“Gossip Girl,” as you’ve surely heard, is back, as the HBO Max reboot arrives this weekend. The series stays true to the original as a drama-filled, soapy slice of New York City teenage life, and also as a fashion-focused show that highlights what the cool kids of Upper East Side prep school life are into. For the 2021 version, “Gossip Girl” original costume designer Eric Daman is back and tasked with making a show that interprets of-the-moment New York chic as it is known to today’s youth. What that means is less headbands and colored tights and more gender fluid looks and minimal approaches to luxury; less Dior and Chanel and more Bode and Christopher John Rodgers.
Daman, who is based in L.A. but is in New York still at work on the show, talked with WWD about how he approached the new show’s looks.
WWD: How does it feel to be back in the “Gossip Girl” universe?
Eric Daman: It’s very exciting. It’s a wonderful world to be in and it’s full of fun and fantasy. The workday is definitely demanding, but the results seem to be really well-received. It’s just an exciting playground to be back in.
WWD: How did you learn about the reboot?
E.D.: Stephanie Savage, the producer and creator and showrunner of the original, reached out to me in what I think was September of 2019, and of course I was really excited to hear what it was all about. And then I had an incredible sit-down with Josh [Safran, the show’s writer] a few days after that, and he ran me through the lay of the land, that it was going to be this continuation of “Gossip Girl,” this fantastic new world of Gen Zers and what it meant as far as casting, inclusivity and gender norms and speaking to a much broader sociopolitical world than we did in the original — but also serving the fashion fantasy that we all know and love. So the fact that it was kind of teetering between both of those things was very exciting to me and just felt like a very progressive movement that I had to be on board with.
WWD: How did you begin?
E.D.: The beginning of the process was really a full immersion into Instagram and social media. It felt so important. I surf a little bit, but it wasn’t necessarily part of my daily culture to be on the ‘gram, searching and surfing and looking. But it felt very important to who these characters are and what Instagram meant to the storyline and to this generation. When we did the original, it was a blog, it wasn’t social media in the way that it is today. So to really dive in and see what was going on in that world was essential and set a real wildfire. It was the catalyst to the style and the fashion that we’re seeing. And now we’re seeing it on Instagram, as we talk. Full circle, art imitating life, imitating art, imitating Instagram.
WWD: The original show was such a fashion show and there was no Instagram, and now obviously Instagram is such a huge platform for the fashion industry and as a source of fashion discovery. What was that difference like between the original and the reboot?
E.D.: Yes, very different and very exciting. The connectivity of it I find fascinating. It seems like such an incredible tool and form of communication and a way for people that couldn’t connect in this way in the past. When I was a kid, I had to drive an hour outside of my little hometown to get Interview magazine. The kind of positive progress that we’ve made as a society, it’s kind of amazing to witness and be a part of. Being part of a culture movement and having the influence to do that with a progressive, positive voice is a wonderful gift that the show has given me.
WWD: What are examples of the more accessible, more inclusive approach to fashion that reflects the fashion industry as it is today?
E.D.: I think the way that we’re going about styling the school uniforms; they have a newfound ease to it. Before, Blair Waldorf was very buttoned up and everything was very severe in a way. Where I think the trends we’re seeing on the street and with this generation have almost a slacker ease to them. Not that they’re slackers at all, but that movement from the late ’90s/early Aughts, with things that are a bit more oversize, and there’s just an ease and minimalism to dressing now that is very different from the original.
I think that has an accessibility to it and a relatability, especially for this generation, that we can wear these three XL heritage varsity sweatshirts with our running shorts and that’s their school uniform, but yet kind of blows the norms up. Like for Julien Calloway [played by Jordan Alexander], for her to don a look like that, it never would have crossed my mind in the original not to be in a schoolgirl skirt, because we were within boundaries and norms. This has been a real Pandora’s box with exploration as to what we can do with the uniforms. To me, it really seems like that’s what’s getting clocked a lot on social media; so much discussion is around the school uniforms.
WWD: How did you approach Julien Calloway’s style?
E.D.: She’s not the most fashion forward, but I think she’s tagged as an influence. She’s the leader. When I was trying to figure out her character and her style, I was going through Instagram and it was Kaia Gerber, Sofia Richie, Hailey Bieber, Adut Akech [who inspired Julien]. Adut Akech, her Instagram is incredible and her behind-the-scenes international streetwear is just incredible. She has such an amazing way of pairing things and that just felt really right as the baseline for who Julien is. And then also, Julien’s father is a music producer, and when he was coming up, it would have been the early Aughts. And I really looked toward early VMAs of the late ’90s, early Aughts of Destiny’s Child. Looking at that led me to LaQuan Smith. LaQuan had just come out with that collection that felt very VMAs, very Destiny’s Child, of that era, but it was contemporary high fashion. It felt like a great baseline for Julien Calloway to sport LaQuan Smith and Christopher John Rogers and Wales Bonner, play in that world a little bit.
