Contrary to its title The Sex Lives of College Girls, Mindy Kaling’s new comedy-drama series is not just about sex. (Even though there are many guilty-pleasure, racy scenes to enjoy.) The HBO Max Original show follows the college journeys of four 18-year-old roommates at a fictionalized school called Essex College. Aside from the topic of sex, viewers will binge-watch the show for its witty dialogue, its endearing characters, and unexpected outfits. The Sex Lives of College Girls Costume Designer Salvador Perez and his team worked tirelessly to create specific style narratives for each of the four main characters: Kimberly, Bela, Leighton, and Whitney. They crafted each person’s fashion story through the use of colors, textures, brands, and even kept track of the number of pieces each character owns in their respective wardrobes. (Fun fact: there were no outfit repeats in Season 1).
“Mindy [Kaling] and I talked about [The Sex Lives of College Girls] for two years before it even started [filming], so I had two years to think about these characters,” Perez tells TZR over the phone. “A lot of producers will say ‘Oh, make it look hot,’ ‘make it look sexy,’ or ‘make him look like a dad.’ However, when Mindy and I talk about fashion, we talk about a character. We talk about the brands they would wear, the colors they wear, how they would put a look together. And the characters in the show are fairly defined.”
Leighton (played by Reneé Rapp), who is from an affluent family and is a legacy student at Essex College, comes across as very prim and proper in her plaid co-ords and Gucci ankle boots in the first episode. She appears like an average preppy gal who hosts garden parties when underneath that facade, she’s hiding her identity as a lesbian. “Leighton is your New York City private school girl. Everything she wore was a name brand. She always had a great bag, too, because she comes from money and that East Coast crowd,” says Perez. “Even her more casual clothes were from [cool] brands like Maje and Sandro.”
Meanwhile, Leighton’s roommate Bela (played by Amrit Kaur) is an aspiring comedy writer who is unabashedly frank with wanting to explore her sexual side. She doesn’t abide by a dress code, except maybe “the more skin the better” — at least when her conservative Indian parents from New Jersey aren’t around. “Bela’s exploring herself and her body,” Perez shares. “Mindy said [to me], ‘let her make fashion mistakes. This is a new body for her and a new personality. She hasn’t figured it out yet, so make it quirky. Her look shouldn’t be refined.’” Perez took Kaling’s point into consideration, therefore outfitting Bela in print-clashing looks (think plaid overload) in addition to crop tops and mini skirts.
“[In the first episode, we] put Bela in a Kenzo sweatshirt with a plaid skirt. She had on tights, so there was no skin showing because her parents were [helping her move into the dorm],” Perez notes. “But then you see that as soon as her parents left, the tights went away. The shorts got shorter.” And in several scenes throughout the show, all the clothes came off.
Across the suite, viewers meet Whitney (played by Alyah Chanelle Scott) who leans into the sporty, athleisure attire as she is a competitive soccer player. Similar to Leighton, Whitney comes from a genteel family as her mother is a U.S. senator from Seattle, Washington so her off-duty soccer outfits were always polished. She wore pieces from brands like The Kooples, AllSaints, Isabel Marant, Ted Baker, and, of course, Adidas. “Whitney's [outfits] were very expensive [and in particular] her shoe collection was ridiculous. We spent a fortune on Jordans for her because she's an athlete,” Perez adds.
Her roommate, Kimberly (played by Pauline Chalamet — yes, her brother is Timothée) is perhaps the least attuned to fashion of the four college suitemates, as she is a work-study student, a fact viewers are constantly reminded of, like when Kimberly bought an LBD to wear for a party (in episode 4 titled “Kappa”), but kept the tags on so she could return it. “Kimberly isn’t a fashionista. She's from Arizona. Her parents work at Walmart. Her clothes needed to look very sweet and all-American. In that vein, we went to H&M, J.Crew, and Target [to get pieces for her],” says Perez. “All the girls also owned several coats, but I only gave one to Kimberly — that olive green parka. Again, Kimberly came to college with like one dress, so she wasn't going to have more than one parka.”
