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HomeCraftsCostume DesignEmmy Nominee: Only Murders in the Building Costume Designer Dana Covarrubias on...

Emmy Nominee: Only Murders in the Building Costume Designer Dana Covarrubias on Being Inspired by Broadway, Hitchcock, and the Hardy Boys

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(L-R) Shirley MacLaine, Martin Short, Selena Gomez, Amy Schumer, Steve Martin in Only Murders in the Building (photo by Craig Blankenhorn, courtesy Hulu)

In Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building, Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez portray the characters of Charles, Oliver and Mabel—three neighbors with very different personalities who come together to solve murders that take place in their apartment building. But they look stylish in the process of doing so. The set and costume design, in fact, are two of the characteristics that make the show stand out amid all the murder, mystery, and mayhem that ensues. Many of Mabel’s outfits have garnered a lot of viral attention online and have inspired a multitude of Halloween costumes. You can thank costume designer Dana Covarrubias and her team for that. 

This isn’t Covarrubias’ first time working on a popular TV show. She’s the costume designer for other projects such as Ramy, Bupkis, Life of Beth, Broad City, and plenty of other comedy shows making her fit perfectly in the half-hour comedy series. In a conversation via Zoom, Covarrubias spoke to Below the Line about how the Hardy Boys and Alfred Hitchcock inspired much of the show’s costumes, how she feels about all the viral attention, and more: 

Dana Covarrubias

Below the Line: Congrats on getting nominated for another Emmy this season. How does it feel for you to be recognized by your peers in this way again? 

Dana Covarrubias: It’s unbelievable. I’m sure you know, but this show has taken on its own personality and journey. It’s kind of like having a child. You have a child and then it runs off and becomes its own person. That’s what I feel like with these costumes. I feel like the fans are just so devoted to loving the show’s design, and that’s so cool. Because of course, the show is amazing in every way. Our actors are amazing, and the plotlines and writing is amazing. But it’s cool to have fans that are so dedicated to the design side of the show. It always blows my mind. It’s just such an honor. I feel incredibly lucky to be nominated next to these other amazing costume designers.

BTL: How did you first get involved with the show?

Covarrubias: I interviewed with the showrunner, John Hoffman, during the pandemic many, many years ago, and it was the first job I did after the pandemic. I interviewed with John, and some of the other producers, and I had lived in New York for so long—20-plus years—and I had a very specific idea of what this show could look like. I also brought up in my interview that, like Selena, I’m also from Texas and half Mexican, and in my whole career, I’ve worked mostly on comedy TV shows, but I also did a season of Quantico, and I have some experience with police procedurals.

I just think all of my experience and who I am really made me a perfect candidate for this specific job because I’ve worked in New York my whole career. I’ve worked in comedy my whole career. I’ve worked with legendary, older comedians and I’ve styled for younger, hip people so I think I was able to bridge the gap of the interesting design aspect that that our show has, which is designing for someone like Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez. I met John in that Zoom interview, and we just hit it off right away.

Selena Gomez in Only Murders in the Building (photo by Craig Blankenhorn, courtesy Hulu)

BTL: The show has a very “cozy mystery” atmosphere. It’s very reminiscent of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, which is referenced a lot in the first season of the show. What is your process of putting together some of the costumes for the show? What were some of your inspirations?

Covarrubias: Yeah, in the first season, the Hardy Boys was a large plot point for our show. I think that was the first big inspiration, design-wise for myself and the Season One Production Designer, Curt Beech. We both took the book and cover illustrations and ran with that as our color palette, and inspiration for the overall design of the show. There are these great marigold colors, teals and crimsons. In fact, all of the Hardy Boys books’ designs and illustrations ended up being the color palette of the show, really. 

I take my inspiration from all different kinds of places. Where I really started out trying to figure out how to approach the show and how to design the show, it was figuring out the balance of how we see Steve, Mary and Selena in the same frame. How do we want to mesh them in a way that makes them seem like a team, but also show that they’re individuals? But that was my first problem to solve, was designing the show to make that work? Because I didn’t want Mabel to be the stereotypical tough, young New York City girl that was dark or, like, too sexy. You know what I mean? She had to still make sense standing next to these older gentlemen, and of course, I wanted to make Marty and Steve look great.

