Mitchell Travers exclusively talks to ET about drawing inspiration from Pamela Anderson, Lady Gaga, Paris Hilton, Miley Cyrus and more.
Costume designer Mitchell Travers knew he was in for something special from the moment he got his hands on the Hustlers script.
Before he knew he'd be challenged with the task of transforming A-list stars like Jennifer Lopez, Cardi B, Constance Wu and Lili Reinhart into strippers for 2019's most important movie, Travers exclusively tells ET that he "became completely obsessed" with director Lorene Scafaria's screenplay, inspired by a viral New York Magazine article.
"I didn't know anything about it ... I just knew that I wanted to make it," he recalls. "For the first time in my career, I read a script where women weren't defined by their relationships to men or breakups or falling in love or anything like that. It was just a story about complex women in the way that I know all the women in my life to be. It was about their friendships, professions and mistakes, and I just loved that."
"I thought it was such a smart script, and then the cast started rolling in. I was like Oh, I better buckle up. This is going to be insane," he adds. "All of the women were new to me at the time; I hadn't worked with any of them before. But a lot of them have become friends through the process. They were strangers at first but not so much anymore."
Ahead of Hustlers' release in theaters on Sept. 13, Travers is sharing with ET all of the intimate, behind-the-scenes details of how the most iconic, risqué looks came together -- thongs, pasties, fashion tape and all! -- for the film set during the late 2000s financial crisis.
Jennifer Lopez as Ramona
"J.Lo is J.Lo. It's undeniable. She's proven herself to be a contender in so many areas that you can't help but feel impressed by that," Travers raves. "She gives you the room to create, but she's a real partner in the creation and gets excited about it in the same way that I do. So, it was a pleasure working with her, honestly."
"The fun part of working with Jen is that we've gotten to see her do so many amazing things. Like, we all remember that Versace dress, we remember so many parts of her career and her looks that have become iconic over time. So for us, it was this big challenge, like, What does Ramona look like? Are there tools in the J.Lo toolkit that can be utilized for Ramona, or are we scrapping all of those and creating this new person?" he continues. "Jen really wanted to figure out who this person was from the bones, and bring that character to me in the fitting room, so that we could start to dress Ramona and not Jennifer."
That all started with discovering Lopez's comfort level and how far she was willing to go with her stripper costumes. "I just admire her bravery. She is so healthy and strong and works really hard at that, but, of course, she's like anybody else," Travers explains. "As soon as I started bringing out these really tiny skimpy things that I could fold up and ball up into my hand, she was game. She was like, 'Yup, that's real. Let's see.'"
Lopez makes her debut as Ramona in a sparkly silver G-string bodysuit that one can't help but be in awe of. Travers tells ET that the bodysuit was actually custom-made just for J.Lo.
"I knew, reading the script, that the opening number was going to be such an iconic moment, so we really needed to create this unique universe in which Destiny [Wu] is enthralled by this woman," Travers says. "Ramona doesn't just get up on the pole and do a little dance; it's a full act for her. We wanted to show that Ramona has invested in her costumes and she's created this experience for the room."
"And then, there's just something about silver on Jen that is so right for that period of time," he continues. "I was looking at her in that moment, the early 2000s, and she used to wear a lot of silver jewelry. So it just kind of happened. The more we talked about the costumes, we wanted some motion on it to really celebrate how hard she trained."
Travers says his main goal for the costume was to leave the audience wondering, How is that staying on? Is it about to fall off?
"I loved the anticipation of that for her performance. I also just loved getting to expose parts of Jen's body that no dress could ever show us. I think it showed off all the work she put into this role," he shares, telling ET they had to physically "sew" Lopez into the piece. "There was no way to support how much movement she does in that costume without just actually sewing her into it."
"I said to her, 'Once you're in, you're in.' Like, we have to sew you in, get the shot and then we'll cut you out of this," he adds. "There's some tape, some cleverly positioned stitches and then one incredibly nervous costume designer behind the camera sweating until it's over."
The use of silver wasn't the only nod to J.Lo's real-life style, however. Toward the end of the film, Lopez appears in Juicy Couture velour, a signature look she made trendy in the early 2000s.
