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One of the Hottest Properties in TV Is the Costume Designer

May 23, 1986|MARY ROURKE

When a rookie TV series, "Moonlighting," wins a top fashion award, and another, "Miami Vice," names a big-screen designer as its head of costumes, it isn't business as usual in television town.

To hear the experts tell it, the message is perfectly clear. Fashion designers and fashion itself are TV's newest stars.

Aaron Spelling, producer of both "Dynasty" shows and "Hotel," among other TV staples, says: "When I plan a project, fashion is one of the top three considerations, along with stars and scripts."

The look of a show helps increase the "tune-in," as Spelling describes the viewers. And Michael Mann, producer of "Miami Vice," which is known for its splashy pastel-colored male fashions, would probably agree. He is hoping he'll increase his "tune-in" with a whole new look for the fall season.

What it is, he won't say--creating a mystery that could go down as the fashion equivalent of "Who shot J.R.?" Mann has said, however, that Oscar-nominated costume designer Milena Canonero ("Out of Africa") will design costumes for the upcoming segments.

By accepting this new assignment, Canonero is, by older industry standards, stooping to the small screen. But times are changing.

Consider "Moonlighting." It's another hit show where the look is a leading feature. In this case, the fashions are pale, streamlined and intentionally subtle--an almost subliminal arrow that points to personalities and plot.

What started as an exercise in understatement on the part of costume designer Robert Turturice has become something more. At this point, "the show's look is one of its stars," says Sally Young, production executive.

After more than 20 years in the business, Turturice is something of an overnight sensation, winning costume awards for two consecutive years because of his "Moonlighting" designs.

The impact these fashion talents may have on the overall success of current television series has yet to be officially measured. However, judging from their mail, show producers say they are convinced that fashions make a considerable impact on the popularity of the shows.

Young, of "Moonlighting," says her office receives regular requests from around the country for photographs of the Turturice designs that Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis wear on the show.

Spelling remembers receiving some 8,000 written requests for pictures of one outfit alone--the wedding gown that Nolan Miller designed for Linda Evans to wear on "Dynasty."

For Spelling, highly desirable fashion designs do more than attract viewing audiences. "They help lure good stars," he says.

With fashion as his bait, he has attracted the likes of Barbara Stanwyck and Elizabeth Taylor to his nighttime soaps, sweetening the deal by giving them their wardrobes afterward, Spelling says.

He credits Miller, his main costumer for more than 30 years, for helping make such deals so attractive. And Miller says that Spelling has always been in a class of his own when it comes to appreciating the impact of fashion on a show.

"When I came on the scene in the 1950s," Miller recalls, "most television producers were still telling actors to bring in clothes from home to wear on the show. They never considered designers, or fashion, to be important. And in those days a big-name movie designer wouldn't touch TV."

Now, he says, he sees more producers coming around to another way of doing business. "Producers have become aware that clothes, and designers, really are important to a show," he says. "They help identify character."

What fashion's expanding role in television series may mean for designers is difficult to predict. But there are some educated guesses to consider.

"Moonlighting's" Turturice says he is already designing or has offers to design wardrobes for other shows, including a pilot for a new series and a television movie.

He also has been approached about the possibility of designing a ready-to-wear collection. But he makes no claims to skyrocketing salary offers or his own dressing room.

Miller says "Dynasty" changed his career. "I had a very low profile before then," he admits. But exactly how that translates to dollars, he does not say.

"A salary does increase when a designer is in demand," he notes. "But I don't know that there ever has been a salary war for designers."

The best thing about the profile lift for the profession, according to Miller, is that it will lead to an era of steadier employment. When they were not taken seriously, Miller says, "costume designers often went without working for long periods between projects."

It's only "when the show explodes and fashion is one of the stars," says Aaron Spelling, "that I'll talk to a designer about big credits and budget."

That sort of conversation may soon be more common.

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