Hulu’s latest musical romantic comedy, Up Here had everything from steampunk circuses, Gatsby-themed parties, matching couples pajamas, and a whole lot of nostalgia. I met with costume designer Nicky Smith to discuss her creative process and challenges behind crafting the stunning wardrobe for this eight-episode series set in the waning days of 1999 New York City. From navigating the intricacies of musical numbers to capturing the essence of the late ’90s fashion scene, Smith shares insights into her extensive research, collaboration with a talented team, and the joy of incorporating vintage and sustainable pieces.
Spencer Williams: I am so excited to introduce costume designer Nicky Smith!
Nicky Smith: Hey Spencer! I’m excited to chat.
Spencer Williams: Happy to finally meet you. The last time we spoke, it was about the costumes you designed for the third season of Ramy. But today, we are talking about the new series on Hulu, Up Here. Up Here is a musical romantic comedy set in New York City in the waning days of 1999.
This series follows the story of an ordinary couple as they fall in love. You have worked on so many great shows, and I know you’ve had experience with musical numbers before… I mean, shout out to your Emmy-nominated role as an assistant designer on Pose with the brilliant Analucia McGorty.
Nicky Smith: It was really amazing working on that show. It was a life-changing experience.
Spencer Williams: I miss that show every day. So with that being said, what was it like working on an eight-episode musical series? You have the background you’ve had to experience, but this is eight episodes of musical numbers. It’s a lot of costumes!
Nicky Smith: It’s a lot of costumes, but I actually started my career in opera and in theater. So I’m used to working with a lot of costumes and movement while also trying to figure out how it all works together and what’s the story that we’re telling. Whenever you have a full series, you want to make sure that you take the audience on a journey, showing where these characters begin and where they end up. So we were really trying to figure out which episodes we needed to turn up the volume, and what the path was that we were going to take from beginning to end.
Spencer Williams: With musicals, as you know, there’s a lot of movement and often many costumes; how do you handle this challenge?
Nicky Smith: I was really lucky to work with two talented ACDs that both have experience in musicals. My first assistant was Stephanie Levin, who worked on Broadway and has worked with some of the biggest designers in the game. My second assistant, Samantha Seda, came from The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
So I worked with people who understood group visual dynamics. We talked with our choreography team a lot! They were just amazing about sending us videos and bringing us into rehearsals so we could see how people were moving, so we would know how to dress them.
Spencer Williams: Interesting. Because when doing these types of productions, it’s a little bit more difficult because you have to think about how the characters move. How do you dance in a business suit? But you all made it work.
Nicky Smith: It all comes down to the great team! Only with everyone working together could you have people flying through the air in vintage 1990s suits. There was a lot of Italian wear, a lot of Salvatore Ferragamo, Yves Saint Laurent, just really good-looking suits! But being able to dance in them, that’s all thanks to the crew. It really is TV magic before your very eyes!
Spencer Williams: Seriously! Television magic at its finest. As I mentioned earlier, Up Here takes place in the late 1990s, a very specific time period. When we meet Lindsay, her wardrobe is very quintessential late nineties. How did you tune into that headspace?
Nicky Smith: There was a lot of research. I always want to make sure that, yes, even though I may have lived through the period, you’re living through it through your own very specific scope. Because I was so young at the time, I remember things very differently from the mindset of a teenage kid. So we started with research. We watched every nineties movie, we listened to the Spice Girls and the Backstreet Boys in the office. We dug in so deep. We had catalogs… I feel if you surround yourself with research, you can create the world with the most beautiful accuracy.
Spencer Williams: Throughout the show, Lindsay begins to come into herself, and her style begins to evolve, much like the rest of the world. How did you convey that transition?
Nicky Smith: When I first presented the design for Lindsay, I had the entire scope of the script, so I knew where she was going to go. I wanted to make sure we incorporated pieces like leather jackets and other garments that you would connect to late-nineties fashion. In ways, our work was kind of a love letter to New Yorkers in the nineties who believed in romance.
The final look that’s based on a look in W Magazine that Winona Ryder was wearing. The leather jacket look is inspired by Julia Roberts in Notting Hill (costumes designed by Shuna Harwood). There’s so much great design that happened in the late nineties that it was really easy to pick the styles that helped move her forward.
Spencer Williams: Your team did such thorough and impressive research. I love that process. So actually… one of my favorite costumes that really sold me on this show, however, was the star pajamas. They’re so fun and so stupid. You start off loving them because you think it adds up to a cute couple. Then within moments, that exact costume was unable to tell a completely different story. It’s perfect storytelling.
Nicky Smith: It is! It gives you that annoying, claustrophobic feeling. Can you even imagine sleeping with your partner in matching star and moon pajamas? We started with the smiley face pajamas, which were the set that we knew would travel through the story. Then we had to do another one that was equally annoying and equally as eye-catching.
Actually, one of my ACDs was like, “Look what I found. We can make these fit them both.” Perfect. Done. Some of it was a custom build. Some of it we found online. We also did shop vintage.
