For The Incoming Class, Gossip Girl’s Costume Designer Turned To Instagram’s Hottest Brands

An entirely new class of rich, entitled teens matriculates in HBO Max’s new Gossip Girl, with fresh dramas and storylines engineered to scandalize a 2021 audience. But one thing from the original, which ran from 2007 to 2012, remains constant: The fashion gets the top billing.

Not even 15 minutes into the premiere, a Constance Billard upperclassman sizes up the new girl, Zoya (Whitney Peak), and sniffs, “She has … a headband on.” In the freshman’s defense, it was only a decade ago when hair accessories, famously worn by alpha-girl Blair Waldorf (Leighton Meester), telegraphed social supremacy. Almost 10 years later though, and the new class at Constance Billard and St. Jude’s leans into sports- and street-wear, gender-neutral silhouettes, and socially conscious messaging, even if the wardrobes are still stacked with designer bonafides.

Since the first class of Gossip Girl graduated from the small-screen, much has changed. Gossip now spreads on Instagram and TikTok, and even though the show is still narrated by the all-knowing titular narrator (a returning Kristin Bell), this time there’s a significant twist. Not to worry, though, as the aforementioned fashion-policing portends: Each episode of the new series, out on July 8, is packed with Easter Eggs that will delight die-hard fans. A great deal of them come courtesy of Eric Daman, the costume designer who worked on the original series and returns as the wardrobe wizard. 

In the first series, a younger Daman — armed with a 2002 Emmy win, as part of Patricia Field’s team on Sex and the City reinvented how to wear heritage brands (see: Serena van der Woodsen’s yellow floral Ralph Lauren gown turned into an edgy bridesmaid dress). He also helped then-under-the-radar, downtown cool labels, like 3.1 Phillip Lim and Proenza Schouler, enter the sartorial lexicon. This time around, for inspiration, Daman turned to social media — exactly as the show’s Zoomers, particularly Instagram influencer Julien (Jordan Alexander), would do.

“[Social media is] such an important part of the storyline and what the plot is dealing with,” says Daman. “But, also, what is influencing trends — and what’s going on in fashion — is coming out of social media, in particular, Instagram.” In preparing for the show, he fell into an IG rabbit hole studying celebrity street-style stars, including Sofia Richie and Kendall Jenner, and tracking the brands they wear and tag. “I’m a big fan of Adut Akech, who is a big influence for Julien,” Daman says of the South Sudanese-Australian model whose off-duty style has made waves. “[Studying fashion’s accounts] led me to LaQuan Smith and Christopher John Rogers, ” he adds, naming some of the cutting-edge designers whose pieces feature on the show. 

He compares his process, of examining influencers and mapping out their connections to brands and designers, to creating an “amazing string map.” The approach also illustrates how the new Gossip Girl class — that rules the schoolyard, the Met steps, and the exclusive members-only Dumbo House (which conveniently doesn’t card minors) — is made up of discerning tastemakers and style-spotters in their own right. “It’s so important to the [show’s] original DNA to continue that trajectory with New York designers and how the cast dresses,” says Daman. “It’s really important to infuse it with these new and upcoming New York designers that aren’t as established as a Gucci or a Saint Laurent.” 

The brand lineup also reflects the new Gossip Girl’s plotlines and characters, who care about social and political issues (sometimes, anyway) and Gen Z values. Daman sought out to incorporate BIPOC-owned, women-run, eco-friendly, and gender binary-breaking contemporary labels, such as Noah, Rowing Blazers, Collina Strada, Bode, Danielle Guizio, Monse, and Wales Bonner. 

In initial discussions, Daman recalls, “a lot of producers and higher-ups” floated “big, big establishment names, like Tom Ford or Marc Jacobs” for the premiere’s runway moment. However, “the more we got into it and discussed what it really meant — and what is relevant to what Gossip Girl really is and what people love about Gossip Girl — is these up-and-coming New York designers,” says Daman. Enter: a theatrical (and fictional) Christopher John Rogers Spring 2021 runway show. It makes sense: Real, plugged-in New York City “cool kids” like Julien, the shaved-head queen bee who closes the runway show in the premiere, would be more likely to wear Rogers’ label and rub elbows with fellow fashion power players than to swan around in head-to-toe establishment couture.

