Design Inspiration: Costume Conversations at USITT

by Stage Directions
SD Editor Michael S. Eddy with Bobbi Owen and William Ivey Long
SD Editor Michael S. Eddy with Bobbi Owen and William Ivey Long

At the 2018 USITT Conference in Fort Lauderdale, Stage Directions and USITT hosted the Stage Directions Studio on the show floor. Over the three days we spoke with a wide variety of theater artisans, designers, technicians, and practitioners about their thoughts and advice on an array of topics in their respective theatrical disciplines. This month we are including some of the thoughts of three of the costume designers we sat down with during the show. They shared with us their mentors, their influences and also offered their humble advice to those starting out on a life in theatrical design. They are all talented designers, teachers, and authors of books on costume design. We thank them for taking the time out of their busy USITT schedule to generously share their experiences and thoughts with SD. Here are Rafael Jaen, William Ivey Long and Carolina Jimenez Flores in their own words:

Rafael JaenRafael Jaen
Jaen is a practicing theater, film, and TV costume designer with more than 30 years of experience. He is a USA 829 member, and he has received multiple theater accolades including the Salem State Life Achievement Award in the Arts 2016. His teaching recognitions include the Manning Award for Teaching Excellence 2017 and the KCACTF Golden Medallion for Excellence in Theater Education 2013. He sits on the USITT Board of Directors, and he is the national Design-Technology Chair for KCACTF. He is an associate professor of costume design at UMASS Boston, and he is the author of Showcase by Focal Press, Digital Costume Design and Collaboration (2017) by Routledge, and he co-wrote two chapters in the book Fashioning Horror (2017) by Bloomsbury.

Getting Started
I went to NYU as a lighting major, and then costumes found me, because my mom is a tailor, so I worked in the costume shop. I moved to Boston in the mid-80s with the objective to work in scenic and lighting, but I kept getting work just as a tailor. One thing led to the other. I never thought about teaching, but then a college called, saying “Oh, we need somebody to teach, and you know some folks.” So I did that, and loved it. I asked, “Can I get some training?” So, I pursued a second master’s on theater education, and then Emerson College hired me. So that’s where I started my career and that’s where I have my theater education degree from. But I wanted to do it all. I wanted to still be a practicing professional and I was lucky to be in Boston where so much theater happened that I can make it work.

Early Mentors
The earliest was Carrie Robbins. She was my costume design mentor. And I didn’t realize it until maybe five years after. The idea of why you present yourself as the professional that you want to be, because you represent yourself and the field; to always be prepared; to always do your research; to be innovative, and to do it with grace. I saw her, she had such grace under pressure. But the biggest gift is she brought a Broadway actress to critique our work. And I was illustrating, and I did everything by the book, but I never thought of the fact that I’m working with an actor, or that they were accessible. As I was presenting my project, the actress had played the role I was designing for and we engaged into this conversation, and she explained to me how she would use some of the costume pieces.
I realized—this is collaboration. I can talk to this person and I can find out what their inner thoughts, their secrets, what their motivations are, and I can help them do their job on the stage. So that was the largest discovery, and I suddenly realized why Carrie loved it so much. That stayed with me. That’s when I realized, I want that; I want to be able to be in the room when I’m talking to the actors. And I took acting lessons and I even performed for a minute. And that’s what I love today; that it’s collaborative and includes the actor.

Influences on Your Designs
Well, every play has what I call a school of thought when we research. It could be psychology, it could be anthropology. For example, I remember designing a show, and I went deep into the pre-Raphaelite life. It was a Shakespearean show we were doing, and I really delved into the details of how they did things, the whole philosophy. And then talking to the director about, “Can we adapt that for our show? And are we misrepresenting or are we really serving the show?” And it was great, the director was right there with me looking at all the books and creating these paintings on stage.
But it depends; it’s all kinds of things. So, I’m always looking for some kind of dramaturgy that informs the character’s life or some framework, but also some plays are grounded in a period or a moment of history or something that is sociopolitical. Then that’s what I’ve got to do. So it’s not necessarily visual. I want to educate myself to have a better understanding of what is the experience and “why would these characters have that in their closet based on that experience?” So, I kind of put myself in the shoes of the individual. It takes a little empathy, and projecting yourself into it.

Advice to Those Starting Out
Show up! Knock on every door. If you’re not getting, “No,” you’re not asking enough. Get past rejection. We’re in a field where you’re competing; even if you’re a designer, you’re auditioning all the time. You’re only as good as your last job. So, you have to show up. If I get scared about doing something, I tell myself ‘you are going to do it’.

Bobbi Owen and William Ivey LongWilliam Ivey Long
Long is a much-honored major American costume designer, widely known for his successful Broadway career (73 productions to date) for which he has received six Tony Awards, 15 Tony Nominations, and the Gold Medal of Fashion from the National Arts Club. He has designed more than 350 productions including many plays, ballets, and operas. Long is unique in the history of costume design, operating at the same time in the atelier traditions of court costumers of Louis XIV and in the dazzling mode of contemporary Parisian couturiers. He recently completed a four-year elected term as chairman of the board for The American Theatre Wing. He was the 2018 USITT Award winner and is the subject of a monograph about his career, The Designs of William Ivey Long. Long got his undergraduate degree in history at the College of William and Mary, then was Kress Fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He earned an MFA in stage design from Yale University School of Drama.

