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Behind the Wardrobes of House of Cards' Power Players

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Photo by Patrick Harbron for Netflix.
Photo by Patrick Harbron for Netflix.

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The wardrobe of the hit show House of Cards is so flawless, it's enough to make any working professional envious. From the impeccable shift dresses worn by Robin Wright's character, Claire Underwood, to the dapper tailoring on her husband Frank (played by Kevin Spacey), every detail of the the Netflix-created D.C. drama—which was nominated for the first Primetime Emmy Award for an online-only web show—is perfect.

Last week, Racked spoke with costume designer Johanna Argan ahead of the show's second season, which will be released in full this Friday, February 14. Argan joined House of Cards after season one's costume designer Tom Broecker left the show. After the jump, Argan discusses just how she made the move to TV and film from positions at Liz Claiborne and Scoop NYC, what it's like to personally style Kevin Spacey and the "very risqué and super chic" new character to watch out for in season two.

How did you first get into costume design?
"I'm from New York, born and raised. My dad was in the garment business so I've been around clothes all my life. That's how I learned to sew—my dad would bring home scraps—so I learned a lot about fine women's clothing from textiles. I went to Rutgers, got a degree in psychology, and took a job right out of college on Wall Street, working for AIG. I hated it! My dad said I should do something with clothing so I got a job at Liz Claiborne, an assistant job in the handbag department, and began working in product development. After two years, I moved to Scoop NYC working with Stefani Greenfield on the buying side and ended up dressing a lot of socialites and stylists. I sort of fell into styling because Stefani asked me for help."

Johanna Argan. Photo by Nathaniel Bell.

How did you make the jump to TV?
"I had a fashion and design life first and then my first costume job was actually being the costumer for Kevin Spacey for the movie Edison. I've worked with Kevin for a long time. Before that, I was styling him and doing his personal shopping and he asked me what I wanted to do. I told him I wanted to work on moves and that's how I got in. I'm really lucky; he trusted me and believed in me and wanted to help. He's really into that, helping young talent if he can."

Have you worked on any other television shows?
"House of Cards is the first TV show I've done. I primarily have done movies, a lot with Kevin Spacey. I worked with him on films [like] 21 and Shrink.

Do you feel like you have big shoes to fill, taking over for Tom Broecker?
"Oh yes! Tom is a legend and super genius at what he does. He set the look for the show, though a huge part of it came from David Fincher [House of Cards' executive producer]. David has a stylistic sort of portrait that he paints with the show. His look is very specific: he likes dark against light, with cool, blue, steely tones. I wanted to honor the look of the show and grow with the characters so I try to keep the aesthetic while I add my own touch."

Photo by Patrick Harbron for Netflix.

What's different, costume-wise, under your direction?
"When I came on board, the costumes were set already. This season, we kept the structure silhouettes that Claire Underwood wears but added a little flare. I raised her sleeves, flared out her skirts, added peplum jackets. We did some changes as homage to Dior like [using a] peplum jacket like the flare-waist jackets Dior used to do."

How would you describe your style? What designers do you love?
"I'm masculine feminine. I'm a tomboy with a soft edge. I really like the Row and I am loving Saint Laurent right now."

Is there anyone in real-life politics that you look to for fashion inspiration?
"I like to look at women in the political scene. Queen Rania of Jordan has amazing, exquisite taste. She's very classic but she dresses in warmer colors and I love her structures. Also, the Sheikha [Mozah] of Qatar. She's from a Muslim country so she's more covered up, but she does it in the boldest way. That relates to Claire because age-appropriate-wise, it needs to be tasteful but sexy. I also look to Mrs. Obama. I love that women in the political world don't dress like men. Even though they are in a man's world, they are the minority and can still be feminine and strong."

Robin Wright as Claire Underwood. Photo by Patrick Harbron for Netflix.

