Spotlight on Assistant Costume Design
By Anna Wyckoff
The profession of Costume Design is a tightrope walk not limited to the creation and construction of hundreds or thousands of pieces for a film, television series, or commercial. In the present landscape, the job description also includes diplomacy, negotiation, sales, media relations, and psychology. It is not an occupation contained in an hourly week. It is something one takes to bed and wakes up to in the morning.
In the gauntlet which they call work, the Costume Designer needs one person who always has their back—a Robin to their Batman, a collaborator, an accomplice. The assistant costume designer assumes this crucial, vast, and sometimes unrecognized role. We spoke to four of our ACDs: Ken van Duyne, J.R. Hawbaker, Brigitta Romanov, and Irena Stepic-Rendulic, to reveal the truth regarding the complexity and breadth of their position.
With backgrounds as varied as their personalities, one experience all the ACDs have in common is time spent in the trenches, most are also members of our sister, Local 705.
Van Duyne took an interest in fashion and a degree in apparel manufacturing to New York and then Miami. Following a stint in corporate buying, he made the leap to Los Angeles, and happened into a production assistant job for CD Louise Mingenbach. While working as a PA for Julie Weiss, she landed the film Blades of Glory. Van Duyne says this was an “incredible opportunity.” He was accepted into Local 705, while working for Elizabeth Courtney Costumes and eventually joined Local 892. He also currently serves as an alternate for our executive board.
Van Duyne notes, “I thought I loved clothing, but it turned out I love why people wear what they do, the psychology of it. And that’s what I call us—a bunch of sociologists. What Julie taught me is the five W’s: who, what, where, why, and when are people getting dressed?”
Hawbaker also has a heart for social anthropology and a lifelong interest in storytelling through characters. After pursuing several different majors during college, she discovered a conservatory program for Costume Design in The Theatre School at DePaul University in Chicago, and found it to be her winning combination for her. While in school, Hawbaker worked on many films as a PA, then came to Los Angeles after graduation. She credits CD Deborah Scott and former CDG president Mary Rose with helping her join our guild. Rose served as a mentor during an internship at the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. Hawbaker then joined Local 705 and worked at American Costume and Muto Little. Following a stint as a fitter for CDs like Danny Glicker and Audrey Fisher, Hawbaker found her way to an ACD position and recently has been working alongside CDs Jacqueline West and Michael Wilkinson.
Romanov has a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Her major was acting, but she became well versed in all aspects of stagecraft from lighting, to sound and set design. Through acting, she found her way to California and a friend invited her became a PA in the costume department. The show was Entourage and Romanov remained there on and off for nearly five years. It was a trial by fire. Afterwards, she volleyed back and forth, assisting CDs Roemehl Hawkins and Olivia Miles, among others. When CD Bob Blackman interviewed 15 people including Romanov by phone for the acclaimed television series Glee, she never thought she would get the job, but did. Romanov is honored to be the ACD representative to the Executive Board.
Originally a successful stage actress, Stepic-Rendulic fled a war in her native Yugoslavia and moved to Los Angeles with her husband in 1991. She met CD Sanja Hays while Hays was ACDing for CD Joseph Porro on the film Stargate. Stepic-Rendulic calls Stargate her most difficult film to date. She recalls that in those days a film would often start non-union, and become union upon the commencement of filming. Stepic-Rendulic worked first as a fabric distresser and PA on Stargate and entered 705 as a costumer. Eventually, she teamed up with Hays and has remained her ACD and right hand for decades. Because of her theatrical background, she always puts herself into the character, and works from the inside out. She brings that unique vantage point and understanding to all of her ACD work.
Outside of the industry, the question “why do you need an assistant costume designer,” seems common. Romanov explains, “Costumers support the costume supervisor, the costume supervisor handles the financial aspect of the department and takes care of the background. You need someone directly supporting the designer, and that person is the ACD. We facilitate the designer’s vision. I have done it all for a designer—shopped, helped design, and assisted with made to order costumes.”
“I’ll tell you something that opened up my eyes to how some producers view the ACD role,” adds Hawbaker, “A UPM [Unit Production Manager] friend once told me, ‘ When the costume department wants to hire an assistant designer, what a lot of producers believe that means is there will be two designers on staff, and therefore they’ll spend twice as much money.’ To which Hawbaker replied to him, “Well, I am here to say if you have a good ACD, the exact opposite effect happens.”
The process differs from designer to designer, every job and person is unique. “Some are very forward about how they want you to support them,” says van Duyne, “others are more vague, and you have to discover what they need. There is often a trial period. When you first work with a designer, fabric shopping or visiting the costume houses together can help the ACD learn the designer’s eye and adapt to it. This can make or break a relationship. If you’re bringing in clothing or fabrics that are not getting used, not only will you be distrusted by your designer, but by your vendors as well. On American Horror Story, CD Lou Eyrich has also taught me a lot about working with kindness, and how it’s a collaborative job—not only between the director and the actor, or the show runner or the creator—but it’s also a collaborative process with the crew.”
Hawbaker reinforces this approach. “When you’re working with different designers, you find that element in yourself that helps them, and you take that personality trait and ramp it up. For another designer you might choose another trait. So much of the job is identifying what the Costume Designer needs. Also, I think it’s about good matches. If you’re not a good match, that doesn’t mean that there is something wrong with a designer or assistant, they may just be a bad match.”
Once the dialogue has been initiated, there is nearly no substitute for the rapport that forms between the CD and ACD. “I think that is the most important thing actually,” Stepic-Rendulic says, “because with a shorter prep time, it helps that Sanja can tell me, ‘Do you remember the silk we had for that dress in The Mummy?’ And I know exactly what she means. Referring to something that we have already done as a team, is important. Time isn’t the only pressure, often producers try to make sequels for less money. Each time you achieve something, you know you will have to do it again, because they push the boundaries further and further. We take it step-by-step and prioritize.”
Romanov feels the ACD also can magnify a designer’s vision. “Some designers are so broad and their vision is so big, you fine tune them. But with another type of designer you might amplify their vision, bringing to the table something they might have overlooked. Every designer requires something distinct. At first it may be difficult to find your rhythm, but the longer you work together, the more you become like a fine-tuned machine.”
Hawbaker elaborates, “I feel like my biggest role is to make sure the full scope of the Costume Design is what ends up on camera, not waste or inefficiency. To make room for that vision to soar, also requires being vigilant with the budget and savvy with the resources. A good ACD has to have the aplomb of a diplomat, the steadiness of a bomb defuser, and the flexibility of an acrobat.”
“When I first meet a designer,” says van Duyne, “I always want them to know that I’m not after their job—I’m after their recommendation. They have worked hard to get where they are and when I work on a production, I am there to completely serve the purpose and vision of the designer.”
“The difference between a CD and an ACD is the designer has so much more ground to cover. I often feel for them,” says Stepic-Rendulic, “because they are on the front line.” Romanov concurs, “The difference for me, is what rests on their shoulders.” “I feel very fortunate,” says van Duyne, “I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for each designer that I’ve met along the way. It is such a rewarding experience, this line of work is like oxygen to me.” Stepic-Rendulic agrees, “I’m so happy where I am, and I wouldn’t change it, I’m very grateful.” Hawbaker, “I feel privileged to be in a position where I’m working under these people who inspire me.”