WWD: What about Zoya, played by Whitney Peak?
E.D.: Zoya is the new kid in town. She comes from a different economic background and her aspirations are more sociopolitical. She’s a writer and is an activist, and it was important to fuse that into her wardrobe. That to me meant finding Black-owned clothing goods stores and bookstores. She wears a Revolution Books tote, from the Black-owned bookstore here in New York. There was this Malcolm X sweatshirt that she wore in the spring from The Melanin Project. I infused her wardrobe with this voice, to show fashion as a platform that has a voice and has a power and that she can use that in the way she dresses to kind of sum up who she is. It’s not just a band T-shirt from Urban Outfitters.
WWD: And Thomas Doherty’s character, Max Wolfe?
E.D.: People are comparing him slightly to Chuck Bass. I think he’s just an evolved male that has such competence and poise with that open sexuality. He identifies as a male, but wears these beautiful fluid fabrics and fluid clothing. We dressed him in a lot of Bode, who is another great New York designer. And again, I wanted to work with these New York designers that aren’t just the old war horses who I adore and love. It’s not just Dior, all those things. I love all those designers. But I think what we did in the original and staying true to that, is working with these incredible…not up-and-coming, because they’re all part of the CFDA and they’re all very established designers, but maybe not as well known as the big brands per se.
There’s this one outfit he wears, a Paco Rabanne lace women’s blouse, but we put it on him and he looked so sensual and wears it with such ease and confidence, that it’s a really hot guy in a very sexy shirt. To play with those gender norms in a new way is also very exciting to be able to have conversations like we’re having right now and talk about what gender means for clothing and break down those boundaries. Same way that Julien will wear her dad’s Celine shirt. It’s this amazing oversize white dress that she can wear to school. And again, it’s not a man’s shirt, it’s just this amazing moment of clothing on someone. To degender, open up the box a little bit and have a bigger conversation about what clothing means, what gender means and how we all relate to it, which also feels very apropos to this generation and the conversations that they’re having. So it’s really awesome, and again, a great gift that we can play with and have these conversations through clothing.
WWD: Do any characters have certain style signifiers that are going to be their signature look, in the vein of Blair and her headbands?
E.D.: Not in the same way. Julien, who’s played by Jordan Alexander, has a shaved head and we’ve been doing a lot of mismatched earrings on her. Her earring game is kind of an iconic thing that’s going to follow her through, that is a signature. Because the earring can pose such an important statement without hair. The way I would play with Blair’s headband in the color and the tone to go with the outfit and also what was going on with her emotionally in the scene, I’m doing a similar thing with Julien’s earrings.
WWD: Did you have lots of things custom made or did you shop?
E.D.: It was a little of all of the above. It was a lot of sample work, and we did a lot of shopping. Coming back after the pandemic to New York, shopping was very different. The stores did not have as much merchandise and not as much variety of merchandise, and the runs that they would buy were much smaller. Also, because of the pandemic, a lot of collections hadn’t been produced. Mills had shut down, factories had shut down, all of that. I didn’t really realize all of that until I went out shopping and was like, “Oh, my god, there’s this whole domino effect that’s so much bigger than us.” But that also drove me in a different way to do more online shopping and more research and discover Mytheresa or The RealReal, or look at those shopping sites in a different way, and the need of fashion and luxury and availability, really.
WWD: What are some of the biggest comparisons and contrasts between the original and this version, fashion-wise?
E.D.: I think there’s a pretty big contrast. I think the fantasy is the biggest similarity. We’re still living in this amazing fantasy world and it’s chock-full of eye candy that people are going to look at and love and hopefully be inspired by. That’s the best part of doing what I do. I think the biggest comparison is that the fashion is going to be incredible and something to watch and a big part of the show.
I think the biggest contrast is, stylistically, we’re working in this much more minimalist world that isn’t as camp, and that has a sociopolitical tone to it in a new way. And there’s a consciousness that’s coming with the clothing that wasn’t part of the original dialogue, or wasn’t originally part of the original characters. The show, when you see it, is still full of drama. It’s very true to the “Gossip Girl” tone, which is awesome and I think the fans are going to love that about it. But also, it doesn’t have Serena in six different Stephen Dweck necklaces at the same time. We really pared down and are playing with this minimalist ease that we’re seeing in the streets and we’re seeing in this generation, that just feels pulled back in a way that the original did not.