Exclusive interview with costume designer Allisa Swanson on Firefly Lane

Allisa Swanson is an award-winning costume designer whose work in the industry has garnered acclaim for over 25 years now. She serves as the costume designer for Netflix’s hit drama Firefly Lane.

Known for her work in The 100 (2014), The Snow Walker (2003), When Calls the Heart (2014), and now Firefly Lane (2021), Allisa Swanson has had an illustrious career with awards and accolades aplenty. She has designed, created, and consulted for not just TV and films but also the 2010 Winter Olympics, among other things.

The costume designer brings her panache to Netflix’s romance drama series Firefly Lane, a show that employs non-chronological storytelling to follow two lifelong best friends through three different time periods in their lives.

In an exclusive interview for The Envoy Web, Allisa Swanson talks about the processes and elements involved in designing for different periods, characters, and sensibilities.

Firefly Lane is past the midway point of its sophomore season, and it has already covered five decades of Kate and Tully’s friendship, as well as the era-appropriate world and fashion surrounding them. As a costume designer, what kind of challenges does an extensive timeframe such as this pose?

Before the show is done, we will be up to six decades’ worth of fashion! It was challenging; it was fun; it required a heap of learning for my entire crew and a lot of organization. We had entire bays of background clothing separated into decades, and there were mood boards on the walls where all our costume crew could reference the silhouettes and styles of each given period, at any time. An entire mood board from each decade was dedicated just to shoes!

I was constantly researching. Anytime I saw something from the time period, I would snap a picture. “My List” on Netflix was filled with movies from the 60s to the 2010s – some from the actual period and some made to emulate the period like The Wedding Singer or Wonder Woman 1984 for example. 

We would have fittings based on actor availability, so I would be switching time periods with every new fitting in the day. This meant I had to really be on top of every single look!

I would do it again in a heartbeat. I really loved working on the show and it kept things so fresh and exciting because I got to work with all the different genres consistently. I love fashion history, so getting to work on this “time period” show was a dream come true.

Kate and Tully go through decades considered to be some of the most iconic in the pop-culture zeitgeist. What are the different fashion icons or iconic fashion trends from the concurrent eras that inspired you most during the process?

I combed over old fashion magazines, pattern catalogs, vintage patterns, old Sears and Eaton’s catalogs, as well as Pinterest at length. Movie stars of each era, the Supermodels of the 80s and 90s, and even photos we all brought in from old photo albums – this all went into our research for the different eras.

Burt Reynolds, Carrie Fisher, Brooke Shields, Princess Diana, Christie Brinkley, Christy Turlington, Kate Moss, Wynonna Ryder, Christian Slater, The Brat Pack, Johnny Depp, Jennifer Aniston, Brad Pitt, David and Victoria Beckham, Reese Witherspoon, Selma Blair, Oprah, Martha Stewart, Micheal Douglas – we really left no stone unturned.

Firefly Lane season 2 part 2 costumes
Image source: Courtesy of Netflix

Color was also a big part of the decades. Lots of golds, oranges, avocados, and earth tones in the 1970s, bright colors, geometric prints, and neons – these dominated the 1980s; whereas jewel tones, blacks, neutrals, and chartreuse ruled the 1990s. 

In some of the lighter moments during Kate and Tully’s teenage years, the former sports some matching hair with her new friend. Shed some light on the wigs that the ladies don this season.

Sarah Koppes and her Hair Department had a lot of work this season. There were wigs used for every era and on most actors.  Katie opted to stay blonde for Season 2, so she was wigged for every scene. Like the clothes, it was about finding iconic looks from time periods. I would send Sarah and Tanya (Makeup Head of Department) the lookbooks for each character to help them finish the looks in a cohesive manner. 

Firefly Lane is a story of the somber and the sweet, with a ride of emotional highs and lows throughout its runtime. How much does the emotional content of particular scenes factor into the costume design process?

