Costume designer Mitchell Travers took to the streets to research the looks for “In the Heights,” set in Manhattan’s lively Washington Heights neighborhood. Travers spent hours photographing people — in the morning to see what workers rushing to subway stations looked like, at parks, and in shops. Directed by Jon M. Chu, the musical based on the Broadway hit opens in theaters and on HBO Max on June 11.
“I would see girls fully styled out and think, ‘There’s Vanessa.’ I’d see another kid and think ‘Everything about him could be Usnavi,’ and I’d rob these details from real street styles,” Travers says about seeking inspiration for the principal actors, played by Melissa Barrera and Anthony Ramos.
He ventured into salons under the guise of “looking for a friend,” and in those moments took in details about what people were wearing as they got their hair and nails done. “In the salon sequence, there was a girl in basketball shorts and Air Force 1s,” he says. “She’s in a little tank top with a sports bra, and that’s a real look ripped from real life.”
The notion of community is at the core of the film. As Travers spent more time in Washington Heights doing his research, he began to see the subtle differences between 145th Street and 160th Street. “I’d start to understand the blocks and what they look like and what the energy felt like,” he says. He let that sensibility filter into his costume design.
The goal, Travers hopes, is for audiences to feel the authentic pulse of the neighborhood — particularly in large-scale showstoppers like the titular opening number in which “550 dancers are custom-fit and designed to work as a cohesive group.
Travers was vocal about aiming for believability in casting. “I didn’t want a bunch of dancer bodies. I wanted to feel real human beings of all shapes and sizes so you feel it’s the neighborhood dancing.”
For the song “96,000,” shot at a public pool, Travers worked to find costumes that would make the diverse ensemble feel confident. “It’s a credit to the Latinx community because they are the most body-positive group,” he says.
When it came to color palette, Travers tried to use less black because the movie is a joyous and celebratory one. However, there were exceptions. “I use it on Vanessa in ‘96,000’ because Jon was doing these shots of everyone in the pool, and it’s got that Busby Berkeley old Hollywood musical feeling, but where does your eye go if you’re using every color in that sequence?”
Travers found a Brazilian designer for Vanessa’s bikini in this number. “It really helped focus your eye. My job is to help you know where to look in the scene when you’re surrounded by 700 people in a pool.”
While putting his wardrobe together, Travers had to consider outfits for the dancers who had to move around and dance in when required. The secret? “We’d have to think about stretch denim and gussets. We had to have traction on all of the sandals and the sneakers — not all sneakers are meant to dance in,” he says. “There’s a lot of consideration that goes into making the costume look beautiful in motion and also support the action of the dancer.”
Among the myriad community members are salon owner Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega) and hairdresser Carla (Stephanie Beatriz), who are in a relationship. Rubin-Vega helped with wardrobe suggestions. “She was willing to take risks and said, ‘Maybe I had pants that I used to wear to the clubs and now, I’m wearing to a salon.’” That kind of collaboration represented the spirit of the movie.
Vanessa’s entrance is a shoe shot, which Travers loves, but says “This is ‘In The Heights’ if you were to distill it into two shots.” Her character is first introduced during the “In the Heights” number, sporting a neon orange and python sneaker heel. “There was something about those shoes when I found them. I thought, ‘ I don’t really want to introduce her in any other way than you in this neon orange and python sneaker heel.'”
Travers says, “This is a love letter to real people, styled in a musical way.”