Inside the Designer's Studio: Costello Tagliapietra

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I spent a rainy afternoon hanging out with Jeffrey Costello and Robert Tagliapietra in their Brooklyn studio. The boys, who've been working, living, breathing together for over fifteen years without ever fighting - they swear - live and work in a warmly decorated brownstone with their lovable bulldog Sammy. We listened to their i-pod shuffle and talked about when Madonna lived across the hall and what happened when Vogue called. I tried to get Jeffrey to talk, but he's shy and Sammy's barks were more than willing to fill in. The two of them do everything - from sewing their samples to filling their own orders to casting their own shows and love every minute of it. If you're wondering just how much work that is, read on.

Start from the beginning. Jeffrey: I moved to New York from Bristol, PA around 1980. At that point I knew I wanted to be a designer and I just sort of dove right in and started working with private clients. I worked with a lot of 80's bands. Some are kind of nice and some are kind of embarrassing. When designers say that, that they got started with private clients, how do you get those clients? The right clients? J: Well back then New York was very different. You went to a nightclub and before you know it you're having a conversation with Debbie Harry. It wasn't so closed off so you just met different people everywhere you went and next thing you know you're designing their stage costumes which builds you a reputation.

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Jeffrey Costello & Robert Tagliapietra in their Brooklyn studio So did dressing rockstars help you get here? J: Well it taught me how clothing fits. Plus it's so creative. Robert: You know before we met - Jeffrey's being very humble - he was doing everything from Depeche Mode to Madonna. Those are embarrassing? R: I mean when I met Jeffrey it was 1994 and we met at a nightclub. J: Surprise surprise. R: I was still at Parson's but I knew how to sew so I started helping him out. Our first project was Madonna's Bedtime Stories video. That's awesome. R: So that's what Jeffrey was kind of doing and we just started working together, slowly doing a lot of small projects. And then in the late 90's we went on the Nine Inch Nails tour and that's when things started getting bigger. We'd work on individual projects for a much longer time. So you'd stick with one band, one artist instead of having a hand in lots of things? R: Yeah, well we lucked out at that point because we moved to San Francisco for a year in 96 - That's where I'm from! R: Oh we love it. It's kind of the ideal place. J: We want to retire there. I know. I miss it. It's pretty perfect. R: So we moved there to get a breather from New York and gather our thougths and sort of figure out what we wanted to do. And when we got back we fell into the NIN project which was almost like working on a film because it's such a huge production and they needed so many costumes and it was just major.

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Costello Tagliapietra Fall 09 sketches When you're doing something like that do you have free range to do whatever you want? Or are there lots of people you have to answer to? J: Pretty much free. R: There's this trust that sort of happens, so in the beginning it's about feeling it out and then eventually it's like, "Ok just do whatever," which is kind of cool. And then you can do really amazing things. Through that project we met certain stylists and started making clothes for editorial shoots. Before Dutch closed we'd work with whoever, like Joanne Blades and get our clothes into the magazine. Like one offs? R: Yeah we weren't doing a collection at all at that point and it wasn't until we put together a little look book and sent it off to Vogue that that all happened. Wait! Slow down, back up. Before Vogue, we're dressing rockstars, what's the best part of that? R: For me, NIN. I mean I was just so obsessed with them in high school so the opportunity to work with them and really just be as creative as possible was incredible. J: It's nice working with a band because they'll give you the whole catalog and you just immerse yourself in their music and that informs everything you do. R: You know you can pick points with certain people that were so amazingly helpful to where we are now. So Jeffrey you were totally self taught? J: Yep. That's so rare - at least now. Everyone's interned with everyone from McQueen to Oscar. R: Yeah it's actually really funny because neither one of us ever interned anywhere. You might be the only two people in this industry who've never answered to Intern. R: I went to school for painting actually, to Parsons. We kind of went into this totally blind which was scary at first but might've benefited us in the end.

