Designer Zac Posen on what it takes to craft "Ryan Murphy fabulosity" and nailing a Met Gala look

Gap's newest creative director talks about "Feud: Capote vs. The Swans" and why he loves to dress powerful people

By Nardos Haile

Staff Writer

Published February 8, 2024 12:00PM (EST)

Zac Posen (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Zac Posen (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

When you start your dream career at 16 years old, like Zac Posen did, it is bound to go through lush and transformative phases. The fashion designer and former "Project Runway" judge opened up about the evolution of his career during our "Salon Talks" conversation. He talked about designing Met Gala looks for stars like Claire Danes and Katie Holmes, refusing to dress Melania and Ivanka Trump, and launching and closing his own label. "I don't live with regrets," Posen said. "I'm thrilled I'm here right now." Most recently, Posen has taken over as executive vice president and creative director of Gap Inc.'s four brands – Gap, Banana Republic, Athleta and Old Navy – and ventured into costume design for the Ryan Murphy-produced FX limited series "Feud: Capote vs. The Swans."

In this "dream come true" assignment working with Murphy, Posen reimagined the timeless gowns in the third episode of "Feud: Capote vs. The Swans," which centers on the historic Black and White Ball hosted by Truman Capote at New York's Plaza Hotel in 1966. The process of creating interpretations of unforgettable socialites like Babe Paley (Naomi Watts), C.Z. Guest (Chloë Sevigny) or Slim Keith (Diane Lane), took endless amounts of research, Posen shared, but the fun was working with and watching the star-studded female cast. "These are all actors at the top of their game who as characters themselves are really strong, who are playing strong characters." He said they understood "the balance between high theatricality, elegance of a time period through Ryan Murphy's production."

And on the designing front, while Posen closed his brand in 2019, he said a new collection is "definitely" in his future. Watch my full interview with Posen here on YouTube, or read the transcript of our conversation below.

The following transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

This show is about unveiling the inner society and high society of New York City through the eyes of Truman Capote. What did you learn about how fashion played a role in making or breaking 1960s socialites?

Fashion played a huge role. It's a character in these ladies' lives and a lot of people's lives. It's a very transitional moment in the history of style and fashion. It's a moment when the old world that we think of as meeting the contemporary world that we think about today. A lot of elements of what we see in New York City today have parts that existed then. It's this combination. It's a moment of a formality in a society, in this one specifically, when people still wore hats and gloves. I use that just as an overarching theme to think about this moment and period.

At this moment in history, New York and society was being challenged culturally and historically, and there was an incredible character and writer, Truman Capote. Truman Capote had played and existed and grew within New York society. He dreamed of it. He wanted to get to New York as a writer and he was like a child star. Truman was a writer. He was a child star; he got attention for that. He then wrote other successful novels, some we know of, “Breakfast at Tiffany's,” a little one, but then he used that to enter into his dream world that he had always fantasized about.

Like many other stories, it all goes back to the mother. His mother really dreamt of entering into a better life and into New York society. She loved glamour. She was quite beautiful. In fact, in her journey, she even left a young Truman as a child, came to New York and had this other new life. Truman begged her new husband to change his name and that's how he got the name Capote. He got a changed name, and she really desperately wanted to be part of this world, so he used his career to enter in, befriend and become the center of this. He was celebrated, and they loved him. He was a great character and a great entertainer. 

He was an “it boy” and then, he went away. He went away to do a very unusual piece for a publication and he wrote “In Cold Blood.” At that point, somebody that had been celebrated became deeply respected. It was a huge success, it was a huge transitional moment for him in terms of, probably, his self-respect, his ego, but he also in this long period of time away, had a whole new perspective on this world that he so loved, that he was part of, but never actually really part of. He was always a guest and the entertainment.

Your part of this world is that you're a costume designer for one of the episodes. You create the gowns for episode three for his iconic Black and White Ball. You've done costume design work before on “The Outfit.” What was it like transitioning from “The Outfit” to “Feud” and getting to work with actresses like Naomi Watts, Molly Ringwald, Chloë Sevigny?

Truman got to this place and he said, "I'm going to throw myself a ball." He started to hand-select who he thought was interesting, who he liked. Obviously, he had to fill a certain quota socially, but he was going to throw the ball of balls. It was the rage at the time. Just to give context, there had been other black and white balls that had happened, and it started to be a thing. He was throwing his. He had the money to do it and he was going to do it.