I think I approached it with a couple of those things in mind and we went from there. I’ve lived in New York for a very long time, so I’m very aware of the personalities of the different neighborhoods in New York and Brooklyn and Queens, and I’ve lived in almost all the boroughs, so I have a very specific idea of how people on the Upper West Side or Upper East Side dress and used both of those areas as inspiration. I love people-watching, so I’ll just go and sit on a bench and watch people walk by and it’s the best inspiration.

BTL: I’m in New York City, and I feel like that’s one thing that I loved about the outfits. With the coats and the sweaters, it almost feels like it’s like fall year-round on the show. 

Covarrubias: It’s funny that you say that, because there’s been a couple pitches here and there of like, “Oh, maybe this scene is in the summer” or “Maybe we’ll have a future season that would be at a summer season,” and I’m always like, “Oh my God, what would we do?” It’s such an iconically fall and winter show. 

Cara Delevingne (L) and Gomez in Only Murders in the Building (photo by Craig Blankenhorn, courtesy Hulu)

BTL: On that note, a lot of the costumes have received a lot of viral attention online partially for the outfits that Selena Gomez’s character, Mabel, wears. One that comes to mind is the big, furry coat that she wears in the pilot episode when viewers are first introduced to her. A lot of the costumes have also inspired a lot of Halloween costumes. How do you feel about all the positive attention the costumes are receiving? 

Covarrubias: I mean, it’s so amazing. I try to be good about posting on Instagram and putting stuff up about my process because I think the fans really enjoy seeing where the process starts and how we come up with all the ideas. So I need to be better about it because it’s a lot of work keeping up with social media, but God, it’s so exciting, especially the Halloween costumes. It’s just the biggest compliment to a costume designer. It’s better than any award if you have people on the street during Halloween just wearing something that you designed.

BTL: Did you feel like there was pressure to up the ante when it came to costumes for the second season? 

Covarrubias: You know, I don’t think there was any pressure. I think it’s more about, if anything, if we can go a bit further every season with it because we so fully understand our characters. In the pilot episode and in the first season, you’re really still figuring out who these people are and after the first season, you really have a very good idea of who they are. So I think moving into season two—and now into season three—there’s just all these opportunities to grow the characters and who they were in season one and to see what’s changed since then and who they have become. We always used to have Charles (Steve Martin) in blue and now we’re incorporating purples and reds, and now, he’s becoming more colorful.

I think it’s more of an opportunity. I don’t look at it as like a pressure-filled thing, but I do get excited now in a way that maybe I didn’t season one when I’m shopping. So, if I see an amazing coat for Selena, I get really excited because I just know fans will love you. It’s funny because a lot of our sweaters are vintage, and I try to a little bit to keep that mind, but it’s unfortunate the timing of how it works with TV shows when we shoot and when it airs because I wish our fans could have the opportunity to buy some of the stuff that’s on the show. But usually, by the time an episode airs, the stuff that we shopped last year are already gone.

A scene from Only Murders in the Building (photo by Patrick Harbron, courtesy Hulu)

BTL: Something I noticed while watching the show is that there were like a lot more statement coats in the second season. How do you go about kind sourcing some of these bigger, standout pieces?

Covarrubias: We go everywhere. Rental houses or vintage shops all over New York. I actually live in the Hudson Valley and there’s lots of great vintage places up here. We do online shopping, we do in-store shopping, and I have an amazing team of assistants. I have two assistant designers and also a full-time shopper who are shopping all the time, and I’m shopping all the time, so it’s just really a hunt. When a coat really stands out, we usually bring it in for the fittings to try on. 

After Season One, I was listening to Conan O’Brien‘s podcast, and he was interviewing Kieran Culkin from Succession, but he was saying that he was a huge fan of Oliver’s costumes on the show and they made a similar joke about how Selena wears a different coat in every scene and that was after season one, and I just thought it was so funny because I didn’t really think about that, like, as if she was wearing a different coat all the time. But she really, truly did.