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The boys do Vogue Ok so Jeffrey what was the best part of the 80's/early 90's for you? J: I'll be very cheesy and queeny and corny - it was excting to know Madonna. I had actually known her in the 80's. She lived across the hall from me and she wasn't Madonna at the point. I mean she was Madonna but she wasn't Madonna, she was just sort of starting her career. Then years later, around Like a Prayer, I got to work with her and it was also a really exciting time in the city and it was just the perfect meeting point - sorry i'm really bad at articulating. No! You're doing fine. Ok, so you guys met in 1994, right? How'd that go? R: We met at the Sound Factory, the old school Sound Factory. We sort of courted each other for a little bit because we were both too shy to talk to each other so we went back three or four times just to see each other then finallly a friend of Jeffrey's kind of pushed us together and made us talk. J: She was like, "I'm not coming back here again. Just talk to each other." R: So yeah we just sort of, we met, moved in together a few months later and now it's going on 15 years. A lot of people ask us you know about living together, working together, how we do it, but i think a lot of our early stuff really informed the way we work together now - we sort of did it all. I think it'd be really hard not to work this way. Ok, so you both knew how to sew, you both knew a lot of awesome people and then you made a look book? R: Hah! That's the really cold Cliff Notes version. I know! You're supposed to fill it in. R: Ok well it was fall 2004 and we put together a little look book, around twelve looks, and sent it off. What made you even decide to do a proper collection? R: We were getting little press here and there, all these cool magazines like ID and Dutch and you get a little high from that. J: Plus all of our stylists friends were just like, "Come on guys, you've got to do it." R: And at that point we'd actually helped launch VPL with Victoria Bartlett - though we stopped that right away because it just wasn't what we wanted to be doing so we were like let's just do our own thing. We literally threw togather a teeny collection and sent it off to Vogue on a whim. Did you know anyone at Vogue? R: No. We got a call from Irini Arakas about two weeks later and she was like, "Oh Sally and I want to do a little story on you, like a page and a half story." So we're like, "Oh, well ok." And at that point we weren't even Costello Tagliapietra we were just kind of going by our full names and I think Sally and Anna were like ok we have to condense that so we give them credit for our name - just use your last ones because we can't print your full names over and over again in the story. As if it's not still a mouth full. J: I beg your pardon. R: We're just used to people saying the Costello boys. So what was that like, when Vogue calls and is like, "Hey we like you"? R: It was amazing - we didn't tell anyone, not even our parents. We were like, "Is this real?" J: Yeah we didn't want to say anything until we actually had that issue in our hands. R: It just felt surreal. What was it like meeting Anna? J: I love her. R: I have to say, Anna is amazing. So now you're official "fashion designers" and you need to produce proper collections with actual deadlines. R: Yeah exactly. So we whipped together a Spring Summer 05 collection and did a small presentation. Then we won the Ecco Domani award and then there was the Fashion Fund and it snowballed and then suddenly it was all real. A real business and we had to sell clothes! Luckily we already had connections with great factories in New York so we were pretty prepared but this business goes so quickly so it just felt crazy. So you guys have undergone a major shift - I mean from Depeche Mode to Vogue. What's the biggest difference? R: You know, the creativity's different. You're more dependent on buyers. J: You're boxed in a little bit more. R: When you do costume work, you're free, it's easier I guess. Whereas now you have to take so many things into consideration. I think a lot of people go into fashion thinking it's pretty easy, but after a moment you realize how hard it is. I think onlookers think it's really fancy but it's a lot of hard work. And if you're really willing to do that hardwork it's great. I'm not the kind of person who's comfortable sitting around having lunch, you know?

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Bookshelves Definitely, the glamour on the surface overshadows so much. Is this as enjoyable as what you were doing before? R: Definitely. The structure's actually nice. J: Yeah the schedule helps. Working with bands is crazy and full of last minute deadlines. R: Also a collection is building towards something. We're building a name, a cohesive idea, ideally a whole world and that's really rewarding. So where do you guys start when you're working on collections now. R: We start with the patterns. We have a vague idea of colors and fabrics but we really start with the patterns and it slowly builds into a collection. We never really sit down and do mood boards. Yeah I always wonder if people sit down and do those after the collection is done, like cull these really obscure references that sound amazing and make you go, "Really?" R: Yeah you hear the most esoteric things possible. For us, we always think it's important for the dresses to be a) beautiful and b) something someone can actually wear. This is a cheesy question, but when you make your clothes do you have a specific woman in mind? R: I love an elegant woman. Whenever we have to answer a question like this it comes back to what we've done before. We've seen so many kinds of women. I know it's the antithesis of fashion, but I actually love when I see a seventy-year-old woman wearing our dress. I don't care about age, weight. I get excited when I see our dresses work on different body types because I feel like that's our job as designers - to problem solve. I just love a chick with a sense of style and power behind what she's wearing. J: I love i-pod shuffle [the music's suddenly really loud]. Me too! My roommates were making fun of me the other day as it went from like Matchbox 20 to MGMT to Biggie to Cold War Kids. R: We have muppets on ours! You never know when Kermit'll pop up. So when you guys are working together, is there one thing that you each thrive at? R: You know we stitch our own samples so maybe one day I'll do more machine sewing and he'll do more hand stitching but then the next day we'll switch - it's never like oh that's Robert's dress or that's Jeffrey's. Do you guys ever fight? J: We don't really. R: I know it's so boring. J: There's no time to fight. I don't believe you. J: I mean there's a tense moment here and there but I mean if we didn't have that it'd be insane. R: We never argue - it's been fifteen years. J: An argument consists of like a huff and then three seconds later it's fine. R: We both grew up in families that yelled all the time so we just can't handle it - plus I can't imagine us screaming over like a hemline. It'd be way too gay.

