‘Girls’ Costume Designer Jenn Rogien Spills About Lena Dunham and Brooklyn Shopping

Photo by JoJo Whilden/Courtesy of HBO

Jemima Kirke (Jessa), Lena Dunham (Hannah), and Zosia Mamet (Shoshanna)

Stop us if you've heard this one before: a group of four ambitious women aim to take New York City by proverbial storm, all while tackling career and relationships. Instead of thirtysomethings with disposable income, HBO's new series Girls features a younger set weaning themselves from parental financial support and navigating the tenuous time that is one's post-grad years. Don't expect any breathless adoration of Manolo Blahniks or cameos from Heidi Klum: this is no Sex and the City.

But there's just as much buzz: comedic mainstay Judd Apatow signed on as executive producer to 25-year-old multihyphenate Lena Dunham's project. She directed and wrote the pilot of the 10-episode season, which debuts April 15 and stars herself, Jemima Kirke, Allison Williams, and Zosia Mamet as the titular ladies.

Last week, we dialed up costume designer (and former Saks buyer), Jenn Rogien, in Sleepy Hollow, where she was on location for her other current project The Good Wife, to talk shop, literally: Rogien dished on where she shops for the characters, trying not to draw from her own experiences in costuming the cast, and why Girls isn’t like those other fashion-centric New York shows.

Welike so many others—are really excited about the show. Girls is garnering so much attention and chatter before the premiere. Have you ever been on anything so hotly-anticipated as this?

I assisted on Lipstick Jungle, and there was a lot of hype going on. But I think it's different being the firsthand assistant on a show like that. I have a Google alert keeping me tuned in, and it was amazing how much stuff was flying around the SXSW premiere. I'm so excited about it; I can't even tell you. It's awesome.

Your resumé is pretty diverse. How had your past experience translated to your present work?

My very first movie was Fur, designed by Mark Bridges who just won the Oscar for The Artist...He is such an incredible wealth of experience and knowledge so that whole film was like being in grad school for me. It was so exciting to watch him work, learn from him, see his process, see how he approaches these huge movies stars and how he works with them, how he approaches a period film...I also worked on Across the Universe, directed by Julie Taymor and designed by Albert Wolsky...who's just a legend in our field: he designed Grease. The movies that you loved in your childhood, he probably designed them. It was really incredible to work with someone who has so much experience in the business. His instincts are so finely tuned at this point, you learn a lot from working with someone like that because it's all about learning to trust your eye, trust your instinct. You have to learn that as a young designer so I was very fortunate to get both of those jobs. From there I went on [to] Baby Mama and was on a short-lived but never-actually-filmed movie called Six Bullets...I got connected with the designer [Daniel Lawson] who did Lipstick Jungle, who does The Good Wife, and I’ve been working with him five or six years now.

How does designing for TV differ than creating looks for the movies?

TV's just a different business than film in terms of costume design and the pace of production. What you're doing in a 8-day schedule for The Good Wife—that's an hour, that's half of a movie you shoot in 8 days...there's something about every job that keeps it challenging and exciting and interesting every day that you come to work... HBO allows a lot more things on the screen than a lot of other networks do: "Wait—you can't show them having sex. Oh wait, it's HBO." In Girls, it's always in context in way that's makes it interesting to figure out a way that you can support that. It's not necessarily racy sex, and it's not necessarily sexy sex, so you want to find a wardrobe in some way that's going to support the awkwardness, the sweetness of some of those things that happen because it is about young women finding themselves and finding out how to make their way through the world, which is really cool.

How did you get connected with the Girls production?

I've worked with HBO before. I worked on Bored to Death for the first two seasons, assisting the designer. On The Good Wife, which I assist on, one of the producers worked with the producers of Girls before and heard that they were looking for a designer and said, "I have the right person for you. You have to talk to her." She kind of brokered a meeting. I hope it was love at first sight all around. I definitely had the most gigantic girl crush on Lena from our very first fitting...They really wanted someone that got what they were trying to do: that they weren't trying to do a fashion show, they were not trying to redo Sex and the City, they were not trying to do Gossip Girl. The show wasn't about clothes. It's about the girls, and they really wanted someone who could get on board with that and really get that they were trying to do these kind of crazy girls who aren't necessarily all that put together. They wanted someone who would be able to translate that in a way that would aesthetically make sense and that would really support the comedy of the show... It's a little offbeat, that's probably the best word.