"Yes, it was my idea to do that," Travers confirms, laughing. "I actually said that to her in a fitting. I pulled out the Juicy and said, 'We owe it to them to give them an "I'm Real" [music video] moment.' She started laughing and was like, 'Oh, my God. You think so? You think they'll get it?' I'm like, 'Jennifer, yes. When we see you in velour again, we will all die a little bit, and I think that's what this movie needs.'"
Travers also discusses the creative meaning behind Ramona's "fur journey," and the stars who inspired the over-the-top pieces.
"I looked at Lil' Kim, Foxy Brown, girls who didn't come from means that were suddenly having quite a lot of excess money around them," he explains. "It's a very real thing, a flashy status symbol. A lot of women at the time did turn to furs -- like, you'd see Lil' Kim in her chinchilla bikini."
"I just thought it'd be wrong for this character not to do that," he adds. "The furs are a collection of vintage pieces, there are faux pieces mixed in that look like the real thing. Ultimately, it serves my point in terms of storytelling, just about … there's a little bit of cruelty involved there. It just kind of speaks to Ramona's nature of wanting to project this image of glamour and luxury."
As for Ramona's lip piercing and giant rose tattoo? Travers credits those ideas to Lopez and Scott Barnes, the singer's longtime makeup artist.
"We looked at a number of tattoos in the early days and just the placement and what might make sense, because there's a wonderful juxtaposition that happens in this projection of glamour and this semi-regrettable tattoo on the shoulder," he shares. "You can understand it might have been a tougher life where Ramona might be impulsive, and it speaks to her character. Scott brought in a bunch of tattoos that we tested and we landed on the one that you see in the film."
"I believe it was actually Jennifer's idea to do that lip piercing for the early sections," he continues. "She kept talking about it and we were like, 'Lip ring? I don't know, is that going to be distracting?' and she was really certain about it. And then, of course, she does it and you're like, 'Oh, my God, I love it!'"
Cardi B as Diamond
As someone who had real-life experience in strip clubs prior to making it big as a rapper, one might expect that Cardi was on set offering up advice to the cast and crew. Travers says, however, that that couldn't be further from the truth. "The Cardi that I got to know, I was so impressed by, because she took her work pretty seriously," he shares. "She was not a diva, she very much understood that she was part of an ensemble. She didn't have experience as an actress, so she was so interested in the process and how we got everything done."
"She actually told me, 'I've never worked with a costume designer before, only stylists. I wanna understand what we are doing,'" he continues. "So we talked a lot about her [character's] backstory: Did she have sisters? Children? Was she commuting? She and I had a really good time having those conversations and fleshing out a person for her to play that wasn't Cardi."
Travers admits that he was surprised by Cardi's laid-back, "down for anything" attitude: "I said at one point, 'Cardi, you're going easy on me! I thought I was going to have to earn my paycheck today.' And she was like, 'No, no! I'm just having so much fun being here with you guys and understanding this world.'"
Not sure what to expect from Cardi prior to meeting her, Travers says he had "the most outrageous things you could think of" prepared for her, just in case.
"I had all my designer friends whipping up custom corsets and these latex things," he recalls. "I had that version of Cardi prepared, and then I actually found some of the people who used to make the clothing that she used to buy when she was dancing. I went to them and talked to them about what they used to sell and what Cardi was like back in the day. And then I brought in a lot of those pieces, the real deal."
Audiences first meet Cardi as Diamond in the club, where she's rocking a minidress and light pink Von Dutch trucker hat while giving Destiny lap dance lessons. "The fun thing to do with this one was to show Cardi as a real person, not the music video version of her," Travers says of the look. "The Cardi that we know and love right now is completely styled all the time, has sort of outrageous taste and is a real celebration all the time. What was fun was to talk to Cardi about what her early days were like and try to understand What was it like when you used to take the train? Who was that girl?"
"We looked at who Diamond would be looking up to at this time, and where would her style influences would come from," he continues. "I'm not sure if they made it in the movie, but she wears these enormous platform work boots that are covered in studs. At this time, Lady Gaga was brand-new and we were obsessed with the way that she was dressing herself. I thought Cardi's character might have a little bit of that influence in terms of her shoes."
