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For TV Costume Designers, Borrowing from Fashion Houses Hasn't Been Easy

There are a number of criteria brands might consider before deciding to loan to shows like "Empire," "Scandal' and, for a throwback, 'Gossip Girl.'
Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson) in Moschino on 'Empire' season two. Photo: Fox

Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson) in Moschino on 'Empire' season two. Photo: Fox

Cookie's full red leather Moschino look on "Empire," Olivia Pope's complete Prada luggage set on "Scandal," Annalise Keating's season's worth of work-friendly Brahmin handbags on "How to Get Away With Murder" and, for a moment of sweet nostalgia, Serena van der Woodsen and Blair Waldorf's Chanel, Valentino and Chloé on "Gossip Girl." It was all borrowed.

Not in the shows by the TV characters, but in real life, by the costume designers. Traditionally, TV wardrobes are made from scratch or purchased, but there are certain exceptions. Similar to how editors request loans from fashion houses (or PR agencies) for photo shoots or stylists do for red carpets and the like, costume designers do the same to dress some of your favorite characters on television. But as media, the way we watch TV and the influencer ecosystem have all rapidly changed, the fashion designer loan process for television (and is it truly a "TV" show if it's on YouTube?) is also an ever-evolving relationship.

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But let's rewind to the beginning with Serena's floral bridesmaid gown in the season one finale of "Gossip Girl" (below). Then-assistant costume designer to Eric Daman (who is now in charge on "Dynasty") Meredith Markworth-Pollack clearly remembers that 2008 moment — and not just because Lily and Bart's wedding was the Upper East Side event of the year. 

"Ralph Lauren shows up at the 'Gossip Girl' offices with that yellow dress. That was the game changer," she says. Although, high-end fashion brands lending clothing, accessories and precious one-of-a-kind samples to TV shows dates back to "Sex and the City," on which Daman served as assistant to Patricia Field from seasons two through four.

"I would make a request in French and fax it and then a week later, you may or may not hear from them," he laughs, about requesting a Dior dress for Sarah Jessica Parker way, way back. After the HBO series went off the air in 2004, the designer small-screen lending practice ceased until The CW's "Gossip Girl" graced our DVR schedules in 2007. Daman found himself starting from scratch to build the fashion-lending enthusiasm back up, especially while working with a then-unknown cast on a small budget and in a pre-social media-obsessed world.

Serena van der Woodsen (Blake Lively) in Ralph Lauren on 'Gossip Girl.' Photo: Warner Bros. Productions

Serena van der Woodsen (Blake Lively) in Ralph Lauren on 'Gossip Girl.' Photo: Warner Bros. Productions

"Fashion designers and the PR houses just really didn't want anything to do with television. There was such a stigma about the look of TV," explains Daman, who's still borrowing to outfit finance types and prosecutors on HBO's "Billions." At the time, the fashion world didn't loan expensive pieces (and unique samples), believing that television wouldn't bring a "payoff" in sales or branding, as compared to a red carpet or editorial placement. Plus, "big networks" preferred product placement money. Daman started by reaching out to (then) upstart designers like Alexander Wang, Proenza Schouler and Phillip Lim. "It was a grassroots effort, really," he says.

But then a perfect storm of events changed the game. The 2007/8 Writers' Guild of America strike pushed the first season of "GG" into hiatus, and The CW started a heavy promotional push of paparazzi shots of the photogenic leads in the glossy print weeklies. "All of a sudden, you were seeing Blake [Lively] in People magazine carrying a Ferragamo bag," says Daman. When shooting resumed, more established fashion brands — realizing the benefit of the free publicity — changed their minds. 

Series star Blake Lively quickly became an Anna Wintour "darling," Vogue cover star and a Karl Lagerfeld muse, which also helped with the rarified high-fashion lends that "GG" became famous for. "It's funny with PR fashion houses. They would always be like, 'Well, who else said yes? Has Chanel said yes?'" Daman says. "Once Chanel said 'yes,' it was the deluge because Chanel really never did before." He recalls Valentino and Ferragamo jumping on board early and eventually enjoying the luxury of never repeating the same It handbag on Serena or Blair (Leighton Meester). 

