'Russian Doll' Costume Designer Talks Finding Nadia's Perfect Coat

Style - Russian Doll Still 1- Publicity-H 2019
Courtesy of Netflix

"It turns out Nadia is a tailored coat girl," says Jennifer Rogien of Natasha Lyonne's outfits, which include a Helmut Lang coat, Gap jeans, H&M top and Modern Vice boots.

After seven seasons on Orange is the New Black, costume designer Jennifer Rogien embarked on a new Netflix project with Orange actress Natasha Lyonne last year.

Lyonne began telling her about Russian Doll, a show in preproduction that she was co-creating with Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland. "She asked me if I would come along and do it. And obviously I couldn't say yes fast enough because of Natasha, but also because of the premise. It's sort of a trippy logic puzzle, which is right up my alley," Rogien told The Hollywood Reporter of the show, in which New Yorker Nadia (Lyonne) dies and relives the same day over and over (it was renewed for season two on June 11).

Since the entire season takes place over two story days, Rogien only had a couple looks in which to convey all the character information about this tough-as-nails redhead living in a topsy-turvy, red-tinted world. It was a fresh challenge compared to Orange, in which many of the orange, tan and blue prison uniforms don’t even need to be tailored.

"It turns out Nadia is a tailored coat girl," Rogien said. Using the New York setting as inspiration during filming in spring 2018, Rogien dressed Nadia in boots, coats, a lighter keychain and a krugerrand coin necklace (made from a buffed Roman coin) that belonged to the character’s mother.

Here, Rogien breaks down that DIY cutting board armor costume, the goal of creating a Bushwick Brooklyn art party vibe, and why she removed blue and green from the costume color palette.

What were some of the early conversations or visions you had?

Natasha first described it to me that the character keeps dying. My first follow-up question was, 'How do you make a series out of that? How do you make a season with a character that dies in the first episode?’ Only later on did I come to realize that's a big premise buy-in for an audience.

From a costume standpoint, it was, ‘How do we make this world believable?’ This premise has got a lot in it and the audience needs to fall into it right away. So how does that look? What does Nadia wear? What does Maxine wear? How do we create this world that is accessible, but also compelling, interesting, cool, watchable and not boring. So that was a lot of fun to dive into that challenge from day one.

How did you ultimately decide to make that world real?

Well Natasha is amazing in terms of her visual vocabulary and her film knowledge. She would send me tons of references. At one point she texted me, 'Nadia is Joe Pesci in My Cousin Vinny meets Marisa Tomei.' I was like, 'OK, great, how do we translate that?' She's a New York woman. She's not in a car. She isn't a fashion chaser. She is wearing a uniform and that's sort of important to her character in that it's not fussy. She's not changing all the time. She doesn't even change to go to her own birthday party. She lives in the Lower East Side. She's lived there forever. She's sort of a real New York character. Throwback cool.

Then, practically, we were shooting on location, in New York, outside, at night, in April. So she's got to have a coat. And how does that become part of her character? We first went after puffy coats, something Natasha wears, something that I wear. It's insanely practical for shooting in New York at night but it just didn't land in our fitting. It was too soft, too collapsable. That's when the tailored coats came in and that shoulder structure immediately started to give us Nadia. Then adding in a blazer layer and a softer blouse underneath and complicated collars and they all added up to armor for her. There's a lot to get through before you get to Nadia. It turns out Nadia is a tailored coat girl.

How did New York influence costumes?

It's filmed in New York and a lot of our cast is from New York. So there is a bit of a shorthand when you say, 'Come dressed for an art party' to a huge group of background and you can give references like Barneys and [MoMa] PS1 openings and a Bushwick loft party, open studio event. Those references make sense because the background are coming from that world. Then you can give a color palette reference and give them stores and you really get an amazing starting point for backgrounds who are dressed for an intensely strange birthday party.

I live in New York, so I'm sort of able to absorb the look of New York on a daily basis. Whether it's taking the train and just looking at how people are dressing or chasing fashion week, looking at the street style slideshows, or putting that all aside and thinking, 'Nadia works at a startup. She's not chasing fashion. She doesn't care about fashion week. She is wearing things that really work for her. What does that mean for the New York woman that I know, that I work with? How do they dress?'

How do they dress? What did you observe?

From what I have observed, New York women are all about the coats and handbags and shoes. And so the coat was a really integral part of Nadia's look both practically, but also from a character standpoint. The shoes, because New Yorkers walk a lot. We see her doing that, so we wanted it to be a practical and find a little bit of a rock-'n'-roll boot that really suited the character. Don't get me wrong, there's plenty of New York women who rock a four-inch heel on the way to the train with no problem, but we wanted to find the version that would work for Nadia.

