Everything old is new again in today’s era of TV reboots (see: Sex and the City, Gossip Girl, and the delightfully retro WandaVision), and viewers are eagerly embracing beloved characters from decades past. Of course, the word “iconic” gets thrown around a lot, but Soleil Moon Frye’s reimagining of her ‘80s character, Punky Brewster, is truly worthy of the descriptor.
Presented as a continuation of the titular character’s story, Punky is now a 40-something single mom juggling a career, kids, dating, and, of course, friendship, with Cherie Johnson reprising her role as her BFF. But don’t worry—fans of the original will be pleased to see Punky is still perfectly Punky, retaining elements of her signature style along with her unique brand of Punky Power. However, giving an icon of the ‘80s a 21st-century glow-up is easier said than done.
Enter costume designer Mona May, who is known for her ability to create similarly memorable characters (see: Cher Horowitz, Josie “Grossie” Geller, and Giselle from Enchanted to name a few). We caught up with May from the set of her latest project in Vancouver to talk all things fashion. Read on for a Q&A with the color-obsessed costume designer, plus tips on cultivating your own personal style.
You’re known for creating iconic female characters. What was it like to style an already memorable character for the present day?
It’s never my goal to make a character iconic, but rather make them authentic and real. That’s the key to the success. When everything is aligned, then we have a hit, and something becomes iconic. The story is always most important.
For Punky, the challenge was to translate her childhood energy into a woman who is now an adult. She is such a beloved character because she was so smart and street savvy in a way and had her own funky style where she wore two different shoes and marched to her own drum. To me, that was a very key thing to follow through for adult Punky. She is still that person. She is still, in her heart and essence, that little girl inside.
How did you bring Punky Brewster’s signature style into the 21st century?
In the new show, she is a photographer. She’s still an artist, and her personal style and home retain an eclectic feel, which I love. For example, her jewelry is from a Navajo tribe, and she wears bracelets from India. Her clothes had to be colorful. There was just no way around that.
Now, we are creating a mom, but she’s not just a mom in jeans and a plaid shirt. My goal was to make her be an example to today’s woman and encourage them to get out of their comfort zones and sweatpants, especially during COVID, and try out a pair of leather joggers or a cool band T-shirt and remember the time when they were looking at the world with open eyes. That’s what Punky has—the energy of "It’s not over; what is next?" She brings that in her character in her look, which is a very eclectic yet casual mix. But it also has to be functional and practical.
What insights did Soleil Moon Frye provide about her character’s growth? How much of the original Punky was true to Frye’s personal style, and does that continue today in the reboot now that she is a mom?
There’s always a mash-up between the character and the actress. You have someone like Soleil, who has grown up in L.A. and around fashion—her best friend is Rosetta Getty—so she is in the know and has a lot of influence on what she wears. Being the edgy mom is who she is in real life. Soleil comes to set in Doc Martens every day. Who Punky is now is who Soleil is as well. She grew up to be that cool mom herself.
It was so fun to collaborate with her because I got educated, too. I don’t have kids; I’m not a mom. I live in my own world of costume design, so it was really fun to be exposed to her lifestyle.
It was a hard TV show to do because we were one of the first shows to begin shooting after COVID. Hollywood reopened in September, and we were one of the first three shows on the Universal lot. We had a lot of responsibility and super-strict protocols on how to do fittings with masks and shields. In the beginning, we had to quarantine the clothes for 24 hours as well. It was a very intense process, to say the least. Thankfully, we had the energy of Punky and Soleil to lift us up. It is such a positive show that it really didn’t feel so heavy. It was a beautiful experience, and my costumes support that in every way.
What brands or designers were featured in the ‘80s show versus today? Any continuity?
My approach to costume design is more about shapes and colors than specific brands. You have to be careful about dating things too much because then it becomes a period show, so I try to stay very modern and fresh. For example, Clueless has such staying power because it’s kind of timeless.
For Punky Brewster, we’re playing within the period but giving things some timelessness. We used memorable pieces like the overalls, bandannas, two different color shoes and complemented those with certain shapes of T-shirts or oversize things she wears, like a Flashdance-inspired sweatshirt. There are moments, but I wanted it to feel very modern and more inspiring with undertones of the past.
