Career Files: Costume Design

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MICHELE CLAPTON

If you don’t know her by name, you certainly know her work: four-time Emmy winner Michele Clapton, 57, is the woman behind the celebrated wardrobes of today’s most-watched television. In 2011, she rose to considerable fame for her incredible take on the medieval fantasy found in Game of Thrones, a show whose character development (and continued success) has been helped very much by Clapton’s talent for costume design. When Netflix needed someone to recreate the jewels, court dress and private wears of the British monarchy for their multimillion dollar blockbuster, The Crown, they enlisted her.

 

“I like designing” she emphasizes, alluding to her early stint as a runway fashion designer. “I’ve been told that I make costumes look like clothes, even though they can be quite inventive” she says. From (ethical) fur coats belonging to rulers of imagined kingdoms to the wedding gown of a young Queen Elizabeth II (hand-sewn with 10,000 seed pearls), Clapton insists on making as many pieces as possible from scratch—right down to the fabrics and even period-style underwear (regardless of whether it’s going to get any air time). “One of my passions is making sure all the details are correct,” she says. “I think TV on the level that I’ve been working on has very little difference to film.”

BORN: Oxford, UK
NOW LIVES: I'll say London... but I'm rarely there
EDUCATION: London College of Fashion
RESUME: Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (2018), The Death and Life of John F. Donovan (2018), Game of Thrones (2011-18), Before I Go to Sleep (2014)
OFFICE: I set up my "office" wherever the production is based.
FAMILY: I have a daughter and a partner of 25 years.
COFFEE: Weak soya latte.
LUNCH: Varies!

Michele's New Season Picks

How did you get your start?
I sort of drifted into film from styling and fashion. I needed something more fulfilling and less about business. Fashion is tough and styling brands is great when you are younger, but eventually it was time to think things through a bit more. I love the storytelling.

 

As a child, what did you want to be "when you grew up"?
A police lady!

 

What do you love most about your job?
The variety, no day is the same, every film is different. I love my team. I love the creative process.

 

What do you dislike about your job?
Being away from home. The hours can be tough and on some jobs flying three times a week is trying.

 

What is the best advice you ever received?
On a large project I was once told by a producer, “don’t use up all your ideas in the first town!” Sounds silly but it was good advice.

 

What would you advise someone today?
Employ people on your team who are good at things that you are not.

 

How would you describe your personal style?
Eclectic! I was wild when I was young! I love clothes and fashion but I also like to be comfortable for work—that doesn’t mean boring though. (I still love my Margiela toe boots and Westwood pieces.) I take care of how I look; I enjoy it. I find the way we all chose to present ourselves fascinating.

 

Is there a key piece in your wardrobe that you rely on for your job?
The key is that it must have a pocket for my phone and glasses. I lose both constantly but a pocket helps.

 

Describe 3 characteristics required to do your job well.
1)A certain fearlessness in approaching each new project
2)To try and retain a calmness when all around you seems a bit chaotic (hard)
3) Patience (even harder)

 

What is your greatest achievement to date?
I guess Game of Thrones. It’s a powerful body of work over 9 years.

 

How do you define success?
To be admired by your colleagues. They know.

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CAROLINE DUNCAN

“I can’t help staring at people and thinking about what they are trying to say about themselves,” admits Caroline Duncan, 37, something that has proven especially relevant to her job as costume designer on The Affair. The hit Showtime series, which begins filming season 4 this month, follows a twisted romance through varying character perspectives—and comes with varying wardrobes to match. “It’s meant to suggest that no perspective is 100% accurate” says Duncan. Take Alison’s waitress dress from episode 1, which was a far sunnier shade of yellow (not to mention several inches shorter) when we saw the story from Noah’s perspective. Sometimes it’s as subtle as a few undone buttons in one account, or the wash of a jean in another. “I think the audience really enjoys the detective element of the show,” she says, “but we never want it to be so jarring that it pulls you out of the reality of the characters.”

 

In order to create these “real,” present-day characters, Duncan purchased nearly everything—everywhere from vintage shops in her local Brooklyn to Gap and Céline. “I must have bought 80 floral dresses for the one Alison wears on the beach in the first episode,” she explains. “It had to be a simple sundress and I wanted it to feel ‘90s—this was before the ‘90s was everywhere’.” Does this mean she’s responsible for the ditzy floral dress trend that’s flooded the market in recent years? “I’m not going to take credit for it but it was crazy how we could not find one floral dress for the pilot filmed in 2013. And then a year later we had 500 options,” she laughs. “Now every time I see one I’m like, ‘There’s an Alison!’.”

BORN: New York City
NOW LIVES: Fort Greene, Brooklyn
EDUCATION: BA, Yale University, English major; Associate Degree, Parsons, Fashion Studies
OFFICE: It changes with each project, but I have a few totems that travel with me to bring familiarity and warmth. Mood boards, tear sheets, and paint and fabric swatches cover the walls, and I use massive white boards for scheduling and making lists.
RESUME: Rise (2018), The Affair (2013-present), Masters of Sex (2013), Royal Pains (2009)
FAMILY: Single, two children: Roman (3) and Oliver (5)
COFFEE: Oslo’s drip with whole milk and one “pink death” (AKA Sweet’N Low)
LUNCH: Unreliable

Caroline's New Season Picks

How would you describe what do you do?
Being a costume designer is having an understanding of apparel, psychology and history. It requires a huge splash of imagination to breathe life into what goes to camera. How the actors are dressed informs their performance and has to work in the context of the scene and support their character’s psychological state. I am part historian, curator and story-teller.

