Designing Some of Amazon's Most Dynamic Streaming Series

Exclusive interviews with Emmy-nominated costume designers on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Good Omens & The Romanoffs

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

ProductionHUBgot the chance to speak with remarkable costume designers who worked on some of Amazon’s most desired and dynamic streaming series, including The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Good Omens and The Romanoffs

Donna Zakowska, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

Costume designer Donna Zakowska could be a show herself, erstwhile costumer for Mick Jagger and a puppet theater. But the gorgeous recreation of the pencil skirts, the sculptured hats, the swing coats, the Peter Pan collars, the nipped waists, Midge’s “downtown look” from pedal pushers and flats, to her signature LBD – and then those high waist bathing suits in the Catskills, and of course her father’s infamous romper – Tony Shalhoub is truly a treasure. And what about garbing the French extras, set in Paris in one of its classic style heydays? And the riotous celebration of pink of all shades.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is an American period comedy-drama television series, created by Amy Sherman-Palladino, that premiered on March 17, 2017, on Prime Video. The series stars Rachel Brosnahan as Miriam "Midge" Maisel, a housewife in 1958 New York City who discovers she has a knack for stand-up comedy.

PH: How did you get involved with The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel? 

Donna Zakowska: I was called in for an interview to meet with Amy and Dan. We had instant chemistry and realized that all three of us had a great love of the topic of New York in the 50s and the arts. It was the beginning of a great collaboration. 

PH: What did your vision look like for the project? 

Donna Zakowska: I think the vision, in a way, is multi-level, and it changes a bit because of so many different things you're dealing with. I did have a vision of the 50s in New York, a place where I didn't want to use the typical cliche ponytails and poodle skirts. I really wanted to capture the urban environment of New York in the 50s, which was a cross over of European influences mixed with uptown and downtown New York. It was much more of a division, in terms of where people live and the way they dressed combined with their ideas. I had never really seen that done to this degree. The second vision was to really work extensively with color. I had looked into a lot of magazines, such as Vogue and French magazines from this time period, and realized that the period was actually very vital in focusing on fashion and color. So, I felt this was really the opportunity to explore that. 

PH: Can you walk us through what the production process looked like? 

Donna Zakowska: Everything begins with the first reading of a script. I tend to be very research oriented. I create hundreds of boards and collages, I research a couple of different areas of New York and culturally what we will be dealing with. Then, I try to create palpable clothing items, which capture the emotional landscape of the episode. So it's really assembling all that, then having a meeting with the directors and seeing if we are inspired in the same way and on the same page. Then eventually, I receive the finalized scripts, which are very specific, but at that point, I already have a sense of where the events are going to take place. I typically have already begun creating the costumes before having the script, but the script really refines it for me. The script is your map, it really has those comic moments, because it is a comedy in certain ways. Having the script is just the icing on the cake. It sets the tone of this scene, so it's very helpful to have this tool.  

PH: How much time went into designing the outfits? And how did they change as the characters changed throughout the season? 

Donna Zakowska: Well, it's a constant process. We have about a twelve week period before we start shooting, where I accumulate the research, the fabrics, the hundreds and hundreds of swatches, to try to get the right type of fabric and the right type of color. So, it's that very loose beginning to assemble a vision for it. Then, after the twelve weeks, we usually have a range of two to three weeks where we really begin a specific building process. Because all of the principal clothing are built and designed, it typically can take two to three weeks to build Midge's, as well as Marin's clothes, and even Abe, as I built his jackets and suits. Its a very tight schedule so you really have to be very adept at making quick decisions and sort of having a sense of your arc. You have to keep moving constantly because there is really no time to be episodic or ponder with an idea. You have to follow your instincts and move on them. 

Midge at the end of the first season is in her role as the comedian. It is her beginning to pursue that professional persona and the clothes begin to have the performance look, as they become more of the performance uniform. That is the arc of the first season. The second season is a little more of a back and forth between her own image of herself, still as the young wife who is going to the Catskills with parents, and then playing with the idea of being a performer. So, it really is the dichotomy of being a professional and also being a mother in the 1950s who has children and was married. There is a lot of back and forth in terms of clothes and in terms of defining herself. Certainly, in season two, some of the clothes are more playful and childlike because this will probably be the last time she will go to the Catskills with family and is really the child. It is all of those elements that are a part of how she is beginning to define her character. I showed this through the clothes and tried to enhance that journey for her because she is definitely a character on a journey. 

PH: What challenges did you run into? How did you work through them? 

Donna Zakowska: The biggest challenge will always be the time frame. I try very hard to create these clothes and design them all on a fairly high level, with a couture edge to them. Trying to actually build and design this much clothing and having it be at this certain level of execution, is definitely the most challenging thing. I always say when doing a film or television show, it's like fighting a war. To be on the battlefield you have to be a good soldier and keep pulling through. That is without a question the battle, to keep the quality high but to keep it within the time frame. 

PH: If you had to pick, what was your favorite outfit and why? 

