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Costume Designers Discuss Dressing Hollywood
In Hollywood, costume design is the fashion force behind television and movie vehicles from sitcoms to action films. Where fashion labels may get the buzz, Hollywood wardrobe designers translate the style periods and trends into characters onscreen. During Los Angeles Fashion Week in March, 2005, Fashion Group International Los Angeles (FGI) brought together a group of movie and television costume designers for a panel at the FIDM Museum. The topic? What it takes to dress actors and actresses successfully for their roles. Sponsored by Grey Goose Vodka and moderated by Ginny Chien of Variety Magazine, the panel included leading Hollywood costume designers:

- Catherine Adair, costume designer for the Emmy-nominated television series Desperate Housewives;
- Shay Cunliffe, costume designer for the Adam Sandler movie, Spanglish;
- Sharen Davis, costume designer for the Oscar-winning movie, Ray;
- Debra McGuire, designer and principal, Debria McGuire Atelier;
- Kenneth Loo, director of entertainment marketing, fashion house Ben Sherman;

The discussion was lively and informative; moderator Ginny Chien pressed each member of the panel on the distinctions between fashion and costume design, and the roles they play in creating fashion awareness. Following are some highlights:

Chien: How do you pick the designers?
Kenneth Loo (of Ben Sherman): Marketing initiative...by giving clothes to the celebrities, working with the costume designers and looking for these moments where someone is looking at the screen, whether it's on the TV or a movie and the viewer says, "Oh, that jacket! What a great jacket!" You've created that special moment. We get a budget for the year and allocate to each of the five shows that we work on who gets a percentage of what money. For example, "Entourage", "The OC", "One Tree Hill", those shows each get a percentage based on marketing initiative. Every time you buy a Ben Sherman shirt, whether it's for a man or woman, there's a survey that comes with the shirt: "How old are you, what are the magazines you read, what TV shows do you watch, etc." (Based on this), we decide who we give the money to and that way the customers can identify with the characters more. I get calls from "The OC" all day long and I have to be quick about getting them the product within a day or two. Costume designers don't have a lot of time.

Chien: How much of the wardrobe are custom pieces?
Kate Adair ("Desperate Housewives" costume designer): A lot! We integrate them with items you can find in stores, but we rip them up, change the buttons, or change the lapels. Costume designers, by breed, we love messing with stuff (laughs). We're not very good at just leaving it be. Because we create these other worlds and we get this sort of curious thrill and amusement at really pushing the envelope. We are on a tremendously tight timeframe for "Desperate Housewives." For instance, on "Desperate Housewives", during a typical cycle a script will come out with a dress that is supposed to be in blue, which will get changed to pink, then from pink to yellow to green, and then to goldenrod. If they hate it, then it goes to cherry and if they hate that, then the whole thing starts over again. I do anywhere from eighty to one hundred and twenty costumes on the principles without separate characters and specialty extras every eight days. It's not unusual for Terri Hatcher's character, Susan, to have fourteen wardrobe changes in one episode. And I've got five women (characters). Hopefully, if we are doing our job right you don't spend the entire hour going "oh, they changed again"; you get involved in the story. Obviously, if someone wears a fabulous dress or blazer at a special wedding, you notice it, but other then that, we are helping to tell the story. And we are helping to tell a visual story. With feature films it is not as hectic. You can be more leisurely, even down to the choice of accessories. I'm working on a new feature film with Sarah Jessica Parker. Her character is a very high fashion character, not a fashion free-spirit like in "Sex and the City". I got together with the fashion designer (to brainstorm) what kind of designers she would wear, and we both agreed on Narciso Rodriguez. She said, "He's a friend of mine - I have his number. Let's call him!" So I was fortunate enough to be able to preview his entire collection at his studio the week before he was presenting them at the fashion shows. (Looking through the collection) I was able to say "I love this but I want the proportions altered for her and I'd like it in a different fabric." And he said "No problem!" He also invited me to look in all his books from past years. I can't believe he did it in the middle of putting on his own show.

Chien: How much do you pay attention to the fashion runways and high fashion designers?
Kate Adair ("Desperate Housewives" costume designer): I should pay attention to the fashion that designers are putting on the runways, but I don't pay attention at all. It's often not relevant (to the projects)...very often it's a story of someone who lives in Kansas in a trailer and you're actually in Kmart or Salvation Army (looking for ideas). I enjoy it (high fashion) so I read things and I keep immense folders at home filled with ideas. If I ever get to do an amazing ball gown scene it's very inspirational to hang onto those pictures. When it does collide it is very nice, but I think, again, the big difference between fashion and costume design is the amount of our little world and the world shaped at the moment is high fashion - you are constantly in a different world and in a different time period...Katmandu in the future...1600's Elizabethan...prehistoric. "Desperate Housewives" Wisteria Lane is a fantasy world in many respects and I think the moment that I get too tied into current trends it will lose some of its charm. It's about the time - there is something slightly timeless about it, maybe a modern day "Brigadoon" gone wrong. For me, that's part of its charm.

Chien: Do you think that merchandise sells better because of its placement on TV?
Kenneth Loo (of Ben Sherman): That's a great question. It's my favorite one because I get asked it every day. I would love to think that because some kid wears my shirt on "The OC" that that shirt will sell through the ceiling or go through the roof. It's not. If you have it in "GQ" or "Vogue" where the readers can actually reference the item as yours (then it can). I came up with a good answer for this because if I didn't, the money would go away. So my whole thing is, I don't think it sells clothes...I think it increases brand awareness. When kids see a shirt and say, "Oh, that's a Ben Sherman shirt", it makes the brand seem cooler. But even on a bigger, deeper level, for example, Jaguar has billboards in many cities, advertising Jaguar cars. You are sitting in your Jaguar, and you drive past the billboard and you look up. It is validating you and it makes you feel like you bought the car and it is worth buying that, spending that amount of money on a car. I think the same thing goes for having stuff on a television show.

More highlights from this panel will appear in future Metrofashion articles.

About Fashion Group International
FGI is a global non-profit association with a network of over 6,000 dynamic professionals of achievement and influence from all areas of fashion and related industries including apparel, accessories, beauty, publishing, retailing, and interior design. Established in 1930, The Fashion Group International was founded on the idea that it takes an exceptional woman to flourish and succeed in the challenging world of fashion. Amont the founding members were Edna Wollman Chase, editor-in-chief of VOGUE, Elizabeth Arden, and Eleanor Rosevelt. FGI works to promote the advancement of every member, while addressing issues that affect the entire industry. FGI online presence at http://www.fgi.org is the industry's number one cyber-destination for a wealth of information about fashion and fashion related industries and an ever-evolving resource for industry professionals.

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