Heidi Bivens, Hollywood’s Realest Costume Designer
On Building Characters, Styling Skaters, and HBO’s Euphoria
- Interview: Olivia Whittick
- Photography: Paley Fairman
Fashion and film share a subtle, dialectical relationship, one that costume designer Heidi Bivens understands acutely. In recent years, any movie with major fashion-world reverberation can be attributed to Heidi. This past spring, it was the wave of obnoxious vacation shirts and “sleazecore” aesthetics that washed up alongside The Beach Bum, a production preemptively touted as “the most important fashion film of 2019.”
Although she’s receptive, curious, and resistant to being typecast, Heidi is at this moment in time a culty, coming-of-age stylist, having worked with Harmony Korine dressing the wild girls of Spring Breakers, and with Jonah Hill dressing the skaters of Mid90s. And next, the complex, complicated highschool students of Sam Levinson’s Drake-produced HBO teen drama Euphoria starring Zendaya, which airs this Sunday.
I meet Heidi at a cafe in Los Feliz. It’s loud, and we quickly relocate to the home of an Old Hollywood producer’s grand-daughter, where Heidi is staying while shooting. Inside, decorative mannequins stand around the dining room strung up with pearls. Clothes and boxes and bags are scattered across a long table, and a cat named Bugsy Malone with a diamante collar mews like he’s running lines. In a home of Old Hollywood heritage, Heidi sits down to talk to me about her life and her career, in New Hollywood.
How did you get started in costumes?
I moved to New York right out of highschool and while I was in college I started interning for magazines: W, WWD, and Paper. I was working on photoshoots for them, and I was also interested in journalism, but I quickly realized it might be hard to make a good living as a journalist. I think at that time it was like 10 cents a word.
But I was also interested in costumes for film, and in film in general. I was going to school for filmmaking at Hunter College, that was my major. I realized through working for magazines that fashion styling can influence and inform costume design, even though they are completely different worlds. I loved living in New York in the 90s. I’m very nostalgic for that time.
I imagine you were part of a creative circle that included a lot of filmmakers, or people wanting to make films?
The film and fashion industries were very separate, I didn't really know anybody who was involved in both. But I used to go to the dog run at Washington Square Park and there I met a costume designer, Amy Roth, whose aunt is Ann Roth [Midnight Cowboy, Safe, many Brian DePalma films], one of the most famous costume designers. I just started asking her questions. It wasn’t until I got a break working on Eternal Sunshine for the Spotless Mind, Michel Gondry’s film, that doors started opening for me.
And how did you come to work with Harmony Korine?
I had heard about Spring Breakers and asked my agent if she could help me get a meeting, asked a couple people to put in a good word. Harmony and I immediately had a shorthand from growing up in similar circles, being exposed to similar influences. And he’s the kind of person that once he finds someone that he feels good working with he’s not really interested in interviewing like 20 other people.
His films are so character-driven, carried by these eccentrics, it’s such an amazing opportunity for storytelling through fashion.
It’s a fun challenge! Harmony’s not interested in using anything in the films that is technically fashion. Anytime I’ve presented any ideas that include brands or designs that already exist, he’s not interested. He’s said what he does becomes fashion, he doesn’t want to start off using what’s already there.
It seems like that has been pretty true? GQ editor Rachel Tashjian called The Beach Bum “the most important fashion film of 2019.”
I didn’t come up with the flame print, Prada’s been doing it in their archives for a long time. But sometimes there is this great timing with fashion, where things are percolating. And then everything can hit at the same time. That’s what happened with The Beach Bum.
Do you think a character can convey a certain authenticity that ends up being more iconic than, say, a fashion campaign?
When you are thinking about a character’s background, if you’re thinking about every single piece that is there and creating a reason—a where, and a why, and a how—that’s when you can really create authenticity.
Authenticity seems to play an important part in a lot of the films you’ve worked on—with Spring Breakers and Mid90s particularly—where it's very nostalgic and getting the period right is so essential. What are some of your research methods?
With Mid90s, it was important to me to get it right on an almost academic level. I grew up during that time too, and I knew that a majority of the audience would be skaters and that they would be scrutinizing. There were great lengths taken to make sure everything we used in the film was available during 94 or 95. There’s a great search engine online, Skately.com, and you can look up any brand and any year and see their ads from those years. Aaron Meza was a consultant on set, who filmed a lot of the skate videos during that time. We made a list of brands and talked about who would wear which ones. I remember one day I had Ray wearing a Chocolate t-shirt and on top of it he was wearing a World Industries sweatshirt, which were both California brands. But I didn’t know that those brands were beefing in those years, so someone wouldn’t be wearing them together at that time. Aaron caught that. And then Spike Jonze watched the camera test and said, “The jeans should be bigger.”
People gave a lot of credit to that film for the super era-specific props and styling.
Anyone who is aware of the style at the time knows it was so specific. People would wear certain brands—that’s how you communicated to the world who you were and what you were into. It was a big deal!
On Euphoria and on The Beach Bum, my research involved looking for images of real people, snapping pictures of people on the street, finding random images of people who aren’t famous. I try to find examples of real world people.
It’s interesting that it can be hard to get someone to look real.
And even sometimes just to find pictures of real people! On Euphoria, Hunter Schafer’s character is transgender, and to find images online of a fashion-forward trans teenage girl, even a year ago, there wasn’t much. Hunter is a model, so a lot of the pictures I found online were actually of her. Being able to reference real people is really important.
How much do these young actors weigh in on the costuming? Like in the case of Hunter, who is quite close to the actual experience of her character Jules, in terms of age and gender identity.
When we first started out, I had envisioned Jules as like an anime character, that is sort of how she was written in the script. She’s really into Sailor Moon and there was this idea that she should be like eye candy—candy colors and tennis skirts and big shoes. In the beginning of the show her character really looks to men for validation and it’s important to her to have attention from men, but as the story progresses she starts to give less fucks about what guys think, and she experiences love in a different way. I think she’s surprised by that, and starts to come into her own. Then we don’t see these candy anime looks anymore.
I love that a character would change how they dress through a narrative arc. Of course, we all dress differently in different periods of our lives, as we go through things emotionally.
In the first fitting she was just happy to be wearing cute clothes, and once she got really into the head of the character, she was able to access a lot more feeling and opinion about what Jules should be wearing.
It’s surreal how the character and the actor can start to mesh.
And with Zendaya, I didn’t set out to do what we’ve been doing with her look. The first meeting I had with her she came in wearing a white tank top and some Re/Done jeans. And I remember thinking, “You look good just as you are,” and feeling so inspired for her character Rue. She feels non-binary to me too, in alot of ways, which is something that’s being explored on the show.
Working with young people so much, studying how people dress—what do you perceive as the next big trend in fashion?
I’m not really that clued into what’s next. I feel like this idea of people dressing for themselves, the idea of new eccentricity, not following trends. People creating their own style and their own trends for themselves. More of that. Individuality.
Which character in your career has been the most fun to dress?
Moondog was one of them. Jules and Rue on Euphoria. There were no real rules in the approach with them, and when your creativity is boundless in terms of where you can go to in your mind to glean ideas, that’s the most exciting.
What can you tell me about Euphoria?
This show is unlike anything that’s been on television. I think it’s really going to surprise people.
Olivia Whittick is an editor at SSENSE. She is also Managing Editor at Editorial Magazine.
- Interview: Olivia Whittick
- Photography: Paley Fairman
- Hair and Makeup: Jason Murillo / Art Department