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‘I Haven’t Had A Job Since March 13’: How Costume Designers Are Coping With COVID-19

By Adam Tschorn Los Angeles Times

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Adam Tschorn takes an up-close and personal look at the lives of costume designers. Unlike a corporate 9-5, many designers live a lifestyle that leads them from one project to the next with different companies. So it was especially devasting when one day last March, everything came to a screeching halt.

Los Angeles

It's about five months into the pandemic, and no one is dressing for the screen. This goes for both the tiny, gridded screen of your WFH videoconference (admit it, you're still wearing sweatpants), as well as the TV and movie screens of Hollywood where production abruptly halted back in mid-March as part of California's effort to flatten the coronavirus curve.

One big difference, of course, is that while your on-screen wardrobe is totally your call, what appears on those other screens is the responsibility of a Hollywood costume designer who is earning a paycheck in the process.

Since shutdown production means shutdown paychecks (unlike actors, directors and writers, costume designers don't get residuals), the first half of 2020 has found some of the most high-profile costume designers in the business, Emmy and Oscar winners among them,  unexpectedly out of work.

We checked in with a handful of Hollywood heavyweights to see how they're faring, what they've been doing since the Hollywood dream machine ground to a halt and what they see on the horizon.

JANIE BRYANT Known for her work on the "Mad Men" and "Deadwood" TV series (the latter of which earned her an Emmy Award for costume design), Bryant's recent work also includes "The Romanoffs," "The Last Tycoon" and "Why Women Kill." We caught up with her on July 15, just as she was crossing the border from Tennessee into Arkansas en route back to L.A. after a six-week visit with family.

Last gig: Designing costumes for the TV miniseries "The Old Man" starring John Lithgow and Jeff Bridges. "We had been filming since September and finished half the show and we were getting ready to go to Morocco to film the other half," Bryant said. "Then in March, I think it was the 13th, the day the Safer-at-Home ordinance came out, they closed down (production). So we locked the doors and left everything like it was in a time capsule. We weren't supposed to wrap until mid-July."

Next gig: Designing costumes for the second season of "Why Women Kill," hopefully. "(Production) was supposed to start in mid-July and overlap just a little bit with 'The Old Man,' but we're waiting to get the green light," Bryant said.

Financial impact: "I'm down 100%. I haven't done any costume design work since March," she said.

In between: In addition to the Tennessee road trip, Bryant has used her unexpected down time to focus on two side projects. The first is designing a menswear collection for online custom men's shop Inherent Clothier with the label's co-founder and Chief Executive Taylor Draper. (It's in inspiration-board stage right now, Bryant said, and is expected to launch in fall 2021.) The second is something she vaguely describes as something in the "textile-hosiery-sock world."

"I'm very, very, very excited to be doing this," Bryant said, "because I'm from a Southern textile family, and this is where my roots are."

Outlook: "I've been thinking about the worst-case scenario; what are other things that I want to do? I feel like this is the time we all kind of have to reinvent ourselves and think of other possibilities," she said.

RUTH E. CARTER A costume designer whose credits include "Do the Right Thing," "Dolemite Is My Name," "Malcolm X" and "Amistad," Carter made Oscar history in 2019 as the first Black person to win a costume design Oscar for her work on "Black Panther." The third week of July found her sitting in front of her computer in her office in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of L.A.

Last gig: In November 2019 she finished working on "Coming 2 America" (expected to hit theaters in December, it's a sequel to 1988's "Coming to America"). In December 2019 she worked with Eddie Murphy for his return to "Saturday Night Live."

Next gig: Marvel Studios' "Black Panther 2," for which Carter said she expects to start prepping in the fall.

Financial impact: Having already scheduled between-film down time to focus on other projects, Carter said she hasn't had any costume-design work scuttled as a result of the pandemic although she has missed out on lecture-circuit appearances. "I usually do university lectures around the country where I talk about the behind-the-scenes of making costumes for 'Black Panther' and other films," she said. "But all of that has been canceled."

In between: Not working isn't the same as not busy, though, and the ambitious slate of side projects Carter has been focusing on this year includes a coffee-table book for Chronicle Books, an updated and expanded touring exhibition of her costumes (set to open at SCAD in Atlanta in January), and a line of "Coming 2 America" film-inspired fan apparel for Target.

Carter also said she's been busy in her new role as a member of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences' board of governors, which she was elected to last year. "We are doing a lot for Black Lives Matter," she said, "and bringing in all kinds of people, international people and people of color, into the academy. So I've actually had the time to really focus on that."

Outlook: "All of us as freelancers know that there's going to be a period of time where we're not working," Carter said. "That just comes with the territory. And those of us who have just finished (projects) have the luxury of having built-up savings. But for those who are just starting out, this is a difficult time." She added that for every out-of-work costume designer with promising side projects, there can be dozens of people who are out of work without the same safety net.

"I could have up to 25 people on my staff on average," she said, "costumers that support (me), seamstresses and tailors that support (my) designs, that build (my) work. They might not have their sights set on being (costume) designers so they can (be flexible) moving from project to project. But when all the projects shut down at the same time, they're left without any resources."

SALVADOR PEREZ In addition to being a prolific costume designer for film (including "Drumline," "Think Like a Man" and three "Pitch Perfect" movies) and television ("Veronica Mars," "The Mindy Project" and, most recently, "Never Have I Ever"), Perez is also the president of the Costume Designers Guild, which represents more than 1,100 costume designers, assistant costume designers and costume illustrators, approximately 90% of which, Perez said, are currently not working.

Last gig: The Disney feature "Vacation Friends," which was shut down in the early days of the pandemic. "We had shot two weeks in Puerto Rico and were coming back to Atlanta to shoot the rest of it," Perez said. "And they shut us down, on Friday the 13th (of March)."

Next gig: "I'm currently at Mood Fabrics on Pico getting ready to do some commercials with one of my clients," Perez said last month. "I can't tell you who because I signed a (nondisclosure agreement), but it's my first gig since March."

Financial impact: "I've been a union member for 28 years," Perez said, "and (I) haven't had a job since March 13."

In between: In addition to making face masks for friends and working on a fashion collection (longtime friend and collaborator Mindy Kaling frequently wears dresses he's designed), Perez estimated he's logged upward of 148 hours on Zoom videoconference calls helping formulate the safety protocols that need to be in place before guild members can return to work.

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