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Litter & Vintage Mugler: How the 'Fantasmas' Costumes Tap Into Julio Torres’s Mind

— Photograph by Monica Lek/HBO

Bauhaus and surrealism; Renaissance and Baroque; Terry Gilliam’s 1985 movies Brazil and Fifth Element: the world Julio Torres creates in his new series, Fantasmas, is a living, breathing collage of references and inspirations, ranging from the ornate old world to the peculiarly whimsical, recontextualized for the digital age. “The challenge—or the exciting part—of the show was having so many disparate stories and knowing that it would all be united by Julio’s voice,” says costume designer Chloe Karmin.

“Challenge” wouldn’t be an unfair word to put forth when describing Karmin’s task of dressing the ever-rotating cast of characters in Fantasmas, now streaming on Max. Many live within the faux New York City setting in which the main storyline takes place, but narrative side quests throughout the series’s six episodes introduce the viewer to an anthropomorphized punk rock “Q” (yes, like the letter), an ongoing trial between Santa Claus and one especially fed-up elf, and a gay nightclub-turned-CVS for hamsters. Luckily, Karmin was up to the task of costuming the parade of sketch characters that continuously march out of Torres’s mind, having worked with the writer, actor, and director on his 2023 film Problemista.

When you take a job designing for a director, you live in their brain with them for the duration of the project and oh, what a wonderful, beautiful brain Julio Torres has,” she tells W. Below, Karmin speaks on their collaboration, sourcing pieces from the banks of the Hackensack River for Steve Buscemi, and the lesson she learned from dressing Dominique Jackson as the human embodiment of The Algorithm.

What was it like to work with Julio again?

Julio is a generous collaborator, and we all work really hard to breathe life into his words. Part of what makes him amazing is how he’s able to juggle so many ideas. His writing is really easy to design from and that’s probably why we rarely had disagreements about the costumes. He trusts the spark and chemistry and can recognize when someone has a good lead.

Where were you mostly sourcing pieces from?

This show is an art project on film. It’s about artists making things together, so it does not have a commercial feel. Most of the pieces in Julio’s closet were either made for the show or thrifted. I got pieces everywhere, from weird online stores to the Beacon’s Closet on Guernsey to a Goodwill in New Jersey. I also love to look at new and emerging designers. I went everywhere in the world with Julio on the brain, seeing where we could forage for little treasures.

Can you walk me through Julio’s wardrobe?

Julio wanted a different silhouette for his character, so we did a mix of tight and baggy. He always wants to look slightly undone. The jester costume is a good example of that, because it’s really fitted in some aspects and overwhelming in others. The schoolhouse, Bauhaus aesthetic of whimsical primary colors was a touchstone. It’s clean and organized, but also childish and fantastic, like Julio. I tried to infuse that with some Geoffrey Beene. I found an image of a jacket he made—a little bolero—and combined it with a pattern I found in a 17th-century patterning book. It just felt like the right mix of references.

And then there’s Martine Gutierrez—who plays the performance artist and agent Vanesja. She has some great vintage looks.

Her wardrobe was so fun. At one point during a fitting, Martine was like, “It’s very Fran Drescher in The Nanny,” and that was not my reference, but I do see it. It’s slightly more staid, but some pieces are very Fran, like that silk, herringbone suit.

Some of her dresses were $20, and some were thrifted or borrowed. We used vintage Mugler, vintage Valentino, even vintage Betsey Johnson, but I don’t want to say which is which. All of her looks got to be so camp, but every time we made sure to ask, “Does this fit into her performance?” It was never supposed to be a fashion show, but the projection of a performer.

Chester has some fully realized looks that we unfortunately only get to see from the chest up.

[Tomás Matos] is so much fun. Anyone who gets to dress and collaborate with them is so lucky. There were a lot of Peggy Guggenheim photos on Chester’s board. We personalized a lot of their items and had special graphics made for all their pieces. And their earrings are a story in and of themselves—they have little goldfish earrings, and dice. I thought the dice were really funny.

What about Steve Buscemi’s punk rock wardrobe as Q?

I read an article about this ’80s punk artist, stylist, and designer who passed away just before the show started. He, and so many of that era, used to dumpster dive for things to embellish their clothing. I found a lot of junk at vintage stores and on eBay, and we sewed it all onto Steve’s costumes. We started to run out of this junk we accrued, so my assistant costume designer, Johnny Clay, went outside onto the banks of the Hackensack River and started pulling stuff out. We sanitized it and sewed it on. Steve was really into it.

Then there’s Alexa Demie’s scene. Before the show even came out, the Internet was talking about her vintage Galliano moment.

Alexa was a last-minute casting addition, so we didn’t really have time to shop for her. In the end, Alexa brought a suit of her own—a vintage Galliano from Aralda Vintage—because she’s a professional. We’d already designed Ziwe’s look, but once Alexa’s color palette was set, we decided to put Ziwe in a gray and brown vintage Yves Saint Laurent suit. It became obvious that these two characters were cut from the same cloth.

And then there’s Dominique Jackson as The Algorithm, another great costume moment.

I had this idea for the character being both software and hardware, so we made a metallic organza breastplate fused with thermoplastics. I felt strongly about this design and how it needed to ripple away from the human body and create an artificial silhouette that referenced and dissolved the female form, because we never really know where humanity ends and technology starts. At one point, someone mentioned that we would only see the costume from the waist up, and Dominique was like, “No no no. I don’t do a look from the waist up. We’re doing the whole look.” So we spent time creating the whole thing, and I hand-painted the shoes you never see.

Source: W Magazine

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