from her and she’s like, “Future Rob”? We call it our Rocky training because we don’t even know what’s happening. But we have to stay in that headspace, because when and if it does happen, it’s going to happen quick and we’ve gotta get our shit together. Which means we’re running the stairs a la Rocky. I would be ecstatic if we got a season two.