"It really helped the creativity and editorialization of the look of the show — and television in general," Daman says. Borrowing, as opposed to corporate mandated product placements, also allows the costume designer to control their vision for character development and the series' overall sartorial look. Since the show's finale in 2012, the lending craze has subsided, with fashion designers and PR becoming more selective, if not "reticent," to lend to TV. With celebrities personally sharing candids directly via their own social media and the proliferation influencers — who can instantly disseminate their approval (and promotion) of a brand to millions — TV costume designers aren't as high on fashion brands' lists of people to work with.

"There aren't a lot of samples in the world," explains "Younger" costume designer Jackie Demeterio, who also assisted Field on the "SATC 2" movie. Unlike a red carpet or shoot, which might entail an in-demand sample being out of the showroom for just a few days, a TV loan could last up to three months from fittings to "locking down" an episode. (Not to mention, not everyone on TV is a sample size.) These days, both costume designers and brands find that the ideal loan situation is with accessories, especially high-end handbags and fine jewelry from houses like Tiffany & Co, Vhernier and Jacob & Co. Borrowing non-clothing items allows more flexibility with timing and also helps costume designers stay within budget, especially for elaborate, large-scale gala scenes. 

Although, "Empire" costume designer Paolo Nieddu, who regularly borrows notable clothing and accessories from high-end design houses like Moschino, Balmain, Dennis Basso and The Blondes for Taraji P. Henson as Cookie Lyon, has his borrow time down to "a week to 10 days" for an eight-day shoot. His longtime relationships with fashion PR — dating back to his days assisting Field on "SATC 2" (and "Ugly Betty") — and efficiency afford him access to precious current-season pieces. The fresh-off-the-runway items are especially scarce due to demand for editorial shoots, red carpets (especially during awards season) and trunk shows. Usually, designers prefer to loan past-season pieces from the archives.

"Right now [Cookie's] wearing a Moschino from the fall/winter 2017/18 runway," he says, which times perfectly for when the episode airs.

Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) and one of her famed Prada bags. Photo: ABC/Richard Cartwright

Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) and one of her famed Prada bags. Photo: ABC/Richard Cartwright

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Some costume designers, like "Scandal"'s Lyn Paolo, also make a strong effort to borrow pieces that will be available when the show airs, which is tricky since filming could be up to four months in advance. "Scandal" fans are especially engaged on social media, regularly asking Paolo for where-to-buy details.

The specific actress can also be a factor in persuading a brand to lend. For instance, Lagerfeld's Magnum Ice Cream commercial star Rachel Bilson brought her Chanel contacts to "Hart of Dixie" (and former model Jaime King did the same with Valentino). "If you have an actor that already has relationships with different houses and they're willing to make that call for you and bridge that gap, then that's fantastic," says Markworth-Pollack, who designed the first season of The CW series. Paolo fondly remembers riding in a car around New York City with series star Kerry Washington visiting all the designer ateliers before shooting the second season. 

"I really want to elevate the style of the show and that's hard to do when you don't have direct access to the designers," Paolo says. Washington's influence in the discriminating fashion world and resonance with viewers, which include designers, definitely helped open the doors. Michael Kors, a Gladiator himself, came out to greet the duo, while the staff at the now-shuttered Donna Karan Madison Avenue flagship ripped a dress right off a mannequin in hopes of dressing Olivia Pope. "We met with [Senior Director, Global Talent Relations and Dressing] Kimball Hastings at Ralph Lauren and he and his team had pulled a whole 'Scandal' room of fashion," she added. Costume designers will also experience the reverse. Demetrio wouldn't name names but has experienced some surprising denials: "I'm like, 'Really? You don't want to lend to her?'"