About the costumes: do you try to make them reflect the character?
"[On the show] these characters go in to war and as Tom used to say, the clothing is their armor. If you look at Frank and Claire Underwood, they are cold and calculating and they know what they are doing. Every choice they make, from action to wardrobe, is purposeful, and their clothing corresponds to that. Claire only wears black, grey, blue, and navy. She does wear neutrals but it's a very strict color palette. You'll never see anyone wear red."

Where do you shop for Claire?
Theory, Neiman Marcus, Burberry, Zara. We do a lot of high-and-low mixing for Claire: like we'll pair a Banana Republic shirt with a Dolce & Gabbana skirt, but we tailor the heck out of the shirt so the whole outfit looks expensive."

Where are Claire's pantsuits and dresses from? Every single one looks amazing.
"That's because Robin Wright is a genetic freak and has the best body ever. But she works to keep her body that way. Her pants suits and dresses are from The Row, Akris Punto, Theory, Gucci. But it's not always about the designer; it's what works on her body and what we want her wardrobe to say. With dresses, we'll buy a lot of shift dresses and tailor them to her body because the hemlines in stores are really short now and aren't appropriate for the setting our show is in."

Photo by Patrick Harbron for Netflix.

Claire is never dressed down. Does she own sweats?
"No, you'll never see her dress like that. Casual Claire is like someone else's dressed up personal [style]. You'll never see her in sweatpants and a T-shirt."

What about Frank Underwood?
"Kevin pretty much exclusively wears Burberry with a hint of Ralph Lauren. We choose specific suit colors, specific ties, specific colors that all do subtle things to his jaw line, body shape, and skin. Frank will never look like he walked out of GQ, but he also doesn't look frumpy. He's a politician so he can't look too overly done and stylized."

Mahershala Ali, playing Remy Danton. Photo by Nathaniel Bell for Netflix.

And Remy Danton [played by Mahershala Ali]?
"Oh, I love to style that man and he's also the nicest man on the planet: super humble and a pleasure to work with. Remy is a lobbyist so he has a lot more money, working for powerful people in the private sector. He has to care about what he looks like. He's one of the few people on the show that we put color on. I put him in pink shirts a lot. All his shirts are Tom Ford and so are most of his ties. I try to add a pocket square sometimes. His suits are Dolce & Gabanna and Ralph Lauren Black Label. Again, here, it's all about the tailoring and we get the suits with a very specific cut."

Zoe Barnes' [played by Kate Mara] wardrobe seems to be all costumes and sweatshirts.
"Zoe is a reporter, so she doesn't make a ton of money. She's right out of college, trying to make it, and is working it hard. She has things like a great leather jacket and boots but she's gotta be ready to go when there's a story. She's more practical and functional with street style. For her, we shop at Urban, Zara, H&M—pretty simple."

Photo by Nathaniel Bell for Netflix.

Claire and Frank run a lot. Do you get to pick out fun athletic wear?
"We use Nike because they are generous to us. We don't like to over think things like that; we keep things really simple: like Claire would never wear Lululemon because it's too feminine."

Is it hard to work with the fashion houses because you're from Netflix, and not a TV network?
"No, it's easy. I don't know what Tom's experience was, but with me, nobody wants to give anything away for free. But some places are very generous, like Burberry and Ralph Lauren. I get most things with a discount."

So many characters wear suits in the show. How do you keep that from getting boring?
"It's actually not because you can change up the suit by changing the shirt and tie. And that's the look of Washington. But it definitely is more fun to dress the women."

Who's your favorite character to dress?
"Equally Remy and Frank. There are elements I love about Remy, and with Kevin, we talk everything through, like why Frank would select this tie and that suit. Also, there's a new character that is very risqué and super chic. He was a fun one to dress to."

Photo by Nathaniel Bell for Netflix.

Are there any iconic outfits we can look out for? Like Zoe's white dress?
"Yes! When you'll see how the plot twists and turns, you'll see how something still stand out. I can't give anything away, but with one moment, you'll see with the costume the reason why Claire and Frank are dressing the way they do."