EXCLUSIVE | 'Julie and the Phantoms' costume designer Soyon An consciously created a 'timeless '90s' aesthetic
MEAWW got the chance to speak with An about her creative vision, her collaboration with the legendary Kenny Ortega, her work on 'Julie and the Phantoms' and more
Costume designer Soyon An, known for her work on shows like 'Step Up All In', 'Battle of the Year' and 'Jem and the Holograms', brought her magic touch to the world of Netflix's teen musical drama 'Julie and the Phantoms'. A show about a Latin-American teen trying to find her passion for music again, 'Julie and the Phantoms' blends fashion across cultures and eras. And at the heart of this feat sits An and her team, who have managed to create a world of accessible fashion that creates a colorful, elaborate landscape through fashion and style.
MEA Worldwide (MEAWW) got the chance to speak with An about her creative vision, her collaboration with the legendary Kenny Ortega, her work on 'Julie and the Phantoms', and what she would like to work on next.
Much of your work centers on music-themed shows, from 'So You Think You Can Dance' and 'American Idol' to 'Julie and the Phantoms'. Do you have a passion for music yourself, or did you find yourself gravitating towards the stories of young individuals overcoming adversity all these shows seem to have?
I feel like I was very blessed to have had the opportunity to work on a show like 'American Idol'. And 'So You Think You Can Dance' was my first job as a costume designer, as the head of the department for a big network show. The experiences from doing those kinds of shows and then getting to work with music artists and performers, I kept being led to these types of jobs. So I wouldn't say I specifically picked them, but I'm definitely selective about the jobs I do choose to do.
When I read the script for 'Julie and the Phantoms' for the very first time, I knew I wanted to do the show. Kenny [Ortega] was like "why don't you read the script and let me know what you think," and I said, "I love it. I love the story. I can see it in front of me." I work with artistes like Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, and Nick Jonas as well, and this was similar in that it's a part of the making of a star, it's a journey where you create their image. And with Julie, who's a musician who just lost her mom, and these Phantoms who come into her life all of a sudden, I was able to create these looks to get them to where they would be in the finale, which is really great.
With 'Julie and the Phantoms', it's more than just music and performance. It has all these elements that make it really fun. But I do also love the story and musical elements, it's all original music. I love that these kids came with such big talent and working with Kenny Ortega is just a dream. When you have the opportunity to work with a director like that, that was something I didn't want to turn down. Also getting to work with producers and writers like Dave and Dan who were just open to all my fashion and costume ideas, as well as Netflix, who as a company were willing to take chances and are trendsetting in that sense. It was a great team to be a part of.
Speaking of Kenny Ortega, what has it been like working with him on so many different projects?
Kenny and I have done five projects together. The first was the Rolling Stones' 50th-anniversary show. And then we rekindled our partnership on the 'Hocus Pocus' 25th Anniversary show for Disney freeform, and since then we've been inseparable. Kenny is the type of director that loves a collaboration. He respects everyone he hires for his team and also expects (them) to come to him with ideas. He gives direction, shares his vision, shares the script or story, and then from there, every department comes with their own takes. For instance, with Dirty Candi (a team led by Savannah Lee May's Carrie on 'Julie and the Phantoms'), he just gave me a general mood and I ran with it. And that's what you see in the final look with motorcycle jackets or Candi spelled with an 'i' that looks like a huge lollipop in the logo. And he loved it, it was exactly what he was going for. So working with him is just such an open, collaborative, respectful experience. It makes you want to give a thousand percent. And it's really fun too because we'd be up late at night sending each other ideas on Instagram, and it would just go back and forth and we'd just build off each other's ideas. Kenny never shuts an idea down, whatever you bring to the table is explored. And that results in the best possible scenarios and costumes for each scene or character, because you're constantly throwing ideas out there, good or bad, and discussing them.
The fantasy number with Julie, for instance, was simply me going to Kenny and saying, "What if this was a music video?" And from there we started looking at tearaways and costume changes, like a dream sequence, all in a two-minute number. And he just went, "Alright, show me what you got." And I did! I put together illustrations on how we could accomplish this without it costing our production anything, and he was like, "Let's do it." And we worked it out. Another memorable moment was when I was doing fittings with Jadah [Marie]. Kenny happened to walk by, and he was like, "I'm loving this look!" And he started adding to it, he threw in some shades, he added pink and crystals to her hair. And at one point he grabbed some crystals and rope and just started doing her hair. We were having the best time, and that look eventually is what ended up in that fantasy number.
Kenny Ortega was very particular about casting a Latinx lead and telling a Latinx family's story. How big a role did culture play in how the costumes came together?
I wanted to make sure that we were being true to the Latin culture, but we also had to keep in mind that she (Julie)'s Latin American. She is a Latin American girl, but with the Latin roots being deep in her, what would that look like? What would a girl that was born and raised in LA that was also influenced by her family's Latin culture look like? And from there, we put together her look. For instance, I thought she definitely would have the Virgin Mary necklace, possibly something she received for her communion from her church or maybe an heirloom from her grandmother. Julie is also effortlessly chic, she doesn't really think too much about her outfits and everything in her closet is ready-to-go. Which means she doesn't change her accessories throughout the season. So the Virgin Mary necklace is something she wears throughout. The only time it's different is for a performance, because that's when she actually puts thought into the look. And that's in complete contrast to characters like Flynn, who constantly changes her accessories and outfits. Julie likes to wear the same pieces often, and that includes her earrings and a ring that says 'mija'. I also paid attention to hair, cause that completes the package. I made sure her edges were laid and included these loops in the design because I thought her character would know how to do that. Basically, these subtle nuances that a Latina girl growing up in a Latin family would have.
I also thought a lot about who Julie would look up to. She's a music-loving Latin girl, so JLo, Selena Gomez, Selena. And I channeled a lot of their fashion into Julie's as well, so it has these subtle elements of Latin culture in there.
In addition to culture, you also had to layer in elements of different eras -- the mid-'90s for the Phantoms and the 2020s for Julie and her friends and family. How did you strike a balance between these different eras of fashion without it clashing or seeming outdated?
I remember when I was reading the script, I told the producers and the network that we were going to be setting trends because I forecasted that the nineties would be huge this year. We shot the show back in 2019. So I consciously picked pieces that were vintage, but still current. Almost like timeless nineties. I really had to think about what pieces would never go out of style, but still looked very nineties. And that's what I did with the boys. But then I also married that in with Madison [Reyes] (who plays Julie) and Jadah's (who plays Flynn) characters.
I put a little splash of the nineties in the accessories the main cast wears, even all the way to Willie (played by Booboo Stewart), who is supposed to be from the seventies or eighties, but he's a ghost that was able to figure out how to interact with material things in the world, so he'd probably pick up things here and there. By blending the nineties into every look, the contrast between the Phantoms and the current 2020 characters wasn't too harsh. That was definitely the key to figuring out how the costumes of the show would work.
Stay up-to-date with Soyon An's latest work via her Instagram. All episodes of 'Julie and the Phantoms' are available to stream on Netflix.