When I came to start doing the costumes for this, this was a very different kind of project. I met the director, Gus Van Sant. He came over for dinner two summers ago now, and he said, "I'm doing some location scouting, Zac, and we're thinking about doing Truman and his ladies." At that point, I said, "Well, if you're going to go anywhere in the realm of Charles James gowns," which a lot of these great ladies were the clients of the great Charles James, a designer who was very sculptural and somebody that I understand inherently the work he did, "I'm your guy." Then, he texted me a few days later and said, "Well, actually I'm looking at a later period of time." 

"It's about making somebody feel beautiful, empowered, strong or whatever they need in that moment."

I went into this deep dive into Truman Capote debaucherous at 54 with C.Z. Guest, who's played by Chloë, and these very strange Ron Galella photos. Then, he said, "Well, maybe something in between that time period a few years earlier, what got him to that place." It was a tease. He said, "Why don't you talk to Ryan Murphy's costume designer and producer, Lou [Eyrch]?" Then, Lou came over, and I'm a big, big fan of her work. She's one of our greats. I had pulled out all my research, the beginning of it, which were like 35 books, collecting all the different elements I could find about these ladies. We spoke, and she said, "Great." She said, "I think this is going to be great. Let's hear what Ryan has to say."

I waited and I was nervous; I was like, "OK, maybe it's not going to happen." Then, I was at a dinner, I was in line at a buffet and there was Ryan. I said, "Ryan, did you know about this idea that Gus and I had?" He said, "Well, why don't you do the black and white ball scene?" Then, I waited some more until I was like, "OK, well, this is not happening." Then, finally, I got a call from Lou, who said, "Ryan's back in town. Come to this address. We're filming a scene and we'll review what you're going to do."

It was a few days before Thanksgiving. I came there, and it was in a historic building setup that I'd never been to in New York. They had recreated it as the great hairdresser [Mr.] Kenneth's salon. It was a full 1960s salon. I got to sit in an AD chair just to watch behind. I saw this scene with Calista [Flockhart] playing Princess Lee Radziwill getting her hair done, and it was magical.

At that point, I got called in. Ryan said, "Come on. Let's go." We talked and we laid out this idea of recreating the Black and White Ball. What would be the themes? What was I thinking about? We thought of this idea of creating an aquatic menagerie. How do you elevate the theatricality of this? It's not, per se, an exact replica timepiece. There's artistic liberty. We're working through the world of Ryan Murphy, through the lens of Gus and then, in these new interpretations of these historic characters. So, then, I just got busy. I had to rush.

What would you say was on the mood board for each character? They're all so vastly different, but their styles are in this era of 1960s fashion. My favorite was Slim's gown.

Oh, good. Thank you. It’s a jumpsuit. It's pants.


Yeah, because Slim wore pants. I went into crazy research. I found a VHS of a CBS recording of the entrances of the ball, which production hadn't had. A woman, Deborah Davis, who wrote a great book on the ball, had that. I was doing some investigation for this down to material. I was trying to find deadstock materials that could match the time period, finding flower blocks at the time that would've been from 1964. I really went there. It was crazy. We were running around the city. It was so quick that I knew I just had to get the materials. Then, I built it three-dimensionally. 

Slim, as a person, historically, there was no representation that I could find, no illustration, no video, no photos of what she wore to the ball. Now, Slim was a real style icon but, at that moment, it seems that she went through a side entrance. She definitely was there. Apparently, people thought it was not so much fun in actual reality. Lee Radziwill had fun because she had a great date, and there's a million photos of her dancing throughout the ball, her and Katharine Graham. The famous photos of her and her dress are in the Smithsonian.

So, I had a lot of artistic liberty [with Slim]. She was a great traveler, so I thought large, wide-leg pants. There's the famous photos of her in a tuxedo and a red jacket and I thought, "Let's build on that," and I came up with this jumpsuit. I was like, "Here's her entrance in this crazy taffeta hooded cape that sweeps in."

I'm her walker in that scene. You can't see, but we made this Michael Jackson-y tilted hat and I'm her walker.