Donna Zakowska: This is always a very hard question for me, and although it was a simple outfit at the beginning of the first season, the pink coat with her blue nightgown at the comedy club. It was the outfit that became iconic for me. It was the outfit that defined this emotional change that Midge was going to follow. I think on some level there was something at that moment where I understood where I was going to go with this character. 

PH: Who have been your biggest mentors in this industry and what is the best advice they have ever given you?

Donna Zakowska: Well, from a costume point of view, Milena Canonero (A Clockwork Orange and the new Marie Antoinette), is such a great designer and stylist. She is without question one of my idols in terms of design. I think the best advice I have ever received, was when I was working on John Adams with director Tom Hooper. He told me this story about how his family was born as Bannisters in England, and his father used to always say to him, "You sort of have to be like a dog and hold on to the bone, no matter how long people pull at it, you have to on to hold it until the end." I always kept that image in my mind, of how I want to try to do things and how I want to try to achieve this certain look in my mind, within my means and time. Somehow it isn't until the very last moment where I say to myself, ok this is where I need to stop, I've come as close as I can. But I am always sort of trying to continue to fight for that look and for that design. The design is worth fighting for because it lives on. Tom's words are the biggest piece of advice that I've always clung to. 

PH: The industry has changed so much in the past few years, what’s the best advice you would give for staying ahead of the curve?

Donna Zakowska: Well for me, the only thing that has changed in the industry is that there is more availability of things. Ultimately your work is your work, and your design is your design. I always feel it is about creating your work and creating the level of the design. Somehow the response is always there. I specifically never say to myself, "Oh, this will be streaming so I can modify it later". It's about creating art and how fashion is art. If the integrity of the work is there, it doesn't matter what median it's in because it'll hold up. I always think about the costumes and what I'd like to achieve with costumes. I come from a painting background and was a dancer for years. So the thing about the costumes is that for me, it's about art and movement. It has really brought together the two things that I loved in my life, which have been the two biggest influences in how I approach my work in costume design.

Claire Anderson, Good Omens

Claire Anderson is the costume Designer for Good Omens. Based on the best-selling novel by renowned authors Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, this series follows the story of Aziraphale, an angel, and Crowley, a demon, who have formed an unlikely friendship spanning 6,000 years and have grown fond of life on earth. However, the end of time grows near with the approaching Armageddon and they must now join forces to find a way to save the world. 

Since the show time travels from the Garden of Eden to present day, obviously there is a giant swath of costumes but also they are hyper-stylized – Michael Sheen always in a dandyish version of white, David Tennant in a sleeker and more rock and roll black silhouette. Their overlords in Heaven and Hell get some fun wardrobe too – Jon Hamm, as the Archangel Gabriel, always in a light colored business suit; his counterparts in the underworld garbed in something like decaying steampunk. Plus witches and fiends, oh my!

PH: How did you get involved with Good Omens? 

Claire Anderson: I was invited to read the scripts and then to meet with the director and executive producer Douglas Mackinnon, I had prepared a range of visuals to discuss the tone and potential styles and moods that the series might take.

PH: What did your vision look like for the project? 

Claire Anderson: The principle characters felt clearly defined in their color palette and the vision evolved as we delved into the novel for the detail and traits that would inform the visual identities of each character.

PH: Following a novel, what are some of the challenges you face trying to bring a character to life? 

Claire Anderson: Having the book as a reference was useful but also a challenge as not everything translates to reality, you also need to consider the actor who plays the character. Balancing the fantastical and realistic was a challenge each fantastical element of these characters became an extension of what we saw through the camera. With clever costuming, we could hide harnesses and rigs to help with flying, exploding or dissolving characters.

With characters rarely built entirely in post-production using as much as we could see through the camera,  pushing the real human form, the costume color and texture was critical. With Death, for example, we added a Chroma key face mask to allow for the image of a skull to be laid on. We extended the actors limbs to support the VFX and Directors ambition, it was an exciting process of ideas exchanged and the clear vision of the director when he saw what he knew would work.

PH: How do you overcome them? 

Claire Anderson: With a lot of Chroma Key green fabric and a very efficient set-based team!

PH: Let's talk about wardrobes! Witches, overlords, fiends - how did you come up with what those would look like? 

It always starts with the script and with Good Omens, referencing the novel. From the page, you have character detail which helps creates an emotional response to begin building the visual identities of the written characters.

Using paintings, street and fashion photography I build mood boards for each character then sketch and illustrate. Colour is key and particularly with this script as we use it to describe Heaven and Hell or the Angels and Demons that are our lead characters.

Heaven is shown to be an ethereal haven, even its army of angels are serenely represented in a pale kilt and military-style tunic and luxurious wings with the angel Gabriel perfectly styled in the finest tailored clothing.

The demons Hastur and Ligure, almost molten footed from the Flames of Hell as they rise to earth, are ragged and decayed from their journey in hell, they are in layers of broken-down smoldering and burnt fabrics. We dressed the demons similarly in Hell.