Rogers, who won the 2019 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund and the 2020 CFDA American Emerging Designer of the Year awards, is firmly established in his own right, but the timing of the collaboration with the TV show could not have been more propitious. Leading up to filming, Rogers made headlines when Zendaya appeared at the virtual Emmys last September wearing a sculptural, plunge neckline dress from his Fall 2020 collection. Then, in January, Vice President Kamala Harris championed the young designer by wearing an amethyst coat and dress to the Inauguration. “His talent was so incredible and the color and the vision — and how he was casting his shows — and the imagery he was projecting just felt really right for the kind of the progressive, inclusive vibe that we’re trying to promote,” says Daman, who still seems in awe of the spectacular sequence of sartorial events. “I’m so grateful that the internet led me here.”

Because of the pandemic, Rogers presented his Spring 2021 collection — a whimsically bold grab bag of Crayola colors, eye-popping graphic prints, and dynamic embellishments — as a digital lookbook. Now, the full-blown runway show appears on the Gossip Girl premiere. “A little bit of a feather in our cap,” says Daman.

In another fantasy-meets-realism moment, Julien’s scheming sidekicks, clout chaser Luna La (Zion Moreno) and her de facto social media manager Monet (Savannah Lee Smith), both wear looks from the designer’s previous season as a “nod” to what really happens at NYFW. “These fans would be like, ‘I’m wearing Christopher John Rogers to the Christopher John Rogers show’ because that’s how it goes,” says Daman.

In the sophomore episode, Julien flexes in a ripped-from-the-CJR-runway denim bustier gown, “which also makes sense as part of this world where, ‘Okay, I was in the show, now I have this gown that isn’t even available yet,’” explains Daman. To further muddle reality and fantasy, paparazzi photographs of Alexander filming the outdoor scenes in the not-yet-available dress caused a frenzy in November. “Art imitating reality and reality imitating art,” Daman says with a laugh. “That is also this insular fashion world that we’re living in.”

NEW YORK, NY – JUNE 02: Jordan Alexander, Whitney Peak and Eli Brown are seen at the film set of the ‘Gossip Girl’ TV Series on June 2, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Raymond Hall/GC Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK – NOVEMBER 23: Whitney Peak is seen filming a scene for ‘Gossip Girl’ in the Upper East Side on November 23, 2020 in New York City. (Photo by Gotham/GC Images)

Daman enjoyed showing Julien using her clout and playing fashun fairy godmother to Zoya by gifting swag. The alpha girl bestows the newbie with a pair of Adidas x Beyoncé Superstar platform sneakers for the first day of school and a sparkly neon orange Alex Perry dress for Fashion Week. “Because she’s an influencer, Julien has all these things being sent to her, and they are all part of the story plot,” says Daman. 

He leaned into another Gossip Girl signature — bags — this time to express Zoya’s activism and socially responsible values. “We reached out to Black-owned bookstores to make sure she’s carrying totes that represent that [spirit] in New York,” explains Daman. Some of the businesses that made it into the show include Revolution Books in Harlem; Adanne in Dumbo; Word Up in Washington Heights; and Community Bookstore in Park Slope. Zoya exercises her voice sartorially in pieces by social justice and graphic art brand Philadelphia Printworks; political call-to-action T-shirt line, All Riot; diaspora-celebrating Melanin Apparel; and bAnchored, which supports mental health professionals and social workers. It all adds up to “a way for us to incorporate those voices are very very important,” says Daman.

Zoya, a transfer student from Buffalo, also serves some throwbacks referencing her predecessors. While her plaids, flannels, and vintage (or vintage-inspired) aesthetics speak to character, Zoya’s grunge-y looks convey another meaning. “There’s a nod to Jenny Humphrey in there,” says Daman.

