People & Places: The Costume Designer

A petite brunette in her early thirties, Alina is a costume designer who has been out of touch for a quite a while. When the phone call comes for an impromptu lunch meeting, I don’t hesitate to accept.

Despite the glamour and excitement of the entertainment industry, there is a lot of hard work that goes into creating the images on the screen that seem so effortless to the audience. After reading the script, a costume designer will first make a sketch of a design then meet with the director, actor and any other relevant department to determine the needs and requirements of each. Alina uses her rough sketch of the design to make the costume and then purchases the rest of what she needs, especially on a low budget project like the one she just completed. This movie has been the reason of her long absence.

The project is a short, science fiction film set in the future, forty years from now, where a virus is wiping out the world population except for one man who is immune from its effects. The only way to transfer the immunity is through sex. “It’s a stupid premise,” Alina says with a shake of her head. “A guy wrote this obviously.”

She spent a lot of time shopping for the items needed for a particular bedroom scene to make a costume for the female protagonist. “Because it’s low budget, I had to go downtown to get the fabric. I lucked out. I found this fabric and bought eleven yards of it. Turned out to be the best fabric; I made a pillow out of it, her sheets, her robe.” The male character was much easier to dress, “a black suit. It’s the safe way to go. In the future, it’s not going to look differently.”

The character, a former porn star, lives in a mansion and, in this particular scene, is greeting the man to go to bed with him. “So she’s dressed up and she’s not going to be in some skanky lingerie, she doesn’t know this person so she would be covered. I thought she would wear a robe with something underneath. But I can’t go buy a robe because of budget considerations. I decided to design a robe. I designed a kimono type robe that turned out really cool. It was very statuesque,” she says describing her thought process of realizing the character through her clothes.

“I had to consider and calculate everything: their [the actors’]figure, how they’re going to be shot, how they’re going to look, when she takes off the robe how she’ll look in the teddy,” she says enumerating the list of things she must consider for each shot.  “The process of having something made is labor intensive and I needed to coordinate with a seamstress. I can sew but I can’t construct,” she says, “but I plan to learn.”

Alina’s road to this creative art was a circuitous one. She first started out studying Biology. “I was at UCSD studying biology and in my second quarter I had Genetics, Physics, Microbiology, and I’m drowning,” she says of her heavy workload, particularly the genetics class, “I was stressed out of my mind.” She describes the moment, still vivid in her mind, when she discovered the MFA [Master’s of Fine Arts] program in costume design while perusing the university’s course catalog. “I just broke down. I had no idea why. I read it and I just broke down.” She immediately called her sister in tears telling her “I know this is what I want to do. I’m not meant for biology.” It was a revelation and she immediately dropped her Genetics class, finished the other course she had already signed up for and, the following quarter, began the theatre classes. Eventually she switched her major to Theatre, completely dropping Biology.

“At that point I didn’t think I was fit for medical school because I was too curious about other things. I couldn’t focus on just biology. And I decided that if I wasn’t going to go to medical school, I don’t want to work in a laboratory. What am I going to do with a bio degree?” she says. In a mere two and a half years, Alina finished received her degree in Theatre and moved back to Los Angeles ready to launch her career.

Seneca, the mid-first century A.D. philosopher said, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” In Alina’s case, the opportunity arrived before she was fully prepared. In the summer before transferring to UCSD, she was once again perusing the university catalog while sipping coffee at her local café. “I started reading the description of other classes like Philosophy, English, my curiosity is elsewhere.” An older gentleman at the next table asks her what she was reading. “Oh, I’m just trying to decide what I’m doing the rest of my life,” she responded. He asks what it was she wanted to be doing and she told him that she wanted to design but was studying biology. “I remember like a scene out of a movie,” she says. “He pulled out a business card and says ‘I’m a director. Go finish your Biology and then when you’re done and back in L.A., give me a call and I’ll introduce you to some people in the industry and we could go from there.’” Alina kept the card, went to UCSD, switched her major, came back, called him and immediately began working on television commercials. One of her first jobs was for a General Motors commercial. The shoot was in Mammoth Lake and she was invited to fly there in a private jet with the executives: the producer, the director, the production manager.  “Little Alina flying along on a small jet. It was quite an experience falling into something like that. I was just a P.A. [production assistant] and I had my own hotel room,” she says, still awed by the experience of so many years ago.

Her fortuitous meeting with the stranger at the café led to other opportunities after graduation. He introduced her to the art director of Disney’s Haunted Mansion starring Eddie Murphy. A week long temporary job became a job lasting almost two years. “Every job I’ve gotten since then has been through connections I made on Haunted Mansion.

The initial start in Biology was not an unusual choice for Alina. Her father was a biochemist and her sister is a pharmacist. When young, her father took her and her sister to the botanical gardens and taught them about the flowers and plants they were seeing. “I still love biology. I have a great passion for studying nature, whether it’s plants or animals. Science is fascinatingly interesting to me. I love studying biology. When I was trying to decide my major and pick classes, biology was the most fascinating to me. I still would love to study biology but I think studying biology and working in the field is a whole different thing,” she says. Her enduring love is evident as she now takes her own little girl on forays to the gardens wanting to instill that same penchant into the precocious toddler.

Although she has gotten a lot of pressure from her family to enter a more lucrative field, Alina does not regret her decision to pursue a career in the entertainment industry. “My personality definitely belongs in the arts. No doubt about it. If I could, I’d keep up with biology a little more. When I go to the zoo, my passion triggers but I don’t see myself working in the field.”


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One Comment;

  1. Thom Bozky said:

    I had to answer this because my daughter’s name is ALINA also! Personally, I’d recommend following Anthony Serafini’s advice in his classic book THE EPIC HISTORY OF BIOLOGY, where he defends the view that bioloy is one of the most influential and lucrative fields around