PH: How would you describe your design style and how has that continued to evolve in the ever-changing industry? 

The nature of the script tends to direct the style of the work but I think I am really interested in color and to some extent focus on summarising the visual identity of a character succinctly through that. The advances in technology mean fabric can be created to a specific design, bespoke jewelry made much more quickly with the advance of three D printing which makes the possibilities endless and creatively exciting.

PH: Who have been your biggest mentors in this industry and what is the best advice they have ever given you?

On every job, the creative team works so closely that you always have a sounding board in the sense of a creative forum. Each job has a pool of talent that will provide invaluable perspectives to draw upon. Producers are often huge support along with directors and these relationships often span multiple projects over time.

PH: The industry has changed so much in the past few years, what’s the best advice you would give for staying ahead of the curve?

Claire Anderson: To continue research and careful attention to current trends. Understanding the evolving technologies available and assimilating past and present fashions. During off times, absorbing what cultural opportunities present themselves, breathing in the world. 

 Janie Bryant and Wendy Chuck, The Romanoffs

Costume designer Wendy Chuck has collaborated with some of the film industry’s most celebrated talents, including Alexander Payne, Tom McCarthy, Jack Nicholson, George Clooney, Amy Poehler, Robert Redford, Jane Fonda, and Matt Damon. With fabric, pattern, and color, Ms. Chuck’s creations have helped bring a widely diverse range of characters to real life: Nebraska’s rustic Midwesterners, Election’s conniving high-schooler, Twilight’s teenage vampires, Spotlight’s journalistic team, and the inhabitants of Downsizing’s miniaturized world. Some of her credits include: Twilight (2008) starring Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson; Varsity Blues (1999) with Jon Voight; Bad Santa (2003) starring Billy Bob Thornton; and The Ring 2 (2005) with Naomi Watts and Sissy Spacek. Now, she's designing for The Romanoffs.

As an anthology series modeled after Playhouse 90 and shot in several different countries – from Paris to Romania (doubling for 1980s Russia) – each installment of the series is more or less a standalone movie; the connective tissue that binds them is the fact that at least one character in each episode may be a descendant of the Czars (hence the title). The costume work, by Janie Bryant and Wendy Chuck, really helped to bring each individual story to life, and they did a really impressive job of infusing the shooting location into each of the looks they crafted. 

PH: How did you get involved with The Romanoffs? 

Wendy Chuck: I had worked with Matthew Weiner on a feature he made a few years back and was interested in working with him again. He called out of the blue to ask my availability…

PH: What did your vision look like for the project? 

Wendy Chuck: I didn’t have much vision until I received the scripts but knew the production value would be high given Matthews Madmen credentials, the scope of the idea and his repeat crew members.

PH: The series was shot in a lot of different locations. How did you infuse location into your costumes? 

Wendy Chuck: It's hard not to when working with local crew and in different locations, plus the script demanded it…This is apparent in most of the episodes I designed but particularly in Mexico City, London and Hong Kong.

PH: What was it like working with an entirely different cast? Did you have to reinvent characters constantly? 

Wendy Chuck: My work has been mostly on features and not TV or episodic so it was not particularly different in my experience. I was not so used to getting cast late but have learned to work around that as effortlessly as possible…I didn't need to reinvent characters, they were all so different and in different time periods.

PH: You also made costumes from scratch - what was that process like?

Wendy Chuck: Making from scratch has not changed much from the usual issues we have. I work a lot outside of Los Angeles where all the skillsets are available to us but often not available to us on the road…A lot of times we have to use local labor to build or requests, sometimes we have so many they are farmed out across the country - or 2 in this case. For Panorama, my team in Mexico made a lot of items from scratch in record time with amazing results. For House of Special Purpose, we manufactured in LA while I was still there in prep and fitted and finished in Prague…Its all a case by case scenario dependent on information/actors schedules/shooting schedules/delivery times…..there are a lot of moving parts.

PH: What other challenges did you run into and how did you overcome them? 

Wendy Chuck: Language differences came in to play frequently. last minute casting and arrival of actors although I do have my wonderful producers to assisting me in this. Every country seems to work differently. Lastly, the small earthquake resulting in our facility’s lack of water for our final weeks required a lot of flexibility.

PH: Who have been your biggest mentors in this industry and what is the best advice they have ever given you?

Wendy Chuck: My dear belated friend Janet Patterson was the most influential person and mentor to me. She gave me opportunities and insights. I believe she is always with me as I question ideas and ask “what would Janet do”?

PH: The industry has changed so much in the past few years, what’s the best advice you would give for staying ahead of the curve?

Wendy Chuck: Well, there’s fashion and there’s costume design which is about characters and story…I think it's important to define what interests you most and fully emerge with it till it becomes a lifestyle…it was never about fashion for me, character and storytelling are so much more interesting.

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  • DougBirnbaum said…
    Tuesday, August 6, 2019 5:22 PM
    Great article. I can't wait to see the next season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel - the costume and production design have so far defined the show!
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