Sourcing Hard to Find Fabrics and Textile Designers
August 14, 2013
When it comes to creating a costume, the goal is to establish a tone and style, place and time, and additional contextual information for the character wearing it. Similar to that of a set designer, a costume designer has many sets of tools at his or her disposal, but the most significant are the elements of visual design (composition, mass, color, texture and line) and the practical material needed to create each costume (fabric, material and texture). Texture is incredibly important when working with different fabrics. For example, satins are smooth and shiny, velvets are rich and heavy, and although both lace and tweed are highly textured, lace is light while tweed is heavy. Two dimensional textures are most often achieved by combining materials such as leather, suede, plastic and fur, or through use of patterns including paisley, plaid, polka dots, check and more.
Although many costumes integrate multiple fabrics, various articles of clothing, and several accessories, sometimes finding just the right material and composition is the greatest challenge, and involves locating and sourcing materials from all over the world.The quantity needed can pose an extra challenge for costume designers, as they are not usually buying and ordering in large quantities, but rather for one costume that may (or may not) need to be produced in multiples. (Regardless, the amount of fabric needed is much less than a fashion designer requires when producing an entire line).
Most Costume Designers would agree that having a resourceful staff plays an integral role in the efficiency of the work and overall success of any job. Accustomed to working on a team, Costumer Gillian Waterman is very used to hunting down just the right fabric for a particular costume. Whether she is shopping for Costume Designers on films such as “Thor” (Alexandra Byrne), “The Avengers” (Alexandra Byrne), “Star Trek Into Darkness” (Michael Kaplan) or even “Behind the Candelabra” (Ellen Mirojnick), Waterman tries to obtain as many fabric swatches as possible from stores all over the globe in order to find exactly what she is looking for. Over the years, she has sourced interesting and unique fabrics, textures, patterns and colors from Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, France, Italy and beyond.
When working on “Star Trek Into Darkness,” Waterman went in search of the perfect material for the film’s villain, Benedict Cumberbatch–something that would translate as very strong and powerful but also be durable and not too heavy. After testing many fabrics and emailing reference shots, Waterman was sent a swatch of a vegetable-dyed and coated mud cloth that fit her desired specifications. The cotton fabric, which looks a bit like canvas but with a wax-like quality and sheen, contained a beautiful inside backing. The mud cloth had been dyed and manipulated to the perfect shade of dark brown, which complimented the actor’s coloring and costumes.
Waterman shared with us some of her favorite places to locate harder-to-find fabrics. For futuristic/sci-fi projects, Waterman goes to Rose City Textiles in Portland, Oregon. For unique and interesting patterns, she shops at Mood (in New York and Los Angeles), International Silks and Woolens, as well as New York Elegant in Midtown Manhattan. Waterman also recommends sourcing materials at the textile shows in Los Angeles and New York and finding specialty shops that carry fabric from India. (A list of suppliers is included as a resource at the end of this article).
Waterman’s skill for rooting out unique fabrics is an asset in the design process—for any screen or stage project, of any genre—but what does a costume designer do if the specified fabric needed cannot be found, or doesn’t actually exist?
Costume Designer Francine Lecoultre, not only known for her outstanding work for screen, stage and TV commercials, is revered for her visionary eye and deft hand as a multimedia artist well-versed in overcoming the rare fabric obstacle—creating special custom textiles for films and theatrical productions around the globe. Born and raised in Switzerland, Lecoultre graduated in Art at the University of Bern and received her diploma in Costume Design from the Advanced Program of the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles.
With a love for art and design, Lecoultre first began creating her own unique and specialized textiles in 1993.By incorporating modern techniques of fabric artistry and the use of many mediums, Lecoultre’s textiles breathe life into some of the most memorable cinematic characters in contemporary film. From the skin and organic textured material worn by aliens and other mutants in several Star Trek TV episodes and the feature film “Star Trek Insurrection” to the white glowing silk printed for the wedding dress,worn by Amy Adams in “Enchanted,” Lecoultre’s textiles are crafted with impeccabletechnique, care and precision. They collaboratively support and enhance the designer’s vision.
In addition to the films listed prior, her specialty fabrics have also been featured in period, fantasy and contemporary-set films including “The Mummy, Tomb of the Dragon Emperor,” “The Cell,” “Batman and Robin,” “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “J Edgar,” and “Total Recall.”
In 2002, Lecoultre was commissioned to design 1,200 costumes for the Opening Ceremony of The National Swiss Exhibition “EXPO.O2” and two years later, she designed 250 Egyptian costumes for the Musical “The Ten Commandments,” starring Val Kilmer and directed by Robert Iscove, for its opening at the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles.
One of Lecoultre’s more uniqueprojects, for which she received a Costume Designers Guild Award nomination, was for a popular Carl’s Jr.TV commercial that featured a turkey burger patterned bikini and pleated dress. These specialty fabrics played an integral role in the story telling and Lecoultre spent a significant amount of time getting both the color and the pattern just right.
When it comes to designing and creatingsuch textiles, Lecoultre says “the most important thing is testing everything.” The fabric has to last, so one must test its flexibility, durability, color, and give. For the most part, when designing costumes for performers and dancers, Lecoultre likes to work with a four way stretch, cross-bandLycraspandex, which allows for movement. Lecoultre also designed the costumes forthe musical- circus “Illusions” for the Opening Ceremony of the Grand Theater “Joyland” in Shanghai, China. For this latest project, she was tasked with creating 200 costumes for 60 Circus International performers, includinga group of contortionists from Mongolia. She created tattoo-like patterns on a bodysuit and then had the design printed on to the stretchy fabric for elves and warriors costumes.She conducted some of her fittings in Los Angeles and the rest in Shanghai—the finished product was spectacular.
