Spotlight On: Daniela Gschwendtner and Steven Lee
Co-Costume Designers of “Dancing With the Stars”
By Valli Herman
Steven Lee and Daniela Gschwendtner are navigating through the narrow aisles at International Silks and Woolens, the iconic Los Angeles fabric store where they hope to find a stiff, shimmery fabric to craft a bow for a costume on “Dancing With the Stars,” the hit ABC dance competition series where they share costume design duties.
Good news: The store can fuse a stiff backing on the fabric in a little more than a day. Bad news: They need it, like, yesterday.
“A day and a half is an eternity for us,” said Lee, who, like his partner, maintains an even temper even when discussing the runaway-freight-train pace of their jobs.
Gschwendtner and Lee, dressed nearly alike in textural shades of gray, have served in a design capacity on the hit show almost since it began. In the summer of 2005, DWTS started with a six-week run, and has just completed its 19th season, the latest an 11-week run with 13 stars. Between seasons in the summer, the pair head to New York to work on “America’s Got Talent.” Not so conveniently, AGT overlaps with both the finale and the premiere of DWTS seasons–two of the biggest episodes of the year.
Raised in Germany, Gschwendtner came to the United States as an au pair, then worked as a stylist and personal shopper and in studio services at Barney’s New York. After studying at the American College for Applied Arts, Gschwendtner worked her way up through stints as a set costumer, supervisor and assistant designer.
Lee, who grew up in the San Fernando Valley, studied costume design at UC Irvine and earned an MFA at University of Texas at Austin, where he studied millinery, tailoring, draping, fabric dying and mask making.
Gschwendtner was a costume designer from 2007 to 2008 on the TV series “Wildfire” and costume supervisor on “Charmed” from 2001 to 2005 before supervising “Dance War: Bruno vs. Carrie Ann.” Lee joined the dance show in 2006 as an assistant, a year after it began. As training for one of the most rigorous shows on television, both began assisting Costume Designer Randall Christensen, who has to his credit an Emmy for Outstanding Costumes for a Variety or Music Program and four Costume Designers Guild nominations for Outstanding Contemporary Television series. Lee and Gschwendtner gradually expanded their duties by designing the Tuesday results show alongside Christensen.
Their skill sets–she leans toward fashion, he toward technical and tailoring–complement their job duties; he handles the men’s costumes; she the women’s.
Like a winning team of dancers, Lee and Gschwendtner are a well-coordinated pair that gracefully moves in sync, anticipating each other’s actions, episode after episode for half a decade.
“These shows are so fast and furious. There’s no way we could work together if we didn’t get along,” said Lee.
Now with two assistants of their own, Lee and Gschwendtner work seven days a week, 10 to 12 hours a day, and sometimes 14.
“You’re kind of the decision maker for the team. There’s constantly a question,” said Gschwendtner. “So if you’re not around, the team can’t move on…and everyone ends up working longer.”
‘The turnaround is just so fast,” said Lee. “We only have like four days to do it. And mostly everything is custom made and covered with Swarovski crystals.” They’re glued, not sewed. It’s faster.
The duo assumed all of the costume design duties after Christensen left.
“The show got big and it changed a little bit,” said Lee.
“It’s not just ballroom anymore. It’s group numbers and hip hop,” said Gschwendtner.
“They have a lot of Afro jazz, and Bollywood, hip hop, and contemporary dances,” said Lee.
“It’s very club and very music video-like, especially when we have performers on like Jesse J or Pit Bull. It’s a hot, sexy video vibe,” said Gschwendtner.
The demand for costumes has intensified, too. “In the past two years, there are more themes now–a movie theme, Halloween, Disney, a Nintendo freestyle,” said Lee.
“It’s not just a couple dancing. Now everything is a production with a theme and backup dancers,” said Gschwendtner. “Which is cool — it makes the show look good.”
The show is huge–it practically takes an odometer to measure the tally of dancers, musicians, editors and producers, but the list of costume designers is rather short. Christensen designed 162 episodes from 2006 to 2011, while as Co-Costume Designers, Gschwendtner and Lee accumulated more than 100 credits since advancing from assistants to costume designers in 2009. With two seasons a year, Lee counts 17 seasons of DWTS, while Gschwendtner has 15.
The design team has costumed one of the most diverse casts imaginable, with dancers of every age, shape and style–Kirstie Alley, Amber Riley, Jerry Rice, Chaz Bono, Donny Osmond, Bristol Palin, Lance Bass, fashion designer Betsey Johnson and dozens more.
“You can’t just shop it. Everything has to be danceable,” said Lee. He credits his tailor for knowing just how to cut a jacket so that the shoulder doesn’t rise or buckle. For the women contestants, the key to dressing for success resides in great undergarments, stacks of TopStick and Super Stick It adhesive and clever camouflage of stretch fabrics. The women’s clothing customarily has a built-in leotard to help anchor it on the body. The men have elastic loops to keep their shirts tucked in and hooks inside jackets that attach to the paints. They’ll even add a stretch stirrup that keeps ankles covered when legs are outstretched.
The designers are fond of decorating plain stretch fabrics with lace appliqués to give it a high-end look.
“We’re trying to make it more ‘fashion’ than dancewear, and not just a costume,” said Gschwendtner.
It’s danceable couture — whether it’s a feathered and fringed mini dress, a ruffled skirt or sparkly suit. It all has to look great in motion and withstand demanding athletics. To speed and fine-tune the fit process, each woman contestant’s body is replicated on a dress form.
To make the nearly 60 costumes per week, the design and construction moves faster than a samba: Tuesdays are design days, when the team consults on the next episode’s look and collaborates with the dancers, celebrities and producers. Wednesdays the designers shop for fabrics and review the cuts with the tailors. Thursday, they dye fabrics and cut the patterns, then add embellishments. The first fittings happen on Fridays and continue on Saturdays with the main couples and extra dancers and performers. Sundays, they review the final fits. Mondays are the first dress rehearsal, when contestants receive their outfit just 90 minutes before showtime.
Every Monday night, viewers can see the results of their frantic week–stitched into glittering gowns, shimmying skirts and sleek suits that transform the merely famous into the utterly fabulous.