Seasons of clothes...

By Jessica Derschowitz
April 19, 2017 at 03:56 PM EDT
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Before Rent began its seasons of love in 1996 — premiering Off Broadway before going on to become a long-running Broadway smash, a movie, and cultural phenomenon — the musical’s creator, Jonathan Larson, had one request of the musical’s costume designer.

“We had this initial conversation where he just very seriously said to me, I really want the costumes to become iconic and a fashion trend, as opposed to the other way around, where fashion influences us,” Angela Wendt recalls. “And I just said, mmhmm, because you never really set out to do that, it’s when you have the right material in your hands and the right culture at the right time, then you influence fashion — and if you’re a good designer, dare I say so [laughs]. But it was interesting to me when he said that because I was like, ‘Okay! We’ll get right on that!'”

And get on it she did. As Rent began its ascension into the musical stratosphere — the critical accolades and growing fan base singing the score on repeat — the costumes became as influential as Larson had hoped. Sadly, he never got to see it happen: the composer died suddenly on the day Rent was to begin its New York Theater Workshop previews, at just 35 years old.

Wendt took EW through the origin stories of three of those incredibly memorable costumes — two worn by the irrepressible Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia) and another worn by the show’s narrator, Mark (Anthony Rapp). Raise a glass to “La Vie Boheme” and let her tell you how those now-famous ensembles came to fruition.

Angel’s Santa Outfit

Credit: Henry Leutwyler for EW

When it came to devising what kind of kitsch couture Angel would create for himself, Wendt focused on what the struggling drag performer would be able to afford. “I just kept going back to the script — like, he would find an old blanket on the street and make a dress and next year [it would be sold at] The Gap — that sort of creativity he has to make something out of nothing,” she says. “It took me a while and finally, just, the penny dropped, and I was like, of course, he’s gonna show up in a fabulous Santa drag outfit.”

With that level of fashion-forward thrift in mind, she crafted a scene-stealing fitted yuletide jacket from cheap fabrics, fake fur trim, and the kind of Christmas-tree tinsel you’d find at dollar stores. The zebra-print belt Angel wears with it was found at East Village store Trash and Vaudeville, and that provided the inspiration for the matching zebra tights, which they first painted before having them printed and made once the show was on its way to Broadway.

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Aside from that directive to make the costumes “iconic,” Wendt says she and Larson didn’t discuss the costumes in detail before he saw them on stage at the show’s invited dress rehearsal, right before he died.

“The really heartbreaking thing was … Jonathan sat behind me and I was like, ‘Oh, this is going to be interesting. He’s right behind me, I’ll know exactly what he likes and doesn’t like,'” she remembers. “When Angel came out in the Santa [outfit] he got all excited and leaned forward and said, ‘I love that, Angela.'”

The ‘Pussy Galore’ Coat

“Bond, James Bond.”

“And Pussy Galore, in person!”

That’s how Collins (Jesse L. Martin) and Angel (Heredia) made their “Happy New Year” entrance in Act 2, with the latter clad in a mod coatdress-and-boots ensemble.

Wendt wondered how she’d be able to top the Santa costume, again considering what Angel would have access to and be able to afford. “I really didn’t feel like he would go to Patricia Field or some fabulous drag store to get an outfit for New Year’s — it would be something that he would make that he has access to. So I’m in my head going through what he could have in his apartment as a creative person and I finally just went, I got it! He’s going to make a coat out of his shower curtain.”

Wendt personalized the coat it even further by collaging together photos of Angel’s friends and favorite fashions — clippings of looks by the likes of John Paul Gaultier and Claude Montana, plus snapshots of his fellow East Village dwellers/struggling artists Mimi (Daphne Rubin-Vega), Roger (Adam Pascal), and Mark. “It’s literally a shower curtain coat … the first one we made actually did use a shower curtain and collaged it in paper, and just attached it to the inside and then put another thin lining on the inside that the paper was protected.”

Wendt and her assistant, Claudia Hill, made the whole thing in the lobby of the New York Theater Workshop, as they didn’t have a real costume shop of their own at the time — a level of ingenuity that would have likely made Angel proud.

Mark’s Sweater and Scarf

Credit: Ron Frehm/AP

If you were living in America at the end of the millennium and were a fan of Rent, you surely remember the sweater and scarf ensemble worn by the show’s resident narrator and cameraman, Mark Cohen.

Because Mark’s costume stays the same throughout the play, finding the right piece for him to wear was key. “The sweater was definitely a process … when I had to create Mark, you think of the person that goes through the whole arc of the story in one outfit, because he tells the story, so we said we’re not going to change him, it’s all from his viewpoint,” says Wendt. “And so it’s hard to be something that we actually aren’t annoyed to look at for the whole two hours, fifteen minutes of the show and that travels well through everything — not too flamboyant but still interesting enough.”

After lots of searching and shopping without finding the right type of sweater, Wendt ultimately decided they’d make the burgundy and blue piece themselves — and when Mark wore it with its corresponding blue and white scarf, the look was complete.

The mix of patterns in his outfit — the horizontal stripe across the chest of his sweater, against the stripes in the scarf — was fitting for the Rent costumes, which contained a mix of offbeat colors and patterns inspired by Wendt’s own real-life experience. Originally from Germany, she settled in the East Village in the mid-’80s and spent her 20s living in the same neighborhood where Larson’s musical takes place.

“[Director] Michael Greif said you are our secret weapon dramaturg because you actually know the world that we’re trying to create here,” she adds. “And so I really knew a lot of the characters that were living in the East Village at the time and I did a lot of reality-based research and it was such a place that I was very comfortable with that I know this world, and one thing was that things weren’t perfectly color coordinated — but they still were cool.”

Rent is making stops now on a nationwide tour.

Rent (Stage)

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