'When you’re holding up what feels like a few elastic bands to Jennifer Lopez, you sweat,' designer Mitchell Travers tells EW of making big statements with tiny threads.

By Joey Nolfi
October 25, 2019 at 04:05 PM EDT
09/13/19
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Between now and the Oscar nominations on Jan. 13, EW will speak to numerous contenders in below-the-line categories about their work and craft. This week, Hustlers costume designer Mitchell Travers talks to EW all about turning Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu into a strong and sexy band of strippers in the drama that has earned Oscar buzz. Check out EW’s full list of Oscar predictions here.

Tasked with transforming Jennifer Lopez into a pole-dancing stripper for Lorene Scafaria’s Oscar-buzzed drama Hustlers, you might say costume designer Mitchell Travers held the opportunity of a lifetime in his hands. It’s fitting, then, that the entirety of his show-stopping, barely-there vessel for greatness — a four-way stretch neoprene cloth covered in rhinestones and fringe — can also literally fit comfortably inside his clenched palm.

“It was a way to be glamorous, shocking, sexy, and confident, all in this little, balled up piece of string,” Travers tells EW of the silver spectacle, which hugs Lopez’s curves (and exposes others) as she arrives in the film writhing around a stripper pole to “Criminal” by Fiona Apple. “I was a little hesitant because it’s a major risk, and I knew she was ready to do something like that, but when you’re holding up what feels like a few elastic bands to Jennifer Lopez, you sweat.”

Luckily, Lopez went along for the ride — as did Scafaria, who entrusted Travers with stitching layers of meaning into her societal critique, which follows a band of strippers who scam untold sums of cash out of their wealthy Wall Street clients in the wake of the 2008 financial crash.

For Travers, telling the story through Constance Wu‘s Destiny — a struggling mother coaxed into the illicit operation under the intoxicating spell of Lopez’s veteran dancer (and maternally charming) Ramona — meant looking beyond stripper stereotypes to weave authenticity into the fabric of Scafaria’s vision.

“The biggest word of the film for me is evolution. It’s about telling the story of a person who wants more from life but isn’t sure how to get it. [Destiny] identifies that Ramona has some of the things figured out that she wants to figure out,” he explains. “I loved the back and forth between those two women. In one scene, you’d see Ramona wear something, and two scenes later you’d see Destiny trying to emulate that.”

“I wanted to do them justice and understand their experience,” he says, adding that he researched inside real strip clubs around the country. “I wanted to portray that in a way that didn’t feel like it was pandering, forced, or costume-y, but dignified.”

Below, Travers shares some exclusive concept artwork for a handful of the film’s 1,100 costumes, and explains his process for weaving vintage Apple Bottoms, fishnet bodysuits, and rare finds from a “stripper ice cream truck” into Hustlers‘ DNA — a process that ultimately helped turn Scafaria‘s vision into a runaway, $100 million box office moneymaker.

From day to night (and back again) with “vintage” Apple Bottoms

Courtesy of Mitchell Travers

As painful as it is to admit, clothing from 2008 can be now considered vintage “period piece” garb. So, Travers and Laaleh Mizani worked together to track down artifacts from a bygone era when Nelly was a fashion mogul, scooping up pieces from the rapper’s Apple Bottom jeans line (and, yes, boots with the fur) to nail down the aesthetic of the late-aughts.

“Laaleh is the one who found the vintage Apple Bottoms set [with] matching pants and a jacket. We were having luck at the high-end fashion insider collectives who were [back then] aware that this was going to be a fashion moment, and bolstered up their collections,” Travers remembers. “At the same time, we were having just as much luck at the lowest thrift store level you can imagine because of people getting rid of things in their closets.”

So, if you feel a bittersweet nostalgic pang as you watch the women of Hustlers indulge in excess while Dooney & Bourke bags (and, let’s be real, lots of Coach) dangle from their arms, Travers hit the emotional jackpot.

“It’s so recent for the audience’s memory. I wanted them to remember that they got caught up in things, too,” he says, mirroring the film’s themes of societal indulgence. “You look back and you think, I can’t believe I got caught up in that or I can’t believe I made those decisions. I wanted that same feeling for the audience [as the characters], when they saw the vintage Apple Bottoms or the Ugg boots or the tracksuits, I wanted them to remember that this was part of their history, too.”