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Shoes! How do you guys feel about collaborations? Will we ever see Costello for H&M? R: We'd love to! Or at least we'd really love to do a lower priced line. We don't really do girly clothes so it'd be kind of hard to channel that into Target. Someone the other day was lamenting the fact that the Target collections are really cut for juniors which makes them hard for the women who love the designers to actually wear the clothes and it's like why aren't they doing anything for the women who shop at Target. Yeah I have trouble with the Target stuff and I'm pretty sure I'm their target customer. R: Yeah it's really weird. But I'd love to do that and gear it towards women. But that's the kind of cutlure we live in now. Designers and the industry are targeting this fifteen-year-old girl but the person who can afford it's more like thirty, forty. Which is maybe why, with all the TV shows, collaborations, fashion's become such an open book. It's so much more accessible than when I was fifteen and wanted to work in fashion - and that's less than ten years ago! I barely knew what fashion meant. Vogue was pretty much it. Now you can watch TV shows inside magazines, buy the designers you read about in at Target - it's so different. R: I think that's sort of why we're in this place right now. I know the economy's a mess but there are other factors in fashion's sort of downward spiral right now. I mean there's just so much, this over-saturation and things get knocked off so quickly now and the stores are having these crazy sales and anyone in New York knows to wait until the third markdown. At the end of the day I think good can come out of it but we just have to wait and see how it reconfigures. It's scary. R: A little bit - but it's business, too. I think in fashion we live in a bit of a fantasy world and you think everything's overflowing and will always be there but I think in other industries it happens all the time. So aside from all this craziness - what's the best part of working in fashion. J: Getting paid to be creative. R: Definitely. J: Or having someone on the street come up to us and tell us they love what we do. Do you guys cast your own shows? You always have the best models R: We do! We love the girls. How do you choose? R: We love a bit of personality. We just end up getting on with certain girls. I don't want to name anyone because I don't want them to think we love one more than the other! Though we love Anne V. We're having dinner with her this week. J: It's just funny. If were doing 25-29 looks and then you cast the show and you're like, "Oh, I can't put her in the show" and you're like, "Can I bust out a 30th look?" R: I think we got lucky because models are great now. There's no diva attitudes and they're so cute and they're smart business women. They know what they're doing and it's always fun to be around secure smart girls. I bet. Ok, let's get to the semi-Proust questionnaire! 1. WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE WORD? J: Yikes. R: Dismal. 2. WHAT IS YOUR LEAST FAVORITE WORD? J: No. R: Bling. 3. WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE SOUND/NOISE? J: Coffee maker in the morning. R: A record right before it plays the song. 4. WHAT IS YOUR LEAST FAVORITE SOUND/NOISE? J: Dog barking. R: Incessant dog barking. 5. WHAT PROFESSION, OTHER THAN YOURS, DO YOU WISH TO ATTEMPT? J: Painting or illustration. R: Music - I'd play guitar. 6. WHAT PROFESSION WOULD YOU NEVER WANT? J: A butcher. R: I love a butcher. I'd never be a banker. 7. WHAT MAKES YOU INSPIRED? J: Music. R: Music. 8. WHAT MAKES YOU NEVER WANT TO WORK AGAIN? J: Can't imagine that. R: Winning the lottery. 9. WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE SWEAR WORD? J: I can't say it. It's too nasty. R: I say fuck all the time. 10. IF HEAVEN EXISTS, WHAT DO YOU WANT GOD TO SAY TO YOU WHEN YOU DIE? J: Come on in. R: I just hope my little dog's waiting for me.