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Pairings between illustrious fashion labels and films with A-list stars make for sure-fire clickbait headlines. But oftentimes, the tactic of using brand name wardrobe to help portray characters and tell the story overshadows the costume designer.
Hubert de Givenchy is regularly referenced for Audrey Hepburn’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) little black dress legacy, over the work of eight-time Oscar winner Edith Head, and Rodarte grabbed headlines for collaborating with Amy Westcott on seven ballet costumes in Black Swan (2010) — with ensuing awards-season controversy and confusion over full design credit.
Along with product placements and purchasing wardrobe items, costume designers may work with brands to not only supply but also custom-build pieces. For example, through a relationship with director Lee Daniels, The United States vs. Billie Holiday costume designer Paolo Nieddu collaborated with Prada to reinterpret some of the singer’s historically documented moments.
The four-time Emmy nominee scoured decades of contemporary Prada runways to pinpoint and reimagine design elements for the fashion house’s artisans to custom-build to fit “my vision and colors,” says Nieddu, on a call. For a bold red interpretation of Holiday’s 1954 Manchester, England concert look, Nieddu combined a sculpted corset from Fall 2004 with strap detail and lamé fabric from Spring 2009. The collaboration yielded nine gowns, while Nieddu sourced vintage and designed upwards of 70 costumes, including the fully-custom black dress for the climactic return performance of Holiday (portrayed by Andra Day, who garnered an Oscar nomination for the role). But a scan of the headlines doesn’t reflect that ratio — and a press release from the Italian house announcing a collaboration with Lee on nine gowns, but omitting Nieddu altogether, probably didn’t help.
“There becomes this eclipse when you bring in a brand like that like that name just takes over,” he says, while emphasizing a positive experience working with Prada during the filmmaking process.
“It’s great marketing,” says Costume Designers Guild (CDG) president Salvador Perez, about brand and studio public-relations strategies of promoting sexy fashion labels over-crediting the costume designer. Along with the IATSE Local 182 Marketing Committee, co-chaired by costume designer Antoinette Messam, his ongoing efforts focus on educating PR and marketing entities about the integral role of costume designers in the storytelling process. “As the costume designer, who’s here to create the look of the movie, I’m helping to be a conduit to bring my director’s vision to life,” explains Messam (All Day and a Night, Hold the Dark).
Spearheaded by CDG Communications Director Anna Wyckoff, the #CreditCostumeDesigners campaign harnesses the power of social media as part of the endeavor, which also spotlights the press not mentioning the costume designer in related stories. “It was a low-key grassroots effort, and it just took off,” says Perez, who also encourages members to build a social media presence. He explains that initially, the CDG will send a direct message on Instagram politely asking for costume designer credit. If the request is ignored, “we call them out on social media,” he says. “Bottom line is that we will shame them into it.”
Notably, Oscar-winning costume designer Jenny Beavan joined Instagram on June 1 as the CDG efforts targeting the Rag & Bone x Cruella collection gained traction. Disney partnered with the contemporary fashion brand on a collaboration inspired by Beavan’s ‘70s costumes for the live-action film, without notifying her or including her in the financial aspect of the merchandising agreement.
On the marketing side, Rag & Bone credited Beavan and her “dazzling and imaginative costumes” in an attached press release, but in the very last sentence in the “about” movie section. Also in May, a Focus Features media alert touted a “partnership with the House of Dior” in an announcement of the 2022 period film, Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, but with nary a mention of Beavan as the costume designer in the couture dress-themed movie. The CDG believes that costume designers having a social media presence can help them insert themselves in and even control the narrative.
Coming up, Hill House Home, in collaboration with Meena Harris’ Phenomenal, Netflix and Shondaland, will release a Bridgerton-inspired version of the brand’s popular Nap Dress. However, Ellen Mirojnick and John Glaser, both of whom earned Emmy nominations for their contemporary-influenced Regency-era costumes, are not involved in the merchandising partnership, nor does the joint press release mention their original vision.
At least, with an arrangement tied to the mini-series Halston — the Halston x Netflix 10-piece capsule collection — the heritage brand’s press release credited the Emmy-nominated costume design by Jeriana San Juan as inspiration. “We felt it was important,” writes Halston creative director Robert Rodriguez, in an email to THR, also sharing that Netflix introduced the two for a conversation about the legendary designer.
The lack of inclusion and compensation for costume designers in these types of marketing and licensing deals between studios and brands is now a hot discussion topic amongst the CDG and members.
Behind the scenes, not including costume designers in brand outreach and marketing discussions can also impact the filmmaking process. Industry vet Messam emphasizes the importance of involving the costume designer in those conversations from the get-go. She cites previous positive experiences working with buzzy labels, like Fear of God, which helped support the indie budget for SuperFly (2018). Via discussions with Messam to support the director’s and her vision for the film, the Los Angeles streetwear brand customized five versions of a sample black leather jacket for lead Trevor Jackson. The collaboration worked out so well that the “hero coat,” worn by Jackson in his opening sequence, also made the main promo poster.
But if left out of conversations, the costume designer — and their team — may have to pivot, rush and adjust for additional work, “sometimes in the ninth hour,” thereby impacting the production. “When we are included it can be a win-win successful situation for both parties, the film and the brand,” says Messam.
The CDG Marketing Committee is planning a town hall to provide “tools” for members to navigate these situations and manage their own media narratives when brands are involved. “My goal with this town hall is to empower our members to educate external parties — such as studio and network marketing and PR, agents, producers and directors — to let there be an understanding that we are part of the creative bubble that helps to drive the look and tone of the movie,” says Messam. She hopes costume designers will start asking studios, early on, important questions about licensing (and compensation) opportunities and guarantee of credit in PR and marketing campaigns. Nieddu even suggests a “contract” with the design house “on how this needs to be credited.”
Says Perez, “All we’re saying is, ‘Hey, credit us and respect us.’”
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