An Easter egg for the viewers.

Exactly. I'm the one who swings the coat around in that scene, and that was fun, but Diane Lane was incredible. Working with all of these performers, a lot of these incredible women, I have had long-standing relationships with. Demi [Moore] is like my soul sister. We have been working together pretty much since early in my career and we have a great collaboration. Chloë, I've known since my teens in New York and have dressed her. I've never made costumes for her. It's very different. Naomi Watts, I've worked with and dressed her for many red carpets. Molly, we became very good friends through this process. Jessica Lange as the Black Swan and the apparition was this dream come true. I'd worked with her, but I'd never made a grand costume that had to encompass every era in one outfit. I wanted to go from the teens, her time in the South through up to the '60s in one outfit.

"When we look back at all of this in 50 years from now, it's going to look like its own interesting cultural phenomena of some form of pageantry."

It was a blast and they were all so nurturing. They take it very seriously. These are all actors at the top of their game who as characters themselves are really strong, who are playing strong characters, understanding the balance between high theatricality, elegance of a time period through Ryan Murphy's production, through the eyes of Gus Van Sant, a lot of different elements. 

Anyhow, it was really cool. I draped these pieces on mannequins, I presented them to Ryan and to Lou, they would give notes, approve it, we'd assign them. I padded the mannequins to the body and then, two or three weeks later, we were doing fittings. I worked with a freelance studio in New York that's incredible. I don't have my own studio. I'm a one-man show with a great creative assistant and some interns. Then, this amazing studio where we quickly over Christmastime made them. Then, come first week of January, we just fit them and we started making them. Then, the masks were added and we made the masks. It was fun.

It sounds like so much work, but I think it was just the best part of the show, in my opinion. There's nothing better than seeing your personal touches in this work.

I'm glad you got the '60s. That means a lot. It was joyous. For me, it's a dream come true to work with Ryan. He's somebody we've met over the years for many, many years, and we've really always wanted to do a collaboration. Through this, I got to meet Lou and see her as a master of building these characters and how she works. 

It's quite something. It's really down to every detail. To be able to use an imagination and to go even just what are your dream black and white illustrations through history, of different other masquerade balls and saying, "OK, how did we get to this masquerade ball?" You look at Beardsley drawings or all these different crazy elements that got us here, things from the '30s and what that got you to that place. Building each character is really, really cool.

You've gotten to this place in your career now where you are doing costume design work. You are a designer. You've been a judge on “Project Runway.” You have done it all, I would say. Did you ever think that you would get to this point in your career, that it would go this way?

I always dreamed for it to. I don't live with regrets. I'm thrilled I'm here right now. I still do one-of-a-kind pieces and I'm always doing interesting projects. I love theater and I love working with great imagineers that are combined with entertainment, but artists and these performers that are at their highest level. It's just rare in culture today and in television, everywhere to see something where production level is — I just have never seen it to that level of care on all levels and to be a small part of it, I feel very lucky and humbled. I had a blast the whole time through.

Your career has been so long-standing, your work is prolific, but you started in the industry at 16, pretty young. Looking back now, what would you tell yourself about these life-changing moments?

You can't crystal ball life. You can mood board, but you can't control the weather. A really wise person when I started a business in fashion said, "Well, fashion's like weather, and you can't control it, and I wouldn't invest in it, either." I think for me, I feel like it's just begun. Every different project is its own journey and, if you put your heart into it, it will take you to the next place.

"These are the cool things you dream about as a kid."

Sometimes, things surprisingly find purpose in different ways and you've got to be open to the ride. You've got to be in this for the work. I think for me, although there is such a showmanship to the work that I've done over the years, it's really about making an actor or a customer feel really beautiful and empowered in there. I learn every time. I keep learning every day. This project, these shapes in this time period were not something always the most comfortable . . . I was like, "OK, baby doll tubes? Like that? It could be surface here, but how do we up it?" In the process, we came up with this word, Ryan Murphy fabulosity. It all had to be upped. It had to be upped and more and more.

I was like, "OK." Then, we get taffeta cape and it's entrances and that fine line, but these are the cool things you dream about as a kid. I came back full circle. I created these in the studio in the loft in Soho that I grew up in and my dad's a painter. I was working in his painting studio within his space. All the paints are there, his paintings are there, but then I was working within that. It's where I started my company, it's where I grew up and it was just this full circle moment of being three years old, playing with my LEGOs, my sister's dolls, pieces of fabric and materials, just building it in that way and thinking of the theater that's going to come to play.

