Costume Designers as Brands
By Cassy Salyer – Sept. 6, 2013
It’s undeniable that costume designers have always had a significant impact on contemporary real-world fashion and, in recent years, that impact has become increasingly evident. Numerous costume designers today are finding a niche outside the walls of the industry and branding themselves – and their respective projects – with licensed clothing lines, capsule collections and other consumer products, bringing their coveted designs to the masses.
In many ways, this phenomenon is like reverse product placement. Rather than designers vying for a chance to have their clothing worn by influential characters on screen, costume designers are seizing the opportunity to create demand for their own designs, and then distribute through creative retail partnerships.
Janie Bryant (“Mad Men”) is a true pioneer in this space and has seen tremendous success as an outgrowth of her work on AMC’s hit series. Bryant’s groundbreaking collaborations with Banana Republic represent a pivotal point in the industry and opened the door for others to do the same. She is often credited with singlehandedly bringing the 1960s back to life, translating the chic vintage appeal of the “Mad Men” characters into looks that work for men and women today.
It was also announced in July that Bryant is developing a design competition series with E.J. Johnston and James Deutch, co-creators of the NBC series Fashion Star. Each week aspiring designers will be challenged to create a garment in the style of a classic Hollywood film, or a celebrity’s signature style. The Emmy and Costume Designers Guild Award-winning Bryant is also a brand ambassador for Maidenform’s intimate apparel and shapewear lines, and published a book in 2010 called “The Fashion File.”
Jill Ohanneson, Costume Designer for “Revenge,” is following suit and is working on a women’s retail collection based on her famous Hamptons-inspired designs from the show. While the characters’ wardrobes are highly aspirational, Ohanneson’s main goal is to create a line for the general female viewership, making Emily’s (Emily VanCamp) elegant classic American look and Victoria’s (Madeleine Stowe) sexy villainess style attainable and wearable in the real world.
“[Designing] a clothing line for retail sale is more about designing for all women so they have a chance to experience the fashion and glamour of ‘Revenge’ themselves, versus designing for my actors, whose costumes need to help tell the story of the script and what is happening physically and emotionally to the characters,” she says, adding that she would like to also create a Nolan Ross (Gabriel Mann) inspired men’s line. She hopes to leverage these new opportunities to bring high fashion to the plus size world, and would love to do a bedding line at some point.
Similarly to Bryant and Ohanneson, more and more costume designers on the film side are finding unique ways to brand themselves. Trish Summerville is best known – and very well known at that – for her work on “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” for which she won a Costume Designers Guild Award in 2012, and now “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.” Her popularity has skyrocketed since the first day Rooney Mara tore up the big screen as the dark and complex hacker vigilante Lisbeth Salander.
As part of the promotional machine behind “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” Summerville partnered with Swedish retail giant H&M and designed a 30-piece “Dragon Tattoo” collection timed to release just before the film premiered in Dec. 2011. The collection included staple pieces inspired by the film – albeit perhaps slightly more refined for the mainstream consumer – including a leather jacket, wool coat, skinny jeans, t-shirts and more.
The image that Summerville created for Lisbeth took on a life of its own, due in equal parts to the captivating style itself as well as Mara’s haunting performance and physical commitment to the role. Not surprisingly, the rebellious, goth, yet strangely feminine look began popping up on runways and in editorial spreads, something the New York Times called “the Lisbeth Salander effect.”
Not only was the project a huge success for Summerville in terms of branding herself commercially, but it was also a major stepping stone for her professionally, and led to another high profile project in “Catching Fire,” a film for which she is being honored as Costume Designer of the Year at the 10th Annual Style Awards during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in New York.
While the fashion in the “Hunger Games” trilogy is vastly different from many of the other retail collaborations we have seen in recent years, it was announced on Sept. 4 that Summerville is designing a collection called “Capitol Couture by Trish Summerville” through an exclusive partnership with Lionsgate and luxury online retailer Net-a-Porter.com. The collection consists of 16 ready-to-wear pieces as well as jewelry and leather goods inspired by the film.
Tim Palen, Lionsgate’s Chief Marketing Officer, said in a press release about the partnership, “In the world of ‘The Hunger Games,’ one of the ways the Capitol defines itself is through fashion. When we launched Capitol Couture online (capitolcouture.pn), it took off and quickly became an out-of-world experience for both fans of the franchise and those obsessed with the future of fashion. Trish Summerville’s Capitol Couture collection for Net-a-Porter.com is a brilliant, elegant and chic extension of this effort.”
Echoing a similar sentiment, Holli Rogers, Fashion Director for Net-a-Porter.com says, “Our customers take their style cues from myriad sources, from the latest runway shows and street trends to TV and film. Fashion plays an important role in ‘The Hunger Games’ series and is especially prevalent in ‘Catching Fire,’ and fans of the franchise will see the film reference in the collection. This is also brilliant fashion in its own right, and we’re delighted to provide our customers with the chance to purchase limited-edition pieces designed by one of the most original costume designers in the industry today.”
Summerville is just one of many costume designers currently paving the way for those in the industry to further brand themselves and find new ways to monetize their work. Another great example is Arianne Phillips, who is one of the more diverse costume designers in the business today. Her work ranges from designing for feature films (“3:10 to Yuma,” “Walk the Line,” “Girl, Interrupted” and many others) to working as a freelance fashion editor and stylist, styling some of today’s most prolific music artists – including Madonna for the past 16 years – and serving as a consultant for fashion brands.
