When Costume Designers Cross Over to Red Carpet Stylists

Mindy Kaling in a Salvador Perez-designed and -styled gown at the 2016 "Vanity Fair" Oscar Party. Photo: Larry Busacca/Getty Images

"If you go back to Old Hollywood, costume designers dressed stars for everything," says Salvador Perez, Mindy Kaling's go-to costume designer for her early-departed series "The Mindy Project" and her latest, "Champions." 

Perez points Helen Rose designing Elizabeth Taylor's first two wedding looks, plus Alfred Hitchcock's longtime costume designer Edith Head dressing the director's muses for the red carpet, including Grace Kelly's now-iconic ice blue gown for her second Oscars win in 1955. Although these days, especially with the proliferation of the celebrity stylist, there's a clearer delineation between both professions — even if in the end, the client is the same person. When the crossover happens, it tends to be more of an "organic" move, as most costume designers will say, because the jobs can be so different.

First, of course, dressing a character is completely different from dressing a real-life person. "You're working off of a script, telling a story and building a character, and as the costume designer, I can put a lot behind, 'This is what the character is,'" says Allyson B. Fanger. She dresses Melissa McCarthy playing a version of herself on on TV Land's meta-comedy "Nobodies," as well as for promotional appearances, including a recent February spot on "The Ellen Show." The latter requires playing "a little part psychologist," which isn't everybody's jam. "You've got their bodies, their aesthetic, their past, what they want in the future for themselves, both as a personality and as a person," continues Fanger, who also styles "Grace and Frankie" and "Friends" creator Marta Kauffman. "So, it couldn't be more different, and it's very challenging." 

Melissa McCarthy at the "Nobodies" premiere at SXSW 2017. Photo: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for SXSW

While the talent may be open to the costume designer guiding the discussion and establishing the direction of the character's wardrobe, they might not be as amenable to the same oversight when it comes to themselves. "I can convince [Kaling] that Mindy Lahiri should be wearing a different outfit, but it's very hard to convince her that Mindy Kaling should wear something," says Perez, who styled the "A Wrinkle in Time" star for red carpet events before she started working with celebrity stylist Cristina Ehrlich.

After designing colorful and print-happy pieces for Kaling to wear in character on "The Mindy Project," Perez's move from on-screen costume designer to off-screen stylist — or more custom-gown designer — was pretty much a no-brainer. "We've known actors' bodies better than anybody else," he says, about the intimate relationship he established with Kaling. He made his red carpet "dressing," as he prefers to call it, debut by custom-designing an embellished azure-blue one-shouldered gown for Kaling to wear to the 2014 Costume Designer's Guild Awards. 

"And then she asked, 'Well, I'm going to the Oscars [Vanity Fair party] in a week. Can you make me another dress? So we made two custom-made gowns in a week, and we set the bar very high," he recalls. The black lace gown he quickly created led to additional looks for the Oscars post-parties in the following years: a deep V-neck in 2015 and a crystal embellished asymmetrical column in 2016. He's also styled "The Mindy Project" cast members Beth Grant (Beverly) and Xosha Roquemore (Tamra) as one-off favors. "That just sort of happens organically," he adds. "I'm not really a stylist. I don't enjoy that."

Adding part-time costume designer to her full-time celebrity stylist portfolio was organic, too, for Kemal Harris. She joined "House of Cards" in its third season to costume design for longtime client Robin Wright's character Claire Underwood. (Johanna Argan costume designs the rest of the show.) "I was pretty petrified about doing a television show, especially one of that caliber," recalls Harris, who's now working on Season Six headlined by Wright. As a career stylist, she likens the experience to a magazine feature. "Creatively, there's a little bit more leeway and I can just dictate a bit more," says Harris, who also jumped at the opportunity to use her fashion design training to create custom pieces for about a third of Claire's wardrobe.

Robin Wright in Thierry Mugler at the 2017 Emmys. Photo: Dan MacMedan/Getty Images

While Harris and Wright were already accustomed to a fast and "relaxed and fun" vibe during red carpet styling prep, the two — or three — adjusted to new dynamics for developing looks for a character. "Claire is a third person in the room," says Harris. "We look at something on the rack, and go, 'This is very Claire,' or, 'It's too edgy for Claire. She would never do that pocket on a pant.'" 

