Costume Designers Get Their Moment in the Spotlight

Back in the mid-aughts, Rachel Zoe started showing up in celebrity gossip rags almost as frequently as the waif-like celebrities she was dressing (N
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Back in the mid-aughts, Rachel Zoe started showing up in celebrity gossip rags almost as frequently as the waif-like celebrities she was dressing (N
Janie Bryant with Coco Rocha, Photo: Getty

Janie Bryant with Coco Rocha, Photo: Getty

Back in the mid-aughts, Rachel Zoe started showing up in celebrity gossip rags almost as frequently as the waif-like celebrities she was dressing (Nicole Richie, Lindsay Lohan). Soon she was starring in a reality show and launching a clothing line, and a road was paved for celebrity stylists to become celebrities and brands in their own right and to expand their repertoire beyond just styling. Reality shows, clothing lines, and brand partnerships became within reach for many stylists, with people like Brad Goreski, Kate Young and Cher Coulter following in Zoe's footsteps.

Lately, however, it seems stylists may have a little more competition for those opportunities thanks to the growing interest in costume designers.

Last week, it was announced that Mad Men costume designer Janie Bryant, who's embarked on several collaborations with brands over the past few years--most famously Banana Republic--would be hosting her own fashion competition reality show, thereby definitively crossing the line from behind the scenes to in front of the camera.

And that's only the most recent example. Revenge costume designer Jill Ohanneson is currently working on a clothing line affiliated with the show--and hopes to one day launch her own plus-size line. Girls' Jenn Rogien recently embarked on a partnership with Aerie. Soyon An, stylist for American Idol and Costume Designer for So You Think You Dance, has collaborated successfully with StaticGuard, Beachmint, and Baby Phat.

Though costume designers are cashing in now more than ever, it's not an entirely new phenomenon. Sex and the City legend Patricia Field and her protegé Eric Daman (Gossip Girl, The Carrie Diaries), who are responsible for dressing some of the most fashion-forward characters in television history, were the first to demonstrate that the power of a costume designer can extend well beyond the show he or she designs for. Field has had her own boutique in NYC and online for years and has embarked on partnerships with everyone from MCM to Marks & Spencer to Kotex Tampons. Daman recently guest judged Project Runway; is currently a brand ambassador for Century 21; and has collaborated with Swarovski, Charlotte Russe and Nine West in the past.

Eric Daman with Blake Lively, Photo: Getty

Eric Daman with Blake Lively, Photo: Getty

The interest in stylists likely had a lot to do with the celebrities they dressed. And the same could be said about costume designers and their television shows. "The popularity of these shows and the undeniable pop culture influence of fashions from these shows has totally played a role in my recognition and success," Daman said. Linda Kearns, VP of Licensing and Communications for Matchbook, a New York talent agency (more on that later), agrees that "sometimes the success and buzz around a specific show helps bring [the costume designer's] talent to the forefront." We've also seen instances of television influencing fashion trends--'50s and '60s trends became prevalent following the success of Mad Men, and Carrie Bradshaw inspired thousands of women to strap on their tallest stilettos and expose their bra straps.

But despite some similarities, styling and costume design are still inherently very different professions. The Rachel Zoe Project shed a light on what stylists actually do day-to-day, but nothing has really done that for costume designers. Bryant's forthcoming show, however, should offer a glimpse. "It’s a very difficult profession," said Kearns. "I think because their work comes into your home every week, you begin to feel that you know their work and you know them and now we’re starting to give the viewer a little bit more insight into the process."

Indeed, interest in costume designers is growing--even from the media. Here at Fashionista, we've been writing about TV fashion and interviewing costume designers more than ever. Whether it's Game of Thrones or Girls, there's something fascinating about learning what went into dressing your favorite television characters.

But why does that interest seem to be peaking now?

