FashionSpeak 2018: Interview with Phoenix Mellow
This year I was asked to be on the blogging team for Detroit Garment Group’s annual FashionSpeak conference. If you’ve never been before, FashionSpeak is a one-day event hosted at the One Woodward building downtown that focuses on the business of fashion. There are panel discussions, keynote speakers, live demonstrations (I got to see two students make shoes this time), and a “Meijer Merch Search,” where three small business owners get to pitch their product to Meijer executives. Instead of being a regular conference-goer, I was asked to interview costume designer Phoenix Mellow, the keynote speaker for the event, and write a blog post about my experience at this year’s conference. How cool! Thank you to the Detroit Garment Group team for thinking of me and allowing me the opportunity!
Now on to my outfit, it it was COLD last Thursday. I wanted to be warm, but chic. I wore Madewell jeans and a beret, a thrifted turtleneck tank, an ELOQUII blazer, and some thigh-high boots that I got from Macy’s. I felt like a French girl! Lol. I was apprehensive about the beret at first because I wasn’t sure I could pull it off, but I think it’s safe to say that I made a good decision.
If you’re a budding fashion entrepreneur, I would recommend that you attend FashionSpeak next year. The information the speakers provide during their talks is very beneficial to those that are looking to either start or enhance their businesses. To stay up-to-date on all things FashionSpeak, be sure to check www.detroitgarmentgroup.org/fashionspeak periodically for information on next year’s event!
Phoenix Mellow’s resume doesn’t look like any others that I’ve seen before. Nicely decorated with photos of her work at the top of the margin, and about two pages long, it doesn’t miss a beat when it comes to the details. As I was doing my research, I took the time out to read the whole thing, and I found myself saying, “Go, girl!” in my head like Phoenix and I had been friends forever and I was cheering her on from the sidelines. It’s hard not to get excited for someone when you’re reading about all of the costuming work they’ve done on productions like Detroiters, Black Panther, Mad Men and Stranger Things, just to name a few.
The world of costume design has always intrigued me, especially in films as bold as Black Panther. Costume design is like next-level couture, in my eyes. Instead of walking down a runway for 30 seconds max, actors have to be able to move around and basically live in these intricate, complex garments for long periods of time. Which means that the costume designers not only have to focus on the artistic value of the pieces, but the scientific factors as well; each stitch and seam has to make sense.
Phoenix’s cool-girl and humble personality made it so easy to talk to her. We got the chance to have a quick chat during our lunch break at FashionSpeak where we discussed how she got her start in the industry, what she has coming up soon, and the art of people-watching.
What inspired you to go into costume design?
Phoenix Mellow: I love ugly stuff and beautiful stuff, as well. But when I was in fashion school I was really un-attracted to what was going to sell the next year. The more I heard and the more I looked into the idea of that, I sort of found this other outlet that was movies and TV. I was like, “Oh, that’s a job. Like, a costume designer is a job.”
Growing up in Delaware, I don’t think I didn’t really know about the film industry at all. I think that appealed to me because it felt more like art and it was more surreal. I didn’t really know much about the career itself but I knew I wanted to do that. I got very obsessed with like, “How do I become that?” I did a lot of research about where I should go. I truly believe that if you can put yourself in the best scenario for success in something specific, then you should do it. I moved to New York for fashion design because I knew that it was the best place for fashion. Then I was like, “Alright, I need to go to LA...and make connections in the film industry.” The best thing to do is to be around the people that love the same stuff that you do.
What would you say the technical differences are between costume design and regular ready-to-wear or couture?
PM: Costume design is a budget of money that you get to determine how you spend it to dress the show. The script basically is the bones of your inspiration. It’s all prep, basically. You’re really not dealing with it after it’s on camera, most of the time. It’s all within the parameters of the production. Once you’re doing a show as a costume designer, you’re overseeing how the script will be on camera. You're shopping for the actors, you’re doing moodboards, and your boss is the creator of the show; you’re working with somebody else’s vision. You have your vision and you’re very involved in the creative process because you’re getting to facilitate and decide the clothes that are going on the actors or that are in the rooms at the fitting, but you're also working with an actor, you're working with a director, the producers, sometimes the people that are working at the studios...so there are a lot of other players that are involved with the decisions that are made. It’s a very collaborative process. You're collaborating with your team constantly. I really believe you’re only as good as your team.
About collaboration – you recently had the opportunity to work alongside Ruth Carter, who I think is amazing, on the set of Black Panther. I just wanna know what that was like. When you walked into the room were you starstruck?
