ARJUN BHASIN, THE COSTUME DESIGNER USING VINTAGE CLOTHING TO TELL THE PERFECT STORY
By Francine Heath
From the moment acclaimed costume designer and former GQ India Fashion Director Arjun Bhasin picks up my call, I know we’re in for a great interview. His love of vintage clothing practically drips from every word he utters, along with natural sincerity as he describes feeling lucky to have a job he adores. Interested in art, fashion and cinema from an early age, Bhasin moved from India to attend film school in New York, where he currently resides. Now an industry veteran in Hollywood and Bollywood, his name appears on the rolling credits of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (for which he bagged a Costume Designers Guild Award nomination,) Life of Pi,Gully Boy and more.
Among his many achievements, Bhasin is the man responsible for dressing a star with one of the most talked-about TV wardrobes ever: Sarah Jessica Parker. Styling Parker for HBO’s Divorce —her first leading television role since Sex and the City wrapped — would have been no mean feat considering the iconic outfits she wore as the sex columinist with a shoe addiction. “I felt like Sarah Jessica had been seen in every single designer and every single garment that existed in the world! It had all been done so beautifully and amazingly. I wanted to do something new and to present a completely different character to Carrie Bradshaw,” he explains.
As all eyes fell on what Parker was wearing as Frances DuFresne, Bhasin rose to the challenge with considered vintage clothes and a great tailor (or three!) on standby. “So much of her other show was about high fashion and incorporating the speed of which brands work. There was this rhythm to Sex and the City that almost mimicked the fashion industry — very frenetic and fast.” When reading the script for Divorce, he felt that the story of someone slowing down wouldn’t work with the kind of noise that often accompanies flashy labels and ceaseless outfit changes. “I loved the idea of being part of a continuum. Sarah Jessica and I spoke about it a lot and she loved the idea of using vintage pieces. Pieces that had once belonged to other people and had a story of their own. Pieces that were being borrowed for our purposes and for what we were doing at the time.”
In another departure from Sex and the City, Parker can be seen wearing some clothes on repeat in Divorce — her coat for example. I ask why; “Well, quite a few things were for the narrative and to show that she was in a bit of a rut. In some ways, the same coat reflected the repetition in her life that she was getting sick of. I also wanted to keep it real and honest to how someone would get dressed. After all, we do wear things again and again! I only have one winter coat and I wear it all winter long. You might have a couple of scarves in colours that make you feel good. Some that you wear on gloomy days and some when you’re happy. I wanted that feeling for her. That she was very much a creature of habit.”
I couldn’t help but wonder how Bhasin managed to find all of these gorgeous vintage clothes that fitted Parker like a dream. Is the key to creating a vintage-heavy closet for ourselves having the number of a fabulous tailor on speed dial? “Yes and no. With Divorce we had some fantastic tailors and the idea of repurposing things was very important to us. We didn’t want it to look dowdy. It still had to feel edgy and funky.”
As conversation flows, it becomes clear that it’s the hunt of finding great vintage clothes that the costume designer enjoys so much. “It’s pretty easy to go to a fancy department store and just pick up clothes. Finding special vintage pieces and repurposing them to make them work or fit is so exciting to me,” he gushes. As for exactly where he finds them, the answer is “almost everywhere”, though he’s starting to do a lot more work online now some of NYC’s stores are shuttering due to impossible rent demands. If he can’t get somewhere in person, at least the internet can connect him with a lady in rural American who just so happens to have a basement packed with 1940s dresses. “When I can, I’ll go from vintage collectors to fairs or weekend markets and The Salvation Army. I’ll go to the cheapest possible place to the most high-end trying to find the perfect thing.”
Familiarly, price tags originally kick-started Bhasin’s relationship with vintage. When he first moved to The Big Apple in the early ‘90s, he was a strapped for cash student who wanted to be seen in cool clothes. Vintage was the perfect solution because it was inexpensive, “I could go down to the charity shop, pick something up and repurpose it for myself. Later, I started to realise that I could do things for work with vintage that I couldn’t do with designer fashion. I could twist it and mould it to suit what I wanted it to do.” Sourcing vintage also made sense as he started to get jobs on small, independent films with low budgets, because he had ways of accessing it. “I did a film called Begin Again with Keira Knightley and on that we decided to use vintage clothing. To dress this young, broke musician, we went to The Salvation Army, picked things up and made them part of the story. It came from necessity, but I made it part of the narrative.”
Today, buying vintage personally holds a special place in his heart, “I would rather buy a garment that was a part of history, that belonged to a curated collection in the ‘70s or ‘80s, than buy something new. I feel like fashion has become so fast that the care and the attention to detail just isn’t the same. I’d rather spend a great deal of money on a beautiful 1940s suit than I would on a modern suit.” That’s his style and his thinking, he says. “I feel that fashion has been quite wasteful recently, too. I don’t think there’s any reason to have clothes going to landfills. That just seems unnecessary to me.”
Bhasin quite rightly points out that the world’s your oyster when it comes to thrifting. In his eyes, flaws or imperfections are opportunities to make a great find even more special, “there’s so much beautiful stuff out there. If something has a little hole in it, I’ll just darn it. If something doesn’t fit me correctly, I’ll alter it. It’s not the end of the world. In fact, I think it makes it precious.”
Francine Heath is a contributor to THEFORWARDLAB. London-based product editor and sustainable fashion journalist who advocates conscious consumerism and loves discovering those who are determined to drive change and create a better fashion future. She’s previously written articles for British Vogue, Eco-Age, Refinery 29, Mr Porter and i-D.