By Jean Criss
NYWIFT member Jean Criss attended the December 10, 2019 event “Costumes, Couture and Conversing with Emmy-Award winning Costume Designer Donna Zakowska” at FIT SUNY hosted by the State of New York Governor’s Office of Motion Picture & Television Development and offers us a recap:
The discussion “Costumes, Couture and Conversing with Emmy-Award winning Costume Designer Donna Zakowska” was led by Dahlia Schweitzer, Associate Professor, Film and Media Studies at FIT and opening remarks were made by Patricia Bayley, Acting Executive Director, with a welcome by Kathryn Fisher, Project Manager, both with the New York Governor’s Office of Motion Picture & Television Development. Zakowska is well-known for her film, theater, circus, opera, music and puppet theater designs and her credits include nine seasons with the Big Apple Circus, a Mick Jagger concert tour, and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, an Amazon Prime Video series now in its third season. She received a NYWIFT Designing Women Award for costume design in 2009, and she was honored along with the hair and makeup team from The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel with the Variety Ensemble Award at 2019’s 20th Anniversary NYWIFT Designing Women Awards. NYWIFT was thrilled to have several of Zakowska’s famous Maisel costumes on display at the event.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel started in Spring 2017 and has received incredible critical acclaim, including attention for Zakowska’s costume design. The show centers on Midge Maisel (played by Rachel Brosnahan), a Jewish housewife who pursues a career in stand-up comedy when her marriage falls apart. It is set in 1950’s New York with eloquent costume designs which depict each scene with color, style, and flair from the eyes of fashion icon Donna Zakowska.
During the December 10 program, Zakowska walked us through her research and inspirations to bring color to Midge’s wardrobe, as well as that of the whole cast, which not only complements one another throughout the episodes but also lend a realistic view of the ‘50s era – like those of a subtle working woman in uniform, to the playful characteristics and innocence of a Catholic school girl. Her approach with fabrics, trims, and accessories are well thought out from scene to scene and produced in an expeditious way to ensure the crew meets the production deadlines whether they are filming in New York or abroad, working with partners she has established over the years.
Subtle elements from particular periods set this show apart. The fabrics and styles are spot-on to the late 1950’s yet Zakowska brings to life a unique perspective adding her wild imagination and vision to the wardrobe collections. Her touch can be seen in the details from everything such as a simple scarf, to an entire ensemble of the muted red, white and blue ‘Moulin Rouge meets Patriotism’ as she described it in the opening episode of season three USO tour performance – so stylish and memorable.
When asked if she ever thought of starting a 2020 fashion collection, her response was “Well, perhaps with a few pieces, but then that takes on a whole new business. The clothing line cannot be compromised, the quality would need to be there first. So instead I plan to publish my first book showing the many wonderful images from these episodes that our team helped design from custom coats, dresses, hats, shoes, purses, mens wear and children’s wear too.”
She uses some vintage pieces when available but since they are often hard to find on short notice, she mostly designs custom wear. “We found a vintage undergarment for Mrs. Maisel and it was a favorite of Rachel Brosnashan and [we] only found one piece, so we had to hand-wash it nightly and treat it like GOLD – these period pieces were very hard to find,” she said. “I then found a young French lingerie designer who makes these types of undergarments, also very unique, who works with us now. Playtex was also very helpful with our lingerie. I sometimes make the shoes and need to be aware of the scene in case they are to be worn all day long on set or outside in bad weather.“
Over 700 people registered to attend the discussion with Zakowska, many of whom were future and current designers, educators in fashion and the media, and TV and film professionals. A few noteworthy quotes Zakowska:
“My jazz background helped me deconstruct the mood and innovate select images.”
“I continue to sketch and create a collage board when designing. I select the sub-colors, pantones, fabric swatches, and then forward my sketches to the drape and fit designers. I’m old fashioned that way but I feel that if you do it all perfectly, there is no wiggle room for their creativity.”
“Yes, staying on budget is always a challenge in such a huge production. We use outside tailors, alternation specialists and costume shops, even while abroad in other countries, to help us meet our deadlines. It’s a necessary evil to ensure you get it right.”
“We coordinate color with accessories to make it playful.”
“I love Italian designers most. I use French Vogue, London and New York fabrics. 25% of our fabrics are from London, which offer unique fabrics that have colors that offer ‘bounce’ in silk wools and cotton silks – they are fabulous fabrics for this period. They are harder to source in New York.”
“Sometimes we use silhouettes on Mrs. Maisel and now moving into the 1960s, we’ll have a more refined look with narrowing skirts – the character dictates the style and color and we need to work with that.”
No stone un-turned, Zakowska feels her job is to inspire others and that she has done very well. Thank you, Donna Zakowksa, for your eloquence and for bringing to life an era in luxury costume design.
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