Wu-ing audiences with Destiny’s style

Courtesy of Mitchell Travers; Courtesy of STXfilms

“In the script it says: ‘Ramona wraps Destiny in her coat, and Destiny looks like a baby kangaroo enveloped in her mom,'” Wu previously told EW of the moment the central characters meet on the rooftop of a strip joint. Thus began the mother-daughter relationship that serves as the real heart of the story, and Travers wanted to tell that story through his clothes, too.

“In Destiny’s evolution, her first few costumes are a bit ill-fitting, ill-conceived, and a bit unsure, but as she’s taken under Ramona’s wing, you see that she’s really dialed into the performance aspect and Ramona’s ability to put on a full show with a beginning, middle, and end,” he says. “So, you start to see that her dresses are rigged to unzip in a certain way, or one of her dresses has a halter tie at the back that she can undo, so her clothing starts to be used for show, not just a quick, cheap look as it is when we first meet her.”

Big statements with tiny threads

Courtesy of Mitchell Travers; Barbara Nitke/STXfilms

From the start, Travers knew Lopez’s introductory scene needed to make as big of an impact on the audience as Ramona did for Destiny.

“We needed to wow the audience. We need to see her the way that Destiny saw her: life-changing,” he remembers. “Reading that script and knowing how much she prepared for that, I knew it’d be a moment that, if we got it right, I’d be having conversations about it for a while after the film.”

To get there, he worked closely with Lopez — who trained with a portable pole and seasoned performer Johanna Sapakie — on nailing a look that would appropriately signal Ramona’s arrival.

“At the major fitting, I lit the room with a ‘Girls Girls Girls’ neon sign, kept the lighting low, and made it a safe place to take some risks,” he recalls before having the 50-year-old slip into “three inches of chain, two feet of string, and mostly rhinestone fringe” on top of a four-way stretch neoprene base. “She turned around to me — we developed a thing where she’d give me a look when she knew that we had it — and she turned around and looked at me, and I knew that was it. Period.”

Let’s be real: Ramona’s style icon was totally Jennifer Lopez

Courtesy of Mitchell Travers; Alison Cohen Rosa/STXfilms

“You can’t look at this era and feel like her influence wasn’t there. You look at a character like Ramona, and who she would be looking towards. You can’t deny it, she would be influenced by Jen,” observes Travers, who dressed Ramona as a confident, powerful, sexy woman without sacrificing her maternal side.

But, he also wanted their (marginally) more subtle streetwear to perform the same function as the game faces they wore while swindling men out of their hard-earned money.

“In a way it’s like dressing two different characters played by the same actress,” Travers says. “I wanted an extreme difference between the girls you think you’ve met at the club, and then when you see them in their real lives, you realize there’s probably going to be more to this story.”

Ring the alarm! The “stripper ice cream truck” is here!

Courtesy of Mitchell Travers; STX Films

Forget the sweet treats: Through his research at various strip clubs, Travers became acquainted with a roving vehicle he affectionately dubs the “stripper ice cream truck” that delivers delectable clothing goodies guaranteed to melt popsicles far and wide.

“I found out about this truck, the Born Exotic bus. It’s a stripper ice cream truck. It takes all the clothes to the clubs, and the girls come out and pick things up and go back to work,” he says with a laugh, fondly remembering the New Jersey-based vehicle. “[The driver] volunteered to come to my house, and I thought, ‘Whether or not the goods on this truck are worth it, I just need this experience in my life.’ So, the truck pulled up. He had loads of things I needed. It was hugely advantageous to have that come to the house and load up.”

He estimates he purchased around 50 items from the converted party bus, which provides a vital service to strippers who, say, have kids or evening classes and don’t have time to make it out to a brick-and-mortar retailer to acquire new pieces.

“Frankly, it still is a party bus if you go in with the right spirit,” Travers finishes, chuckling. “It’s red on the outside, it’s fully logoed. It’s the least subtle object I’m aware of. Cardi B actually wears a piece that they made: Her pink and blue fishnets [are from the truck]!”

Hustlers is now playing in theaters.

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