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Meet Leesa Evans, Judd Apatow's Go-To Costume Designer

She got her start on the set of "Clueless." Need we say more?
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If you're a living, breathing American, you're probably aware of producer Judd Apatow's long list of film credits -- "Bridesmaids," "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," "Get Him to the Greek." If any of those titles ring a bell, you are also familiar (perhaps inadvertently) with the work of costume designer Leesa Evans. After a kind of auspicious start as an assistant costume designer on "Clueless," Evans broke out on her own with "American Pie" and has been conquering the film world ever since. 

With two of her projects currently in theaters ("22 Jump Street" and "Neighbors"), Evans is now in New York working on an upcoming comedy film with Amy Schumer. We caught up with the designer when she had some down time, so read on for the career advice she would give her younger self, why personal styling is good for the soul and some tips the best way to scour a vintage store.

Let's go back to the beginning. How did you break into costume design? 

I always loved fashion. My mother was a fashion designer and a jewelry designer, and in the '70s and early '80s she had a lot of jewelry in the pages of Harper’s Bazaar. I hoped some day to be in fashion and to work as a stylist for Harper’s Bazaar. That was my original dream, and it wasn’t until I was about 21 that I had an opportunity to go work for a costume designer. I walked into the costume house, and it was a football field-sized warehouse with costumes floor-to-ceiling. I had the most distinct feeling that I was in the exact right place where I should be, and I was willing to do whatever it took to become a costume designer myself. Since that time, my interest in fashion has been so infused in the costumes I’ve designed and the characters I’ve created. It’s a great background to being a costume designer.

Did you go to design school?

I did go to Parsons for a couple of years here in New York, but then I got a huge job opportunity so I dropped out. The opportunity was more fashion related. It was to do styling and display for a big company that had retail stores in three cities, and so I would travel around to the cities and do their displays. That was when I was about 19. I got that job, and I did it for about a year. When I was 20 I got the opportunity to go and see this costume [designer] and started when I was 21. But luckily, I had a huge background in everything from sketching and pattern making to draping and sewing, just by osmosis by growing up in my house. My mother is an amazing sketch artist. I aspire to be as good.

How did you get into film costuming specifically? Did you work in theater or television before taking that route?

I didn’t do theater. I really didn’t do television with the exception of commercials. Commercial advertising has always been a quick and fun way to tell a story. You need to know who these people are in three to six seconds. So I [did] a lot of that type of thing early on. I still do commercial advertising now, but it’s mostly celebrity-driven. I really just focused on film.

I think television at that time seemed not as fashion-forward as film, and because I came from a fashion background, I was excited to find a way to bridge the gap between fashion and film. And there are so many films that are incredibly fashionable, whether it’s "Annie Hall" or "Love Story." I worked on a film very early on in my career when I was an assistant designer, "Clueless."

Oh. We need to talk about that.

A friend of mine was designing the film at the time, and traditionally not a lot of people in costumes necessarily have a fashion background — it’s very separate, and it’s more character-driven, so it’s hard to find people that are interested in film that come from a fashion background, or that are doing film that are interested enough in fashion to be up on it. [Fashion] is something that’s ever-changing. At the time, my friend said, "Please come and work on this film," so I went and was the assistant costume designer on that movie, and we had so much fun. We didn’t know if we were necessarily creating trends, we just wanted to do something fun and fashionable and a bit whimsical. It was fun to play with it.

And the characters are teenage girls, so they're really playing around with how they style themselves. I'm thinking of their gym outfits, for instance.

Some of it is that Amy Heckerling, who was the director on "Clueless," had some specific ideas that she thought were perfect for high school girls. One of them was the socks over the knee, and one of them was the tank top over the t-shirt. She had some of these ideas that she wanted to implement, and we just took it and we ran with it. I think that’s the ultimate in any film collaboration: That the director and producers and actors and costume designer come together and make something better than any one person could do on their own.

What were your favorite looks to develop for "Clueless"?

I’m still friends with Alicia [Silverstone]. Her costumes were really fun because she herself has this certain level of innocence as a person, which is so charming. And so the way she wore them was always like, it was a surprise to her! And it was a surprise to her. I would sometimes be trying clothes on her, and she’d say, "Why does this all work together?" And we’d dissect it, and I would finally explain to her sometimes it’s just about proportion. I think that her level of innocence played so well with her costumes, because [every outfit] was just like a brand new thing.

So you were an assistant. How did you break out on your own?

I first went in as an intern. I worked for free for about three months, and I would just do any job that anyone would call to ask me to do. After that, I worked as a low-level assistant for about two years, and, again, I would hop around and work for anyone who called and needed something done. From that point on, I started working with a couple of different costume designers pretty regularly. 

The commercial business during that time was very lucrative and something that was really steady work, so it was hard sometimes to navigate between being a commercial assistant and following my dreams into film and creating characters. I got a couple of opportunities to go and do more films that had some fashion infusion, and I took off from there. I only assistant designed a couple of films, and then I got an opportunity to do my first bigger film, which was "American Pie."

I'd imagine there are some films for which you have to do a lot of research. How do you prep for those projects?

Usually on a film we’re talking eight to 12 weeks of prep, depending on the type of film and budget. The first period of the film [process] is when all the research is done. That is the most creative time of the film, because a lot of the aspects of filmmaking are really technical. You can’t get into the design concept too much later on because you have 3.2 seconds to get something on set. 

On "Get Him To the Greek," I wanted it to be authentic. I wanted you to believe that these people are rock stars. I conjured up a lot of memories I have of going to concerts when I was a kid, I looked at a lot of images, I watched a lot of concert footage. I did a lot of [research] about Jim Morrison and Debbie Harry and Mick Jagger and what the Rolling Stones were like in the ‘70s. They owned it. I wanted to capture that. Jim Morrison in those leather pants. Russell wears leather pants throughout, like, half the film, and mind you, they were a Balenciaga version of a leather pant, but that’s the thing that’s so brilliant. You take all these different inspirations and you find a modern application for it. It’s a fun challenge.