 

How did you get your start?
I spent a lot of time on a stage when I was younger, and in college I started to drift to the wings more, looking for a different way to story-tell. I had no training at that point, just a hot glue gun and very basic sewing skills. So I just took it all on as an experiment and fell in love. I didn’t believe costume design could become a real career until I was out of college and saying yes to every short film, student thesis and indie that I was asked to work on.

 

As a child, what did you want to be "when you grew up"?
An archaeologist.

 

What do you love most about your job?
Collaboration. There’s a moment in a fitting when the actor starts to see their character more fully and their whole physicality changes because of the clothing. That is so exhilarating.

 

What do you dislike about your job?
The hours are grueling. Some days I leave my house at 3 a.m. and then work a 17-hour day. There’s a lot less glamour to this gig than people assume.

 

What was the best advice you ever received?
Costume design involves a lot of chaos, so you need to keep a cool head. If you can’t problem solve and stay positive you will resent the work when last minute casting, script revisions and schedule changes roll in (and they will).

 

What would you advise someone today?
Open yourself up to adventure. Accept that part of learning is being wrong. Help someone young who is on their way up, as someone definitely helped you at some point. Say yes to every opportunity. And put your phone down and look up from time to time.

 

How would you describe your personal style?
If the French Riviera fell into Helmut Lang.

 

Is there a key piece in your wardrobe that you rely on for your job?
Pockets. I have given up on any clothing without pockets. I need my hands free at all times!

 

Do people “get” your job?
An actor would say we are magicians who help transform them. However, most people confuse costume design with being a stylist, and it’s quite different. There’s an assumption, especially with contemporary costumes, that I’m just a shopper for actors. The nuance I put into making a character feel true involves so many pieces. From fit and fabric to whether or not the clothing is distressed or aged, building a character is not usually about making someone look “incredible” (unless that makes sense for their role). It’s about making them come to life.

 

Name 3 characteristics required to do your job well.
Compassion. Patience. Imagination.

 

What is your greatest achievement to date?
I wake up every morning excited to go to work, even when it’s at 3 a.m.

 

How do you define success?
I know I’ll still be doing this 40 years from now, and I couldn’t be more excited about what I’ll learn and create between now and then. For me that confidence is the greatest success.

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DONNA ZAKOWSKA

“It was not originally one of my favorite periods,” reveals Donna Zakowska of the 1950s, the era of ponytails and poodle skirts in which her recent project, Amazon’s Golden Globe-nominated The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, is set. “So I tried to do it in a way that wasn’t clichéd Americana. It was actually a high point of couture.” Enter Dior-inspired dresses, sculpted coats and coordinating accessories in color combinations pulled straight from vintage Vogues. Zakowska sketched and “built” 95% of the costume in her native New York, outsourcing felt from Germany and fabrics from Italy, France and England. So desirable are her pieces, which easily cost thousands of dollars, she has women asking how they can get their hands on them. They can’t. “What can I say? It’s couture!”

 

Beyond delighting audiences with beautiful clothing (hit pause on virtually any scene and the images draw you in), Zakowska employs the nuanced language of color learned from early years spent painting. As she says, “Pink is not just pink; green is not just green. It’s an emotional landscape.” Having started out as an assistant on Woody Allen films in the Eighties and worked across all corners of the industry—from theatre to opera to circus to TV (and even a concert tour for Mick Jagger!)—since, Zakowska now holds a place among those highly-regarded in the industry. “Costume designers were once considered second class citizens in the creation of a visual on screen,” she says—a notion her work has proven untrue.

BORN: Brooklyn
NOW LIVES: New York
EDUCATION: Barnard College, École des Beaux-Arts (Paris), Yale Drama School
RESUME: (Recent) The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (2017), TURN (2014-15), God’s Pocket (2014), Fading Gigolo (2013), The Iceman (2012), John Adams (2008)
OFFICE: My workspace depends on the project, though for many years I had a studio on the border between Little Italy and Chinatown.
COFFEE: La Semeuse. As an order, a Starbucks peppermint latte.
LUNCH: As organic as possible.

Donna's New Season Picks

How would you describe what you do?
I interpret character with color, fabric and silhouette.

 

How did you get your start?
I began designing the Big Apple Circus and working as an assistant on Woody Allen films. It's great to be around someone who is a master of their craft.

 

What do you love most about your job?
The discovery part of the process, the research journey. It's like being a perpetual student—there is never enough to learn.

 

What do you dislike about your job?
The shortage of time in which to achieve all the details.

 

What was the best advice you ever received?
Absolute persistence! To not compromise, to hold on to what you need or want design-wise like a dog with a bone.

 

What would you advise someone today?
Absolute passion for the work always wins.

 

How would you describe your personal style?
Some Japanese fashion combined with American workwear. Somewhat romantic and tough.

 

Is there a key piece in your wardrobe that you rely on for your job?
My Prada boots, from seasons past and present, and vintage raincoats from Comme des Garçons.

 

Describe 3 characteristics required to do your job well.
Flexibility, problem-solving skills and an open attitude.

 

What is your greatest achievement to date?
Probably HBO’s John Adams, because it was a large-scale period project.

 

How do you define success?
Seeing your ideas actualized, and having an impact on the way people see reality.