Costume Designer Career Interview
Paul Favini has over 25 years of costume design experience, working in over 60 productions. He currently works as the assistant professor of costume design at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
Costume Designer Career Path
“This career chose me,” Paul explains. “I had studied design and acting prior to becoming a costume designer. I had also studied business, management and marketing, which helps a great deal when trying to juggle a budget, sell an idea and get someone to wear a costume they just don’t like.”
He continues, “Having been raised with six sisters who all knew how to sew and make things, I had a bird’s eye view of that process. When I found myself auditioning for theater that had no jobs for actors but money for a costume designer, I did that and never looked back.”
“It’s a perfect combination of responsibilities that fit perfectly with my skill set as well as my passion,” he adds. “Now I get to say something about every character onstage before they even open their mouths.”
Costume Designer Experiences
Paul has a bachelor’s degree in business from the University of Scranton in Scranton, PA.
“There was a seven year gap between undergrad and grad school that allowed me a great chance to determine what I needed to learn and to be sure that I wanted to learn it,” he says. “Along the way, I ran a drug store, sold furniture and then trained people to sell furniture (I was good at it). I did just about every odd job possible.”
“I finally decided at age 32 that I had sold my last sofa, my last bottle of aspirin, and was never going to wake up in the morning and hate the thought of going to work,” Paul continues. “Life has been very good since. I may not make a lot of money but I love doing what I do to make money. You need to get to a certain point of maturity and understanding where you are aware that how you spend the days of your life is a very important thing, and if you aren’t happy with what you are doing, you’ll never be happy and will have no happiness to share.”
Paul earned his Master’s of Fine Arts in costume design from Indiana University in Bloomington, IN, and he took advantage of every design opportunity he could find.
“I was able to spend my summers working in summer theater so I was able to return in the fall with lots of questions that I wanted answered,” he says. “I encourage anyone pursuing a design or technical career to use their summers wisely. There are many summer festivals to work at and they offer valuable experience and great networking possibilities.”
Even before he earned his MFA, Paul has had experience in the business, and he has worked in over 60 productions.
“I designed my first show 26 years ago but have made my living exclusively as a designer for the past 18 years,” he explains. “I joined United Scenic Artists (the designer’s Union) 12 years ago.”
Paul also works as the assistant professor of costume design at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
Costume Designer Degree Programs
Like many of the other fine arts career paths, there is no degree requirement for costume design exactly, but a Bachelor of Arts degree certainly helps.
“There are many designers who have not gone to school, cannot sew and cannot draw,” Paul says, “but I think that they are at a disadvantage because they haven’t had the benefit of truly experimenting with their design process.”
“I think it’s best to have some training to help you get your foot in the door. Knowing how to draw will take an idea that only you can see in your head and put it on a piece of paper for everyone to look at. Knowing how to sew and pattern will allow you to ask for what you want when your costumes are being made and even offer a solution on how to do it in some cases.”
Paul continues, “The professional world is very fast paced, and time is expensive. There is no room for error. Schools allows for error, learning, discovery and taking risks, so I recommend it but only if you know what you want to learn and are committed to hearing other people’s opinions.”
Costume Designer Job Description
“I am responsible for the physical manifestation of the characters that will appear in a particular theatrical production,” Paul explains. “I have had little experience with film and television but feel that the same design approach would serve me well in that venue.”
“My job involves discussions with directors (producers and choreographers have input too) as well as my fellow designers (set, lighting, sound, make-up and hair). I do research on topics, such as time periods, geographic locations, social status and manners, to use in my designs. I draw my ideas for each and every costume, choose fabrics (even if I am going to buy the costume, I like to swatch it to help my team members grasp the ‘look’ and ‘feel’ of the show), and then collect, gather, sew, rent, and buy all of the pieces that I need to create the collection of costumes for the production.”
Paul continues, “Finally I do fittings and make everything work with the performers. I have a right to see what I want on stage, but if the actor doesn’t feel that the costume is right, I may have to make an adjustment. You design the look, but the actor has to ‘sell’ it. If they aren’t convinced, you’re in trouble.”
Costume Designer Daily Routine
Since Paul can be anywhere from designing a revolutionary war costume to teaching a class how to sew, he never really has a normal day.