Well, Ming Cho Lee, obviously. I think anyone who’s ever studied with Ming Cho Lee continues to study with Ming Cho Lee, through his work, his books, his enormous integrity and authority. Of course, Willa Kim. Then Charles James in fashion. Those are the people I really knew, and worked with, but then there are many heroes that I never met. I met Irene Sharaff, in fact, I spoke at her memorial service; she was a great. And I was friends with Florence Klotz and Theoni Aldredge, and I am friends with Jane Greenwood, Ann Roth, and Santo Loquasto, and of course, Tony Walton. So, I’m very lucky; I’m shockingly lucky, in my friendships and my being at the right place at the right time. Coming to New York just in time when everyone was still cooking with gas and still on this planet! So, I was very lucky. Cecil Beaton was also another great inspiration for me personally. And, of course, I have to mention Desmond Heeley, who I did know. There are many of them, and I could keep going but I think I’ve got my top ones.

Other Influences on Your Designs
History and art history. When I designed Steel Pier, the Kander & Ebb musical, it was very influenced by Reginald Marsh. When I did Cabaret, obviously I was inspired by Otto Dix and George Grosz. And then, Little Dancer is a complete homage to Degas. I channeled Degas in my medium to evoke our take on his work. That was the biggest amount of hubris I ever assembled in my body; to pretend like I was channeling Degas.

Working with the Actor
You can’t, or shouldn’t, make clothes without the connection with the actor. Of course, I always say, "smiles after a fitting," so no tears after a fitting. Everything is done for, with, and on the actor, because remember, they’re the ones telling the story through their body, and their mind, and, lucky for us, the pieces of clothing on their body; so it’s very connected. I have often thrown out designs that I had made sketches of and done the mock-ups, and then they just weren’t working. The fitting is where it really happens; the magic happens in the fitting room.

Advice to Those Starting Out
I don’t know that this is what you expect, but I am going to say this, and I mean this is my basic one—the Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." That’s actually the best advice anyone can give anyone for any work. For costume design, I say, don’t specialize too early. I didn’t. I think totally focusing in an undergraduate degree solely in one of these elements of design, is to sort of handicap yourself, because you need history, you need art, you need social studies. You need to read the paper. You need everything. For instance, I was taking a plane ride and in the magazine, they had all the countries in the world where Delta flies. I ripped it out and I took it home. Every night I’d look at a different one of these five divisions of the world, because I’m going, “Well, how can I read the paper, if I don’t know where Macedonia is? I know it’s next to Greece, but what’s next to it?” You need to know these things. You will need to know all these different things when designing.

Carolina Jimenez FloresCarolina Jimenez Flores
A stage designer and teacher, Flores graduated from the National School of Theatrical Art. With 20 years of experience, she has worked on over 120 performances, as light, set and/or costume designer. In 2009, she received the Young Creators grant; in 2010, the recognition to the Best Scenic Space in Jalisco State for Dogs Swollen to the Edge of the Road and the Crystal Screen Festival Award for Best Art Direction of the film Raging Sun, Raging Sky by Julián Hernández. Her stage design of The Love Suicides at Amijima (directed by Gilberto Guerrero) was selected for the WSD2005 exhibition and, in 2009, her work presented at the WSD with the stage design of Madness in Valencia and the costumes for the film Raging Sun, Raging Sky and the choreography Lips and Hands for the dance company A Poc A Poc. Alone, her first show as director of the Choreographer Design project, premiered at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Her most recent creation, The Garden, was presented in the National Center of the Arts. This group also collaborates on the visual design in Covarrubias LAB, a project where the protagonist is the Miguel Covarrubias’ Hall. In 2017, she joined USITT as a 2018 Student Ambassador Mentor and an International Special Exhibits Curator, which included a dozen working professional designers from Mexico, four women and eight men.

In the National School of Theatrical Art, a teacher Jamila Doscolova. She’s a teacher and a set designer. I was really inspired by her work and how she focused on what we felt about the play more than how could we resolve it technically. So, it was for me very inspiring. And later on, I went to Prague, to the Quadrennial, and saw all these amazing designers that the first time. For me, I was amazed by everything I was looking at there. I was inspired by looking at those diverse works. And they have a very personal side. That’s what I got from my first visit to Prague. I saw how different the work was of one country to another.
I came back from that looking at who I was as a Mexican woman, as a Mexican designer, and I’m trying to go for that. I admire very much Eiko, the Japanese designer, and also Alejandro Luna, a Mexican designer. But at the end, I think that I will never design like them because I am Carolina. So I have to search for my own voice. And I’m going for that, I hope I can speak well in my work.

Finding Her Voice
As I said, I think I am finding my own voice. It’s not been easy. Now, I find it more maybe because now everybody's talking about the Me Too and those things. In my country, we have been stopped much more by men thinking women don’t do this. We do, but they don’t notice it. Women are discouraged to go into the arts. Older women were discouraged because they think women have to be at their house, taking care of their husband and of the children. So it’s not easy to discover this work in art because you aren’t raised that way. First you think that’s fine, and when you realize it’s not fine, you have to struggle a lot. Like my parents didn’t realize what I was doing, they felt or thought that I was going to get married and it would pass. So they let me have fun with doing this. But now I am a designer.
I want others to find their voice also. I am here because USITT invited me to create an exhibition of rising Mexican designers. It was great for me; I learned very much about what others are doing in my country about design. I want to see more of their work on stage. We have lots of theater in Mexico. You can go three times a week in theater. So it was very exciting for me in looking for the designers in Mexico, and then to present their work here at USITT. I’m very proud to represent them and to talk about my work, because I try to always be surprised by what’s happening on stage. I also want to surprise the audience with what I do.

Advice to Those Starting Out
Research what they want to do. To look at those designers who they admire. Who’s solving problems they admire. To Google what they want to do, where they want to be. And to go for it. I think nothing can stop us. Just doing things, but we have to fight against fear and I think youth is about that. Not having fear. So, just take the risk.