Spotlight On: Costume Designer Giovanna Ottobre-Melton
By Valli Herman
Every costume designer has a particular method for extracting the essence of a character and time period. Giovanna Ottobre-Melton brings a lot of personal experience to her projects, particularly one of her latest, the pilot for the new fall television series, “Wicked City.”
The crime drama is based on the 1982 Sunset Strip serial murders. “I had just started working on the Sunset Strip at Cyd’s clothing boutique when the killings were going on,” said the Los Angeles native. “It would be 6 o’clock at night, and we were on the Sunset Strip, just afraid to walk to our cars at night. The owner was very aware of the dangers and paid for all of us who worked there to get certified to use Mace.
“I started to remember all the fear for women of that time. We had become the serial killer capital,” she said. The pilot’s look also came from photos of the era’s nightclubs and her memories of people she knew and clothes she wore. “I found at the rental house, pants and a dress that were exactly like what I had owned, and that certainly brought back memories.”
Now the designer and illustrator is known for her Emmy-winning work on the time-traveling “Providence” series, “My Name Is Earl,” “Numb3rs,” ‘The Defenders,” “Mob City” and “Agent Carter.”
Whether she’s tuning in to her 1980s self for a crime drama or researching period clothing for a WWII epic, nearly every job ends up being personal, in part because of her L.A. history in clothing and the entertainment industry. Her husband, Gregory Melton, is a production designer; her sons, Thomas, runs a props business, and Ryan is a graphic designer.
Her father, James Ottobre a couture designer, operated ateliers in West Hollywood and Beverly Hills, where celebrities were regular customers. Ottobre-Melton picked up the vocabulary of high fashion, learned how fabrics behaved and how to operate a power sewing machine as a 10-year-old.
“By the time I was 14, I knew I wanted to do costumes,” she said. During her teens, she watched movies to absorb their design magic, marveled at the costumes her father’s shop made for Las Vegas productions and turned her talents to her own wardrobe. Her high school yearbook is like a lookbook of her first creations. “I even made my prom dress,” she said.
Seemingly destined for a career in clothing, Ottobre-Melton graduated from the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising and soon opened her own couture atelier on La Cienega Boulevard in Los Angeles. “I made wedding dresses and whatever anybody needed. I had a preference for fantasy costumes. Then TV and film started coming to me. Suddenly, I realized I didn’t need a storefront and I started going to the sets,” she said.
With her Costume Design career launched, Ottobre-Melton began working regularly in the 1990s on films such as “Boris and Natasha,” “Breaking the Rules” and “The Rapture,” and on TV projects including “Fire in the Dark,” “Harts of the West” and “Alien Nation: Dark Horizon.” She also designed costumes for the film adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, “The Mist.”
Winning an Emmy for Outstanding Costume in a Series in 2000 for NBC’s “Providence” was certainly a highlight, but it didn’t change her career.
“The bottom line is no one in the industry really cares. It’s matter of fact with us,” she said. “It does give you a certain amount of confidence, but you are on to your next show and starting all over again.”
She’s as busy as ever. After designing the pilot for “Wicked City,” Ottobre-Melton continues for the second season of “Agent Carter.” The ABC television series based on Marvel’s Peggy Carter, a 1940s undercover agent, returns in January. The red fedora she developed for Carter in cooperation with Stetson has become an iconic element of the show. Stetson also added her design, now called the Aviatrix, as a featured part of its new fedora collection.
Just as she updated existing and vintage hats in Stetson’s collection to create Carter’s hat, she also applies a modern eye to period costumes.
“I keep all the lines period. When you look at the design, if it doesn’t look period, I’ve made a mistake. But if you look at ‘40s clothes, they’re pretty dowdy. You can hand-pick the fabulous pieces, but when it’s dowdy, it’s dowdy to the modern eye, too.” She’ll adjust a hemline or neckline to refresh a silhouette, but work it within the production’s palette. Her ultimate test: “When I look at a dress, I ask, ‘Could you wear that on the street today?”
To add verisimilitude to her period projects, Ottobre-Melton turns to an unusual source: photos of crime scenes. “You can capture what the era really looked like. If you look at catalogs and books, it’s like looking at a Vogue magazine,” she said. “When you use historical photos, you capture the moment.”
Her research process she said “leaves no stone unturned. I use everything and everyone.” Her many crime dramas often include strong characters, including women, many of whom she found are underrepresented or missing entirely from history books.
To supplement the design process, the designer will read about the period to expand her understanding of how daily life was affected by events of the era. “You learn everything they went through–even little things, like how heels were required for everything.”
She loves to work on period television projects in part because she prefers to stay close to home and L.A.’s vast resources, but also for the creative freedom they allow.
“Contemporary clothing is much more scrutinized. They are all familiar with it, so everyone has a design element that they want to bring to it,” she said.
Her creativity extends beyond the wardrobe trailer to her Valley Glen home, where gardens wrap around the property, offering tomatoes, cantaloupe, pepper, potatoes, herbs and green onions.
“There is something rewarding about going out and picking some strawberries for breakfast,” she said. After studying crime scene photos, cramming a months-long prep into a few weeks or working nonstop on a hit series, the garden is where life slows.
“No matter what I have on, you’ll find me in the garden at the end of the day,” she said. “So I ruin a lot of shoes in the garden.” Like her characters, she can do anything in heels.