Behind Every Great Mad Man Is Janie Bryant

Ad Age Chats With the Designer About the Popular TV Series -- and Her Other Endorsements and Plans

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If there's one person to thank for the ad business getting some of its sexy back, it's Janie Bryant. Because, let's face it, when Joan Holloway sashays down the hallways of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, it's hard to think of advertising as being mundane.

Janie Byrant
Janie Byrant

Ms. Bryant, the Emmy award-winning designer of "Mad Men," is in the thick of filming the fifth season of the AMC hit show, but that 's just a sliver of what's keeping her busy.

In the past couple of years, Ms. Bryant has designed two capsule collections for QVC and a line of Nailtini nail polish; become the spokesperson for Maidenform Intimate Apparel and Downy Wrinkle Releaser; launched a "Mad Men"-inspired Banana Republic collection; and penned a book called "The Fashion File."

Ms. Bryant is so busy, in fact, that even though she just got married, her honeymoon will have to wait: "We're not going to go away 'til the new year 'til the show is finished, but we'll go somewhere far, far, far away. And exotic. For a month!"

The Tennessee native and L.A. transplant talked to Ad Age -- fittingly, during the run-up to New York's Fashion Week -- in between takes on the "Mad Men" set. She covered topics from her most challenging episodes of the ad drama to her thoughts on ABC's upcoming series "Pan Am," her various brand collaborations, and -- once she finds the time to devote to it -- what we can expect from her personal brand down the road. (Hint: it feels like home.)

Ad Age : Traditionally the role of a costume designer has been more backstage, but with you it has come more to the forefront, with viewers appreciating the role of clothing and accessories as part of a TV show's story arc. To what do you attribute the change?

Ms. Bryant: The audience has been so excited about the costume design, I think in part because it is a period show. It really is one of the characters of the show. It all came together perfectly, because period costume design is such a true passion of mine and the stars aligned. Every time I see a show -- whether it's contemporary or period -- I understand the hard work and intensity of the costume designer and costume department and that they have to tell a story. I feel so blessed that people have really taken notice and have been so excited about it.

Ad Age : What would you say was the most challenging episode of "Mad Men" for you in terms of costume design?

Ms. Bryant: "Shoot," which was the first season. Betty Draper alone had 14 different costume changes. I loved doing "Old Kentucky Home," that was a great, great episode during season three. And also the Christmas episode of season four. I loved the conga line -- it was like putting a puzzle together.

A glimpse of Janie Bryant's inspired attire for 'Mad Men'
A glimpse of Janie Bryant's inspired attire for 'Mad Men' Credit: AMC

Ad Age : You recently signed a deal to become a spokeswoman for Downy, and have been generally quite open to working with brands. How did that come about and what's your philosophy on endorsing products?

Ms. Bryant: When I was designing for "Deadwood," I had gotten some interest in designing for a company called Billy Martin [which creates Western clothing, cowboy boots and accessories], and that first peaked my interest [in branded deals]. I came from a background of fashion design; my love of fashion design has continued throughout my whole career. With the amazing success of "Mad Men" -- where everyone, including fashion designers seem inspired by the design -- it felt like a great time for me to diversify. And that 's when I started looking for a licensing agent and paired with Matchbook Co. We have mutual goals as far as how we want to work with brands and working with a fabric-care brand feels like a natural partnership. I've also been designing the Banana Republic Mad Men collection, had my book come out this year, and been working with Maidenform because I have a great love of intimate apparel and shape wear. Working with Downy seemed like another natural partnership.

Ad Age : Any dream brand collaborations?

Ms. Bryant: I would love to collaborate on a bridal line, for sure. I love wedding dresses. Wedding gowns take so much inspiration from the past and it's all about romance and fantasy, and I'm a big believer in those two things.

Ad Age : How about your own personal brand? What's your vision for it, and what sort of flavor should we expect from forthcoming Janie Bryant-branded products?

Ms. Bryant: I want to expand more and have my own collection eventually. I would like to expand into the home as well, to design textiles and bedding and have more of an overall lifestyle brand. I guess Rome wasn't built in a day; it's step by step. I can only say that I work on it every single day. Do you know Liberace? I have a love for the over-the-top and the Rococo and the Baroque. But I love to mix those styles with the modern as well. [My personal style] is about bohemian and eclectic designs coming together. I always say I'm a gay man trapped in a woman's body.

Ad Age : As you reflect in your designs for "Mad Men," the way business people dressed on a daily basis -- tailored frocks and pencil skirts for the ladies, and suit, tie, suspenders and fedora for the men -- a few decades ago was far more refined than what we see in the office environment today. What do you think about the comparatively casual way we dress in corporate America today?

Ms. Bryant: Priorities are different. People are more interested in being comfortable than looking sharp. I guess you can call that evolution. The only thing I think is a shame is not having the knowledge of dressing. Even if you choose not to do it every day, it's important for men and women to have the knowledge of how to dress when it's appropriate. There's so much running around to do in the film business that we're casual too. I'm in jeans and T-shirts most every day, but I do wear my high-heel boots and makeup and jewelry. People think I'm dressed up, but that 's my casual business attire.

Ad Age : ABC's new show "Pan Am" is drawing a lot of comparisons to "Mad Men," with folks saying it's ABC's attempt at doing an period show, complete with retro '60s attire. What's your take?

Ms. Bryant: I see the billboards almost every day when I drive from the studio to Western Costume [a Hollywood-based costume warehouse]. I always say to ["Mad Men" creator] Matthew Weiner that the many gifts of "Mad Men" is that it's amazing how much can come from one person's brain and really spread to so many others. People talk about how they've seen pilots [for "Pan Am"] around here, but I haven't. I'm curious. I'm sure they'll be different. Each show has different costumes, and costume designers who have their own interpretations of a period.

Ad Age : What magazines do you read for inspiration and keeping tabs on fashion trends?

Ms. Bryant: When I'm designing the show, I'm looking at vintage magazines of Ladies' Home Journal, Elegance magazine, Time magazine, Good Housekeeping magazine and a lot of the catalogs of that period as well. I also do a lot of research with Esquire magazine when I'm doing the show, and the fashion magazines as well, like vintage Vogue and Harper's Bazaar. For my own personal pleasure I love Vogue, of course. And I love Harper's Bazaar and I love GQ. I hardly have the time to keep up, but I love all the magazines ... even a little Cosmopolitan now and then. That was the magazine when I was growing up my friends mothers were like "You can't read Cosmo!" But my mom was not strict on that . She was probably reading it too.

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