Costume Design Merchandising Brings Revenue and Recognition
New awareness of power of costume design opens doors to deals
By Valli Herman
The ruby shoes. Indiana Jones’ jacket and hat. Storm troopers. Created by costume designers, they’ve become iconic images that have been reinterpreted for decades without mention of their origins. Today, in the world of movie merchandise licensing, “shop the show” sites and celebrity style blogs, costumes are being recognized as a powerful–and potentially profitable–cultural source.
Yet costume designers are just beginning to be compensated and recognized for their value.
That’s changing. Experts in fashion, film, television and merchandising gathered early this month at the Pacific Design Center for “Costume Design Meets the Fashion Business,” an event produced by the Los Angeles chapter of Fashion Group International (FGI), a non-profit professional organization for the fashion apparel, beauty and home furnishings industries.
A panel of award-winning costume designers shared their experiences in merchandising apparel and accessories collections in collaboration with studios and retailers. The partnerships have emerged because of support from studios, savvy agents, technology and even a shift in the zeitgeist
“Historically, it is rare for costume designers to cross over to fashion,” said panelist Deborah Nadoolman Landis, director of the David C. Copley Center for Costume Design at UCLA. Though legendary costume designers such as Adrian and Edith Head had occasional, short-term deals, they never won lasting, widespread commercial fashion success.
“Fashion designers have to sell their line,” she said. “We just have to make great costumes. Selling the clothes from the story has never been our main purpose.” Now they can do both.
“This group, these are the pioneers and this is the moment for the crossover,” she said.
Costume design is finally being seen as the powerful storytelling and design force that it has always been. The very existence of a center for the study of costume design at a major university, coupled with pop culture’s steady embrace of all things style and apparel, plus Internet connectivity have put costume design in a desirable new light, particularly for studio marketing departments.
The event’s panelists also are proof that fashion, retailing and costume design can be profitable partners. Here’s a short history of their accomplishments:
Janie Bryant: The Emmy-winning “Mad Men” Costume Designer has had top-selling “Mad Men” collaborations for Banana Republic and a “Deadwood” collection for Billy Martin’s, plus stints as a brand ambassador for Maidenform, Hearts on Fire and men’s underwear brand Mack Weldon and Sony.
Salvador Perez: The Costume Designers Guild President has had a capsule collection for Bauble Bar, a “Movie Legends” collection for J. Peterman, and a “Pitch Perfect 2” promotion for Express.
Arianne Phillips: The stylist, Costume Designer and Tony and Oscar nominee for costume design recently simultaneously designed the costumes for “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” and a brand that figured in the story and was sold on Mr. Porter, a menswear online retailer.
Lyn Paolo: In September, the “Scandal” Costume Designer released a successful chic business wardrobe for The Limited that was inspired by character Olivia Pope, played by Kerry Washington.
Washington told Variety when the collection was introduced that she, Paolo and The Limited’s design executive created the collection together, though each was in a different city and time zone. “So this is a collaboration that could not have happened decades ago,” Washington said. “We were literally FedExing buttons back and forth across the country. We were doing meetings on Skype. We were conference calling. We were really working as a team across the world.”
Phillips said that audiences can be converted to customers because, for the first time, there is a delivery system–the Internet–that creates a synergy between films and fashion. Just as films make an emotional connect to people across the world, so does clothing, but e-commerce was the missing link.
Studios have now become savvier about the potential for costume design to add silver-screen allure to spin-off merchandise collections. In contrast, Phillips recalled a past apparel licensing deal that the producers struck before she was even hired as costume designer. On that 1999 production, she wasn’t allowed to see the licensed costume ideas or weigh in with suggestions. She was rebuffed when she asked to be sure the line looked like her costumes. The line was a failure.
Many view Bryant’s “Mad Men” Banana Republic collection as a turning point that proved the commercial viability of film or TV-inspired fashion collections created with the participation of costume designers. Though the retailer had done other movie-inspired collections, including “Memoirs of a Geisha,” Bryant carved a new path.
Her 2011 “Mad Men” collections for Banana Republic were important and not just because audiences and the fashion industry heaped praise on her interpretations of 1960s looks. The show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, made it known that he valued costume design.
Weiner asked Bryant if she wanted to design a collection with Banana Republic. “And he told AMC and Lionsgate that the only way they were even going to be able to do a collection was with my help,” she said. Her three collections each sold out in two weeks.
When Phillips designed the 2014 comedy adventure “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” a film about elite British spies who use a Savile Row tailor shop as their base of operations, creator Matthew Vaughn was already in talks with Mr. Porter, an e-commerce company. He approached Phillips to design the costumes and a menswear brand that would exist in the movie, simultaneously. Phillips designed the two, which she said benefitted the costumes because she had access to more resources, such as having a technician create patterns from her movie costumes.
Phillips had the full support of Vaughn, who encouraged her to think first of making great movie costumes, from which the retail collection could follow. That support seems crucial to success.
“I think these collaborations only truly work if you have your producer backing you up,” said Paolo, whose “Scandal” collection for The Limited sold $30 million in seven months.
“When I was approached by The Limited, we had a huge discussion about the character. In my case, Olivia Pope has an iconic look for her. I was not willing to do the collection if I was just designing fashion. Luckily [show creator] Shonda Rhimes was an amazing supporter and backed me up 100 percent,” she added.
Rhimes and Paolo even kept the network at bay, convincing them that the costume designer and Washington were a team that created a character and look and that look should represent the show. Ultimately, Paolo decided not to continue with an additional collection: “I felt like we did it and that was enough and let’s move on to something else,” but she welcomes future opportunities.
Now that costume designers have agents, lawyers, huge followings on social media and a history of success, they are gaining traction in changing how their work is used off-screen. Still, longstanding approaches to contracts and royalties, and the conflicting timetables of merchandise and movie production, are still hurdles to be cleared. Yet important changes in perception–and studio control–are opening new revenue and recognition possibilities for costume designers.
“This is not really a union issue,” said Perez. “As costume designers, we’re work-for-hire. They pay us a salary to design clothes for a movie or TV show and they own everything. They make toys, costumes, posters, cups and pillows and all of that belongs to them.
“I think there is a change happening because they realize there’s more to us than, ‘Thank you for your job, go away, we’re going to reinterpret it.’ I think Janie is proof that if you have our involvement, your product will be so much better.”
Costume designers have also been able to bridge the worlds of fashion and costume design.
“I think it is a tricky line for us,” said Paolo. “I feel very strongly that we all need to be true to the fact that we are costume designers. We are not selling clothes. We are selling and representing our shows…and we need to be true to our shows.”
And even to the studios and filmmakers, the collaborations are a new kind of hybrid–neither costume nor fashion, but something new–call it character-driven-costume, or costume fashion or just a new revenue stream.
“Film people aren’t looking to make money on fashion,” said Phillips. “It’s promotion.”