“That is one thing about the job that appeals to me,” he says. “You are always doing something different. Even if you fall into a process and pattern of work, or you are lucky enough to have a full-time job where the shows just keep coming, you will always be dealing with a new script, a new set of directions, new actors, and a new team.”
“When you are in the production period,” Paul continues, “the day is usually dominated by fittings where you are actually seeing the performers in the clothing and making decisions about the final ‘look.’ This is balanced by attending to the workers in the costume shop or shops who are making your costumes or adjusting them with alterations. There is always a decision to be made as to how long or short, how full or tight, how dark or light to dye the fabric, and how to specifically trim the garment.”
He adds, “It’s a most creative way to spend a day, and it’s always changing.”
Costume Designer: Steps to Success
“You need energy and a great capacity to listen,” Paul advises. “You will work hard as a costume designer since you will need to fit every single actor, and you will need to draw about 10 times more drawings than a set designer. It’s a lot of work.”
“Careful listening will allow you to filter ideas and suggestions into excellent and meaningful design choices. Listening to your teammates about concerns and ideas will lead to a unified production. Listening to your actors will create a lasting bond where the two of you are responsible for the performance that results.”
Paul adds, “Being nice to people also counts for a great deal! I know some people who yell and bully their way about. They can still get jobs, but their work is not respected and people don’t look forward to working with them.”
Costume Design Job Opportunities
As a creative field, costume design doesn’t have the biggest job market in the world, especially if you are looking for the most glamorous of jobs.
“If you want to design a Broadway show, you may be in for the toughest challenge of your life,” Paul says frankly. “There are fewer and fewer opportunities for that status each year. But the theatre is all around us, and television and film can offer additional opportunities. If all you want to do is design, you will have to settle for a few jobs at a time and long periods of unemployment. If you can do other things, then at least you can stay busy and creative while waiting.”
He continues, “It’s also a great experience to be in a work room and watch another designer put up a show. You’ll find yourself saying, ‘I never thought to do that!’ or ‘That is what they call elegant?’ You’ll be learning and seeing that there is more than just ‘your’ way to design a show.”
Costume Designer Career Favorite Aspect
“I meet everyone and help everyone,” says Paul. “You can be a set designer and never meet the actors involved. Same goes for the lighting designer and sound designer. But in the costume area, it is very social, and you meet everyone involved. You will become an intrinsic part of the company. I am a people person, so this works best for me.”
He adds, “The other thing is that you are always learning stuff about other parts about the world or seeing things through another person’s eyes when you help create a character. That’s a great experience to have as a person. You grow a lot.”
Costume Designer’s Future Ambitions
Paul hopes to continue to expand his career by being a part of bigger shows.
“By that I mean productions on a higher level with a strong budget, and people to help make the show happen,” Paul explains. “I would love to do an international tour, a major regional venue, and a big glorious opera.”
Prospective Costume Designer Advice
“You have to want to do this job because it will never be worth the money,” says Paul. “You will never be compensated for every hour of every day that you work, but the satisfaction is very rewarding.”
“Another thing is that you should be highly skilled in one aspect of the job. If you can draw, then you can sell yourself as a sketch artist. If you can pattern or sew, then you can work in a shop and meet people who can help you along. If you can’t do either of these things, learn to dye fabric, sculpt props, upholster furniture, or just anything else to get you in the theatre. You are more apt to get the job you want doing a job that puts you in the vicinity than to wait tables.”
Paul continues, “Don’t wait to be asked to work in a project. Volunteer. There are theatres all over, and they all need help. They may put you in charge, putting you on your way, but don’t get caught in a trap. There are two traps that I would watch out for. The first is if you volunteer too long, they will never pay you. Volunteering needs to work its way into a paying gig at some point, so learn to bargain. An example can be, ‘I will do this show for free, and if you like it, the next one will grant me a $500 honorarium.’”
“The other trap is to learn to challenge yourself. I know many places where the same person has worked for years and years and thinks they have years and years of experience, when actually they probably only have one year’s experience that they have done 10 times. You need to move around, work with new directors and learn as you go.”
Paul adds, “When you think you know it all, you are no longer an artist, and this is an art!”