There are a few reasons, one of which is Matchbook Company, a booking agency founded by Kristi McCormick in 2009 that in recent years has started taking on costume designers to connect them with licensing and branding deals. It bills itself as "the 'go-to' branding and licensing company for costume designers who want to increase their visibility and notoriety, and for fashion retailers and brands that want to reach new and existing customers through the design talent seen on popular films and TV shows." They began with Bryant three years ago and haven't looked back. Kearns explains: "We quickly realized there was interest in costume designers beyond the shows themselves, and offered to represent Janie [Bryant] in helping her build her brand and become the next alternative to a celebrity stylist or people that could have a strong point of view and represent brands and retailers." The company's costume designer division has grown quickly and "beyond our wildest dreams," as they, and the brands they've inked deals with, have seen the value costume designers can bring to brands.

Another reason: technology. Specifically, social media (sample Tweet: "OMG I need the dress @LucyHale is wearing on #PLL right now!") encouraging real-time discussions about what stars are wearing on TV. And maybe even high-definition, posits Daman. "TV looks better than ever before and has really put fashion and costumes into the limelight," he said. "In an age where we are fashion and style obsessed, social media sharing makes it all so very accessible. It seems obvious that costume designers will receive continued heralding en-masse." Kearns adds, "I do think there’s a lot of social media discussion and interest in terms of: what were people wearing? and, how did this help tell the story? and, was there significance in Betty’s clown dress?"

Costume designers are happy to indulge that interest. Naturally, the opportunity to try new things, while maintaining a costume design career, is appealing to them. "I like to consider myself a 'Renaissance Man,'" Daman told us. "To be able to branch out and exercise other creative outlets professionally is a thrill and a treat. As a costume designer you don't always get to 'design,' and in working with such amazing brands, like Swarovski, it was a dream to see pieces transform from sketch into actual, beautiful realities that were available on a retail level."

And for some, the opportunity to be in the public eye and interact with fans, when costume design is often such an invisible role, is irresistible. "I really enjoy the public appearances that come with these opportunities," said Daman. "To have one on ones with the 'fans' of the shows that I dress and share their excitement is really awesome."

A look from Mad Men Season 6

A look from Mad Men Season 6

"Some of the costume designers that we represent are very interested in becoming more recognized as personalities and others really are focusing their careers on costume design, but are very glad to take that voice a little bit further," added Kearns.

Pretty Little Liars costume designer Mandi Line, who says she "wants it all," from a clothing line to a cook book, said that in many of her projects, she thought, "there has to be someone who just handles getting my name out there--not an agent to get more costume design work, but to give me a voice." So she met with Matchbook. "They saw the niche they needed in me and were so professional and I felt support."

Revenge's Jill Ohanneson told us her reasoning for signing with Matchbook: "I felt that Linda and Kristi truly understand the interest and value that Costume Designers can bring to fashion branding and licensing. Matchbook also has such expansive connections within the fashion world that they have a really good handle on who is looking to branch out into new collaborations." She described the exposure she's gotten since as "invaluable."

Of course, having a costume designer on board as a collaborator or ambassador is beneficial to brands, too. "[The costume designers] really are bringing excitement to the brands that they’re working with," explained Kearns. "They’re bringing credibility; they’re bringing the equity of the shows that they’re known for, but they’re also bringing the point of view of a designer." The types of collaborations vary in nature--some involve the network or TV show the designer works on more than others--but they usually make sense. Even Bryant's collaboration with Downy Wrinkle Releaser. As an ambassador, "she spoke to how to care for your vintage and contemporary clothing--something very individual and personal to her own closet and her own wardrobe," explained Kearns. "It has to meet the brand's marketing and brand objectives and it has to be something that the costume designer feels passionate about and feels good about." She says in-store appearances have led to 15-20% sales increases, and that other partnerships have been very successful in terms of media impression, social media impact, in-store sales and traffic.

Thus, Kearns doesn't think interest in costume designers will wane anytime soon (of course, her job kind of depends on that). "I think people have seen that [success] and that’s why there’s more and more interest for continuing [to partner with costume designers]."

And it sounds like interest won't wane amongst the designers themselves, either. With Rogien, Daman and Ohanneson all telling us they hope to one day have their own clothing or accessories lines, the trend of costume designers expanding their voice beyond film and television seems likely to continue.