Costumes

Meet Tribeca's Behind-the-Screen Costume Queen

29-year-old costume designer Courtney Hoffman is behind the clothes in "Palo Alto," Gia Coppola's directorial debut screening at Tribeca this year -- along with two other flicks at the fest. Something tells us you should remember her name.
Courtesy of Subject

Starting today, all eyes are on the Tribeca Film Festival — not only for the debut of many of the year’s buzziest flicks, but for their emerging It Girls (and guys), too. But this festival’s one to watch isn’t a screen starlet at all, but rather 29-year-old costume designer Courtney Hoffman, whose work can be seen in three films, including Palo Alto, Gia Coppola’s directorial debut based on James Franco's 2010 book of short stories that stars Emma Roberts and screens on April 24.

The triple-threat designer has cut her teeth under some of the biggest costume designers in the biz — including two-time Oscar nominee Jacqueline West (Terrence Malick-directed To the Wonder in 2012 and 1930s period flick Water for Elephants in 2011) and three-time Oscar winner Colleen Atwood (2012 Johnny Depp hit Dark Shadows), whom she calls “the greatest living American costume designer.”

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“I kept a list of all the designers I wanted to work with in college,” says Hoffman, who earned a degree in theatrical costume design from NYU. “There were 10 of them, and I’ve worked with six. You have to learn from the best if you want to be the best.”

The quirky, down-to-earth Los Angeles native, who grew up in the Valley and currently calls Silver Lake home, has been paying industry dues since the day she graduated, when a mutual family friend facilitated an introduction to Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe costume designer Isis Mussenden. Soon, Hoffman was on a plane to Prague to assume the position of costume department trainee.

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“I bring a lot of heart and love to what I do,” says the bubbly brunette, who credits her can-do attitude for her steady stream of work, which also includes M83 videos and J. Lo’s upcoming winter thriller, Boy Next Door — the sleek, professional pencil skirts and sweater sets of which were prime tabloid fodder when the movie was shooting last fall. Also worth noting is the designer’s stint as Christoph Waltz’s personal costumer in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, which stemmed from a professional relationship cultivated on the set of Water for Elephants, in which Waltz starred.

“Quentin once said that I make his job as a director easier, because when actors come to set, they are in a good mood,” says Hoffman, who has also been seen on the arm of the director. “I don’t have boundaries of what it means to be a designer versus an assistant. I try to bring love and happiness into my department.”

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For Palo Alto, which centers on a group of disaffected, moneyed NorCal teens, Hoffman had the opportunity to portray the high school characters in a realistic fashion. “Refreshing,” she says. “Because I kind of hate the way teenagers are portrayed on TV — fluffy and perfect, without a hair out of place — and it was really fun to explore the thrifty, stole-my-dad’s jacket side of that.” Ironically enough, the costume designer once worked on the CW’s Melrose Place reboot.

Hoffman also acknowledges Coppola’s own influence on her film’s clothing aesthetic, with pieces coming from her own closet in an effort to work on an indie film budget.

“Gia is obviously an icon in the fashion world and she gave me a lot of inspiration, and I did everything I could to execute the characters and the story. I am really proud of that collaboration.”

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Tribeca also marks the debut of two other films for Hoffman, including Mindy Project star Chris Messina’s Alex of Venice, which takes place in Venice Beach and exudes what Hoffman describes as a “gritty and sun-bleached and soft” look.

“It was about taking a step back and making sure whatever they were wearing didn’t overshadow what was going on emotionally in the movie. It’s cool in a weird, ugly way,” she notes. Hoffman’s work will also be on display in Life Partners, starring Leighton Meester and Adam Brody, a story that revolves around dating and the lesbian community, and for which Hoffman based characters’ looks on her own friends.

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So how does the rising design star plan on balancing all three screenings at the festival? “I’m currently designing a movie, so I will only go for the weekend,” she said. Lucky for her, Palo Alto and Alex of Venice will make their debuts back to back in the same theater.

“I’m [most excited] to be able to see my work and sharing it with my friends in the city where I learned to be a costume designer. To me, being able to come back to the place where I was the intern extraordinaire to receive this extraordinary honor is really special.”