Mad About Style: ‘Mad Men’s’ Janie Bryant Reflects on Fashion and Costume Design

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Elisabeth Caren

In her original essay, the “Mad Men'” costume designer discusses how she found a place where fashion and film meet. 

My love of fashion and TV/film started as early as I can remember. My mother got me hooked on movies. When I was young, she would take dresses for my dolls. I made my first dress when I was 8 … and haven’t stopped.

I didn’t immediately think about fashion as a career, but I finally got my degree in fashion design. After school, I moved to Paris to follow my dream of becoming a designer. That didn’t really work out at the time, so I ended up moving to New York after four months in Europe. There, I worked as an assistant designer in the fashion district. One night, I met a costume designer at a party, and knew exactly what turn I wanted my career to take.

I was on a mission: I wanted to be a costume designer.

I called every single person I knew in the film business, and others I didn’t know, until I found a film producer who was looking for an assistant costume designer. And everything clicked.

Costume design is a visual way to tell the story about the characters in a script — which serves as a road map to the mood, time and feeling of a story. It was the perfect way to combine my love of film and my love of design.

A few years later, I moved to L.A., where I worked on many TV shows and films. Each project was like a fashion show on its own. It was surreal to be recognized for my work on the HBO Western period drama “Deadwood.” It was a true passion project, and every time I look at my Emmy, it’s a reminder of the amazing moments I had on that show.

But designing for “Mad Men” was what changed my life. In many ways, it also helped change the relationship between costume design and fashion.

I often wonder what would have been had I not been offered that job. At our first meeting, “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner and I talked about all the characters for two hours. Then my research process began. For “Mad Men,” that included watching movies from the ’60s, and looking at vintage catalogs like Sears and JCPenney, and vintage magazines like Good Housekeeping, Ladies’ Home Journal and Time. I looked at vintage photographs and newspapers, researched advertising professionals like David Ogilvy and Mary Wells Lawrence, and looked at inspirational fashion icons of the time, like Jackie O and Grace Kelly.

What resulted were looks like Don’s blue raw silk sport coat for Jon Hamm, Betty’s blue Chinese brocade gown for January Jones and Megan’s leopard fur coat for Jessica Pare, to name a few of my favorites. I was honored to see the show’s looks cited by fashion designers and commercial brands, to be told of their impact and influence on catwalks and collections. Then I started designing my own.

I worked with AMC and my friend Arthur Wayne at Brooks Brothers to design a limited-edition “Mad Men” suit, which was a great success. Next, I worked with Banana Republic creative director Simon Kneen to design three “Mad Men” collections, which generated amazing buzz, press, consumer excitement and sales. I loved designing for commercial appeal as well, interpreting my costumes for the customer with modern aesthetic and design sense. This was truly the intersection of costume design and fashion design, and it was such fun.

I’m still traversing both roads. Currently, I’m working on the NBC show “Telenovela” with Eva Longoria. I’ve designed most of the heels Longoria wears on the show. On the fashion front, I’m working on my own design collaborations with Black Halo dresses, Shoes of Prey and Hartmann Luggage. I also recently launched a legging collection with HSN, and menswear and home collections are hopefully in my future. I feel very fortunate to have a career as a costume designer and a fashion designer, and I look forward to continuing on both paths of my journey in design.