"And, of course, Paris Hilton and her Von Dutch hat created this craze, along with the multicolored monogrammed Louis Vuitton purse," he adds. "So I just wanted to find something that felt really kind of humble, that was then accessorized with some flash where you could understand that Diamond was spending her tips and wearing her savings account versus investing."
Earlier this year, around the time Cardi was shooting scenes for Hustlers, the rapper was completely candid while chatting with ET about getting plastic surgery following the birth of her first child, daughter Kulture, with husband Offset. She later revealed that her recovery affected filming, and Travers says it was a discussion they had during fittings.
"She let me know that she was recovering and that she was restricted in certain ways. I said, 'OK, just help me understand what works for you. Do you need support in your midsection, breasts?'" he says. "She told me where she was healing and what she needed from me and I just worked within those parameters."
"It was really funny, though. She and I were sitting towards the side and she was watching all these girls, the most beautiful dancers, 10 feet up on a pole, and I could tell that she was feeling held back," he continues. "She just wanted to get up there and be a part of it with them."
However, the surgery certainly didn't hold Cardi back from saying "yes" to one of the most memorable looks in the film -- one in which she's wearing only a corset, pasties, fishnets and sky-high stripper heels paired with flashy jewelry.
"Our last change of the night, I had kept this corset set aside. It was something that I really felt would make a massive impact in the movie, and I was waiting for the right moment," Travers says. "Once I got to know Cardi and understand where she was coming from I was like, This is the moment for that."
"I pulled out the corset and kind of just smiled at her, and asked her what she thought. She said, 'Ohhh, b***h!' So I was like, 'Let's put it on and see.' We put her into it and then I pulled out all these pasties and we went through looking at the sizes and the shapes until we landed on the look that you see in the movie."
"We've seen Cardi do so many looks so well, but this was the first time we see Cardi as an actress," he adds. "What we were going to do really had to make an impact in people's visual memory, and I think what we did here speaks for itself."
Constance Wu as Destiny
While Wu wears a number of costumes in the film, Travers tells ET that there's one particular look that both he and Constance loved.
"You'll see in the movie, it's this pale pink tube top that says 'F**k it up buttercup' across the front. She wears it with this little silver flip flop necklace, which I remember all of my girlfriends wearing at this time," he explains. "She wears a denim miniskirt which has a wallet chain screen printed onto the denim, like 2-D. And then she wears a massive, 5-and-a-half-inch wedge Bebe rhinestone flip flop on the bottom. For me, it hit every single note of this era in a way that I hoped people could look at and be like, 'Oh, my God, I remember when I used to do that!' How many girls can look back at the tube tops they should not have worn, or the jeans that were way too low on their bodies and their thongs sticking out in the back?"
"The costume design of this movie is important in that I wanted people to cringe with it a little bit. I wanted to celebrate some of the bad taste from the early 2000s so that we can collectively cringe and sort of regret what we've done," he says, laughing. "I think it's important for the audience to look at this and be like, 'I got caught up, too. I didn't realize I was making bad decisions when I was in my little wedge flip flops, tube tops and things like that.' This really happened, and it's amazing when you look back at something you can see what you did right and wrong. But while you're in it, sometimes it's not as crystal clear."
Watching the film, it's clear that Wu's costumes transform as her character becomes more confident. Travers hopes viewers will pick up on this evolution, telling ET that "Destiny's closet was a big tool for us in terms of storytelling."
"It illustrates how she goes from this sort of mismatched, roughly put together closet to a place where she thinks about her appearance from head to toe. She thinks about looks and what she's projecting with each of her outfits," he says. "We isolated how many changes we had in the film to chart out the growth this woman goes through."
Luckily, Wu made it very easy for Travers and his team to bring that vision to life.
"Constance is the kind of actress who comes to you with an entire backstory. She can tell you everything about this character -- their most embarrassing moment, what kind of schools they went to, if they grew up in big or small town. She comes so prepared that she can really answer from the character's perspective," he shares. "For us, it was really important that we illustrate that when we meet her, she is struggling to know herself and to find her confidence and doesn't have a great support system around her. She is the support system to a lot of other people. What she doesn't have is that somebody to lean on and somebody to look to for cues."
