Iron Lady: Maggie Schpak

Robert Fletcher – Star Trek

Tom Bronson – Rocky

Wayne Finkleman – Scrooged

Gary Jones – The Princess Diaries

Ellen Mirojnick – Chronicles of Riddick

Design Details: Iron Lady: Maggie Schpak

2018 Distinguished Service Award

By Anna Wyckoff

If Costume Designers often work behind the scenes, the artisans who support them and bring their visions to life are one step deeper in the background. The Distinguished Service Award is an opportunity for the Costume Designers Guild to spotlight and recognize these prolific and consistent talents. This year’s honoree, Maggie Schpak, the owner/operator of Studio Art Metal Shop for forty-seven years, has been a mainstay in the costume industry.

In 1957 Schpak started at Western Costume in ladies wardrobe. Her husband at the time, Tom Browne, worked in props. When the owners of the metal shop on the sixth floor of the building wanted to retire, the couple pooled their resources and bought the business. “Being hippies, we thought we’d be able to do art, grow up, not have to punch a timecard, and take all these vacations,” Schpak muses. “Forty-seven years later she notes that she hasn’t taken a vacation since. Though Schpak and Browne separated in 1971, they remained business partners for decades. Their relationship was so strong and amicable that even in the world of a giant costume house (where gossip is no stranger) clients didn’t know their marriage had ended until Schpak remarried in 1977.

Over the years, Schpak has worked on projects that would not only require all her talents, but that she constantly create new ones. When the duo began their business, they knew little about designing jewelry, armor, or the accessories that Costume Designers would call on them to create. They had one month to learn basic techniques under the tutelage of the previous owners. Despite—or perhaps because of—that naiveté, she has always loved taking on new challenges for the learning experiences that they entail.

As technology has evolved and requirements for realism and accuracy have become more stringent, the techniques Schpak uses have developed as well. She tracks this progression through the crafting of police badges, which started out as pieces that were spray-painted silver and hand lettered. But when that wasn’t accurate enough she began plating them in her shop, then sanding and buffing them by hand. Having mastered that technique she would do custom plating for personalized fittings. “If a designer was downstairs at a fitting with an actor and they wanted a silver necklace to be gold right now, I’d run it through the gold it for them then and there.”

For Schpak, bringing the vision of a Costume Designer to life means seeing beyond the research and drawings and into his or her mind. “If it’s something that’s a little out there, you have to picture what they are visualizing,” she explains. “You have to mind meld with them. You know they’ve got a vision and the goal is to see it, make it, show it to them, and have them say, ‘That’s it. That’s what everything in the show has to look like.'”

When Costume Designer Robert Fletcher of Star Wars fame asked for a broach with a four-inch amethyst, she figured out how to make it with polyester resin. When Tom Bronson needed a championship belt for Rocky, she rose to the challenge. If Robert Turturice needed seventy identical earrings for Cybill Shepherd on Moonlighting, she got right to work. When Wayne Finkelman wanted gossamer wings, a wand, and matching jewelry for Carol Kane’s Ghost of Christmas Past for Scrooged, she created something fantastical. Ellen Mirojnick ordered an ornamental wire corset for Thandie Newton to wear in Chronicles of Riddick, so she started soldering. From futuristic alien armor for a dozen Vulcan guards and Klingon soldiers, to Michael Jackson’s metal shoe tips, it was all in a day’s work.

“That’s the excitement of it,” Schpak enthuses, “the kind of stuff I adore the next morning. You want people to make you be better at what you do all the time. That’s the thing I’m most grateful for. That kind of thing keeps you young.”

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