We also did a lot of repeats to show how people actually dress. It’s a real wardrobe. You see the same pieces throughout the season, which, I think, is important without being boring—it offers a little bit of realism. Also, the way I presented the clothes shows that they are worn and washed and aged. Nothing is brand-new off the hanger. Today, we buy things with holes. Sometimes, you can’t even tell if something is straight off the runway or from a thrift store.
Who are your favorite designers right now?
I’m super eclectic and more into what pieces are in the collection than the specific designer. That said, I like Dries Van Noten and have been a huge fan of Moschino since Clueless. I like feminine things, like Ulla Johnson’s dresses.
To me, it’s really about the shape the designers create that supports the female body. Most fashion does not support women’s bodies. We are overdressed and overfashioned. If I ever have a collection of my own, I would celebrate all shapes. I overaccentuate the femininity in my films. It’s such an important through line in my work. Wearing the clothes but they aren’t wearing you. That’s what I look for in fashion designers. Like when women stopped wearing corsets—wow, their bodies can breathe! I love Cher’s line in Clueless, “My party clothes are so binding.”
Photo:Courtesy of Mona May
You’re known for your celebration of color, as seen in movies like Clueless and Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion. Can you talk to me about the role color plays, in your POV, on costume design?
I’m very intuitive and feel the energy of color. Color has an incredible impact on our moods. Red is sexy and exciting. Yellow is beautiful and makes you happy. For example, the yellow suit in Clueless: The energy of the yellow was the right color to put Cher in on the first day of school where she is like a ray of sunshine. This is how I use color and how I paint my canvas. I look at each frame as a painting and try to figure out the balance of the mood and of the story. There is an energy that is appropriate for the setting.
On a personal note, I was born in Calcutta, India, and that’s where my love of color comes from. My first experience of life was so colorful. The saffron yellow and the incredible colors of the saris are so vibrant. That must have had an impact on me because I love color. I can’t live without color. I live in a pink house! I wear red glasses!
Photo:Courtesy of Mona May
You’ve worked with Drew Barrymore for decades. Her style, both personal and in character, is also super iconic. How does your partnership and collaboration work when you “sync” with an actress?
Drew and I have known each other since The Wedding Singer. I designed her first movie as a producer with her company Flower Films, and I worked on Never Been Kissed. She asked me to do that film because we bonded. It’s incredible to still work with her on Santa Clarita Diet 20 years later and see her grown into this incredible woman.
It’s the same joie de vivre that Soleil has—they are who they are fully and completely. That is so attractive to me. And I love that I have been friends with Drew for so many years to support that. And the same with Soleil—hopefully, I get to know her for another 20 years. Those types of women change the world. They give us permission to be who we are and lead by example. That’s the life that Drew has lived, too. All the different incarnations, the good and the bad, that’s what makes her real.
Do you have any tips for real women on cultivating their personal style?
The most important thing is to figure out who you are and how your body works. What are your attributes? Do you have a beautiful cleavage, a nice ass, a small waist, awesome shoulders, sparkly eyes, or gorgeous hair? What is it that gives you that empowered feeling? That is the start of your own discovery. Find dresses that accentuate the feature. Don’t be afraid to play with your personal character. Are you the fun girl, the feminine girl with the dresses? Or perhaps more of a sporty girl? Work with your body. This is what we talk about in fittings.
If you look at Geena Davis in Stuart Little, she’s a six-foot-tall woman with broad shoulders and big feet. She looks incredibly beautiful because we played up her small waist, which is a silhouette that was big in the ‘40s. Actors like Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon know who they are. They have the strength to say, “Look at me in my beautiful, feminine dress with my curves.” I hope someday I get to do a line of clothes that celebrates women’s bodies and beautiful curves.
Photo:Courtesy of Mona May
Photo:Courtesy of Mona May
Punky Brewster premiered on NBC’s Peacock on February 25, with all 10 episodes of season one available to stream now.