Spencer Williams: I love that. They’re so perfect. Speaking of, how much did vintage and sustainable pieces play a role in this show?
Nicky Smith: It was everything. The only time I think we seemed to gravitate toward modern was when we had to do a stunt or if there was dancing that required multiples. Other than that, we really tried to make sure that we geared into authentic vintage pieces. When you compare the silhouettes of 1999 to today, there are small differences. For the most part, our task was to figure out how we could find the items, fit them to the actor, and help tell the story.
We even had vintage vendors from around the country. One of our favorites was Knee Deep Vintage in Chicago. Shout out to Carlos. He was a real G. He would send us photos of crazy things that he would find from dead stock, from estate sales, and we’d be like, “Yes… we need that ugly skirt. We need that Prada bag. Yes, to those really weird Nina Ricci pants, like we’ll take it all!”
Spencer Williams: Honestly, I wish every costume designer and designer would adopt this mindset because it’s fun.
Nicky Smith: It makes it more fun because you’ll find things that you don’t even remember. You constantly find yourself asking, “Why did we do this? Why was this ruffle on the shoulder with a keyhole on the left?” That’s stuff you can’t recreate. You want it to be the actual thing.
Spencer Williams: Exactly! Miguel has a lot of interesting costumes. He’s also trying to find his place in the world, and we see him as a more business type in the beginning. But then he starts to get a little more stylish as we go through the show. How did you tell Miguel’s story through the costumes?
Nicky Smith: In the beginning, we really wanted to lean into limiting his dimensions as a character and then expand his world as we find out more about him. A lot of the suits that we got were vintage. We had our shirts custom-built because we wanted to get a really particular neck. The ties were thrifted in Philadelphia, where we were digging literally through bins of ties. My assistants and I were down and dirty trying to find these vintage ties because the prints were very distinct. They’re not pieces that you can find at a modern store.
Once we established his suits, we could then branch out into doing more casual looks when he’s at home with his family. We tried to keep that homage to New York by incorporating things people would identify with from the period, such as Nikes.
Spencer Williams: Not everything in this show was all suits and nineties fashion. Sometimes we had some really fun musical numbers! In episode four, we have a fun fantasy club scene with serious Moulin Rouge! vibes. How did this come together?
Nicky Smith: Well, first of all, thank you. It was really one of our favorite episodes to work on. When I read the script that mentioned a circus that is steampunk… I thought we could do something different and immediately thought of the Spice Girls’s video for “Say You’ll Be There.” Again, we’re looking at these iconic 90s designs and silhouettes that other designers created that continue to inspire. For example, look at Clueless, designed by Mona May.
We took this really awesome video and merged it with our ideas of the circus, the nineties, and limelight that became the look for so many ways. When you get to that weird club, we decided to pivot to the limelight, club kids, and how could we make this underwater, soon-to-be sex circus? laughs They’re in the early stages of getting to know everyone, and you don’t know what’s going to happen next. There’s a guy who walks through juggling dildos. There are all kinds of weird little gems tucked in there for you.
I just want to make sure that as you’re watching it and you’re enjoying the music, you are reminded of a time period that was before cell phones. It’s a little away from us, but still very much part of the cultural language.
Spencer Williams: There is an episode where we get a fun, The Great Gatsby-themed episode. How did the party come together? That was a lot of fun.
Nicky Smith: When I read the script, it said the 1920s. The 1920s done accurately has been done before many a time, right? And I thought, wouldn’t it be fun if we did the nineties version of the 1920s? There was this little niche period in prom dresses and formal wear that a lot of people don’t remember because it was in and out very quickly. A lot of bad choices were made, but we were ready to make them again.
We found period clothes on Etsy again, my good friend Etsy.
Spencer Williams: Shout out to a real one, she’s there for all of us.
Nicky Smith: Listen… Etsy, Goodwill Online, wherever we could find it! It all came together pretty well. I love that some of the women at the wedding, they brought their own stuff. Some of the older gentlemen had suits from the nineties that they brought in. We couldn’t even recreate these pieces if we wanted to. It was really, again, a team effort with production design, art, and props.
Spencer Williams: Wow, it was just so fun. I love that you gave the 1920s your very own “Nicky Smith Twist.” I love Up Here, it is such a great show. Looking back, what did this project mean to you?
Nicky Smith: Coming from Broadway and a world of live performance, it really felt like a culmination of the things that I grew up loving. I loved Rent, I loved all those musicals that really had New York as part of the story. Working on Up Here, I got to work with Thomas Kail, who I’d worked with before. Steven Levenson, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez, all of these amazing, super-talented producers and directors came in and did episodes with us. We had a great crew. It’s really fun when you get to do fun stuff with cool people.
Spencer Williams: It was a one-of-a-kind show, and I’m so excited for you and all of the success. I can’t wait to see what you’re doing next. I’m so happy to have met you, Nicky.
Nicky Smith: Thank you so much. It was really great to chat!