Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Coogi, LED Sneakers and the Return of the ’90s

It’s been a good year for former punk rocker Tina Nigro, who is the costume designer for the instant-smash Netflix comedy series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

Created by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock–and starring roommates Kimmy Schmidt and Titus Andromedon with their landlady Lillian Kaushtupper (Ellie Kemper, Tituss Burgess and Carol Kane)–Unbreakable is a comedy that almost lets you forget it’s about overcoming abuse and struggling with poverty in New York City. 

We talked to Nigro about the concept of “fitting in” and styling for the bright and bold Kimmy and Titus, as well as Jane Krakowski’s designer-wearing Jacqueline Voorhees and her scheming teenage daughter Xanthippe (Dylan Gelula).

We also touched on how Nigro wore a single, disembodied arm of a motorcycle jacket in high school. And that she happened to buy Kimmy’s Munki Munki pajamas at Nordstrom.Shop: pajamas

Nordstrom blogs: Congratulations on the show being a hit. How big a deal is this for your career? How has your life changed?

Tina Nigro: It’s gotten a lot of press, which is something I haven’t gotten before. I’ve done a lot of dramas, and everyone asks me if it’s different. Obviously, it’s a comedy, so you can use a lot brighter colors than a drama. But I don’t know what it’s done for my career, yet. Hopefully good things. The look of the show has gotten a lot of attention. The style is something people are drawn to. The other stuff I’ve done, it hasn’t been that.

It makes common sense that a serious drama would have darker colors in the costumes, and a comedy would be bright. Is that always the case? Does it just naturally make sense?

It does. When someone is crying because their kid’s been killed or somebody was raped, to dress them in bright colors is distracting. It takes away from the words, which are so important in a drama. Not that words aren’t important in comedy, too–on the contrary. But I think clothes help define characters more in comedy than in drama, if that makes sense.

Not to contradict you, but Unbreakable is a show about a rape survivor and it’s very bright and funny. Although, when she’s in the bunker in flashbacks, the tones of the clothes are more subdued and drama-serious.

The one thing we tried to do with the clothes in the bunker, almost in a creepy way, is they’re all in Easter egg pastels. Not greens and browns and blacks. Their surroundings are that, but the clothes they wear are these muted brights. We did that on purpose, basing them off those modest-dressed religions–no religion specifically, but sort of all of them–and then did the color palette that way, to off-balance the background, and also to keep it a little, uh, creepy and obscure.

Good job.

Thank you.

Kimmy dresses like an adolescent but also passable for an adult. Is that because of her character solely, or do you notice that being on-trend for other 29-year-olds?

We tried to keep it where, the last time she went shopping was in the ’90s. We didn’t want it to look like she’d been to a thrift store and was headed to a bad theme party. So we use things that somebody who was stuck in the ’90s would relate to, but with a modern twist on it. We didn’t want her to look super out of place, but we did want her to stand out.

You buy her character as earnestly trying to dress well. And also fun. But just dress normally.

Exactly. She remembers shades of things and styles from back then, but she’s shopping in stores now. And all the trends come back. Is there anything that’s new and never been seen before? It’s all twists on past things. So she’s drawn to those things. As opposed to things that come from a different time period or are super modern.

Kimmy and Xanthippe both dress like the ’90s. In what ways are they different takes on dressing like that decade?

Xan’s take comes from purely a fashion standpoint, as far as what’s in fashion for people her age to wear right now. She wants to dress like her friends and people she’s seen in magazines. With a little punk, grungy, I-have-a-lot-of-money-but-don’t-want-to-look-like-I-have-a-lot-of money thing. Where Kimmy’s more pure in the way that she shops. She is just liking things that she likes. Things that appeal to her for her own reasons.

That’s what’s so cool about her character. I don’t know if the descriptor would be self-possessed or self-assured, but she’s coming from a place, and it’s not somebody else’s place.

Right. And you know maybe it’s that–even though it was very messed up that she was stuck in this place for a long time–she only had herself and the girls to rely on. So they weren’t bombarded with all the other crap, especially that girls go through, that form who we are. Whether it be television or ads, all that stuff. She wasn’t bombarded. All she could look at was herself and her sister wives.

That’s such an odd silver lining. But I guess it is one.

Yeah.

Can you talk about the concept of “fitting in” on the show? Character dressing to be perceived a certain way? The fact that Titus’ cummerbund is made out of an old car tire is hilarious to me.

I think Jacqueline and Xan dress to fit in. They dress because of what society thinks. But Titus is so wrapped up in being Titus, and he doesn’t have the means to compete with that world anyway. I don’t think Titus and Kimmy are aware. They’re just like, “Oh, this might work.” They’re survivors. Not that Jacqueline isn’t, but she just wants to fit in. I don’t think it’s a conscious thing on Kimmy and Titus’ parts.

When I was young, I was a punk and made a lot of my own clothes. It got to a point where I didn’t want to fit in, so then I consciously made that the thing. I don’t want to be like anyone else. At first it started pure; I just liked what I liked, and then it became this thing. And I don’t think Kimmy and Titus are aware yet of not wanting to fit in.

What kind of stuff would you make as a teenage punk?

I made a lot of clothes. I was a fashion designer before I got into this. I made clothes out of safety pins, stuff out of shower curtains, cut-up leather–I used to cut up a lot of things and make them into something else because I didn’t have the money. So I would cut up a motorcycle jacket and leave one arm with just the collar attached. It was the ’80s and ’90s.

The light-up shoe Kimmy wears is so funny–and played for a heartbreaking laugh when it has its dramatic walkaway moment. I read you were able to make the shoe even brighter than it already was. Was that in post-production, or did you modify the shoe?

We did modify the shoe. We had a couple of pairs we played around with because we were deciding whether we wanted them to light up when she just stood there, rather than when her foot hit. We did a lot of research on the Internet and wired our own. It’s a Skecher. We just made it work better for television. We took it apart and put little LED lights in there, and it had a battery pack. They’re new shoes; 13-year-olds have size 9 feet so she was able to fit into kids’ shoes.

How much of the clothing in the show is thrifted? Is Titus’ Coogi sweater thrifted?

Yes. All of the flashback stuff with Jacqueline, that’s thrifted. Kimmy has one or two things from thrift stores. And Lilian, we dress her in thrifted clothes a lot.

I love reading interviews with you saying that you get a lot of Unbreakable clothes at major retailers. I like that you’re demystifying your process, not trying to keep secrets. It’s just you doing your job.

Yes, that’s very much who I am. Keep it real. I shop wherever I find things that I like. I do remember Kimmy’s pajamas are from Nordstrom. The little yellow ones. And maybe one of her pink dresses that she went on a date with.

Are you sure?

Um, no. But if I was going to pick something, I would say the pink dress was. And I know the yellow pajamas were.

–Andrew Matson

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