"Broad City," "Odd Mom Out," and "Difficult People" costume designer Staci Greenbaum caught the fashion bug early. Around age 11, she started drawing fantastical looks inspired by her favorite designers, like Vera Wang and Oscar de la Renta. "I was really dead set — I'm going to be the next Betsey Johnson," she said at Fashionista's NYC meetup event on Tuesday, moderated by Alyssa Vingan Klein. To develop her sewing skills, Greenbaum began assisting a costume designer in her Maryland hometown who worked on community theater and school productions — and who eventually became a mentor. "I could never believe how much she was able to produce out of her basement. She taught me so much."
Greenbaum went on to study at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, which had a co-program with FIT, because she wanted "that intensive small group-focused program within the confines of a really big school." But once she got there and honed in on fashion design, Greenbaum had an important realization. "I really missed having the confines of the script, the collaborative effort that you have with directors and creators and actors," she said. "One day, I went and saw 'Lemony Snicket and a Series of Unfortunate Events'... and said, 'That's what I want to do.' It was a no-brainer from there." After college, Greenbaum interviewed with a fashion designer in New York, didn't get hired and never looked back.
Through a cousin who was working in costume design in New York, Greenbaum networked her way onto the set of "American Gangster" in 2006 and hit the ground running. "I knew so early what I wanted to do that this started before I graduated, which I do think gives you a little bit of an advantage," she explained. "I was definitely bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and willing to do anything. I felt no form of entitlement." That attitude helped her turn the internship into a full-time job when she volunteered to take notes at a Saturday meeting with the film's costume designer, director Ridley Scott, actor Denzel Washington and others. "[The costume designer] asked me to stay for the remainder of the production... that was how it all started," she said.
After wrapping "The Amazing Spiderman 2" in 2013, Greenbaum was exhausted and looking for a change of pace from big-budget films. She heard about a new television show — Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson's "Broad City" — and inquired about a position under the costume designer. But a short time later, as she was en route to a friend's bachelorette party on Fire Island, she got word that she was being considered for the top role and was scheduled to present her vision for the show's costumes on Monday. (Thankfully, the meeting was moved to Tuesday.)
"I think I had two scripts to read, and from those scripts I sort of deduce who I think the character is, so I did a bunch of research... under a towel [on the beach] pinning pictures of who I thought Abbi was, who I thought Ilana was," said Greenbaum. "I didn't nail it, I wasn't 100 percent right — I think I was more right on Abbi than I was on Ilana — but I showed all these pictures... Abbi felt like it was a therapy session." Needless to say, she got the job.
So what's the difference between television and film work? "TV is faster, especially the shows I happen to work on; they tend to be lower budget than something like 'American Gangster' and 'Spiderman' were, so they move really fast," said Greenbaum. Her days can last from 12 to 18 hours and there is less time for prep work and fittings.
For "Broad City," Greenbaum ensures that the clothing is true to the girls' (low) socioeconomic status: she relies on shops like Zara and H&M, wacky sites like HotMiamiStyles.com, and rents from Ann Roth's Costume Depot in New York. Greenbaum said prepping for the many nude scenes on "Broad City" is a particularly fun challenge, and she has a "plethora of pasties, petals, Shibue — which are strapless thongs, adhesive — we have everything that you can imagine." She also praised British brand Nubian Skin for its ample offering of nude shades.
"We do fittings as we go, but it's tricky because the 'Broad City' actors are also the writers, so they are pulled in more directions and less available to us, so as much as we can do upfront is beneficial," she said. "Sometimes there are reshoots, sometimes they script things again — like the blue dress that Abbi wears. They've written it now into every season, so we always keep it because you never know what's coming back." She's applied these lessons to work now with other television shows "Odd Mom Out" and "Difficult People."
For those hoping to work in costume departments for film or television, Greenbaum advises moving to New York or L.A., finding out what's shooting in your area and checking out online listings on Facebook or Google+. A personality fit and willingness to work hard can trump artistic talent, and there's opportunity to play different roles on a smaller set. There are two different unions in the costume department: the wardrobe union, which requires an initiation fee, and the design union, which you either have to "test into" or be "walked into" by production in addition to paying a large fee. "All those jobs — assistant designer, shopper, designers costumer, supervisor, textile artist — they are all union jobs, so you have to work your way up. That's why you pay your dues because it's really important, especially in this industry," said Greenbaum. "If you are quick to walk into a union, that's all well and good, but if no one knows you, no one's going to hire you. That's what you gain by being a PA on multiple projects."
Paying your dues and working your way up the ladder are essential in the costume design world, said Greenbaum, because every job is finite and everyone relies on word-of-mouth and reputation to hire someone. "Your incentive for getting your next job is to do a really good job on the current [one]," she said. Greenbaum spent years as a production assistant and then a coordinator, and she advised aspiring costume designers to be the first ones in, the last ones out, and to always take initiative. "The film industry specifically is gritty — it's not glamorous, it's dirty, it's really long hours," she said. "You can work really hard but you have to be nice to people, all people." She recalled a quote from a costume design book that she said has proven particularly true: "The toes you step on today will be the ass the kiss tomorrow." As Greenbaum's career proves, you don't have to step on toes to get ahead.
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