'Selena' Biopic Costume Designer on Creating the Singer's Most Iconic Looks: Exclusive

Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection
Jennifer Lopez in Selena in 1997. 

On the 20th anniversary of the release of Selena, for the first time ever, the film’s costume designer shares behind-the-scenes details on bringing Selena’s fashion to the big screen.

Within months of Tejana pop superstar Selena Quintanilla’s passing in 1995, studios clamored for the film rights to her story. To make sure she was represented fairly, her family took the reigns. Selena’s father, Abraham Quintanilla, signed on for role of producer, and a quick two years later, Selena, the biographical movie, starring Jennifer Lopez, was released. It was an instant hit, debuting at a top spot in the box office, ushering in a craze of bustiers, cumbia moves, and Spanglish music that traveled across globe and defined an era. But what no one saw coming was the film’s lasting success.

Today, on the twentieth anniversary of the film’s release, the movie Selena is still as much an inspiration to pop culture as the artist herself. In the past year alone, Selena’s legacy has inspired everything from a sold-out makeup line at MAC to A-list celebrities’ boldest looks. Although Selena herself can be credited with her revolutionary style, few know the person that immortalized it on the big screen.

When Elisabetta Beraldo, a young Italian costume designer, landed the job as the costume designer for Selena, she had no idea the impact of her careful reconstruction of Selena’s looks on the big screen. Beraldo, who later became a nurse and is now semi-retired, shares her behind-the-scene experience in recreating the most influential looks of one of the world’s most famous music icons.

How did you get the job of costume designer for Selena?

The director, Gregory Nava, called me to interview, and I was so excited when I got the part. I knew nothing about Tejano fashion or Selena’s life, so diving into her world was a beautiful experience for me. The director of photography invited me to go to Corpus Christi to spend time with the family, which is unheard of in the industry, so it was truly a huge privilege for me. I spent a few days with them and spoke extensively to Selena’s mother and her sister, Suzette.

Selena designed her own look and created a brand around her multi-million dollar chain of stores in Texas. How did you capture her look?

Because her death was so recent, I was able to find the same materials she used and to work with the same team. The tricky thing was that everybody remembered exactly who she was as a fashion icon and a singer. The famous concert at the Texas Astrodome was recent: People felt like they had just seen her light up the stage there, and they remembered what exactly her styles were supposed to look like. I felt so lucky because when I went to the textile store and asked if they still had the materials, they actually did. With the help of the family, I hired the same seamstress who created Selena’s original looks.

What was it like to be on set of Selena?

In general, everything moved so fast because there were so many costume changes. It was a world I knew nothing about, so I was fascinated! Being Italian, what would I know about what a Tejano likes to wear? For example, I learned pretty quickly you couldn’t put an extra in Levi’s because they wear Wranglers in Texas. The hats were also a big issue. Most of the people in the crowd didn’t wear what people would think of as “Texan” hats, so we had to buy them from Mexico for the big crowd [shots]. Also, every outfit had to be approved by her family, and there were some tricky moments. We did a rehearsal, and Jennifer had these very tight pants that zipped in the front. Abraham came to me and said we had to put the zipper on the side or the back because he felt it wasn’t appropriate to put a zipper in the front. We carefully followed his instructions and did it over again. Because we worked with Selena’s own people, we really saw the actual patterns she used, which was great, but sometimes the material didn’t work on film. For example for the infamous purple jumper, we added a lot of pink Swarovski crystals to get a more brilliant pop of color.

What was it like to work with Jennifer?

She’s unbelievably beautiful and smart. She had an incredible sense of who Selena was because she spent four months living with her family. If I presented her options, even if it was an everyday look, she would always choose the one that would be truer to Selena, and not simply her own style. For example, for the scene where she was in Mexico, she chose the leather jacket with the white lace in front -- totally in character for Selena. When her family saw Jennifer dressed as Selena the first time, it was really emotional. 

What were the challenges of designing for the film? 

The challenge was to find all the exact right sources. When Selena went to the Grammys, she wore a beautiful white dress. It took me a while, but I managed to figure out exactly where she had bought it. The brand was Cache, and they didn’t have the original, but they made it again for us. 

 How long did it take to design the looks? 

 It took about six weeks to create the looks. We had to consider being faithful to her look, what would look great on film, and what would work best for her body type. Most importantly was being faithful. For every piece, you had to consider which best reflected her image. If it was a beaded bra, it had to be the right one, and it had to fit Jennifer’s body type perfectly. Her style was totally different than my own, but I loved it.

What was the most memorable costume design experience behind the scenes and on the set of Selena?

Shooting the scene at the Astrodome where 35,000 extras were in the crowd screaming! The seamstress and I spent a lot of sleepless nights getting [Selena’s] outfit together. The material kept losing its shape and coming loose so we were nervous about it holding up. But on the day of shoot, it was so exciting to hear the people applauding and screaming and to watch Jennifer’s musical career get its start. From the moment she came in with the horses to the way she moved and danced, it makes you shiver. 

What does it feel like to see artists today embracing looks that are similar to and possibly inspired by the ones you immortalized through the film?

I had no idea it was so popular. No one knew how much of an impact that film would have on young girls, but you would understand if you went to her hometown. She was an incredible young person. Being in Corpus Christi, you could feel how much people loved, and still love her. Her happiness and brightness spilled over into everything she did. That’s what all the young women admire.