Loaning designer product is another way for brands to dress a fashion-influential and sales-driving actress, beyond a red carpet and in a way that feels more accessible and relatable. "Visibility," says designer Christian Siriano about why he lends to shows. "People fall in love with these characters. People love Robin Wright or they love Kerry Washington." He's lent pieces for Washington for "Scandal," Emma Roberts in "Scream Queens" and Wright as Claire Underwood on "House of Cards." For the fictional POTUS, he even created copies of a piece because they needed to keep it so long for filming.

"I like making things for powerful women in great roles," Siriano continued. "I think people look up to them and want to have that style, so that's why we do it and hopefully that brings in new customers and people see the clothes in a different way."

Massachusetts-based handbag and accessories line Brahmin also looks for "strong female characters" on fashion-driven TV shows to align with their products. The brand has worked out a season-long arrangement with Paolo for Viola Davis's name-taking Annalise to carry a series of work-friendly totes on "How to Get Away With Murder." Since Olivia Pope has her famed Prada aesthetic on "Scandal," political operative Abby Whelan also carries the brand. 

Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) and her Brahim bag on 'How to Get Away With Murder.' Screen-grab: ABC

Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) and her Brahim bag on 'How to Get Away With Murder.' Screen-grab: ABC

It's not only outwardly fashion-y shows that brands are interested in, though. Christina Lara, Managing Director of Los Angeles-based Red Light PR, notes that quite a few clients requested loan placements on the second season of Netflix's hit series "13 Reasons Why." One accessories brand was especially interested because the show would align with an upcoming anti-bullying, give-back campaign. 

Looking to reach that coveted Gen-Z audience, fashion brands are also expanding their media reach by lending to shows starring digital influencers on streaming AwesomenessTV programming. "It's an influencer crossover," Lara says. "Clients are looking to tap into that market and grow those customers into their existing customer age and demo."

Ultimately, of course, brands hope for the sales payoff, which is difficult to track and can't be seen immediately. But Chelsea Rothman, Marketing and Communications Specialist for Brahmin, has noticed an impact. "We have five boutique stores and three-fifths have had customers come in asking for the bags they've seen on 'HTGAWM,'" she says.

Being a small or nontraditional brand can help, too. "As an independent designer, I often can have items that are featured on a TV show or movie available when the show airs, unlike bigger brands who have moved on to their next collection," says jewelry designer Peggy Li, who got her start accessorizing "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and regularly lends to fashion-conscious shows like, "Jane the Virgin," "Riverdale" and, yes, "Scandal."

TV placement also creates extra content for brands to share with their business and consumer audiences. Rothman regularly sends shots of Davis carrying her Brahmin bags with the brand's wholesale accounts and also uses imagery for "in-store talking points." Li catalogues every earring and necklace seen on characters on her e-commerce site. Plus, sites like Worn on TV identify pieces and provide purchase info to fans. Brands can also share TV placements with followers on social media, which also offers metrics to track and direct clicks to buy.

But, since loans aren't paid product placements, brands can't depend on a credit, a long-lingering camera shot or even an awkwardly scripted mention. So, costume designers and, hopefully, the cast do their part by giving brands shout-outs via social media. Markworth-Pollack regularly posts and tags "Dynasty" fashion credits for her near-70K followers. The show's young, IG-savvy cast members, especially the leads Elizabeth Gillies (4.8 million followers) and Nathalie Kelley (480K), are "playing the game a bit, too," says Markworth-Pollack. "If they're going to acknowledge what they're wearing, a designer is going to be more inclined to give us pieces for them, and their looks will be stronger and the show will do better."

Of course, remembering wardrobe details three months after the fact takes a bit of memory work for the actors. So each week during the "Scandal" and "HTGAWM" seasons, Paolo and her team create "style books" with photos and wardrobe notes for the cast as fashion cheat-sheets for their social media. To bolster those brand relationships, it's worth it.

"It's a symbiotic relationship," says Paolo.

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