Costuming Hollywood for the big, and small, screen
Period films and sci-fi flicks readily come to mind when thinking about movie costumes because of their elaborate design. However, most films that hit the big screen tend to be more real to life and feature fashions similar to what might be in our own closets. That’s because they aren’t meant to steal the show. Costume designers create fashion that helps bring the character to life, and helps the viewer connect, relate and understand the character. This is what LA-based costume designer Olivia Miles does–help tell a story.
Olivia has costumed films such as “Ride Along 2” (2016) starring Kevin Hart, “Gotti” (2018), starring John Travolta and “Shaft” (2019), starring Samuel L. Jackson. She has also worked on TV shows such as “Entourage” (2010-2011) “Jane by Design” (2012) and “All American” (2019). I recently caught up with the Southern Vermont native to chat about her path to becoming a costume designer and the challenges of having her own business.
What is your favorite fashion film?
“Casino” (1995), starring Robert De Niro and Sharon Stone.
“I started as an intern…I was very eager and would do anything–carry camera cases for the Director of Photography, answer phones or help with casting.”
Can you tell us about your path to becoming a costume designer?
I started as an intern at a commercial production company in Portland, Oregon. I was very eager and would do anything–carry camera cases for the DP (Director of Photography), answer phones or help with casting. One day a commercial stylist asked me if I could help her out, and I was hooked.
The beginning of my career was focused on commercials and print shoots. When I moved to LA, I assisted two very talented costume designers and learned an immense amount. I worked my way up–production assistant, stylist assistant, set costumer, shopper, truck costumer and assistant costume designer.
What was your first feature film?
I designed for a very silly movie called “Deep in the Valley” (2009) starring Chris Pratt, Denise Richards and Kim Kardashian.
“I can literally sit on a bench or at a café and people watch for hours.”
What’s your process for building a film’s wardrobe?
It depends on the film or show, but loads of research. First you need to live and breathe the world you are trying to build or recreate. If possible, visit the place the project is set to see real people. I can literally sit on a bench or at a café and people watch for hours. For period pieces, I go to fashion and costume libraries, looking up old media and illustrations, and going to museums to see the clothes themselves. Inspiration is everywhere.
In your work, how much of the costumes are made, purchased or borrowed?
Again, it all depends on the project. For CW’s “All American,” which is set in contemporary Los Angeles, we mostly purchase and rent specialty pieces as necessary. Most of Samuel Jackson’s costumes were custom made for “Shaft.”
I was able to create most of John Travolta’s suits in “Gotti” and rent or purchase vintage clothing for the rest of the cast. When the script calls for stunts or blood, we often have to design the costumes so that we can have the multiples necessary for multiple takes and stunt doubles.
How did you begin to costume a film such as “Shaft?”
Director Tim Story and I began with mood boards and fashion inspiration from the past and present. We decided to avoid black, except in certain scenes, and came up with a rich, saturated color palette that looked great against our gritty urban locations.
Sam was on location shooting another film, so I flew out to meet him with the tailors. Sam had pre-approved my general ideas and sketches via email, so we took his measurements, chose leather and fabrics for each outfit change, and went over eyewear samples.
What has been a significant challenge in being a costume designer?
Dealing with all of the personalities–the studio, producers, the director, actors and crew. It’s amazing how many people a costume designer interacts with in a single day. We put out a lot of fires!
On films you’ve worked on in the past, who has been your favorite celebrity to costume?
The late Robin Williams–for his fearlessness, blindingly bright talent and big heart.
To date, what has been your favorite project?
I love them all, for different reasons!
“Find a mentor, someone you admire. Reach out to them. You’d be surprised.”
What’s your advice for aspiring costume designers?
Find a mentor, someone you admire. Reach out to them. You’d be surprised. Go hear designers speak at panels, festivals, Cons and screenings. Some people learn more in a classroom environment, while others benefit from internships or being thrown into the fire. Seek out the path that will work for you.
As a costume designer, you are an entrepreneur growing your brand and business. How do you gain recognition in the industry?
Hard work. Tasteful self promotion, like a website that is frequently updated, and making and maintaining connections. Many of us get most of our jobs from return business from studios, producers or an actor that requests us. Social media has been a big boon for costume designers–it can be tagged with the proper credits. Starting at the very bottom, working for free taught me how to treat others with respect. It also serves as a reminder that we are all on a journey.
What is your favorite motivational quote?
“Bend, not break.”
For more information on Olivia and her costume design, visit oliviamiles.work