A stranger to the process, I asked Lecoultre to take me throughit. She showed me one of her silk screensanddisclosed varied techniques, from flocking (the process of depositing small synthetic fiber particles called “flock” onto a fabric’s surface, thereby altering the aesthetics, color, texture and creating a velour-like appearance), to dévoré(in which a gel containing sodium hydrogen sulphate is applied to a fabric, such as velvet or silk, for the purposes of dissolving the fibers and creating a semi-transparent or “burnout” look).
The process Lecoultre utilizes is often referred to as silk screen or screen printing, because prior to the invention of polyester mesh, silk was used primarily. The origins of silk screening dates back to 960-1279 AD during the Song Dynasty in Chinaand was later introduced to Western Europe in the late 18th century. This traditional technique allows the setup of the fabric yardage on the print table. Often, the pattern of the costume has been registered by thread mark by the costume tailor.
In 1960, American entrepreneur, artist and inventor Michael Vasilantone developed and began selling a rotary multi-color garment screen-printing machine used to print logos and team information on bowling garments. Seven years later, after filing for patent on the original machine, the Vasilantone patent was licensed by manufacturers leading to the wild increase of printed t-shirts and garments.
While designing and creating fabric may seem laborious, Lecoultre enjoys the creativity and working with different mediums. Her contributions to costume design, (as well as interior and setdesign) include high quality fabric dyeing, painting, silk-screening, airbrushing, digital printing, ageing and distressing, reproducing antique velvets and brocades—and every now and then, creating alien and animal skin, 3D and SFX fabric, too.
Costume Designer Kym Barrett has a similar penchant for creatinghighly specific fabrics. Barrett, who started out in theatre before getting her first film costume design job working on Baz Luhrman’s “Romeo and Juliet,” has years of experience working on a diverse range of projects from period to contemporary to sci-fi. She may be best known for the costumes she created for the Wachowski brothers’ films, “The Matrix,” “The Matrix Reloaded” and “The Matrix Revolutions,” but Barrett has also seen her fair share of superheroes and comic-book characters, from Spiderman to The Green Hornet.
“I have been fortunate to work on scripts that often take place in ‘other worldly’ locations [which means that] I am always on the hunt for interesting base fabrics that can be transformed,” says Barrett. “I am [also] very lucky to often have the collaboration of Textile Artist Matt Rietsma and Specialty Costume Designer Stacia Lang for additional embellishments.” Together, the team has been able to produce very interesting fabrics and treatments, oftentimes using inexpensive materials.
One of the greatest fabric challenges Barrett has faced thus far emerged while working on the upcoming sci-fi action adventure film “Jupiter Ascending,” in which the majority of the movie takes place on an outer planet in fantastical environments. Because of the difficulty in finding just the right fabric, the team decided to make it themselves.Barrett explains, “Rietsma ended up making about 80% of all the fabric used for the film because we could not find anything that I was envisioning in my mind. And, of course, there was no time to shop for something like this while on location in the middle of the night. Stacia and her team of embellishers worked on top and into the fabrics that Rietsma created to enhance the effect and get it just right.”
In addition to her work in film, Barrett also created the costumes for Cirque du Soleil’s show “Totem.” She says the show, which includes a talented cast and amazing acrobatics and stunts, was a fun reprieve from the Hollywood blockbusters that Barrett devotes most of her time to.
When working on a project with specialty fabric requirements, Barrett must first look at the practicality and what the performer is going to have to accomplish physically. For the most part, she stuck with stretch fabrics that would allow for the most movement. “The challenge is to make it look like it’s not just Lycra or jersey,” says Barrett finds her inspiration and then works with her team to create their own materials and textiles. With a staff textile artist, hat and shoe makers, “there’s an unlimited possibility.”
It is clear that fabric choice and material is a crucial element of designing any costume. For genres and projects with clearly defined, larger-than-life heroes and villains (like some of the sci-fi and comic book-inspired features noted prior), or instances where actors and performers will engage in a series of stunts, from action blockbusters to Cirque du Soleil, as evidenced by Barrett, the designer is forced to think well beyond the aesthetic qualities of his or her fabric choices and give additional consideration to the durability, flexibility and movement of the unique materials at hand. The fabric chosen is one element of an overall composition, but clearly the hunt for the “perfect” selection is often a complex and worthwhile undertaking.
Additional resources provided by Costumer Gillian Waterman and Costume Designer and Textile Designer Francine Lecoultre:
International Silk and Woolens
Address: 8347 Beverly Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90048
Mood Designer Fabrics
NY Address: 225 W 37th St 3rd Floor New York, NY 10018
Phone: (212) 730-5003
LA Address: 645 S. La Brea Ave. Los Angeles, CA 90036
Phone: (323) 653-6663
Michael Levine Inc.
Address: 920 Maple Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90015
Diamond Foam and Fabrics
Address: 611 S La Brea Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90036
The Silk Trading Company
Address: 360 S La Brea Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90036
Phone: (323) 954-9280
For White Base Fabric / Natural Fibers:
Dharma Trading Company
Address: 1604 4th St, San Rafael, CA 94901
Burnley& Trowbridge Co.
Address: 108 Druid Drive, Williamsburg, VA 23185
Richard The Thread
Address: 10405 W Washington Blvd, Culver City, CA 90232
Phone: (310) 837-4997
For Period, Construction, Trims:
Millinery Supply Co.
Address: 721 S Spring St, Los Angeles, CA 90014
Phone: (213) 622-8746
For Science Fiction:
Sommers Plastic Products
Address: 31 Styertowne Road, Clifton, New Jersey 07012
Phone: 973- 777- 7888