Spotlight On: Danielle Launzel
By Valli Herman
If you get to know Costume Designer Danielle Launzel, you soon discover that she has the heart and mind of an entrepreneur. The one-time psychology and art major found a way, just like those self-starters of the business world, to unite her passion with her profession and build a career by acting on opportunities that she sees for improvement or advancement. And yet like many in this heavily female profession, Launzel also had to find work that allowed her time with her child.
Her persistence and talent have allowed the Long Island native to work steadily in television since she came to Los Angeles two decades ago. With credits on nearly every major broadcast and cable network, Launzel is a prime example of a Costume Designer who keeps growing, evolving and reinventing. She just finished giving the recently canceled ABC comedy “Selfie” it’s fun-to-watch sizzle, while also developing a jewelry collection with Sarah Chloe Jewelry.
Beginning in 2012, Launzel gave the suburbanite characters in the TV comedy series “Suburgatory” their compelling quirkiness and heightened reality, and in the FX comedy fantasy “Wilfred,” made Elijah Wood look normal as he played a manic depressive who is the only one who can see his neighbor’s dog, Wilfred, as an adult in a dog costume.
“I think I really shine when I get to do these outrageous things,” she said. She’s also designed “America’s Got Talent,” “Trust Me,” “The Middle Man” and “The Wedding Bells,” the later a favorite because she grew up near the show’s setting in Great Neck, N.Y.
Launzel discovered her calling almost by accident. She left her native Long Island for Radford University in Radford, Va., where she began preparing for a career as an art therapist. Then her across-the-hall neighbor persuaded her to try theater classes–costume design and acting. The costume work came easily.
“My mother was always sewing things and my grandfather was a tailor,” says Launzel. “I understood how things were made.” She also worked on college theater productions and, in her last semester, stage managed a show.
“I loved doing that. I was able to be in charge. So I came out to California and said, I’m going to do production. I’m really good at being in charge,” she said. She had to pay her dues first, beginning as a production assistant on a shoot for shoe brand L.A. Gear. Yet a few similar gigs and a production secretary job left her “bored to tears.”
Then she landed a job at EC2 Costumes, the costume rental house owned by Ret Turner and Bob Mackie. She stayed for a year, and took a job with a Costume Designer she met at the shop. Soon, she progressed to a set costumer slot on “Bay Watch.”
The job wasn’t just about keeping a steady supply of little bikinis. “It was so physical–lugging towels and robes all along the beach–all the stuff to keep them warm,” she said. Similarly, other jobs that required pulling costumes from rental houses didn’t quite align with her interests, so Launzel decided she was ready for the next step up the career ladder.
“I just kind of promoted myself,” she said. She worked as a costume supervisor and in 1996, as a costumer for “Beverly Hills 90210.” During the time she worked as a costume supervisor, she found herself at a crossroads. Divorced and with a toddler son, Launzel sought a way to maintain her career while raising her child. For a time, she lived with family in San Francisco and pondered leaving the demanding profession.
“I tried desperately to get out of this business,” she said, “But after I did, I realized how much I loved it.”
She reconnected with Costume Designer Jill Ohanneson, who was working on “Roswell.” She began as an additional costumer, then accepted Ohanneson’s offer to replace a departing costume supervisor.
“I told her I can’t get here before 8, and I have to leave by 6:30,” which by the industry’s standards is a near-unreasonable request. “But Jill was also going through a divorce with a 2 ½-year-old son,” Launzel said. Her boss understood the pressures they all faced. “She not only was a mentor, but she saved me. I don’t know how I could have gotten back into the business doing what I had to do,” Launzel recalled.
“The generosity of that has taught me so much about allowing people to have their lives. I get that your brain has to be on the job, but sometimes you have to be at the school with your kid,” she said.
Launzel sacrificed stay-at-home stability for an opportunity to advance again. She heard about a one-month Costume Designer job for a pilot in Miami. She put together a proposal, interviewed and got the job. Her mother came to Miami to watch her son as Launzel earned her first credit on a pilot for “Miss Miami.”
With experience in the design trenches, Launzel was well situated to accept Ohanneson’s offer to work as an assistant Costume Designer on “Six Feet Under.”
“Right after that, I got a few sitcom pilots as a Costume Designer. I just started designing. I never looked back for probably nine or 10 years,” she said.
Being a self-employed single mother in a tough business gave her a kind of on-the-job degree in business psychology. Among her insights:
• “You have to have an ego–you can’t get discouraged or allow somebody’s opinion to make you think you don’t know what you’re doing because it’s just an opinion. You have to have confidence.”
• “You have to promote yourself bec no one is going to. If you’re good at your job, they want you to do that job,” she said.
• “You need a humble confidence with your bosses, and with your actors. They have to believe that you know what you’re talking about. Older ones think they know what works on their body and you don’t. And the younger ones think they know fashion better than you.”
If there’s another lesson she’s learned, it’s the value–and the danger–of being loyal to a show, even when the numbers point to imminent doom.
Though “Selfie,” a modernized version of “My Fair Lady,” came out of the gate strong and was gaining a good social media following, but after six of the 13 episodes aired, ABC cancelled the show and broadcast a seventh installment, post-cancellation. Soon after, Hulu announced that it would finish out the season by streaming the remaining six episodes.
The experience gave Launzel another valuable business lesson: Beware when your producers start cutting back your budget on every show–and don’t take it personally.
That’s where her psychology studies come in handy: In an industry where rejection is frequent and often public, having a healthy sense of self, a good dose of bravery and a great network of friends, family and babysitters can help you get through the day–and a career.