Why you should hire a costume designer instead of a stylist for your next commercial

Elephant  by Gus Van Sant - costumes designed by  Marychris Mass

Elephant by Gus Van Sant - costumes designed by Marychris Mass

I recently relocated from NYC to LA and although I usually style commercials by myself (I’ve worked with clients like Maybelline, Lenovo, Panasonic, the Beverly West, St Tropez…) I don’t have many contacts here, so I met a stylist and accepted to assist her on a commercial. It turns out that she was more of an editorial stylist than a costume designer.

Prior to that I got passed on for a commercial by a client who also decided to hire an editorial stylist despite the fact that I was recommended by the director. The client’s idea was very specific and I had done similar work before. I realized that some clients and producers believe that dressing a famous talent for a cover magazine is the same thing as styling a commercial - which it is not! These two projects require very distinct skill-sets and experience.

The first thing to consider is that when you hire a stylist instead of a costume designer, you hire someone with very different skills. You might not realize it but these different skill-SETS can really impact your budget and how much you spend on wardrobe.

I decided to write this article for clients and producers who may not understand the difference between editorial stylists and costume designers. I just want to talk about these different skills here with an open heart. It’s not an attempt to criticize stylists, and of course, I’m not saying that every stylists are the same. Some of them do work on moving images and have learned garment construction and fabrics. I also call myself a stylist when I work on commercials although I’m more of a costume designer by my studies and experience. I’m only talking from my personal experience so feel free to exit this space if you disagree (or leave a comment and have a polite discussion).

The right amount of shopping

The first thing that struck me as a costume designer when I assisted stylists is that most of them don’t know body measurements or how to choose clothes accordingly. For example the latest stylist I worked with asked talent what sizes they were wearing instead of asking them their height, weight and basic measurements (chest/bra, waist, hips, inseam). Of course if you only work with models asking for regular sizes would work because their bodies fit the norms of the fashion industry. But if the client wants to hire “real-looking people” with different body types, age groups, genders and ethnicity (it looks good now marketing-wise to show that you are inclusive), you need to understand measurements and how they affect sizes. I realized that the stylists I have been working with are really anxious about that and don’t necessarily understand how to navigate the ready-to-wear sizes, so they end up buying a lot of clothes in every sizes without measuring anything.

As costume designers, we work with actors of various age groups and body types, so we know how to measure bodies and what garment would fit the best depending on their body types. We also know how to adjust our ideas accordingly. The last stylist I worked with shopped for all the talent except the woman wearing a size 6, because she thought she would be hard to dress (!!). I sourced all of her clothes by myself. In the real world a size 6 is a very regular woman size and instead of asking her height (which justified her size 6 in a way), she just thought she would be “big!” The truth is sizes are very variable from one brand to another and don’t really matter. Measurements are more accurate and give a better idea of how a person looks like.

If you are confident in how garments will fit each talent you don’t need to over-shop in every size and every type of clothing, which wastes time and money. You understand that some talents will be better in certain garments, and you can adapt the styling accordingly.

Planning for the worst

When you work on a film, a tv show, or for the stage you know how to handle last-minute problems, because they happen on-every-single-project. My experience taught me to develop my problem-solving skills and always find alternatives, in order to remain calm when something bad happens to a costume at the very last minute.

Understanding everything that can go wrong on set helps you to develop instincts about having doubles, avoiding certain types of fabrics or colors, dealing with continuity issues, stains, and actors having second-thoughts about what they are wearing. All of these things are regular problems we have to deal with as costume people! I believe editorial stylists don’t really have this quick problem-solving mindset, due to them working on slower-paced projects (like stills for example). They don’t have to deal with the stress that comes from lack of sleep, after you’ve been working 12+ hour days on set for 3 months straight.

Every time I have worked with editorial stylists, they would lose their mind if something went wrong on set or if we had to deal with a last-minute emergency. That stress would reflect badly on the production in front of the client.

Understanding all aspects of the job

When you work on a long project like a film or a tv show, you really need to think ahead of time about everything that could go wrong. You need to think about organization, how the costumes would go from studio to locations, when you would need to do fittings, how the actor would change and what would happen if the PA in charge of picking up a rental got stuck in traffic. You really have to think about all the possibilities. You also have to think about socks, underwear, accessories like belts and watches (most stylists I have ever worked with forgot about belts, don’t ask me why lol).

The last stylist I worked with had no idea how the costumes would get from the production office to set. She assumed that it would be handled by the production without even thinking of asking them ahead of time. Of course the production didn’t plan the transportation, since she hadn’t asked, so she had to make everything fit in her car (which was a struggle cause of the amount of costumes we had). She didn’t have enough garment bags. As a professional costume person we know that transportation is our responsibility. We know that we have to organize with production to ensure that we avoid using our personal vehicles, since it is very common to get your window smashed when your car is full of clothes.

Handling low-budget and high-expectations

Accounting is also a big part of filmmaking, theatre and all kinds of productions. We have to work within a budget, we shop and then do returns, maybe rent some costumes and handle deposits/insurance. We need to put all of this info into a spreadsheet and deal with it within our department. As a costume designer, I know that if I don’t work with a famous talent, I won’t get clothes from showrooms and PR, so it will be mostly shopping and rentals. By the way, something I get really annoyed with is when producers think that, because they hired an editorial stylist, they will be able to get free designer clothes. It’s simply not true. Showrooms won’t borrow clothes for a commercial with unknown talents and most of the times they also don’t have a wide range of sizes.

As costume designers, we always have to deal with low-budgets and high expectations. Finding cheap alternatives and making them look expensive is really a major part of our skillsets. We are masters of these tricks!! We-never-have-enough-budget is part of our work.

If you don’t know fabrics, the art of sizing and how to make a garment look “wow” with no budget, then you won’t succeed as a costume designer. Stylists don’t need to learn that because they borrow designers clothes for editorials and then they put them together.

Team-spirit and handling talent’s vulnerability

This one is clearly linked to my personal experience and obviously I don’t want to imply that all costume designers are people-persons and that every stylist has terrible communication skills. But (sorry, there is a but) every time I have worked with a stylist, they actually didn’t understand how to work within a team and they had terrible leadership skills. They didn’t know how to relate to talents and they didn’t understand that part of our work is to deal with their vulnerability. Clothing is such an intimate thing! Doing fittings with someone you never met before can be very intimidating for the person who has to try on all those costumes. Dealing with body issues are really a major thing in our industry. I have worked with stylists who were talking about sizing in front of a talent and it was very uncomfortable. They would sometimes use adjectives that we learned to banish from our vocabulary (if you want to learn more about that, read this).

A stylist who doesn’t have a lot of experience working with talents, doesn’t necessarily understand the communication work that is required when you dress people. I believe this is a skill you need to learn not only for the talents, but also for the clients. When you know how to small talk during a fitting you put the talent at ease. Even when you are in a rush or under pressure, you still have to make sure you are making clients feel comfortable by understanding what they want.