In movies like "Bridesmaids" and "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," you're working with characters who are, essentially, normal people. How do you use costuming to tell a story in those cases?

In a contemporary film, you don’t want the costumes to be comedic. A lot of it is trying to make them so believable and authentic that they don’t take away from the tone that the actor is going to play the character in. For instance, Kristen Wiig’s character in "Bridesmaids": She’s a little vulnerable, she’s a little uneasy. She wears skirts that are a little too short, and it makes her feel awkward. So we wanted to find pieces that they were almost perfect — she couldn’t help that they looked adorable — but they were awkward and uncomfortable because maybe they were not quite appropriate anymore for her age or where she wants to be in life. 

I oftentimes will not make too many pre-made outfit decisions prior to getting into a fitting. I like the creativity there of seeing what pieces are working. The individual items will create the silhouette as opposed to "I have this whole idea in mind and I'm going to place this idea onto that actor." I like to leave it a little bit more open to interpretation, and to how the actor is standing and how they’re smiling or not smiling, or feeling sexy or not sexy.

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What advice would you give your 21-year-old self, just as you were breaking into the industry?

I would tell my 21-year-old self to think of the big picture of life as a pie, and that all the pieces of the pie should be somewhat equal so that you feel like you’re living a well-balanced life. That’s being creative, that’s working hard, that’s having a great family and wonderful friends and being able to travel. 

I travel constantly for work, but in the last say 15 years or so, I started to always incorporate that with a little bit of personal travel experience. Say I’m going to Puerto Rico, where we just were [on location]. I also want to spend a couple of days checking out Puerto Rico because it’s such a beautiful place. When I was a bit younger, I was just focused on the job. [People would ask] “What did you see while you were there?” And it was like, “Hotel room, costume trailer, set, and repeat. Hotel, costume trailer, set.” So now I incorporate more life experience within the work experience.

And shooting a film is so consuming. I'd guess that there's not really such a thing as a "work/life balance."

We’re sometimes working up to 20 hours a day, if not more. My longest day was 27 hours.

There are 24 in a day.

I know. [Laughs] And you get so loopy and delirious that you do have to think for a second, "Can I keep going?" At the end of the day, we love it.

At the very minimum, we’re working a 14 hour day. So if we’re working 14 hours, there's not a lot of time for socializing. The film becomes your family, and all the funny and the hard things and the sad and great things that happen on set during the day, you’re sharing them with your coworkers.

How did you branch out into personal styling? You style a lot of the same actors that you've worked with on set (Kristen Wiig, Russell Brand, Jason Siegel).

It all started organically. People would ask me, “Hey, can you style me for such-and-such event?” I would do a few things here and there, but it didn’t feel like I was necessarily being as creative in the beginning. But then I found something much deeper in private styling. I don’t just do red carpet; I do people’s full lifestyle. I started helping people with everyday clothes — everything from workout clothes and pajamas to red carpet events, and what I found in doing so much lifestyle is that I was helping people in their life to the point that they were feeling much more confident. I was noticing that this level of self-esteem from loving what they’re wearing in every aspect of their life was giving me a huge amount of satisfaction, knowing that I was doing something to help people. 

Everyone needs a little boost. I found that you can really positively affect someone [through styling] and that’s a big deal for me.

What's on your list of things you still want to accomplish in your career?

One thing that I want to do is to always feel like the sky’s the limit, as if there’s nothing stopping me from getting involved in anything I would ever want to. I’m excited about doing [an upcoming] period film, because that’s something in terms of my costume design career that I really love. I’m excited about doing more private styling, more on a broad level. 

I would love to do a collaboration with Pam [Protzell-Scott, a friend and the designer of Ella Moss and Splendid]. That’s something we will do. I love collaborations. I think they’re really fun. I was talking to Amy Schumer the other day, and she loves nothing better than some comfy sweatpants. We’re thinking about doing something there. There are so many things that interest me, and I love knowing that it’s all possible. That helps me sleep well at night.

You're a pro at vintage shopping, given that you do it for movies all the time. What are your tips for finding those gems in a thrift store?

First of all, you have to have the time, because it’s not a quick thing to do. That’s my #1. Take the time. Once you find a particular great item at a store, frequent that store, or those types of stores. I’ll ask in the stores, "Do you have other things at your warehouse?" and when they say yes, I’ll go to the warehouse. They’re collecting things as well, so they likely have a large back stock. Say you find the perfect '70s Diane Von Furstenberg wrap dress. They likely have some others in the back. 

I personally am always looking at shape and fabric. I can spot a really good piece because I can see that the shape is good, and once I know the shape is good, I look at the fabric, and that will tip me off that it’s likely a designer piece that’s gotten mixed in with things. That’s like the best find in the world.

I had the best experience when we were doing "Forgetting Sarah Marshall." There must have been a store in Honolulu that carried all Hawaiian shirts made of Liberty of London fabric. I went to the Salvation Army when I was there looking for things, and I found maybe 200 of these Hawaiian shirts with Liberty prints.

Did you buy them all?

Oh yes, I did. They were $6.99 each.

Do you have a warehouse for all these finds?

My office in LA is well organized, but we have 50, 60 racks of clothes. I buy [a piece] when it’s something that I likely could not find again. When would I be able to find Hawaiian shirts made with Liberty fabric? So I bought them all. Everyone came and picked one out, so everyone in the entire film set was wearing these Hawaiian shirts.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Also, we took out the part where we played with Evans's dog, Matilda, for five minutes.