Costume Designer Christopher Lawrence
By Valli Herman
Sometimes, your career finds you. Looking back, it’s no surprise to Christopher Lawrence that he became a costume designer, but it wasn’t his original intention.
“As a young kid, my arts and crafts projects at home involved sewing,” said the award-winning designer. His schoolteacher father made his own ties and vests and Lawrence took readily to the needle and thread. He became his first design project during the five years that the teen Lawrence was a regular dancer on “American Bandstand,” which shot in Los Angeles.
“You got more camera time if you and your partner were dressed kind of alike. I would find out ahead of time who the guest artists were and I would dress in the genre of that music—like rockabilly for the Stray Cats. That was my first introduction to costume design, but I didn’t realize at the time that was what was happening,” said the L.A. native.
These days, Lawrence is an in-demand costume designer, working 16-hour days to bring stylish, gritty realism to the television crime drama “Ray Donovan,” starring Liev Schreiber and Jon Voight. He’s worked alongside such legendary costume designers as Albert Wolsky, Ellen Mirojnick and Robert Turturice and can count notable credits in films, television and commercials. He rose through the ranks from personal assistant, to costumer, costume supervisor, assistant costume designer and ultimately, costume designer.
Some of his most important early training and connections came from working at a trendy retail store, Camp Beverly Hills. That’s where Lawrence met film legends and pop stars such as Candice Bergen, Lauren Bacall, Debra Winger and Cher. One fateful day, Bergen called to ask him to shop for her.
“Then I realized that this was a job, but I didn’t know what that job really was,” Lawrence said. “I thought it was a personal assistant or something.” When Bergen brought her film director husband Louis Malle to shop for a movie at the store, costume design began to come to life.
“As I was working with him pulling clothes, he was telling me about character. Then the light went off a little bit—that there was a job that helped define a character through clothing and costume. I did more exploration and started asking every costume designer who came into my store about what they were doing and how I could break into it.”
As he continued to make contacts through friends such as Demi Moore and Costume Designer Bobbie Read, he began to learn more about the job and how it was done. His big break? Working as the personal assistant for Turturice, whose designs for Cybill Shepherd on “Moonlighting” were becoming a national obsession.
His personal assistant job went from one day a week to three and Lawrence realized he’d found his calling. He quit his secure store job and for the next three years, aimed to absorb every lesson. Soon, he was working full time on the Emmy-winning “Moonlighting.”
“Robert was one of the last vestiges of old-school designers who made everything,” Lawrence said. “In the workroom at ‘Moonlighting’ we made and custom-dyed everything for Cybill. I got an amazing education in dyeing, fitting and making made-to-order costumes–the whole process.”
Lawrence worked his way through the costume department ranks and became a top costume supervisor, where he worked with Richard Hornung, Marlene Stewart (six films, including “The River Wild” and “Space Jam”) and Judy Ruskin (“City Slickers”). His time with Stewart was particularly useful for understanding contemporary style.
“Marlene is fantastic with fashion and forecasting trends,” he said. “When we’re doing a film, we are deciding what is going to be trendy or popular in fashion when the film comes out in six months.
“She taught me the value of the stylist’s eye in contemporary costume design. She prepared me the most for the actual transition to designer. Marlene had such confidence in our working relationship that I often communicated with directors, producers and actors on her behalf. This gave me invaluable training in the politics of our job,” he said.
Stewart also helped usher Lawrence into the action crime thriller genre. He would come to design multiple films for action star Jason Statham, including “Crank” and “The Mechanic.”
He counts working as Costumer under Albert Wolksy, including when he won the Costume Design Oscar for “Bugsy” as another key learning experience.
“Working with Albert, Robert and Marlene, et al., has set the bar incredibly high. It’s a level of design and integrity that I always strive for,” he said.
To supplement his on-the-job training, Lawrence enrolled in classes at Otis Parsons and even took a UCLA extension course on costume design from the legendary Costume Designer Dorothy Jeakins.
“I studied film in college, which I think is really important, to have a basis of film knowledge so if someone references a particular director like Buñuel or calls something film noir, you have the vocabulary to understand,” Lawrence said.
In 1999, director/producer Michael Mann recognized his talent and promoted him to Associate Costume Designer on the Academy Award Best Picture nominee “The Insider,” a move that paved the way for his debut as Costume Designer on the 2001 movie “The Anniversary Party” starring Jennifer Jason Leigh and Gwyneth Paltrow.
With his long-time collaborator, film director Simon West, Lawrence designed the memorable costumes for the Capital One “What’s In Your Wallet?” Viking campaign, which won the 2006 Costume Designers Guild Award – Best Commercial Costume Design.
More film costume design work followed, including “Showtime” with Eddie Murphy and Robert Deniro, and “S.W.A.T.” with Samuel L. Jackson and Colin Farrell, as well as the more character-driven films “Management” with Jennifer Aniston and “Texas Killing Fields” with Sam Worthington and Jessica Chastain.
From sketch to fabric, in 2009 he designed all of Miley Cyrus’ Hannah Montana costumes for “Hannah Montana-The Movie,” from which dolls, Halloween costumes and sportswear were created for the tween market.
Nearly a dozen years ago, Lawrence entered the world of television, with the pilot for “Robbery Homicide Division.”
“Coming from film and going into world of television it was a bit of a shock,” he said. “In film you have six to eight weeks to prepare and hour-and-a-half of content. But in TV, you have seven to eight days for an hour of content.”
His advice to meet the challenges of costume design? “Education and perseverance are key to the job. I don’t think you have to go to design school, but know your film and costume and fashion history. And know your actors…to see what they have worn on the red carpet and film,” he said. Understanding an actor’s style and wardrobe can save precious time, particularly when fittings happen the day before filming.
“The best thing you can do,” he said, “is prepare, prepare, prepare.”