"It's a natural thing that when she meets Ramona, there's this woman who has it seemingly all together and is able to dress herself so well with all the right bags and shoes," he continues. "Destiny's early costumes needed to reflect someone who is flailing a little bit and is looking for something to ground her, but just doesn't have the understanding to find it. Through her relationship with Ramona and this business model that they create, you're able to watch her sort of refine her aesthetic. You can almost feel the closet changing. You can feel the massive purge of things going away as the new shopping comes in, and her taste level changes over the course of time, too."
Speaking of "the right shoes," Travers says he was extremely impressed by all of the actress' "understanding" of the stripper heels they had to wear throughout filming.
"Once they were cast, they knew that this was going to be something that they had to perfect," he explains. "Constance would do the dishes in her heels. She would FaceTime me from her house to catch up and she'd be in her heels with her bunny."
"Jen, I'm convinced, could walk in a 3-foot heel. That woman can work a pair of heels like I've never seen!" he adds. "But I'd say in general, by the time the girls came to set, they were ready to work in those shoes. They understood how important it was to the film's success."
Lili Reinhart as Annabelle
Speaking to ET earlier this week, Reinhart said Travers was on a mission to turn Annabelle into a "slutty" version of Miley Cyrus' Hannah Montana character.
"Absolutely, she's totally right!" he confirms. "When you have this many women working in a similar environment, for me as a costume designer, its important to identify a lane for each woman to stay in. That way it feels like they are getting dressed from different closets."
"The way we work on a movie, everyone gets dressed from this massive trailer, so all the clothes are in the same place, I can bounce things around, but it's important to identify whose closet looks like what, or what influences you're looking to for each character," he continues. "For Lili's character, we wanted to look toward the Ashley Tisdales, the Miley Cyruses, the Kelly Clarksons of the early 2000s. Something that had this sort of wholesome quality that we sort of stripped away to be a little bit more revealing."
Keke Palmer as Mercedes
At one point in the movie, Palmer and Lopez's characters find new ways to make money by getting jobs at a local Old Navy. Seeing the girls in conservative T-shirts and jeans from the clothing brand is a drastic change from the barely-there costumes they wear in the strip club.
"I thought that was such a smart move by [director] Lorene Scafaria. She wrote that into the script; it's not something that came about to get Old Navy's name in the movie or anything," Travers reveals. "It really came from a storytelling place for Lorene. She wanted to show that there is the struggle, and there is a hustle, and yes, the movie might take place at the club but the hustle is a mentality and lifestyle. It's about making it work."
"These women are mothers and they have responsibilities to take care of other people. When they're not making money at the clubs, because of the financial crisis, they did what a lot of people had to do at that time," he adds. "They had to assume jobs that were not their intention, or jobs where they might be perceived as below what they should be doing in life. It kind of gives people an understanding of how upset a lot of Americans were at this time."
Lizzo as Liz
Travers describes the singer as "the most exuberant person I've ever encountered," and said it was such a pleasure to work with her on set.
"She just emanates excitement and joy, and at the time that we were working together, so much was coming her way. She was just excited for getting to be a part of this movie," he remembers. "Lorene and I were texting one day and we were talking about Lizzo and how great it would be if she would be a part of this movie with us. I was like, 'My greatest joy in life would be to put Lizzo in simply a fishnet bodysuit and the hat that Pamela Anderson wore to the VMAs.'"
"Lorene was like, 'I love it!' so I prepared that," he continues. "I had a ton of things for Lizzo to try on, but I introduced myself and I just said, 'Lizzo, I love you and I haven't been able to stop thinking about you in a fishnet bodysuit and this hat.' And she was like, 'Well, then what are you waiting for? Let's go!' She slid right into it, she felt gorgeous and it made it into the movie. It's rare that that happens."
Clearly, Travers' time on set was one he'll never forget. He tells ET that filming was just as special for the ladies he worked with, who took home some wardrobe pieces as souvenirs.
"The making of this movie was honestly so much fun that we made so many friendships along the way," he gushes. "A lot of the girls just wanted, like, little mementos. Some of them took a few pairs of their shoes or some of the jewelry that was a bit sentimental from different scenes for them. I don't think we'll see any of the girls wearing anything on the red carpet, but I think it was more for the memories of all the fun we had while making this movie."
[This story was originally published on September 11, 2019.]