“Hustlers” designer Mitchell Travers gives a tour through the Washington Heights-set film’s vibrant colors celebrating Latinx heritage, locally shopped pieces and knockoff Gucci.
After a year of delays, the big-screen version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical “In the Heights” — helmed by “Crazy Rich Asians” director Jon M. Chu — arrives in theaters (and on HBO Max) at the ideal time: Audiences are eager to return to the movies, experience in-person connection and actually feel hope again.
The original script has been updated to address crucial topics, such as D.A.C.A. recipients being in limbo in the lead-up to the 2020 Presidential elections, but the overarching themes of the story prove timeless. Filming took place in Washington Heights, long an immigrant enclave in New York City, where neighbors support each other in building a life and family in the U.S. As Miranda shares in the production notes: “The whole thing is a love letter to this incredible neighborhood. It’s a first chapter in so many stories — American stories start here.”
The costumes by Mitchell Travers (“Hustlers,” “Late Night” and the upcoming “The Eyes of Tammy Faye“) capture the vibrant colors, dynamic spirit and expressive style of the uptown blocks. “In the way that you believe that people can dance up the side of the building, I hope that the clothes have a surreal quality to them, as well,” he says. The striking looks feel inventively fashion-forward, but also not dated to a particular year or season — which also works out well for the delayed release.
Travers incorporated an extravaganza of eye-popping textures, vibrant prints — “stripes, camo, floral, tie-dye” — and bold colors proudly celebrating the flags of Latinx communities in the Heights, like the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. “Pulling from the greens, the yellows, the reds, the blues — that flourish,” he says.
Travers also, coincidentally, lived in the neighborhood for seven years. To authentically capture daily life as a foundation for the costumes, he observed and interacted with the neighborhood and its denizens, compiling a comprehensive collection of street photography, taken at all hours, of everyday bustle on sidewalks, the train or in the corner bodega, “I would stop guys on the street and be like, ‘I absolutely love your sneakers. Where did you get them?’ ‘Oh, you have to go two blocks over here. It’s upstairs,'” he says. Travers and his team also supported the neighborhood by shopping local: Hot Point, Jimmy Jazz, Blue Jeans, Karma, Rainbow, V.I.M, Lola, Luisa Fashion, DePablo’s Fashion and Eternity 145. “I always joked: If we’re going to take up all of their parking all summer, we have to contribute to the neighborhood,” he adds.
In the film, not everyone looks like they belong at first. When the neighborhood’s beloved Nina (Leslie Grace) returns home after her first semester at Stanford, she feels tentative and incongruous, as portrayed through her buttoned-up green romper, brown criss-cross block heels and meticulously straight-ironed hair (above).
“She needs to feel like someone who is from here, but is not fitting in,” says Travers. “Nina is the type of girl who gets dressed three or four times before she goes out, like she’s overthinking it. She’s so concerned about what other people are gonna say about it that you feel that tension in the way that she gets dressed.”
Feeling isolated at college in California and lost in her next step, Nina takes the summer to find herself and her path, while trying to fulfill the high hopes of her father Kevin (Jimmy Smits) and neighborhood family.
“I became really attached to the idea of knits for her because I like the the sort of anxiety and repetition that goes into knits, like a bit of a knotted feeling to her,” says Travers. He gradually moved Nina into a ’70s-inspired striped ribbed halter (below), colorfully-patterned cropped sweaters and rainbow crochet with distressed denim.
“Her evolution gets to a place where she becomes a little bit more free, a little bit more expressive,” he says. (Ariana Greenblatt, who plays young Nina, enjoyed her jumpsuits on-screen and hand-warmers, off-camera.)
Nina’s childhood friend, hair stylist Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), desperately wants to move out and downtown to pursue her fashion design aspirations — not recognizing that she can realize all her dreams in the Heights.
“She’s so much fun to dress, because she’s supposed to be very comfortable expressing herself,” says Travers. “There’s so much in her that it’s just spilling out and wants to be seen and wants to take up space — in the exact opposite way that Nina does.”
To represent Vanessa’s essence and connection to the dynamic neighborhood, Travers “mashed up” an unexpected mix of style elements and trends he observed throughout the block: colorful sportswear, vintage, pink bow details, punky fishnets and spiky heels, to name a few.
At one point, Vanessa sneaks away from her job at Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega)’s boisterous beauty salon to meet a Village broker and fill out a lease application. She quickly changes out of her kaleidoscopic ’80s-graphic bomber jacket (made from the lining of a vintage piece), teeny cut-offs and hot pink necklace (above) into a subdued rose top, navy blazer and tweedy shorts. “I wanted it to look like a Bank of America commercial — no texture, no color, no inspirations, super flat, grays, blues creams, just like nothing going on,” says Travers. “So you’re like, ‘Girl, where are you going? Everything that you’re inspired by and everything that’s visually exciting is right home. That’s where you make sense.'”