It is all part of the tone, so it is a huge factor. Sometimes it is the driving factor for a costume. If a character is in a bad place and receiving bad news, having them in a bright pink could be too jarring – unless we want to have a deflating effect.

I comb through the scripts for all the information I can get, have meetings with the writers and director to see how THEY want the scene to come across. Then another conversation is had to work through all the information when I am in a fitting with the actor. We discuss the options, why each one works, then usually choose the one that makes the most sense given all previous conversations.

While Kate and Tully go through the ups and downs of their lifelong friendship, characters like Cloud and Charlotte have a rather drastic arc and transformations in terms of fashion sensibilities. Talk a bit about the process and decisions behind their wardrobe and the overall getups.

Cloud was one of my favorite characters. Firstly, Beau Garrett is a lovely human being and always a joy to see. Her character goes through so many ups and downs, and attempts to turn it around, but fails miserably, then tries again. As we have come to find out, her life was dictated by the adults in her world when she was a young teen in love and pregnant.

Her parents didn’t support her, neither did the family of the man she loved. That is her tragedy right there. When she finally reconciles (mostly) with Tully as an adult, Cloud has finally found herself in a place where she is happy with who she is. I really wanted to reflect that in her wardrobe. Soft, unique, comfortable, artistic, with a hippy vibe left over from the 70s.

Charlotte went from a geeky, young 20-something, to a secure confident woman who has taken the world by storm and doesn’t offer any apologies for it. We started with a very young, dorky sensibility in the 80s, and found her again in the 2000s with a sexy fierceness.  I used Julianna Margulies and Teri Hatcher as inspiration from the mid-to-early aughts.

A gleaming highlight of the costume design is the jewelry and the accessories the characters sport. How is tackling these elements of the costumes different from the clothes, if at all?

I always start with an outfit and then build the jewelry around that. We had flats and accessories from each era. A lot of clip-on earrings, broaches, pearls, necklaces, chokers; and the same with the ties, pocket squares, and suspenders for the men.

Particularly with the age and the metal that was used in jewelry back in the 1980s, we had to get quite a few re-posted with stainless steel posts. Anything on a shepherd’s hook, we replaced right away with a new, hypoallergenic one. More than one beaded necklace disintegrated on us, and we had to restring it!

For some outfits, I would pick the jewelry while in the fitting; and for some others, I would do after. A lot of Katie and Sarah’s fittings were over an hour long. And when you start futzing with jewelry for every look, it can easily triple that time.  That meant some days I would spend a few hours going through each character’s lineup and figuring out jewelry before outfits were complete.

Since so much of Firefly Lane is about Kate and Tully’s friendship and its highs and lows through the decades, what are some of the highs and lows that you may have had to contend with during the process? Are there certain aspects of the work you loved and some that you perhaps dreaded?

Underwear and nude scenes are a great challenge!  Amazingly enough, they can be the hardest to do. For nude scenes, we provide everything the actors wear to keep them as concealed as possible, and the more nude they are in a scene the more difficult it becomes. 

It is also emotionally challenging for our actors, and I do my best to give them everything I can; then our Set Supervisor, or their personal dresser, does everything possible while on set to keep them covered and most importantly comfortable. Even with underwear and bathing suits, you need to try on multiple looks until the actor is feeling their most confident. 

The next half of Firefly Lane season 2 marks the finale of the series. What can we expect from the surprises, if any, in terms of the costume designs for the final chapter of Kate and Tully’s story?

Oh! This final chapter is so much fun! We are in every decade from the 1960s to the mid-2010s! And lots more in the 1990s! There are multiple weddings – all in different decades; there is a moon ceremony; Shakespeare-themed parties; comebacks, leavings, and fantasy.  Almost everything you can imagine is in the last chapter and so many costumes.

Our workroom was super busy the entire season and there wasn’t any letup for this last section.  I am super excited about it and very proud of my entire crew for the amazing looks we pulled off from dressing Tully, Kate, our other leads, our guest stars, and to each background performer.

Also Read: Firefly Lane season 2 part 1 review: A thoroughly somber affair

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