I just thought if people are already picking up on that, maybe we just go more hardcore with it. Just go full force and have her wear an amazing coat every time. Luckily, we have this idea that the character of Mabel is living in her aunt’s apartment, so she has access to her aunt’s closet as well as her own, personal closet and shopping, and all that. So that allows us to have her in a different outfit all the time.

Selena Gomez in Only Murders in the Building (photo by Patrick Harbron, courtesy Hulu)

BTL: When you and your team are shopping for specific outfits, do you usually try to highlight particular designers or brands that you like?

Covarrubias: A little bit, but I try to focus on mostly these days is doing a lot of secondhand, which can be tricky because we need multiples for stunt doubles and because working with a lot of fake blood, so we need multiple pieces. So, unfortunately, for those things, we tend to have to shop more fast fashion because it’s just more budget-friendly. But I try as much as possible to do secondhand, so I do a lot of shopping on The RealReal for all of our characters and a lot of our side characters as well.

I do a lot of vintage shopping, because I’m trying to be better for the environment, and not waste as much. I also think when you’re vintage shopping, things are more unique and special, and they’ve already been lived in a little bit. So you don’t have to do the aging dyeing process that we often have to do with all of our costumes. We have a whole position dedicated to just making something look not new whenever we buy a new shoe, or a new coat, or a new sweater or something, we usually have our ager/dyer. I think in Europe, they call it the breakdown artists, which I like, but we call it the ager/dyer and that person is in charge of making something look like it wasn’t just bought. But when you’re buying vintage, of course, you don’t have to do that.

For Selena’s costumes, I have in the past looked for Mexican designers or Texas-based designers. And in season three, I worked closely with a Texas-based costume artist to create some of the made-to-order costumes that we have in the current season that I can’t talk about quite yet.

BTL: Is there a costume from the show that is your favorite or that you could see yourself wearing all the time?

Covarrubias: Oh, that’s a good one. A lot of Mabel’s stuff. Of course, a piece of yourself always goes into your design, and I think some of what Mabel wears is similar to my own personal style. I was saying before it gets in mesh, like the chicken or the egg, am I dressing Mabel or is Mabel dressing like me? I don’t know. 

I’m such a fan of anything sequined and sparkle. I think Season Three with the “Death Rattle Dazzle costumes,” you’re going to see that. In the first episode, there’s the All That Jazz-inspired moment with Mabel and Charles, and I would probably wear anything from that.

Shirley MacLaine in Only Murders in the Building (photo by Craig Blankenhorn, courtesy Hulu)

BTL: I know the episode that you’re nominated for is “Frame” from season two. I really loved the ensemble that Shirley MacLaine’s character wears, where she’s wearing the black and white coat, the sparkly black headpiece, and the brooch and the glasses, everything together was amazing. So I definitely wanted to point that out as a costume that stood out. And in a cut scene, you also have Mabel wearing a black and white sweater, which was a nice contrast. 

Covarrubias: Thank you. Yeah, that was definitely a choice that we made in season two, where our costume designs were very based on inspiration from Hitchcock, sort of Hitchcockian themes. Black and white was one of those themes and the idea that a person isn’t all good or isn’t all bad—and that you have both in you.

Shirley’s character and Mabel, at that point, are both, not sure where they stand. They’re not sure if they’re all good or all bad. It’s a nod to duplicity. Later in the episode, you have Tina Fey’s character, Cindy Canning, and Poppy, also wearing a lot of black and white. So I think it was a nod to the fact that the characters are a little either duplicitous or not knowing where they are, who they really are, if they’re good or bad, and those are some of my favorite costumes too. They’re so fun.

BTL: Was there anything else you wanted to share about your experience working on this show? What can fans expect from the third season?

Covarrubias: I mean, it’s just a dream come true. I can’t wait for people to see season three. The only thing I would say is the Hardy Boys was our inspiration for season one, our inspiration in Season Two was Hitchcock, and Season Three is inspired by Broadway. I’m excited for the fans to see the costumes and try to figure out what Broadway shows they were inspired by. Almost all of Selena’s costumes in Season Three are directly inspired by a specific Broadway production or musical film. I’m excited for the fans to know that, and maybe, as they’re watching, try to figure out what musical could be inspired by.

All episodes of Only Murders in the Building can be streamed via Hulu.

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