Perez’s talent for creating outfits that can tell their own stories on-screen is indisputable (he previously worked on movies like the Pitch Perfect franchise and was nominated for an Emmy in costume design for The Mindy Project). One of the trickier parts of his job, however, is getting everyone on board with said outfits that pertain to that character’s story arc.
“As a costume designer, I want [the actor] to feel comfortable in the look. You can tell instantly when an actor likes something. If the actor hates something, I don't photograph [the look] and I don't show it to Mindy,” he says. “I am open to collaboration because [at the end of the day] the actor has to wear the outfit. The highest compliment I can get is when an actor wants to take their clothing home because that means they don't like it only as a character, but they want it for their real life.”
In the “Kappa” episode, you’ll recall Kimberly shops with Bela and picks out a black bodycon dress to wear to a party. Though Kimberly wore it flawlessly on-screen, that LBD was the result of Chalamet trying on approximately 40 similar styles. “Mindy wanted a sexy, fitted black dress because the whole point of the scene [in that episode] was that Nico sees the dress and he's like ‘wow,’ but Pauline wanted more of a babydoll dress. We had to find that happy medium of a dress that Mindy thought was sexy, but that Pauline felt comfortable in,” Perez reveals. “[The final dress] from Nookie from Bloomingdale’s had a bit of shine to it and fit Pauline beautifully.”
This constant dialogue Perez and the actors have on set about costuming can oftentimes lead to eye-opening experiences as well. Perez revealed that one of the characters on the show, Jocelyn (played by Lauren ‘Lolo’ Spencer), is in a wheelchair. Spencer was the one to actually introduce him to labels with adaptive clothing, so he could pull costumes for her character.
“Lauren is a brand ambassador for Tommy Hilfiger Adaptive, so that line of clothes is made for someone with disabilities. I didn’t know about this before and I felt lost as a costume designer that I didn’t know this was an option,” he says. “Her character [Jocelyn] is very bold. She wore corset tops and harnesses — she’s such a fashionista. So we would take the pieces from [Tommy Hilfiger], which is sort of All-American, and we would adapt them [to her character’s edgier fashion sense] by taking away zippers and adding in velcro or buy things a size bigger, so that I can elastic the side of the waist.”
“My mother has arthritis, so when I was finding something for Jocelyn, I found my mother a cardigan sweater with magnetic buttons and I got it for her. My mother loves it because now she doesn’t have to fuss with the buttons anymore. So [my conversation with Lauren] not only affected me as a costume designer, but it also affected me as a son shopping for his mom,” he adds.
Although Perez and his team were the masterminds behind every look on The Sex Lives of College Girls — there were approximately 2,000 costumes in Season 1 — sometimes there are serendipitous style moments that even he couldn’t have foreseen. “Amrit [came in one day] wearing a denim shirt with a Christmas tie and slacks and I was like ‘oh my god, I love you,’” he recalls. “Amrit was like ‘I love ties,’ so because of her we incorporated that into Bela’s look. I had access to the Warner Brothers costume department and found all these great vintage ties from the ‘30s that were very thin. Bela wore ties because that was something Amrit wore IRL.”
How Perez managed to take college fashion and elevate that while also making the clothes feel relatable to viewers, too, takes creativity and strategic planning. After all, the likelihood of seeing your friend in pajamas on the way to Friday morning Chem 101 is much higher in real life than seeing them in put-together looks like those at Essex College.
“Mindy's shows are heightened reality. All the kids went to school in actual outfits because if [I dressed them in] tees and sweats, that would be boring,” Perez says. “[On the other hand], Mindy said, ‘since we dress them so nicely for school, make sure they have a lot of loungewear, for when they're in their dorm rooms and hanging out.’ So, about fifty percent of the girls’ wardrobes was loungewear, too.”
As Perez and I wrap up our chat, I ask him about his future fashion predictions for Leighton, Bela, Whitney, and Kimberly. (The show was officially renewed for a Season 2.) Will Leighton still be partial to a tweed set once she’s shed her uppity, elitist ways? Will Kimberly own more than one coat by senior year? Does the future Bela still wear ties?
“We haven't had a real fashion evolution yet because it's still year one. If this show goes on for five or six seasons, you will see a drastic change in their clothes because they've all grown up and they've found themselves,” Perez concludes.