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How Girls' Jenn Rogien Made It From Saks Buyer to Hollywood

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Images courtesy HBO.
Images courtesy HBO.

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It's just below freezing one winter morning in New York City, but the grueling temperature does not seem to faze Jenn Rogien. The television costume designer waltzes into a Kips Bay diner and by the grace of her vintage tent coat, blond pixie cut, and bubbly persona, it's easy to understand why she's making costumes for some of today's hottest TV shows.

A Brooklyn resident and Yale graduate, Rogien originally started her career as an assistant buyer at Saks Fifth Avenue. She'd always been interested in fashion but never knew she could turn a passion for theater costumes into a career. Rogien eventually returned to school, attending the Fashion Design AAS program at Parsons. She landed several production assistant and costume assistant jobs before a producer on The Good Wife recommended her for the HBO gig.

Rogien has an impressive list of films and TV shows on her resume from the past ten years, including Disney's Enchanted, CBS's The Good Wife, and NBC's Lipstick Jungle. But the triumph really rolled in last year when she was tapped by HBO to work on the costumes of the hit series, Girls, whose third season debuts January 12, 2014. Rogien was also chosen this year by Netflix to design the costumes of Orange is the New Black.

Now, as she sipped a black tea, Rogien (pictured at right) spoke about her excitement for the upcoming premiere of the third season of Girls and admitted it was one of her favorite shows.

"I'm incredibly lucky to work on a show that I care deeply about," Rogien said. "I'm a huge fan of the show, and would likely watch some episodes multiple times, even if I wasn't [working] on the show."

Choosing the costumes for Girls is an "incredibly collaborative experience," she said. While she makes the costume choices, she takes cues from the show's gatekeepers, which include Lena Dunham, Judd Apatow, and Jenni Konner.

Rogien does plenty of homework in deciding how to dress the show's main characters—Hannah, played by Dunham, Jessa, played by Jemima Kirke, Marni, played by Allison Williams, and Shoshana, played by Zosia Mamet. Rogien said she focuses on street style and style blogs as she pays attention to each character's style. She has freedom to shop for their wardrobe as she feels the script describes them, and must work to keep up with their evolution—with notable changes coming in season three.

The notorious mesh tank top.

"There's been a huge evolution in the characters as the seasons have gone on. Hannah has started out as a lovingly disheveled character, and now she's almost getting it together. Marni started out as very poised and polished, and now she's just trying to stay polished. Shosh started out as the show's most sweet, feminine character and she's evolved into someone whose style is a little more self-aware. Jessa is probably the most consistent because she's eclectic, but she too is evolving in new and strange ways," she said. "I'm sworn to secrecy but [I will say] the costumes in season three will certainly be different, as they will reflect choices some characters have made in season two."

The craze surrounding the award-winning show is based off of its tangibility: rather than presenting glamorous and fashionable characters a la Sex and the City, Lena Dunham's world in Girls offers a more realistic approach to how twenty-something-year-old women try to find careers and relationships in New York. But while much of the clothing on the show is certainly realistic, every piece chosen by Rogien has significance.

"For every item of clothing you see, there were another three to five choices. I present different options for every costume," she said. "Take the green mesh top, for example. That was a very specific item of clothing that was written in the script, when Lena's character switches shirts with someone in the club. We basically had to get our hands on every mesh tank top in town, because it got wet and sweaty so we had to keep changing it. The challenge in that scene, actually, was dressing a character where it was believable he'd wear such a thing."

The plastic dress.

"Another [intentional item for significance] was the plastic dress Marni wore to the art party. It was actually one of my favorite outfits on the show, because I made it, but also because it was so indicative of where Marni was at that moment. She was trying so unbelievably hard to impress this artist and it backfires on her," Rogien added. "The script had said she was to wear a plastic dress, but turns out, there were none to buy, so I had to do research for fashion items with alternative material, looking at the 1960s, and [houses like] Alexander McQueen to make it."

Speaking of intentions, Rogien admitted the costumes usually look bad on Dunham's character, Hannah—and that is on purpose.

"Hannah's story is that she's disheveled so her clothing requires it. She makes questionable decisions, and we try to reflect that every way we can. I intentionally manipulate her hemlines so that they are not flattering, and we pick colors that aren't the best on Lena because they work for Hannah," she said. "We over-alter, we under-alter, and we manipulate waistlines to be too high or too low. There are even times when we had to reject things because they looked too good."

Rogien said some of the bizarre clothing choices Dunham wears were scripted, like the fruit-pattern "power clashing" outfit she wears to a club with Elijah (Andrew Rannells), while others evolved after Rogien did some shopping.

"One time, Lena and I were joking about shorts overalls being a thing. Then I texted her from a store when I found a pair, and then the word 'shorteralls' ended up later in the script," she laughed.

Hanna and Elijah.

Rogien said the wardrobe of Girls is a giant hodgepodge. She generally starts shopping for the cast by hitting Brooklyn, frequenting thrift stores like Atlantis Attic, Beacon's Closet, and Vice Versa. She'll then sift through some exclusive vintage spots like New York Vintage and Early Halloween. Finally, she'll visit chain retailers such as J.Crew, Zara, Gap, Bloomingdale's, and Century 21. She also shops at a Salvation Army store, whose location she would not share in fear of revealing her best-kept secrets.

"I do a lot of mix and matching because it's the strongest way of achieving a real-person look, which we all do in our lives," she said. "The reality of the character is that they don't have a ton of money so we try to be true to that. Thankfully, it is a TV show so every now and then I get to cheat and buy some high-end items."

To keep up with the show's setting, Rogien said her team spends a lot of time focusing on Brooklyn. The plaid usage with many of the show's male characters, for example, "is a direct reflection of what's going on in Brooklyn right now." But, she noted, she steers away from trends, since Girls airs almost a year after shooting, and because the characters on the show are not "trendy hipsters—although, Shoshana certainly reads her fashion magazines."

Rogien wouldn't divulge any plot details about season three, but did mention she had fun dressing some new characters, and that there will be one particularly notable costume in the middle of the third season she hopes fans will appreciate.

The costume designer has done some partnerships outside of television, including collaborations with Gap and Aerie. For now, she's focusing her attention on the second season of OITNB, but said she might explore some sort of shoe collaboration in the future. If they're anything like the incredible feather dress Jemima Kirke's character wore to the Bushwick party (above)—which Rogien made, too— then we're totally on board.

Jenn Rogien headshot by Joe Tanis.

· Girls [HBO]
· The Moral of Girls Episode 3: Mesh Shirts Work Best When You're Too High To Care [Racked]
· Growing Into Girls: 22 Love-Hate Moments From the First Season [Racked]
· 'Girls' Is Getting a Nail Polish Line Courtesy of Deborah Lippmann [Racked]