Travers furthered Vanessa’s unexpected aesthetic into an emerald party dress (above) that took her from dinner at Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz)’s to the club. “That’s your color,” mumbles a smitten Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), complimenting Vanessa’s intricately ruffled look by Alexis, designed by Miami-based mother-daughter team Ana Barbara and Alexis Barbara Isaias.
“It’s such the obvious choice to put your leading lady in the knockout red gown or something that really pulls the focus,” says Travers. “To me, green is the centerpiece of that room.”
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The heatwave sequence also offers a sultry, sweaty and figuratively hot setting for the salon trio — Daniela, her partner Carla (Stephanie Beatriz) and Cuca (Dascha Polanco) — to flex their moves and individuality. “I loved the fact that we were able to do a jumpsuit that felt authentic to each woman’s performance,” says Travers of Daniela’s stripe-trimmed python print, Carla’s spaghetti strap halter-topped military green and Cuca’s vibrant tropical theme (above).
Travers took inspiration from GOAT Patricia Field herself for Daniela’s mélange of prints and silhouettes: “A woman who’s not afraid to drop a big statement piece, but then pair it with something that she picked up from a street vendor with a pair of shoes she’s had for 20 years.”
“Boisterous, fun and fearless” Carla, meanwhile, puts her own spin on Daniela’s sartorial influence. “We wanted Carla to steal pieces from Daniela’s closet,” Travers says, adding that he looked to pop culture influences, like Ariana Grande, for styling a block contrast print bomber irreverently off the shoulder.
As for Cuca, “more is more is more is more.” Travers happily referenced local street style with her fabulous faux Gucci logomania jumpsuit (two above), which proved a feat in terms of legal clearance behind-the-scenes. “I’ve used [real] Gucci for other projects, but I truly feel like I achieved something getting the knockoff Gucci,” he says.
Abuela Claudia (above), the grandma to the entire block, remains the heart of the musical, the movie and the production. Merediz originated the role on Broadway, so Travers paid proper homage to the Tony nominee by fitting her first. “I felt like this is her neighborhood and I needed her to let me in and tell me the story,” he says.
Travers fondly recalls a “big conversation” the two had over Abuela’s decision to venture out of her apartment still wearing her bata (house robe). “I was saying to Olga, ‘I think the bodega is still her house. She would still be at home in her bata within one block radius around her apartment,'” he says.
Travers also shares the meaning behind her treasured jewelry: a necklace featuring an image of Christ with three children and her mother’s vintage watch worn with a child’s beaded bracelet. “The relationship between those two pieces is the whole story of Abuela,” he says.
Miranda — who wrote the music and lyrics for “In the Heights” — happily appears as the Piragua Guy (above) battling for frozen dessert turf with the interloping Mister Softee truck (driven by Chris Jackson, who originated the role of Benny on Broadway). Travers went all out for their fitting, even preparing wine and cheese for the Emmy, Grammy and Tony winner (plus Oscar nominee). But Miranda was more focused on sharing fond memories of his family and background for inspiration.
“His grandfather’s socks and the length of the shorts; those little details that meant something,” says Travers about Miranda’s eventual costume. “We wanted to honor that in the character.” The costume designer also thrifted a worn, “beat-up” fanny back, which inspired Miranda to dabble in method.
“He totally loved it. He got it,” says Travers. “He wanted to stick all his money in it.”
Miranda originated the role of Usnavi on the stage but for the film, passed the torch to Ramos, who played dual roles in the writer-composer’s “Hamilton.” (He also previously assumed the role in a regional production of “In the Heights.”) Like Vanessa, the young striver and dreamer thinks his destiny lies away from the Heights — but even further than Greenwich Village: He saves all his bodega earnings in the hopes of buying his father’s bar in the Dominican Republic. But, like how his T-shirt (by Dominican American contemporary artist M. Tony Peralta of the Peralta Project) reads “Nueva York” (above), his home and heart is in the Heights.
Also heartfelt and symbolic, Usnavi treasures and wears his father’s flat cap, which holds deeper meaning beyond what’s in the script. Travers chose a Kangol hat, like the one Miranda wore on stage, to honor the fans of the musical and the continuation of the role for future generations to treasure.
“It’s a definite nod to the Usnavi who came before,” says Travers. “And then, of course, Jon [M. Chu] ended up using it. He has the hat go on the little girl at the end, like the passing down of this story.”