Fashion Meets Theater

Photography by Anthony Rogers. Fashion Editor: Flore Morton. Styling Assistant: Danielle Wallis. 

Featuring Maria Kotchetkova, Principal Ballet Dancer, San Francisco Ballet. 

Tutu by Sophie Sunjung Lee, BFA Fashion Design. Leotard and Pointe Shoes, model's own. All stockings and harness, stylist's own. 

For many years, the School of Fashion at Academy of Art University has focused on craft, teaching construction skills, the history of fashion, 3D design, textiles and jewelry making, providing students with all the practical tools essential in a professional career. Now, thanks to a growing interest in costume design combined with the opportunity to collaborate with the School of Motion Pictures & Television and the School of Acting, there are specialized BFA and MFA Costume Design degrees, accredited by the National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD). 

The evolution of the Costume Design Program didn’t happen overnight. It began in 2009 when Costume Design Coordinator Maggie Whitaker started teaching elective costume design courses for fashion design students. An increase in demand for these classes over time led to the dynamic, popular program that received accreditation in November 2014 and officially launched Spring 2015.

The 132-unit BFA Costume Design program focuses primarily on theater, giving students the opportunity to design actual theatrical productions and work closely with directors, fellow students and actors. The curriculum combines sewing and design classes with projects that enable students to gain visual and construction skills. On the other hand, the 63-unit MFA program is geared towards film. The MFA thesis pairs costume designers with MFA film directors for unique one-on-one collaborations. Both the undergraduate and graduate degrees focus on providing practical opportunities, including a construction class, jewelry fabrication, and hair and make-up, in order to design a character from head to toe. 

“We have seen many established fashion designers moving into the world of costume design, such as Christian Lacroix’s ballet costumes for La Source and Jean Paul Gaultier’s costumes for movies such as The Fifth Element and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover,” said Simon Ungless, Executive Director of the School of Fashion. “Our students are following their lead and have shown interest in crossing over from fashion design into costume design. With our close proximity to the film industry in Southern California, along with San Francisco’s rich history in live performance, there are plenty of opportunities for these young designers to succeed in the costume industry.”

At the helm of the Costume Design program is Costume Design Coordinator Whitaker, who started her career as an intern at the Santa Fe Opera in New Mexico before moving to California. She worked for American Conservatory Theater (ACT) and Berkeley Repertory Theatre before returning to school, earning an MFA in Theatre at the University of California San Diego. During her time living and working in the Bay Area, she has designed costumes for multiple plays and assisted on critically acclaimed work at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. “The big exciting thing I got out of Berkeley Rep in the 2008-2009 season was working on American Idiot, a Broadway musical by Green Day. I previewed it at Berkeley Rep and then I went with the cast to help dress them for the Grammys. Since then I’ve been designing in the Bay Area, doing five or six shows a year for several years,” Whitaker said. 

Tutu by Yi Li, BFA Fashion Design. Leotard and Pointe Shoes, model's own. All stockings, stylist's own. 

Tutu by Yi Li, BFA Fashion Design. Leotard and Pointe Shoes, model's own. All stockings, stylist's own. 

Whitaker coordinates a diverse program that helps students gain not only essential technical skills but also practical experience and, most importantly, jobs. Although Fashion Design and Costume Design courses undoubtedly have a lot in common, there are major differences. Whitaker explains that the program is interdisciplinary: “So much of the philosophy of this program is that my students really understand the body of the actor and the responsibility they have towards the actor. The relationship between designer and actor is really important. I build it into some of the classes − to take that moment behind the camera, see what it’s about and how it affects your understanding of the costumes.” 

According to Whitaker, the creative process for costume design is similar to fashion design, however, costume designers use fashion as a piece of the larger puzzle of bringing a story to life. “The big difference between fashion design and costume design is that for costumes we always work from a script,” she explained. “Whether it’s for a play or a dance piece, there is always a story. The costumes really exist to help release that story. We work with the director to help flesh out the digital language of the world. We use fashion but we don’t create fashion.”

Tutu by Xinya Yang, BFA Fashion Design. Leotard and Pointe Shoes, model's own. All stockings, stylist's own. 

The portfolio class prepares seniors to find jobs and teaches them how to promote and present their work. Costume Design students also have the option to attend conferences and job fairs, such as the Southeastern Theatre Conference, an annual convention with the largest theater job fair in America, as well as the United States Institute for Theatre Technology (USITT), a national conference with design competitions, portfolio reviews, and industry specific workshops and talks. For aspiring designers, Whitaker says it’s crucial to take assisting jobs after graduating. “Nobody jumps out of undergrad and goes straight to designing. You assist, you shop, you work at a costume shop. You own your craft, take it further and see how the people on the top of their field do their work and you learn from them. You’re constantly learning,” she said.

Aside from design, which is most students’ ultimate goal, there are many other possible career paths. Shopping, working as an on-set dresser, and coordinating rentals are a few of the most popular ways to make a living in film, television or theater. Throughout their coursework, students gain a variety of skills, which can be used in different jobs. Stitching, cutting, draping, crafts and design are all skills taught in the Costume Design program, tailored for getting jobs in the theater or film industry. Although it’s a very specialized program, it’s not, by any means, limiting. 

The proximity of the film industry makes San Francisco a good place to start. If Hollywood seems too far away, the Bay Area has job opportunities, too. Whitaker also creates opportunities for students by having them assist with her projects: “This Spring I’m working on Home Street Home, which is a musical. I’ve got two alumni who are going to work on that show, so they’re getting a chance to do wardrobe and they’re actually getting paid. It’s a good opportunity for them. I try really hard to find ways to get my students working. It’s one of my big pushes,” she said.

According to Whitaker, San Francisco has a receptive and educated theater audience and there’s always a lot going on. Nevertheless, an entrée into the theater or film industry may be challenging. She admits that it might be difficult to make a living in San Francisco, compared to New York or Los Angeles, where film and theater are among the cities’ main industries. However, Whitaker adds that it’s not impossible, and the Bay Area offers opportunities in innovative theater that rival those found elsewhere. 

The Costume Design degree is an exciting, innovative answer to student demand. Although the program itself is new, the practical classes have been evolving for years and have proven to prepare students for a professional career in design, theater and the film industry.

Hair and Make-Up: Alicia Garcia. 

Tutu by Yi Li, BFA Fashion Design. Leotard and Pointe Shoes, model's own. All stockings, stylist's own.