behind the seams

The Making of a Legendary Look

Photo: HBO Max

To say Legendary lives up to its name feels like an understatement. As a celebration of the state of ballroom culture in the 21st century and a well-deserved platform for the talented folks in the ballroom community, the glittering HBO Max reality-competition series is must-see TV. Emceed by Dashaun Wesley and judged by Grammy winner Megan Thee Stallion, stylist extraordinaire Law Roach, The Good Place’s Jameela Jamil, and the Wonder Woman of Vogue herself, Leiomy Maldonado, Legendary stages a themed ball every episode wherein various Houses perform in the hopes of winning not just tens across the board, but the chance at the big prize of $100,000.

During its first season, Legendary established itself as not just an heir apparent to the likes of Pose and RuPaul’s Drag Race (not to mention Paris Is Burning), but as something altogether more ambitious. The show’s jaw-dropping performances highlighted the artistry at the core of ballroom, which in turn helped underline just how much popular culture owes to the art form (everything from vogueing and duck-walking to lingo like “shade” and “slay”).

One aspect of the first season that helped make performances by the likes of the House of Balmain and the House of Ninja showstoppers in their own right was the opulent and fabulous costumes, all of which were created in collaboration with Johnny Wujek. Wujek, best known as the fashion mind behind some of Katy Perry’s most iconic looks (including her signature Cool-Whip bra), serves as the costume designer for Legendary. Tasked with helping every House realize its creative brief on any given week, Wujek is responsible for all of your favorite Legendary looks — everything from father Jarrell’s jaw-dropping Atlantis getup and Jeter’s golden mummy vogue challenge outfit to Jamari’s pink harness cowboy fantasy and Makayla’s red pleather deviled costume.

Ahead of the show’s second season, premiering today on HBO Max, Vulture spoke with Wujek about his work on the show, his favorite season-one looks, the lessons he’s learned while working on Legendary, and what fans can expect from season two (spoiler alert: “You’re gonna gag!”).

How did Legendary come your way?
You know, Instagram! So about four years ago, one of the producers, like the guy who basically created the concept of bringing the show to scout productions — his name’s Shant [Tutunjian] — he DM’d me. He was like, “I have this show, I think you’d be perfect for it, it’s about ballroom culture.” And I was like, sign me up. It was random because I get tons of DMs all the time for different projects and different things, and that one just kind of stuck out. You know, ballroom/vogue, that’s such an amazing world that it needed to be highlighted.

We see a glimpse of how you work with the contestants on every episode, but I have to imagine so much more goes into making these costumes. Can you walk me through the process?
So basically I’m given the whole season. Like I get every category, every theme, everything creative throughout the season. And then the cast gets it like, per episode, so there’s no thinking ahead for them. I have ideas and I have things planned out, but it really is about a collaboration between me and each House. So, you know, we have the ball, and then literally the next day we’re in my studio on-camera, talking about the next ball. So it’s like ten Houses, five in each House, 50 cast members for four days, unique custom costumes.

The next day, my team’s there. I’m illustrating on set. I’m also illustrating with illustrators that I work with, just to get all the work done to get the images and things, so that the next morning I show up and my whole team is there with notepads ready to go. And it’s like, You’re doing this! You’re building this! You’re doing this! You guys do this! Get me this fabric! It’s literally full-tilt boogie till the next ball, which is literally three or four days later, depending on the schedule, to do it all again.

Wujek collaborates with Legendary’s Houses on every episode, overseeing the creation of upwards of 50 costumes some weeks. Photo: Ali Paige Goldstein/HBO Max

Oh wow.
You know, it gets substantially easier-ish. But still, then there’s like categories within each episode, so then all of a sudden, you’re doing a duck-walk challenge, so that’s a new look, or you’re doing the runway thing, so that’s a new look for you. So you may have five Houses but now the looks are doubled, so you’re back to up to 50 costumes again. But it’s fine. The cast is just so fun and they trust in the process. And they’re helping. I mean, [season two’s] Shannon from Balenciaga is like, stitching with me, she’s gluing this. You know, Houses were very hands-on and helping. It was cool.

What’s the most challenging part of making these costumes?
Getting it done! Getting it done so there’s a costume onstage. I mean, some of them, to be completely honest, we’re sewing up until they’re like, “Okay, we need her in five minutes!” and I’m just gluing until it’s literally showtime when they’re getting buckled in for the first time. So the hardest part, sometimes, is when there’s reveals that we don’t get to rehearse. That’s tough because you want to have rehearsals. You want to try it out. But sometimes due to the schedule we just didn’t have time to do that, so. But they’re all such cool, perfect, professional performers that they’re like, “We’ll figure out. We’ll just do it. We’ll just go for it.”

I kept thinking about that while watching season one, because these are costumes that need to look good on the floor, they need to look good on-camera, they need to impress the judges. And, of course, they need to work for the specific routines.
Yeah, I mean, designing costumes like Katy Perry for tour, I know the routine, I know she’s not gonna spin, flip, dip, jump, launch herself. But here, they want categories like “Bizarre,” so you want to be really over-the-top and crazy. But they’re going to be flailing around throwing themselves over there and doing all this. So you have to figure out, how can a costume sustain all this action? It’s like, Okay, how can I do that, but make it functional and make it withhold them rolling around on the ground? So you just tweak your designs and ideas that way.