How do you go from Lipstick Jungle and The Good Wife, where clothes are so central to the show, to Girls, where the characters are well, at times slovenly post-grads?

I will have to admit it took me a week of shaking off The Good Wife...where everyone is incredibly dressed, and the accessories are perfect, and the shoes are expensive, and it's a really high-end show. It took me a week to sort of decompress and wrap my head around the scripts and the comedy and the actors. It's a totally different cast- they are young and they have so much energy and so many ideas and really interesting characters. Lena really wanted it so they are not stock characters, that they are real girls that you identify with, you recognize some of the situations you find themselves in and that they create for themselves. And hopefully as a costume designer, the fun part and the challenge is that [the shows] are different from a fashion show, and it is different from Lipstick Jungle: you don't want everything perfectly curated. It's actually just as hard to do messy as it is to do perfect.

What situations and characters have you enjoyed dressing the most so far?

I have to say, I really loved working with Lena to sort of find and create the character, Hannah... Lena and I actually had 3 fittings which is very unusual for a modern, fresh show. Of course she's really busy—the producer, the star, and the director—so we sort of caught her time as it was available…That was a really fun process because she is in so much of the show and she has a lot more wardrobe than the other ladies. It was really exciting to explore all those different areas where we find her—whether it's a job interview, a gynecologist's office, in bed having sex. Her character does so much on the show that it was really fun to try and find what would work for all those different experiences, and it gives you an identity visually that you would recognize from episode to episode because we didn't want her to be completely scattered. We didn't want to completely take that notion of her scattered personality and directly reflect that in her wardrobe because we didn't want her to be unrecognizable from episode to episode.

Allison Williams
Photo by JoJo Whilden/Courtesy of HBO
Allison Williams (Marnie)

How much inspiration did you take from your own 20s?

I certainly read the scripts and identified with so much of what I was reading because I moved to New York like these girls did right out of college and lived in a technically 2-bedroom apartment with 4 girls so we divided it up ourselves. We got furniture from where we could get it, we definitely made out with the wrong guys from time to time, we made some mistakes at work, so yeah, it hit really close to home. I tried not to rely too much on personal experience to dress the ladies because I really wanted to support what Lena was doing and take my cues from her and from the script and from the actors. In my perspective, it turns out better to support all of those things and to draw less from personal experience.

The characters are in the beginning of their careers and don't have much money. How do you translate the budget-conscious looks to the small screen?

We actually talked a lot about that specifically with Marnie (Allison Williams) because she's the one who sort of has this fancy job. We wanted her to look appropriate for the job, but we didn't want to go to Bergdorf’s and buy her a Dior suit because it didn't make sense for the character. That's where we really relied on character and the actors to sort of feel it out as we were doing our fittings and see "You know this is a great piece but it's way outside of what Marnie would be able to afford. Can we find it Loehmann's? Can we find something similar from Lord & Taylor?" We sort of skewed our shopping in that direction. “Is this realistic for the job that Marnie has? Is this realistic for Hannah, given that she doesn't have a job?” There were a lot of times when we would come to the conclusion that “Well, maybe her parents were helping her out when she was first trying to get a job.” Marnie's mom probably took her shopping when Marnie moved to the city and got this job because a lot of girls' moms do. so we really tried to be as true to the spirit of characters as we could be in our shopping. If it seems right to go to Saks Fifth Avenue for some of the more special pieces, then that's where we would go. If it seems more right to go to Atlantic Attic out in Williamsburg, we absolutely went out there. We were probably at Atlantic Attic and Beacon's Closet for every episode because it's the right stuff, that's where those girls would go. You’ve already dressed so many types of characters.

Would you ever consider branching outside of designing for TV and movies to ever create your own line?

I think my strengths are responding to characters and to stories. I really love telling stories through the clothing and supporting what the other team of creative people like actors, writers, and directors, are doing...I think I’m a little less strong in when I’m trying to find inspiration, distill it, and translate it to a runway show. I have so much respect for fashion designers who do that! I think it's incredible that they are able to come up with not just 2, but 4 and 6 seasons a year of completely fresh, completely new, completely novel collections. I don't know that that would be my strong point...I do love going to a good fashion show though; there's nothing like it.