How Amanda Needham Went from 15-Year-Old Makeup Artist to Emmy-Winning Costume Designer

Two Emmys, actually, for dressing the wonderfully quirky cast of "Portlandia."
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Two Emmys, actually, for dressing the wonderfully quirky cast of "Portlandia."
Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen showing off Amanda Needham's costume design work on 'Portlandia.' Photo: Augusta Quirk/IFC

Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen showing off Amanda Needham's costume design work on 'Portlandia.' Photo: Augusta Quirk/IFC

In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.

Costume designer Amanda Needham's story starts way before she began dressing Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen in Toni and Candace's thrifted feminist bookstore proprietor outfits on five seasons (the sixth recently began shooting) of "Portlandia." Because the 30-something two-time Emmy winner has actually been busting her ass in the industry for nearly two decades now.

To say that Needham experienced — and overcame — a tough childhood to get to the Emmy Awards podium would be a bit of an understatement. Her father struggled with substance abuse and her mother is a schizophrenic. "We had government cheese and powdered milk," Needham told The Oregonian in 2013 about growing up with her two younger sisters, Jessica and Amy, in the Portland area. When many 15-year-olds were worried about PSATs and school dance dresses, the industrious Needham moved out of the family home and into her own apartment — and enterprisingly kicked off her career. 

Amanda Needham. Photo: Amanda Needham

Amanda Needham. Photo: Amanda Needham

A friend, obsessed by Needham's dexterous liquid eyeliner skills, referred her as a makeup artist for a Portland-based magazine/modeling agency shoot. "I really, really enjoyed it," the future costume designer said. "They gave me $100 cash, which back then was a lot of money." She impressed the editors so much that they hired her for a regular weekend styling gig.

After putting in her time as a makeup artist, Needham started to feel restless. "With makeup you created something pretty quickly and then you were done and then it was just about maintaining the same thing," she said. "I needed something more evolving." So, costume design seemed like the natural choice. "I really enjoyed how analytical you were able to be about characters and you were able to get into their head a little bit more [with costumes]," she added. Needham started with commercial work with clients including Nike, Adidas and Oakley. She then landed her first movie assignment on the 2008 indie "Wendy and Lucy," which starred a post-"Brokeback Mountain," Oscar-nominated Michelle Williams.

"I just wanted her to be nice," Needham recalled. "Please be nice because it’s my first film. And she was lovely." That was where the then-newbie costume designer learned — the hard way — one rule of thumb for movie making. "When you have basically one outfit for the whole show, have doubles," she said. Her producer-husband pointed out that the one-of-a-kind plaid top, blue hoodie and grungy brown cut-offs outfit that she "piecemealed" together for Williams was a risky proposition — as the character only wears that one look throughout the entire movie. 

Michelle Williams and her one-of-a-kind outfit. Photo: 'Wendy and Lucy'

Michelle Williams and her one-of-a-kind outfit. Photo: 'Wendy and Lucy'

A quick study, Needham learned the ropes by her second film, 2010's "Some Days Are Better Than Others," which fortuitously starred actor-filmmaker-musician Carrie Brownstein. The two clicked right away, so when Brownstein started "Portlandia," she recruited Needham for the pilot — and "the rest is pretty much history."

The cult-favorite sketch series that spoofs Portland and its crunchy, judge-y lifestyle (which residents of Brooklyn might also find relatable) is now heading into its sixth season, and has been renewed through a seventh. Of course, working on a series featuring a mix of regular skits — Toni and Candace critiquing their feminist bookstore patrons, Bryce and Lisa putting birds on things — means an extremely fast-paced work environment. Luckily, being in Portland, Needham only has to look around her for constant inspiration. "There’s every single kind of person here and because it’s such an inviting and accepting place, they really just get a lot of bizarre people," she laughed. "Or unique." 

Because Portland, unlike Los Angeles and New York, doesn't have official costume houses to pull from, Needham has to think outside of the box for sourcing. She spends a lot of time in thrift stores and vintage boutiques, while also shopping online and creating custom pieces. The challenge is finding fresh ways to differentiate Brownstein's and Armisen's roster of characters — especially Armisen's. 

"You have to have major things that set them apart," Needham explained. "Which is really challenging when you think about it for men. How many times can you do a button-up and have it look different?" She works directly with the makeup and wig departments for extra help pulling this off.

Olivia Wilde (second from right) dabbles in eco-terrorism and and dip-dyed braids during season four. Photo: Augusta Quirk/IFC

Olivia Wilde (second from right) dabbles in eco-terrorism and and dip-dyed braids during season four. Photo: Augusta Quirk/IFC

On top of that, there are always new characters — some of them played by an impressive list of fashion-y guest stars likw including Chloë Sevigny, Kirsten Dunst and Olivia Wilde — to dress on a regular basis. "Because we don’t get fittings with guest stars or day players, they’ll come straight to set and we’ll put them in an outfit and that’s it," Needham explained. "It’s worked out. There’s no ego from anybody that comes into the show...again, I always think, please just be nice, be nice, be nice."

Needham's hard work has paid off. In 2011, she won her first Emmy for the now-legendary "Portlandia" pilot episode, "Farm," featuring Steve Buscemi's thwarted restroom visit to the feminist bookstore and our intro to the lengths Peter and Nance will go to for farm-to-table eating. Two years later, she won again for the "Blackout" episode, featuring Sevigny. "I liked [winning] the first one, it was really it was exciting, it’s all exciting," she said. "The second one: I felt like they were playing a joke on me." 

"I never really thought an Emmy was a possibility," the designer added modestly. "I didn’t do this show with the idea of getting an award." Needham is sincerely appreciative of the opportunities she's had — or rather, earned — and considers herself "lucky" for the chance to work on such a creative and innovative show. But she also takes pride in her work ethic, which she attributes to her hardscrabble upbringing. "I think I have the poor kid hustle," Needham said. "I know where I come from and I know how much work it took to get here."

Hiii from the 'Portlandia' fashion police. Toni and Candace wave from the feminist bookstore. Photo: Augusta Quirk/IFC

Hiii from the 'Portlandia' fashion police. Toni and Candace wave from the feminist bookstore. Photo: Augusta Quirk/IFC

Talent and the motivation to "hustle" also runs in the family. After filming the "Portlandia" pilot, Needham recruited little sister Jessica as the key makeup artist on the series. "It’s really lovely because we have such a shorthand with each other," she said about working with her younger sibling. The two just attended the Cannes Film Festival together in what must have felt like a childhood dream come true. Although, working with a sib — and younger one at that — can take some extra restraint. "I have to just take a step back and let her become the artist that she wanted to be without my advice or opinion," Needham said. "Fine, judgment."

Needham's hustling has taken here beyond "Portlandia." She designed costumes for the pilot of the now-canceled "Mulaney" and her work will also be seen in "Basket," an upcoming FX series that sounds like it will definitely make use of her eclectic costume design skills. In the show, Zack Galifianakis plays an aspiring professional clown who works in a rodeo in Bakersfield, California. 

Considering her career wanderlust, television costume design isn't the only gig Needham has her eye on. "I’d like to do more film," she said. "And I’d really love to do a collaboration with some companies who have something dynamic to them and who are willing to step out of the style box and create something a little bit more interesting and fun." While Needham names clothes and bags as target collaboration items, she's not ready to share any wish list brand names, even if she does have some in mind. "I feel hesitant to say them because I feel like I don’t want to narrow myself," she said with a smile.

Given the breadth of experience she already has, we doubt there's much risk of that.