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Interview: Costume Designer Nicky Smith Discusses Hulu’s ‘Up Here’

Hulu’s Up Here is a unique musical television series set during the final days of 1999. Throughout the show, characters have recurring fears about the beginning of a new century, including the infamous Y2K and their fashion styles progressively represent that new era. For costume designer Nicky Smith, what was most important for the design of the main characters, Lindsay (Mae Whitman) and Miguel (Carlos Valdes), was to follow how they would progress into the story:

“In the show, we are following the trajectory of two very different people. Throughout the episodes, Lindsay is finding herself. As she gets closer to New Year’s, she is actually coming more into herself, so her coasts become more vibrant, and we get more of the styles that we associate with the late ’90s, which become much more prevalent in her wardrobe. For Miguel, we got more into a quintessential business look of the ’90s. We want to push them further to what we, as an audience, remember of the more traditional late ’90s silhouette.

Between episodes four and five, Lindsay starts to find her personal style, whereas, in the beginning, she is wearing sad, long cardigans, which we then replay in a later scene for “You Got to Be You”. We really asked ourselves how we could explore the silhouette in the late ’90s and what we think these characters were like.

At the beginning of the show, Miguel’s banking suits had a little more color and panache. And as he assimilated himself to be a lot more like the other bankers, we took it down to Shades of Grey, and more traditional vintage shoots like Ferragamo and Armani, trying to create that edgy banker look.”

Since the show is a musical, many costume changes occur from scene to scene, especially when the protagonists break into song and dance. For Smith, many challenges can occur “whenever you’re dealing with a musical with singing and dancing” because “you’re dealing with a different action set, and the clothes need to give the actors the freedom to do that.”

“We ensured it was heightened realism in a couple of the numbers. In other ones, like “So Many Ways,” we totally wanted to flip the script around Miguel and pull him out of his reality. When it came down to numbers requiring a pull from reality or a total ship, we designed them to feel like a standalone number. When we wanted the numbers to flow seamlessly through the action and through the dialogue, there was less of a shift in the costume design.”

The show doesn’t only stay in late 1990s costume designs but has fun crafting a period The Great Gatsby-themed costume party. In designing 1920s-esque costumes, Smith “thought it would be interesting to find dresses and suits from the ’90s that had that a 1920s look to them. There was a time when, in the 1990s, 1920s attire was a thing that proms and formal meetings were doing. I wanted to incorporate ’90s clothes designed to look like ’20s clothes for the wedding so that it could feel connected to the show while also being a heightened moment on the edge of their reality.”

The show also has an inventive drug trip sequence in which Miguel becomes the character from the video game Cyprian’s Quest, which he helped create. In designing the video game sequence costumes, Smith “started with the art department of who we want these characters to be in the 2D video game version, so the developers can create the video game. I took the same sketches and created the costumes. Miguel’s suit of armor is actually a foam suit painted by one of the most talented 3D sculpture artists out there in New York.

He created his armor and the leather body that you see, even the chainmail. We built Cyprian’s cape and cloak in-house with my tailor, who is also from theater. He used every trick in the book to create the gold trim and the gold leaf. We chose fabrics with some dimension, so they wouldn’t look flat on camera. We were trying to ensure we didn’t mimic The Legend of Zelda and many of the early ’90s video games. We wanted to create something that felt similar but still had its own distinct entity.”

Up Here is now available to stream on Hulu in the United States and on Disney+ internationally.

[Some quotes have been edited for length and clarity]


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Written by Maxance Vincent

Maxance Vincent is a freelance film and TV critic, and a recent graduate of a BFA in Film Studies at the Université de Montréal. He is currently finishing a specialization in Video Game Studies, focusing on the psychological effects regarding the critical discourse on violent video games.

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