One of the highlights of the show is its judging. Houses are judged by what they bring to the floor, but often it’s their costumes that take center stage. Were there any reads from the judges that stung?
You know, it’s so funny you say that because sometimes, usually, it comes from Law. He and I are good friends. We love each other and we always kiki and I’ll DM him like, “You bitch!” you know, if he says something or nitpicks a shoe or something like that. But you know, I don’t take it personally because it’s a collaboration. They’re the ones making the routine. They’re the ones coming up with the concept. I’m just a vessel for them. I give them ideas, I do what I can, and I amplify it all up.

Sometimes I do ask, like, am I being judged here? But it’s not about me. This isn’t Project Runway. But it’s funny you should ask that because during the first season I was like, I’m going to go out there right now, and I’m going to tell Law that if he says one more thing about my costumes … But it is what it is. I’ve separated my emotions from it. Also, it’s ballroom! It’s about throwing shade and reading each other, but in the end it’s all just love.

And understanding that it’s coming from a place of love. There’s always a celebration. So if I’m nitpicking, it’s because everything else is great, right?
Yeah. Literally. That’s what Law has said many times. He’s like, “I mean, if I have to find something wrong, I would have done a black shoe and not a gold,” or something like that. But also, it’s like, you don’t have to say that. Just say it’s perfect.

I don’t think that would make good TV, though.
Oh, yeah. Maybe for season three I’ll, like, storm out on set.

One of the things that stands out when watching Legendary is this celebration of gender fluidity, something that really comes through in these costumes. How is that baked into your work?
Oh my God, I mean, this show is such a creative outlet for me in so many ways. It’s just like, butch, femme, queen — it’s like the hottest, tallest Diego [of the Iconic House of Miyake-Mugler, from season two] with his muscles and he’s like, “I want to wear a little skirt, high heels.” And I’m like, yes you do. And Tonka [from the House of Comme des Garçons] is in, like, this little skirt. I’m all about self-expression and just being who you are, and Legendary is such a showcase for that. You can be who you are. You’re accepted. You’re loved. You’re celebrated. So for the costumes, it was no-holds-barred. Every meeting, I’d be like, “Okay, I know last episode you wore heels, are you in heels again?” And they’re like, “No, I’m a boy today.” I’m like, “Okay, cool.” There’s no boundaries, which I just love. Everyone’s just who they are. And it’s just so cool to see all the love and support for such a world.

There’s also a celebration of different ways to look and feel sexy, this idea that how you feel beautiful can change from day to day. There are so many fabulous looks that do that on any given Legendary episode and while I know season two will deliver, do you have any favorites from season one?
Yeah, you know, the one that always just is my one is Twilight in the cowboy hat. That was just so fun. It was the Wild West theme and it was, you know, the gown moment. A lot of the Houses had similar ideas, but then Twilight and I were sitting there, and it was just like, What about a big hat and then what if it — and he was like, Yes! And then we made it and it was just perfect. I mean, that’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever made.

It’s funny because a lot of the outfits from the Wild West theme still stick in my mind.
Yeah, and I love the Circus Bezerkus ball. That was really fun. And, Lanvin — I mean, some of their looks were so good. I loved their PVC/vinyl/alien moment when Makayla came out of the egg and did all that in those shoes, just flipping and spinning, jumping off the walls. I love their look.

I mean, Eyricka in those Maleficent wings!
Oh my God, those wings! It was so funny because she was like, “I want the biggest wings possible.” Meanwhile, we’re in, like, the middle of nowhere Connecticut filming this. So I remember being like, “Okay, we’ll get these wings, and we just want them big and black and a lot.” And then literally the next episode, everybody was like, “Eyricka got those wings, so we want this bigger and better — I know you can do it!” But yeah, Eyricka, she was just so full of ideas.

In the year since the show premiered, what’s surprised you the most about its reception?
I just love the fact that ballroom is getting its time and people like my aunts in Michigan, back home, are like, “John, these performers are so incredible!” A world that has never even seen or heard of ballroom, and vogueing and this and that, are being schooled. And they’re learning about this world. And it’s fascinating. And it’s glamorous. And it’s, you know, so opulent and over-the-top. You know, Pose was a great kind of intro to how it was in the past, but Legendary gives you the grit and the real. This is how it all goes down; you’re getting to know the cast, you’re getting to see the process. And then again, it’s teaching the world to be accepting of all walks of life, of all people. Because in the end, we’re all frickin’ human beings living on this planet, trying to do our best and survive. So I think the bottom line of Legendary is just acceptance and celebration.

On that note, will you tease us a little bit about what to expect in season two?
There’s so much personality in this cast. I mean, there’s so many amazing characters — there was in season one, as well — but this season there’s just, like, lots of personality. The stage is glamorous, the costumes, I’m so proud of. It’s just gonna all be so much more over-the-top. There’s some really gag-worthy moments and reveals. There’s things that I’ve made on this season that I’m like, That’s the coolest shit I’ve ever made. Like, this going in the catalogue of iconography of things Johnny Wujek has made. Like, the cupcake bra and then this! I feel also the show’s gotten way more recognition since season one so a lot more people are excited for season two, and there’s more hype around it. People are going to be very happy.

The Making of a Legendary Look