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How I became a costume designer

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Trying to build a career in the costume industry? We’ve all heard the tired pieces of advice like “make your CV stand out” or “Go out and get lots of experience” but the path to that first job can be a complete mystery. You’ve done all the right things, done the right courses, assisted the right people – So how do you get your first job as a costume designer?

Cosmopolitan magazine spoke to Cynthia Summers, a Costume Designer who has most recently worked on Netflix’s A Series Of Unfortunate Events. There is no one size fits all career path as Cynthia’s life proves, starting her professional life as a dancer in musical theatre. She has since worked as a costume designer in theatre and now works predominantly in TV and Film.

 

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As we all know jumping right in at the level of Costume Designer is pretty rare, however, Cynthia revealed that she was lucky because her first job title was actually ‘Costume designer’ on a feature film called Double Happiness.

She said:

“I learned so much on the fly, like how to crack call sheets (the schedule the crew get every day to tell us what, where, when, how, and who we are working with for that day). The project was a feature film called Double Happiness, directed by Mina Shum and starring Sandra Oh. I still have many valuable work and personal relationships that I made working on that film – every opportunity is an opportunity in the future.”

She later talked about her day to day tasks as a costume designer, revealing what the role entails:

“My days included breaking down the script, meeting with producers and directors, putting together lookbooks and illustrations for each character’s costumes, shopping, sourcing fabrics and findings”

Digging into the start of her career Cynthia revealed she went to a Fashion Design School, receiving a Certificate in Fashion Design. However, this was after she had already established her own business:

“I went to Fashion Design School and received a Certificate in Fashion Design. However, this was after I already had established a business in doing dance costumes.”

 

Talking about her view on what people should do when they start out in the business Cynthia revealed that although she had never interned for film or TV departments, she does think interning is a good idea.

She said:

“I didn’t intern on any film projects, although the first film I did do was practically for free! That being said, I think internships are an amazing opportunity to try it out – you will know immediately if you are cut out for TV and film. It’s rapidly paced and involves 14-hour days, so it’s not for everyone.”

Speaking about how she got her first film role, Cynthia lends credence to the ‘its who you know’ cleché:

“…a friend of a friend gave me the number of a Production Designer who did independent movies and told me to get in touch with him. I bugged him for about a year and that is what initially led me to my first film.”

 

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It’s often hard to know if a certain qualification is going to open up the right opportunities in this business. Asked if she thought her qualifications have helped in the real world Cynthia Summers said:

“Yes. Having a background of being both a performer and costumer in theatre and dance and going to Fashion Design School was definitely integral. However, I think TV and film is still a profession where being tenacious and self-motivating, with a strong work ethic, still counts for half.”

Getting in the room with someone at the top of their career is a great opportunity to discuss the gift of hindsight. With this in mind, Cosmopolitan asked Cynthia if there is anything in her career she would have done differently. Cynthia said:

“The only thing I would have done differently is be kinder and believe in myself more in the moment. That way I think I would have enjoyed the process sooner, rather than later.”

Great advice! You can read Cosmopolitan’s full interview with Cynthia Summers here.

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