PM: Well, Ruth is amazing. She’s really creative, has so many ideas, really, really, really hard-working. They had done so much research and she was very involved in the process of getting images of actual things and then putting them into the designs...We did lots of things like, a million times over. It wasn’t just like, “That’s it!” It was steps and stages of the fabrication, the color, how much, how many. And then all the pieces of those Dora costumes had to be designed and had to fit properly. There’s a lot of elements on the technical side.
Everything looked so intricate in the movie so I was like, “I know these [costumes] took them forever!”
PM: Oh my gosh! Yes! The sketches are like, you know, how are you gonna create this world? And it’s custom.
What would you say your first major gig was?
PM: When I was in school, I got an opportunity to interview for an intern position on Mad Men. I went in there with my big portfolio and I showed them that I really wanted to be there. I interned for them, which then led to a job as a production assistant. I was like, the lowest-tiered person, but still there. And you do a lot of work . . . I did a lot of work with Janie Bryant, who I feel like is my mentor. From there, I started assistant designing. Getting to know a designer and their aesthetic and how they design, and their design process, and how they make it work as a costume designer, I think is really important. I always try to have the opportunity to work with a new designer when I can because I think that they’re great.
When you’re doing costume design, do you actually get the opportunity to create some pieces or are you mostly pulling from designers?
PM: Both. It depends; the percentages are always going to be different according to the story. So for Detroiters, we only custom make something, maybe only like, one an episode – one really weird thing that we’re doing, like a tearaway shirt or like, we made this really strange belly dance costume where it was like, a giant hat over his head and it was so strange, but it was so fun! For Black Panther, you can’t buy Wakanda in the store, so you have to make everything or drastically alter it. We were custom building everything on that.
I think another big thing for costume design is that it has to be practical, it needs to work. It needs to work on camera and the actor needs to be in it possibly for months, or you need 10 of them. There’s so many things involved like the lighting, the coloring – you’re also within the world of the production.
What inspires you?
PM: I’m on Pinterest for hours. I’m a crazy Pinterester. I have so many boards. If I need inspiration, I’m like, “Pinterest!” I’m a people-watcher. That’s like, my number one hobby. Going places and looking at the locals...I think that’s the fastest way to get to know a city. I get inspired by people a lot; I wish that I would take more pictures . . . I love people; I love how people pick out clothes. I wonder what went through their minds in the morning. I find that to be fascinating.
With people-watching, for Detroiters, did you do a lot of people-watching in the city?
PM: Oh yeah, that’s what I do every time. For Detroiters, the first thing I did I was like, “I need to go to all of the malls, I need to walk downtown.” I went to different communities and did a lot of research on the characters that they wrote into the script because a lot of them are based on like, actual real people in Detroit. At least the writers, that’s how they wanted it. I was doing research on how to portray them to be similar to the people that they’re imitating, you know, because it’s comedy.
What did you find, when you were doing your people-watching, about Detroit style?
PM: First of all, there’s definitely style here. That’s why I like Detroit. I’ve been to other cities and Detroit definitely has a good fashion scene. There’s a lot of sneakerheads here. People dress bold, I think. Even the men, too, with all the suiting that men have here. People love to look good…. I had all Detroit people working with me [on set] too. All the girls that were shopping with me, all the time they’d be like, “This is it.”
What are some things that you have brewing for the end of the year as well as 2019?
PM: Well, I am in talks with a movie that I’m doing in December and I’m very pumped about that. It’s in LA, so that’ll be good. I’ve been trying not to travel as much, just like stay in one place for a second. And then I’m making something for Halsey that’s gonna be a fun costume. I’ve just been working on my own personal thing. I’ve just been brewing ideas. I may make some more made-to-order fashion design pieces for my own brand. But like I said, I wanna make couture, or I wanna make nothing at all! So it’s hard. That’s why I’ve been taking these projects with Halsey and stuff, where I get to do some really fun custom [pieces].
What advice do you have for others looking to get into costume design?
PM: I think getting experience in a costume department . . . and it doesn’t need to be union, there are plenty of non-union projects that you can find online, and putting yourself into places that have work. I’m not sure if Detroit has enough of a film industry here, but they definitely have commercial stuff. Knowing people that make stuff; not necessarily like, as investors, but just being friends with people that like, shoot TV shows in their living room. Just making friends with people that are doing things that are fun and exciting. Also, in work-related scenarios too, finding people that you like to work with and make things because you can’t just be something out of nothing, you have to produce work and take pictures of everything you do, create a portfolio for yourself, put it online. I’m not a paper person, I absorb things visually – and I think most people do – so to be able to communicate your vision.
Boots: Macy’s (link is to an alternative)