Feature: How IN THE HEIGHTS' Costume Designer Mitchell Travers Brought the Film's Iconic Looks to the Big Screen

Discover the inspiration behind Lin-Manuel Miranda's transformation into Piragua Guy, learn how the Broadway show influenced the new screen-ready costumes & more!

By: Jun. 04, 2021
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Feature: How IN THE HEIGHTS' Costume Designer Mitchell Travers Brought the Film's Iconic Looks to the Big Screen

When 'In the Height's dances its way onto HBO Max and into theaters on June 10th, it will bring with it a build-up of anticipation and excitement that has been almost unparalleled for a modern movie musical. Its original incarnation, the 2008 Tony-winning Broadway show created by Lin-Manuel Miranda, changed the landscape of Broadway when it premiered on stage, and it brings with it now a legacy of celebration, representation, community, and joy, just waiting to set the screen ablaze.

'In the Heights' is the film that we all need right now, a work of art filled with heart and rooted in reality, with enough magic to still be a vehicle of escapism. The trailers alone spark an emotional reaction, sweeping audiences into the vibrancy of director Jon M. Chu and Lin-Manuel Miranda's world in mere minutes, teasing through color and movement and music the emotional journey that is to come.

Much of the tone of the film is set thanks to the brilliant eye and creativity of the film's costume designer Mitchell Travers. Travers, whose resume includes films such as Hustlers and Oceans 8, had only recently moved out of Washington Heights himself when he began work on the film, having lived there for seven years. "I was lucky to have spent so much time in that community that I had a real base understanding of what it felt like to be there," he shared.

Travers' research process often brought him back up to the neighborhood, taking in the everyday routine of people on their commute to work and school, or on weekends partying and hanging out on their stoop. While the film's authenticity and truthfulness of place and character are the pillars upon which the film stands and flourishes, showcasing the larger-than-life aspects of the film was an integral part of the equation in capturing movie magic. "We're not doing a documentary, we're doing a musical, so, you're taking all of those little kernels of truth and you're turning up the volume. The colors are stronger, the shapes are a bit more exaggerated. Because, of course you want the audience to believe that people can dance up the side of a building while they sing, so you want to elevate the costumes to that same point."

'In the Heights' uses its New Medium to the fullest, but never forgets where it came from, calling upon visual elements from the Broadway show and dropping them like Easter eggs into its new cinematic universe. 'In the Heights' has made an impact on both a macro and micro level; it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, won four Tony Awards (it was nominated for thirteen), and spawned a passionate, devoted fanbase that has only continued to grow since it first entered the public sphere. Acknowledging and understanding the show's fanbase was at the forefront of Travers' mind during the process of creating the looks for the film.

"Part of what I wanted to do in my original meetings with Jon and Lin was saying, 'I want to acknowledge that fanbase, and I want to include them in this so that when they start to see images of this movie it's not some completely revamped, Hollywood, contemporary musical.' I wanted to put in the Kangol hat that Paul [Tazewell] had on Lin when he played Usnavi, I wanted to do our version of it on Anthony [Ramos] so that when fans saw it, they were like, 'Yes, that is Usnavi, Usnavi wears that hat.'"

Part of the fun for Travers in creating the costumes for the film was the chance to deeper explore the lives of the characters from the show, discovering how both the character and the actor's personal history would transfer to what they wore on screen. For example, Piragua Guy, played in the film by Lin-Manuel Miranda. "It was actually based on his grandfather, the way his grandfather dressed, with the sneakers and the dark socks, and the long shorts, and the polo shirts, and the little tummy we had going on." Travers shared. "So, Lin was really game to transform himself for this in, I think, a really fun way."

The scale of the film is extraordinary - Travers designed 135 principal costumes and 2200 background costumes for 'In the Heights', a massive task on its own, but then came the built-in challenge of costuming a musical. Throughout the process the designer remained conscientious, ensuring that the costumes supported the choreography while still remaining true to the look and feel of the film. For instance, utilizing stretched denim to allow for more movement, finding the perfect style of sandal that wouldn't go flying off someone's foot in the middle of a musical number, and of course, including hoop earrings because, "It is not The Heights if you don't have the hoops."

"Dealing with dancers is a whole skill set unto itself," Travers revealed. "You have to make sure that they can move the way they've been rehearsing for weeks and weeks, and you want to support being able to do a backflip on the sidewalk, or jump over a car, all of this stuff, but then have it appear as if these people were just out on the sidewalks and not dressed perfectly for choreography."

Creating the costumes for 'In the Heights' was a task that brought with it high expectations, a built-in fanbase, the responsibility of representation, and endless quantities of love from fans, cast, and crew alike. All of this was something Travers remained aware of and took special care to highlight throughout the process of bringing 'In the Heights' to life. He hopes that audiences feel every bit of effort and heart that went into creating the looks for the film.

"I think for me, the most important thing to 'get right' is that it is a celebration of the Latinx community, and one of the big things I wanted to make sure we saw was all ages, all shapes, all styles. I didn't want it to be just this tight, fit group of people, perfect dancers, I wanted it to be like the neighborhood that I was looking at, and the neighborhood that I remembered."

At the center of Travers' process was his desire for people to see themselves on screen, to feel a connection to something both personal and bigger than themselves, themes which are reflected in the film itself.

"Everything you can imagine needs to be represented in a way that somebody could watch the movie and feel, 'That's us, that's me, that's my neighborhood.'"

The cast of "In The Heights" features Anthony Ramos, Leslie Grace, Corey Hawkins, Melissa Barrera, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Dascha Polanco, Stephanie Beatriz, Gregory Diaz IV, Olga Meridez, and Jimmy Smits.