We are now approaching award seasons, Met Gala season, all of the things that keep us all busy pop culture-wise. Some of your most iconic looks have come from these red carpet moments, specifically the LED Claire Danes dress that we all love. What is it designing for these women, like Oprah, Michelle Obama or Gwyneth Paltrow? What is it like to dress the most powerful women in the industry?

I like powerful people. I like people that take ownership in general. It's fun. Again, it's about making somebody feel beautiful, empowered, strong or whatever they need in that moment. I'm there to feel it out. You try to be a dress therapist, in a way. I don't know, it's that thing that I used to, when I would work with a lot of performers, be like, "Well, what roles do you want to play?" Then, it's how to think about that in some capacity to where they are now for something, it's like a teaser. It's a costume of red carpet life, which is not reality. It's all some interesting performance. 

I look at the videos of people going to the Black and White Ball and it is so extra, but they're understated extra at the time, of the time period and the style. It's very interesting. If you saw people showing up to the Oscars like that, well, first of all, "You'd be like, wow, what a stylish Oscar [look]," but it would also look over the top in a way, even though they're understated, in a way.

I think when we look back at all of this in 50 years from now, it's going to look like its own interesting cultural phenomena of some form of pageantry. I don't know how that will reflect with how we look at our values of today, culturally. What I will say is that it will always probably bring attention to some incredible performances and artistry. As a designer, it's wonderful if your work can be associated with the work of the actor or artist that's wearing it, or First Lady.

And, you're not one to shy away from politics and the intersection of fashion and politics. You've refused to dress people like Ivanka and Melania Trump. Why is it important for you to take a stand where you lie politically and do you feel like it's your social responsibility as a designer to dictate whoever you dress or have opinions about these things? 

"I love making collections. I definitely will make collections in my future."

I think that, as a gay man, for me specifically with those dressings, that was really serious. I don't have my business anymore, but as a business owner who, at the time, employed and also as an openly gay public figure, I just represented that and I also employed people of all preferences and identities. That was fighting against it. For me and those kind of issues, that's really important when I had my own business.

As you find yourself in different roles within life, sometimes, you have the ability to do that but, when I did, I did take a stand and I think that's a really personal choice. Politics and having a brand have become very polarizing, even human brands and for me, I think politics can be actually very dangerous on social media. Especially as we enter into our reality being blurred with AI and augmented realities, it can be very confusing as we are moving into another living force that is digital and that the supercomputers have their own algorithms that can build names. It's a whole world, but I think we have to be really careful. I think the most important thing that I feel is to respect one another. Clothing can be a unifier for that. Beauty can be and art can be.

If that's my small place to make people around the world think for one second, to take them away from their everyday, if it's one moment in a show with a taffeta cape that's there that can connect and they might even know they're not connected. They don't, around the planet. Everybody on Hulu that has the luxury of Hulu or FX, that kinetic, electrical, it's like a haptic osmosis.

Like you've mentioned, though, you've taken a step back from this larger fashion world and you've been working as a one-man show and it's really shown, but people really miss your designs and your collections. What would you tell those people that are still looking out for your work? 

Well, I'd say, great question. Creativity is a lifelong pursuit. I think that there's different periods of how that gets expressed and I think it's really interesting and important to be able to take different stops along the train. I think that's important. It's not necessarily getting off. You're still in motion, always, planets in motion, but it's different elements of moments. 

I love making collections. I definitely will make collections in my future. How that represents itself…I like to have this perspective to look at it in a different way today. The amount of collections with this perspective that just exist in the world seems insane to me right now, it feels strange, and I think that there's other elements and other parts of the market that I'm just interested in right now. That's what I'd say.

By Nardos Haile

Nardos Haile is a staff writer at Salon covering culture. She’s previously covered all things entertainment, music, fashion and celebrity culture at The Associated Press. She resides in Brooklyn, NY.

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Fashion Feud Feud: Capote Vs The Swans Project Runway Ryan Murphy Salon Talks Truman Capote Zac Posen