Harris does admit to experiencing a learning curve transitioning from styling for more static and photographed red carpet moments to designing for a scripted and mobile TV show. She realized early on to avoid silks and linens for fabrics that would maintain structure on camera, and that lighting, especially on a show like "House of Cards," will affect how the clothing colors will come across on camera. "I was very excited about this deep cranberry color, but because they shoot everything so dark, most things just end up looking black all the time," laughs Harris. 

Perez also takes pride in costume designers having tricks up their sleeves that are specific for filming episodic television, like custom-building foundation garments underneath a dress to maintain the look for a full-day (or days) of shooting or accounting for stunts, action and physical comedy sequences, like for his work on the "Pitch Perfect" movie franchise. "I've heard of stylists taking on films, and they buy one vintage tracksuit for an action scene," he says. "No, you need 30 versions of those because it's a bloody versus clean [version]. Costume design is a different way of working." 

But by pulling double-duty, Harris learned quickly to adjust and pivot. "There are other things you have to take into consideration, but it's similar to red carpet where you are getting photographed and scrutinized from every angle," she says.

Amy Schumer on the VH1 Big in 2015 red carpet in a custom dress by ALC by Andrea Lieberman, who also designed a dress she wore through most of "Snatch." Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

For Leesa Evans, Judd Apatow's go-to costume designer, as well as a full-time private stylist, the transition for dressing Amy Schumer from her "Trainwreck" character to the Schumer herself off-screen was also organic, but the reason went beyond the fit of the clothes. Evans went into the 2015 movie knowing that the actress-comedian held a "quasi dislike or a major dislike for fashion," and happily took on the challenge to change that viewpoint through showing Schumer how personal style can be a positive "tool" for building self-confidence and personal happiness. 

"After our first fitting, the level of excitement from her was amazing and so rewarding because I could tell she was like, 'This was fun. I really enjoyed this. I loved getting into character. I feel so good,'" explains Evans, who also co-founded Stylefund with Schumer. "Suddenly, she had this potential real love for fashion and clothing."  

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But costume design, since it's based on the script, doesn't always involve fashion. "Red carpet feels a little freer because you can float with the trends of the season," says Harris, who also points to storylines dictating for the climate or setting that Claire needs to dress, which might not match the runways. Although, having the established relationships with designer showrooms does allow for Harris to borrow off-the-runway pieces that other costume designers might have a harder time accessing. 

"It's just the perfect kismet for me," adds Harris, who estimates that one-third of Claire's wardrobe are "runway" pieces from designers, including Michael Kors, Dolce & Gabbana and Giorgio Armani. (The final third consists of contemporary-bought pieces.) Harris's relationship with Ralph Lauren crossed over from Wright stunning in a custom backless white jumpsuit at the 2014 Emmy Awards to Claire wearing an off-the-runway, silver Grecian goddess gown to play beer pong in the White House in season three.

What I'd wear to play beer pong. Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) in a Ralph Lauren fall 2014 look. Photo: David Giesbrecht/Netflix

But Evans might have experienced the most meta runway-to-movie crossover when Valentino Creative Director Pierpaolo Piccioli made a cameo appearance — credited as "Paparazzo" — in the fashion-spoofing "Zoolander 2," which she costume-designed. "It was hilarious because he was like, 'Leesa, what should I wear?'" she laughs.

But some costume designers don't find the showroom relationships that beneficial, especially when the show wardrobe requires dressing talent who aren't a traditional sample size. But in Perez's case, he prefers to custom-make or re-design a store-bought piece, anyway. "That's not my idea of a good time," he says, about borrowing from showrooms and designers.

In Perez's experience, the routine loan situation usually involved Kaling helping herself to Mindy Lahiri's "massive archive" for the producer-star's off-screen outings. "Once a week, literally!" he says. "There would be a text. 'Mindy's going to a lunch and she needs to wear this.' 'Mindy's going to an event and she needs to wear this.'" Although, the reverse is rare because once an actress is photographed and recognized for wearing a look on the red carpet, she tends to not want to repeat it on the show.

The costume designer-slash-stylist hybrid works for some and not for others. Harris wouldn't mind expanding her costume design experience into the futuristic sci-fi realm, citing "Blade Runner" and Amazon's "Electric Dreams" as inspiration. "I have a secret obsession with that, so if the opportunity to design something that's set in the future comes across my desk, I think my head would explode," she says. (Producers, take note). As for Perez, he's happy with his packed portfolio of costume-designing multiple TV shows and movies.

"I have to be honest," he says. "A lot of times people call me and I'll refer them to someone who's a stylist."

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