American Horror Story is as well known for its style as its insane plot twists. So when Ryan Murphy announced that Hotel would star none other than Lady Gaga, the collaboration seemed almost inevitable in retrospect.
But for the show's costume designer Lou Eyrich, the significance of having to dress one of the most recognizable fashion icons of this generation didn't sink in right away. "We were in New Orleans shooting Scream Queens and it's such a different show; I was up to my ears in pastel fur coats and knee-highs. So when Ryan said it, I was so busy I was like, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah,'" Eyrich recalls to TVGuide.com. "Then when it got closer and we started having our meetings, I was like, 'Oh, boy. This is going to be big.'"
Rather than worry over the momentous task ahead, Eyrich was simply excited to help Gaga discover The Countess, the singer's first major acting role, and establish a separate fashion identity for the character. This proved to be a delicate balancing act for the pair, since Gaga's style has all but covered the entire fashion spectrum. "So of course you're going to hit on it. It's about finding a rhythm and a tone for The Countess and staying with it," Eyrich explains. "It's more of a thing between Gaga and myself, where we will say, 'Oh, that goes too Gaga,' 'Oh, that feels like The Countess.'"
"I kind of leave it to her," she adds, "because she would know better than I what makes her feel like The Countess."
In creating The Countess' look, Murphy instructed Eyrich to draw inspiration from old Hollywood glamour, but give it a modern twist. "It's always a challenge when he gives me those broad strokes, but at the same time I knew exactly what he was talking about," says Eyrich. Ultimately, MGM costume designer Adrian and artist Daphne Guinness became touchstones for The Countess' elegant style, with accessories helping the looks span across the character's century-plus lifespan.
"If it's a modern dress, we'll do vintage jewelry from a costume house, like old rhinestone necklaces and bracelets," Eyrich says. "And then if it's a vintage dress, we'll put new fresh jewelry and big clunky rings and a cool Alaia boot to update it and make it more modern."
Eyrich also works closely with production designer Mark Worthington, who created the lush art deco look of the Hotel Cortez, to ensure the show has a cohesive style. "Before I even start, I look at his set designs, his color palette, his research pictures," she explains.
Once Eyrich knows what she's looking for, she and her team are faced with the task of finding the appropriate pieces, which is no easy task on a television schedule. According to Eyrich, The Countess alone has an average of 10 outfits per episode, but can have up to 20. "Luckily, we have a big room that we call The Countess Room. It's like a big closet," Eyrich says. Having a room full of Countess outfits on-hand can be a major life-saver, since they're only given a maximum of four days to pull together the looks for every character in the large ensemble cast. "But it's usually two days. Sometimes one," she admits.
In addition to items loaned to the show from fashion houses such as Gaultier, Marc Jacobs, Yohji Yamamoto and Westwood, Eyrich also sources clothing from vintage couture stores in Los Angeles and even from Gaga herself. "She's worn several [of her own clothes] and we have a rack full of it here," Eyrich says.
Though Horror Story might look endlessly extravagant, Eyrich still has to contend with a television budget. In order to save some money (and give audiences fun little Easter Eggs to find), she recycles items from previous seasons. "It's like my little secret - or maybe not so secret - thing that I love to do," Eyrich says. "There is a necklace that Lana wore in Asylum that we used in Coven, and we're using it again this year as a belt buckle. There are a couple of the witches' hats from Coven that we've used this year. ... We're just always dipping into the bin in the last minute."
There's one major accessory Eyrich couldn't simply find in a bin or vintage store: The Countess' killing glove. The elaborate piece is the result of three months of planning and collaboration between Eyrich and jewelry designer Michael Schmidt. "Ryan originally wanted a knife to pop out. But the glove has to match all her outfits and to have a knife pop out, it would have needed a big mechanism and have been too clumsy," Eyrich reveals. Instead, the show's prop man designed an elegant mechanism, which was later perfected by Schmidt, so that when the wearer flips their finger a sharp nail pops out.
In addition to the stiletto blade hidden within, the silver opera-length glove is encrusted in more than 11,000 Swarovski crystals and sterling silver embellishments. And if that weren't enough work, nine other gloves had to be produced, including black, gold, red and green ones for The Countess, as well as green ones for Matt Bomer's and Finn Wittrock's characters.
Since The Countess is prone to using her gloves to slaughter those around her, her wardrobe also has to withstand getting bloody on a regular basis. "We have to have multiples on just about everything except the big fancy dresses that are loaners from Gaultier, Margiela, Yohji or Westwood. Obviously we can't get red on those," Eyrich says. "I designed a series of dresses that are easy to make. So whenever we know that there's a big blood scene, we produce one of those designers and change it up a little bit so it can be made somewhat easily and get bloody."
The Countess' long lifespan also means Eyrich has to conceive of how the character's style has evolved from 1904 through present day. "It's hard because it's just pops and flashes," she says of the flashbacks to The Countess' past. "There was a scene with Ramona Royale (Angela Bassett) in an elevator and they went through four major costume and hair changes, but they're just flash-pops. You really don't get to see much of it. It took us days and days to search out those clothes, do the fittings, figure out what hair and makeup were going to do. And then it was a matter of seconds on the screen."
Check out The Countess' best looks - and get inside scoop on the outfits from Eyrich - in the gallery below.