Phillips is currently in London designing costumes for Matthew Vaughn’s film “Secret Service” and, in tandem, working on a bigger merchandising component that she says promises ground breaking involvement for a costume designer. At the time of this writing the project has yet to be announced.
“This is encouraging for the [costume design] community,” she says. “This is the wave of the future – it’s unique and exciting for costume designers to have these kinds of opportunities.”
Phillips, who is frequently asked whether she will design her own line, says she has always struggled to find authenticity when it comes to merchandising the work she does. That said, the clothing line for her current project is a natural extension of the costumes she is simultaneously designing for the film and provides a rare opportunity to be invested in a brand and reap the financial benefits as the artist.
“I’m not a fashion designer, I’m really about fantasy and storytelling,” she points out, noting that what makes this clothing line work is its authenticity to the story and that it maintains integrity on a retail level.
Though she is not a fashion designer herself, Phillips has been hired as a fashion brand consultant for the last six years, advising designers on trends and research. She has also worked with Gwen Stefani to launch her Target line, and has had an ongoing relationship with Madonna for 16 years, including consulting for her Truth or Dare line. According to Phillips, brands really value someone who operates primarily in the entertainment business, as entertainment has such a profound influence in the world of fashion.
“The important thing is to make a name for ourselves – it creates value for who we are and what we do. As freelance artists, we need to continue to brand ourselves and make sure people know we exist. These costumes don’t just happen magically – whether on a doll or on a screen. It’s all about name recognition and no one is going to do it for us,” says Phillips.
As is the case with any brand, in order for these costume designers to be successful and for the real-world extensions of their work to be commercially viable, it comes down to marketing and visibility. One of the most adept at building her brand is Mandi Line, who serves as Costume Designer for ABC Family’s enormously popular teen drama, “Pretty Little Liars,” which is not only known for its drama, mystery and thrills, but also for its style.
When Line was initially asked to work on “Pretty Little Liars,” she turned it down, but after seeing the pilot and the first episode she thought, “This is for me.” She told the producer if he trusted her, she could make it one of the most fashionable shows on TV. And she has. Over the course of the last few years, the show has become a staple in conversations about fashion on television and in real life.
Although Line does not have her own clothing line (yet), she is extremely engaged with fans of “Pretty Little Liars.” She is quickly approaching 20,000 followers on Twitter and has done live chats with fans to talk about the characters’ individual styles and says she has come to realize the impact social media has on building a personal brand. Self-professed as computer and technology illiterate, Line says she never realized before how important it is to listen to her audience and give back.
“These are girls I will most likely never get to meet, but it’s so important for me to be able to hear them and engage with them – girls that maybe could be lost at school or don’t fit in, but they have a show they can relate to and feel like they’re heard,” she says.
In some cases, however, Line does get to meet her fans face-to-face. She recently did a seasonal mall tour to meet and greet fans of the show and talk a little about current storylines before hosting a fashion show of the year’s biggest trends for homecoming and/or prom. In a brilliantly strategic partnership, Line teamed up with Macy’s for the events, each of which was followed by an “after party” of sorts in the Macy’s juniors department, complete with mini cosmetic makeovers, sweets and, of course, racks full of the dresses Line had just shown the audience, ripe for the picking.
Line – who aims to have her own clothing line, a book for teens on health, fitness and fashion, as well as a makeover TV show – credits much of her success and growth as a brand to two things: passion, and her manager, Linda Kearns and her partner Kristi McCormick from Matchbook. Kearns also represents numerous other costume designers that are always in the headlines for new retail partnerships and marketing initiatives, including Janie Bryant (“Mad Men”), Jill Ohanneson (“Revenge”), Lyn Paolo (“Scandal,” Shameless”) and others. According to Line, having someone who believes in her and whose sole responsibility is to go out and look for strategic opportunities to increase her exposure has “changed her life.”
Sometimes influence on the retail market can be more subtle or indirect than a branded collection or partnership. One costume designer who has had a significant impact on the tween and girl market is Christopher Lawrence, who served as the Costume Designer for “Hannah Montana: The Movie.”
In Lawrence’s opinion, a lot of the clothing available for young girls is too grown up. His goal for the film was to bring back the innocence of childhood, to “a time when girls could run outside and play and not be chaperoned.”
“I designed all of Miley’s costumes with that in mind. She had ruffles, bows, wide straps on sleeveless tops and longer length skirts and dresses. Once the film came out I saw the shift happen. Clothes [in stores] became more playful and innocent. I also saw the color palette I used on Hannah’s costumes directly translate. Everyone from Target to DVF for GapKids did a version of my color stories.”
Because “Hannah Montana” appealed to a much younger audience, Lawrence’s designs were also repurposed and copied for dolls, Halloween costumes and children’s clothing, though he was not given credit for his original designs once they entered the consumer marketplace.
The biggest difference today from four years ago in regards to costume designers getting the recognition they deserve? According to Lawrence, it’s the retailers that are recognizing the value in having costume designers design clothes based on high profile projects. “It’s exciting for the consumer and profitable for the retailer,” he says.
Although the art of costume design in film and television continues to impact the daily lives of consumers on many levels, Lawrence doesn’t feel that the studios’ stance has changed much in regards to merchandising royalties. The hope across the board is that costume designers continue to make names for themselves and someday getting proper credit and compensation will become the industry standard.