'Rent' Costume Designer on Revamping Outfits for TV and '90s Fashion Resurgence

Kevin Estrada/FOX
From left to right: Jordan Fisher as Mark Cohen, Valentina as Angel Dumott Schunard, Brandon Victor Dixon as Tom Collins and Brennin Hunt as Roger Davis.

Angela Wendt, who worked on the original Broadway production, opens up about how it felt to revisit the hit musical for Fox's live staging and how she challenged herself to "not just put ourselves into a corner where we can't use certain things anymore because we have to reinvent."

When Rent opened on Broadway in 1996, Angela Wendt had to design 68 costumes for its 15 main characters, all starving artists in New York's East Village in the early '90s. But for Fox's Rent Live, for which she, original director Michael Greif and a few other longtime members of the Rent family translated the late Jonathan Larson's musical into an immersive TV experience, there were 240 looks to prepare between November, when production began in earnest, and late January, when the show was set to air.

While an accident forced Fox to air the dress rehearsal footage instead of the live performance, Wendt's work was still on full display on the 30 castmembers — 14 dancers, eight ensemble members and eight principals. She spoke to THR about her process in January, just days before the airdate.

The '90s are back. Has it been strange to see that in fashion right now, especially as you're trying to outfit 30 people for that time period?

We've kept joking that the costume gods have been with us, because so many things are just back and out there — from big JNCO jeans to patchwork-y things, to suede, to platforms. All of that clubby wear. It's introducing a new generation to [the show], and they relate to the fashion because it is contemporary right now.

How do you update the looks of the characters while remaining period-appropriate and keeping the ties to the original costumes?

We collected photos of all the incarnations of Rent we've done so far, and had marathon meetings with [director] Michael [Greif] to also see what are we still attached to — to not just put ourselves into a corner where we can't use certain things anymore because we have to reinvent.

What did you change for Angel once you were working with RuPaul's Drag Race star Valentina, who played the character onscreen?

I've had many moments where I wasn't sure: Am I doing this right or wrong? How glam do I go? In the end, there were a lot of fabulous drag outfits at the time. Who knows how they got them and how they put it together and where it came from. "Pussy Galore" always was the homemade shower curtain coat, and now we made it something new and homemade. There's a bubble wrap shrug. There are CDs — big, honking CD earrings.

What other costumes did you keep?

Roger and Mimi — I kept staying close to what it was originally. It just works. We had the fabric printed for Roger's pants on stretch, because in '95 pants did not have stretch, so that is super helpful in terms of the fit. And I have a hard time imagining Mimi without giraffe boots. A bit of an old-school flavor is totally welcome now. The other thing is that we've also upcycled a lot of items. I had access to stock. I'm all about that anyway with contemporary costumes — if you can do it, don't buy new or start from scratch.

What has it been like to revisit Rent at different times in your career?

The big difference between now and then is it was a great time, but it was such a heavy time. Any time we had a big success or won awards — it was so incredibly tragic what happened [Larson died suddenly the night before Rent's first off-Broadway preview performance]. And now, 23 years later, there is much more lightness to it, and distance.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.