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A thread of respect

Costume designers want it, and their patience is wearing thin.

November 21, 2004|Mimi Avins | Times Staff Writer

"There are actors who don't understand our job, or don't really care," says designer Michael Kaplan. "I don't even want to call them actors, because most people who are really into what it is to be an actor have a respect for collaboration." Many designers could tell horror stories about movie stars run amok, but if they told you their names, they'd have to kill you. A costume designer who has had successful collaborations with a number of major stars was initially excited about working on a thriller with a beautiful blond sex symbol.

"Things turned sour very quickly," he says, "when I realized she had determined what she was going to wear long before we had our first meeting. I'm open to people's ideas. But I don't want to be dictated to at this point in my career. They didn't need me. They just needed a gofer. At the first fitting, she showed up with a stylist, and she talked to her as if I wasn't even in the room. It was really unprofessional."

Stylists, on the other hand, really are shoppers, with a feel for image management and an eye for fashion. They help celebrities look their best for public appearances and magazine layouts. In goody-bag land, where stuff -- especially clothes -- often comes without a price tag, producers see both personal and financial advantages to bringing a stylist on board who has access to the fashion industry's largess.

Many costume designers are offended when producers focus on freebies. Do they ask a stunt coordinator if he can arrange to get stunts gratis? With fantasies of donated clothes in mind, a producer might hire a stylist, forgetting that running a costume department requires the acumen needed to operate a small business -- budgets must be made and kept, crews hired and supervised, special items outsourced. And always, deadlines must be met, even if roles are cast at the last minute and production schedules change. Many is the time a director who hired a stylist to do a movie later begged a costume designer to bail him out.

The fashion designer juggernaut

Landis is a passionate letter writer, though her notes are seldom romantic. She writes to journalists who wax poetic about a movie's costumes but fail to acknowledge the person who created them.

When high-profile fashion designers are involved with a film, they are invariably at the center of publicity, even if their contribution is minimal compared to the work of the costume designer. Makovsky didn't have a large budget on the 1998 remake of "Great Expectations." "I approached Donna Karan's company to get some free clothes for Gwyneth Paltrow," she says. "They were very generous and gave us six or seven outfits, but that was it. Everything else I designed. I never met Donna Karan, she never had anything to do with the film." The headline of a New York Times story on the movie was "The Title Is From Dickens, the Look From Donna Karan."

Since then, Makovsky won't work on a movie if a fashion designer is involved. "It was the studio and the film's publicists and the press who blew up Donna Karan's contribution," she says. "What the costume designer does is demeaned. I interviewed for a film and when the director said, 'We've already contacted Ralph Lauren, Versace and Armani,' I said, 'Well, I hope they have a good time standing on the set 17 hours a day, because I won't be there.' "

The disproportionate amount of publicity given fashion designers who contribute to a movie could be seen as pragmatic -- a well-known brand name can be a marketing device. But many costume designers feel there's a more insidious explanation: the misperception that fashion design is the highest calling for anyone working with clothes.

Kaplan's costumes for "Blade Runner," "Flashdance" and "Fight Club" set fashion trends, but that outcome was not on his mind initially. "Fashion design is different than what we do," he says. "It's about creating a look for the masses that people will go out and buy. Costume design is very specific and is about making characters come alive."

Sometimes an actress is the culprit. Fashion designers send stars free clothes, fly them to Europe for their shows, pay their hotel bills and design exclusive gowns to be worn on the red carpet and off. One way celebrities show their gratitude is by paying tribute in interviews. When promoting "De-Lovely" on TV, Ashley Judd praised the gowns from the Armani archives she wore in the film. Elizabeth Hurley gushed to reporters about her Versace wardrobe for "Bedazzled." Perhaps the actresses just forgot to mention that costume designers Janty Yates and Appel, respectively, created most of their costumes.

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