NEW YORK, NY – NOVEMBER 23: Tavi Gevinson is seen on the set of ‘Gossip Girl’ is seen on November 23, 2020 in New York City. (Photo by Jose Perez/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)
NEW YORK, NY – NOVEMBER 20: Emily Alyn Lind seen on the set of ‘Gossip Girl’ in the Financial District on November 20, 2020 in New York City. (Photo by James Devaney/GC Images)

The costume designer took liberties with schoolday accessorizing, like long wool socks that bring Serena’s stellar over-the-knee game to mind. “We played with socks and tights in a new way, but also that harkens back to the cool-girl vibes,” he says. The introduction of fashion darling and media multihyphenate Tavi Gevinson as the mysterious Kate Keller also nods to an iconic moment from the original. Gevinson wears a camel blazer, navy-and-cream striped sweater, and silk neck scarf in the premiere that mirror Serena’s debut in a caramel leather peacoat, Breton top, and neckwear at Grand Central Station. “It’s like that first Serena moment, and then we get this Tavi moment and you don’t know: ‘Is Tavi coming? Is she a student? Who is this new outsider?’” says Daman.

Elegant, sharp-tongued Audrey (Emily Lind), whose mother (Laura Benanti) is also a big-time fashion designer, seems like Blair’s heir apparent. But “if Blair was Audrey Hepburn. Audrey is a little more like Grace Kelly,” says Daman, referencing the original show’s homages to Breakfast at Tiffany’s star. “They both harken back to beautiful, old-world classics,” he says. For the aforementioned gala, and the ensuing steamy trysts, lingering glares, and public meltdowns, Audrey wears an elegant bustier-topped black gown by Rasario. “To me, it is a very contemporary version of Blair Waldorf,” says Daman.

NEW YORK, NY – MAY 20: Jordan Alexander is seen at the film set of the ‘Gossip Girl’ TV Series on May 20, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Jose Perez/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)

With an expanded cast — including dreamboat Maxwell (Thomas Doherty), pink-haired skater boi Aki (Evan Mock), and filthy-rich do-gooder Obie — as well as more scenes set at school, Daman enjoyed even more creative freedom with the already envelope-pushing uniforms that would result in suspension in real life. He initially proposed trousers instead of skirts for the girls, but then another bolt of online inspiration struck, leading to Julien’s notable play with athletic gear which includes bike shorts. “There is this timeline of Hailey Bieber emulating all these iconic Princess Diana varsity sweaters and shirts and biker shorts. It was such a great look,” says Daman, who clocked Jami Gertz in an oversize athletic-striped pink sweatshirt and cycling shorts in the 1987 movie, Less Than Zero. “It’s all trend-driven,” he adds. “Again, re-driving the trend.” And, so the updated uniform, of louche button-ups, roomy collegiate knits, elevated letterman jackets, and detention-flouting hot pants, was born.

Deeper into the season, Daman pushes the dress-code boundaries to an absurdly chic degree, with getups like Monet’s clavicle-baring Fleur du Mal cut-out shirt accessorized with a Gucci bow brooch or Julien’s cable-knit Polo V-neck over a billowing white button-up shirt, thigh-high Stuart Weitzman boots, and no pants. “This was full-blown, like a Pandora’s Box fully exploded,” Daman says with a laugh.

The generous costume budgets made it possible to live out his dream of modifying designer jackets, in lieu of basic blazers. “I feel like [the students] would be buying the highest-end Balmain and Saint Laurent and Burberry, with school gear vibes that are on-trend, and then adding Constance Billard logos or the St. Jude’s crests,” says Daman. “It’s been a lot of fun to — I wouldn’t say, ‘corrupt’ those designer pieces — but they’re Constance Billard varsity jackets by Saint Laurent.” This fashion collaboration earns its A+.

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