Then we made a real specific choice to have Nadia not carry a handbag. Everything she needs she could put in her pockets. So everything in her look has pockets — her jeans, her coat and her blazer. So she's always got somewhere to stash things. Even down to the amazing detail that our props master found: the lighter chain. Her cigarette lighter is literally attached to a keychain on her belt loop.

How did you decide on the looks of her friends, Maxine and Lizzy, that are an antithesis to the black? You've said they're from Forever 21 and H&M.

It's such a high and low mix on that show. We've got John, who is wearing John Varvatos. And you've got Nadia, who is wearing a Helmut Lang coat and Gap jeans. But she's wearing Modern Vice boots, which are super cool, made in a New York factory in the garment district. She's wearing a medallion that's custom-made by a jeweler in New York and she's wearing an H&M blouse. And part of that is a production budget issue. I needed a dozen multiples for the grey coat look.

The thing that gets me about Maxine's look is she's pulling focus. It's a party for Nadia, but Maxine is clearly the center of attention. And the solid number two, literally by a hair, was head-to-toe Dries van Noten obviously. But the look that we ended up going for, that seemed to really sum up Maxine as a character — out there, outlandish, a little over the top, a little bit kooky and crazy — was H&M and Zara and jewelry from all over the place. It's like a stack of gold chains and a ribbon choker. And that kind of sums up Maxine.

She's also one of the few characters, if not the only character, who breaks the color rules of our show, where I tried to take out green and blue from the wardrobe and mostly the production level as well. So the world would feel a little tonally off balance. Blue is a universal color. It's the color of the sky; it's the color of water. It's the top three selling menswear color. It looks good on everyone. And when you extract that, number one, it's a huge wardrobe challenge, because what do you use if you're not going to use blue? How do you use blue jeans if you're not going to use blue? So we ended up [adding] in some navy, some really dark denim and some forest green. And then Maxine, who is in this seafoam blue-green color, is  breaking the rules, because that's who she is.

Why did you all decide to remove those two colors? 

It was a conversation with our production designer, with our director of photography, Michael Bricker and Chris Teague, respectively, where Maxine's loft was designed with very warm tones and a lot of red, a lot heavy colors. One of the thoughts was to pull the characters out of that environment a little bit, but also to extract blue and green, because they're calming colors, and there's nothing about our world that's calm.

It wasn't even necessarily something that should hit anyone in the face when they're watching it, that should really overpower you. It should just feel like this world is a little bit off. Even a lot of our exteriors are at night, so you don't see a blue sky. You see a hard black sky or a really dark navy sky. It was an effort to evoke a feeling that this world is a little bit sinister. Those comforting elements are not there.

You mentioned instructions you gave to background actors. Did that go as planned? 

The challenge is that, when you have such a strict color palette, it is hard to ask background actors to bring things when you're saying, 'Bring your ochre items. Bring your saturated salmon items.' Who has that? So we did give notes along the lines of 'dress for a Bushwick loft party opening, PS1 MoMa event,' things like that, with very specific New York art scene references.

We also loaded in three racks of clothes specifically to dress background actors, because we knew that we would see so much of our background because this party happens in every episode. The camera follows Nadia through the party and she greets specific people in every instance, so we knew we would see. head to toe, there's the couple fighting, there's [someone] dropping the chicken and the people who react.

What little details are there that fans might not notice?

Nadia's two watches give me so much joy, and it's not even my department. I love it as an idea and the way it was executed. I love that you get this vintage timepiece that theoretically was her mother's. The krugerrand necklace that Nadia wears you also see her mother wear as well, played by Chloë Sevigny, so you also actually see that visual link as well as Nadia talking about it.

What was fun for you personally?

Making cutting board armor for Nadia. That was insanely fun. Figuring out how to duct tape it together so that it could be reset was actually a weird challenge, thinking, 'I'm going to create a costume out of cutting boards and duct tape and then a lacrosse helmet and some oven mitts, obviously.'

But then I realized that Natasha as an actor and director and producer had to be able to take that thing off and on multiple times. We had to be able to shoot multiple takes and also shoot that same ridiculous costume piece in multiple locations, because we see her in it at Ruth's house and also at the restaurant. So how do you make it look like she's duct taped into it, but be able to take it off and put it back on and have it match?

So what happened?

I ended up working with Tawny [Sorensen], who is Natasha's stand in. Tawny came in and did a fitting with us because Natasha was already shooting. We ended up doing a couple of versions that were insane amounts of stuff — more than just the helmet and the lacrosse stick and the oven mitts, but full-on cookie sheets and wrapping tape. It was maybe one thing too many.

Once we figured out the placement of the cutting boards — and I sent pictures back and forth with Natasha — and we landed on that version, I ended up doubling the duct tape so that it wasn't sticky on the inside. I left a strip that was basically a tab, so we could pull the tab off and then tape it back. She could put it on over her head, and then both sides could be removed and maybe one shoulder strap could also be removed, so it went on over one arm and then got taped in place really quickly.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.