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Costume Design News Styling TV

“You have to take the viewer on a believable journey” – Kozzii speaks to British TV’s costume designer and stylist Deborah Cantor

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Often designers find their niche and remain in one section of the industry for a long time – sometimes for their whole careers. They work in theatre and continue there for years – some work in Film a few times and keep getting film jobs – stylists often stay firmly in the world of print media and commercials.

But the demands of the industry mean that increasingly creatives have to cross-over and diversify their portfolio. Despite this, it can be rare to find a costume and wardrobe professional who has successfully straddled almost every medium during their career.

However, Deborah Cantor is a costume designer and wardrobe stylist who has done just that. Having started her early career in the high-end fashion world, working for top glossies such as British Vogue, Harpers and Queen (London) and Harpers Bazaar (New York), she now works predominantly within on-screen wardrobe, working for all the major UK television channels such as BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky.

Not only that but her body of work also covers design and style for print, commercials, film, theatre, publicity and editorial shoots.

With experience like that we just had to speak to Deborah about her career, what makes her tick as a designer, and what advice she has from her unique perspective.

K: Hi Deborah, thanks so much for taking the time to speak to us. The scope and scale of your career is incredible. Let’s jump right in and ask how you would describe your work?

D: I would describe my work as a Costume Designer as constantly evolving, working on a variety of different programmes for all the UK networks. Every day is varied, depending on the brief. I work in many different areas from TV and film to commercials and theatre. I thrive in the Entertainment side of the industry, as I enjoy the challenge of speed and creativity. As a Costume Designer, you have to be diverse and adapt from Drama to Comedy and from Period to Modern day. I can be shopping one day to fabric buying, to pulling costume at Costume Houses, to lining up, to on set and everything in between. You have to tell a visual story as a Costume Designer and it has to be immediately recognisable when creating a character, you often discuss this with the producer, director and artist. In my case, I can receive information very late and have to interpret the look which can combine different genres sometimes and bring it to life. You have to take the viewer on a believable journey.

K: You have been both employed by the BBC for a length of time and now work freelance. Which has been more rewarding/what are some of the differences between working as a freelancer and being employed directly?

D: I started my costume career employed by the BBC where I put stock away for over a year and indexed all items, which consisted of describing costume/accessories etc, where I really learnt my periods and how to know the fabric, texture, makeup of a garment, measure and colour code as well as date it. Which was invaluable, even though I had done a degree in Fashion and Textiles, which also consisted of fashion history, there is nothing like having a garment in your hand and knowing its history and understanding how it fits on a body.

I then became a Costumier,  where I was running different departments from the uniform, contemporary-60s section to Light Entertainment, putting different characters together and lining up for many productions in various genres. I trained and learned a huge amount over my six years there.

I then went freelance as an Assistant Costume Designer where I learnt how to manage a budget, to working with different personalities and Costume Designers and being in the thick of it, learning more about set etiquette and fitting artists, dressing, shopping, lining up, location filming, studio filming etc. The hours are long, but when you see something you created on screen it’s very rewarding.

Working for the BBC and under the umbrella of an institution like that has been invaluable and gave me security and full training. Working freelance has many upsides but the one downside is you are only as good as your last job and you never know where the next one is coming from, but it does give you freedom.

K: What is your process when working on a project?

D: When you first get offered a show. I ask about the budget – which is very important as you have to break it down per episode and I discuss my department staff, which is vital as they are your support system and teamwork is everything. I do as much research as I can and often do a recce of Costume Houses for stock, shops for trends (if necessary) and fabric shops.

I then go along to meet the artists and depending on the genre, we work out the look they want. Each show is different and has different requirements. But the last show I worked on was very last minute with the requests, I often got half a day to turn around the costumes, so you have to be very organised and also practical with time. I may have to have something made overnight, so my relationship with costume makers and suppliers is very important.

With a lot of entertainment, the nature of the show is to go with the flow and not against it. I get extra requests on the day of filming or changes to the original brief, you have to think on your feet and be versatile with the look. You very often don’t get to fit the artist till the day so have to make adjustments to the fit, often measurements that you’re given if you haven’t had the opportunity to measure someone in advance are not always accurate, so again you have to make the costume work.

K. Where do you draw your influences from?

D. I draw my influences from the personality of the artist and the nature of the show. I work so fast at times that I do as much research as possible, so I can then decide where to source what I am looking for.

The most recent show I designed the Bafta-nominated Big Narstie Show I was mixing different genres together, we did sketches to insert into the show and I had to give it a hip hop spin. You have to be open to the diversity of the show and listen to what the artist, producers and director want.

When I am between shows I keep on top of what is in the shops, on trend and attend fashion weeks every season, I go to museums and exhibitions. I also use social media for new trends and keep up to date with the world around me.

When I was an Assistant Costume Designer I did programmes like Strictly Dance Fever, Cirque de Celebrite, Gladiators, Royal Variety performance and many more, we got our inspiration from sporting events, old films, fashion trends, books and generally what is going on in the world with current affairs, you can literally pick up inspiration from anywhere as long as you keep to the brief, for example, if it is a specific dance your designing you have to be sympathetic to where it originates and enhance the look to suit the show.

K. What advice would you give someone looking to work within TV on costume/wardrobe?

D. The advice I would always give someone who wants to come into this industry is to learn your trade. Work with as many different designers from drama filming to studio entertainment as you can. Watch everything that is going on around you and learn from the Costume Assistants, Costume Maker, Costume Supervisor and Assistant Costume Designer to differentiate the roles.

Serial dramas help you learn continuity and script breakdowns and it’s a great way to understand direct and indirect continuity, working different units, double banking, story days and being vigilant by a monitor.

Live TV is always a great insight and reveals if you can take the pace as anything can happen, from costume fittings on the day and alterations, enhancing costumes, studio dress rehearsals (these are important as they are often filmed and inserted into the show) full costume quick changes (which vary from 50 seconds to 2 minutes) and often pre-recorded shows can be filmed as live, continuity is important and sometimes things are filmed in or out of sequence, sometimes costumes are changed between the dress rehearsal and recording the show to the productions new requirements.

Things change all the time in entertainment, it keeps you on your toes. These programmes are often filmed in front of a studio audience. All of this gives you the tools you need and a way to understand the craft. Don’t rush into the responsibility of designing too fast. As you have to have a background to be able to deal with any situation that is put on you at any given time. Always listen and learn from those around you, take it all in.

Teamwork is essential and working with other departments is a must, we work so closely with makeup, the art department, lighting, sound etc. shows can be filmed as live, continuity is important and sometimes things are filmed in or out of sequence, sometimes costumes are changed between the dress rehearsal and recording the show to the productions new requirements.

K: What advice would you give to a younger you if you could?

D: I feel like I went through the right channels overall to get to where I am. I was BBC staff for six years where I got a full BBC training, before going freelance where I was an Assistant Costume Designer and Supervisor for fifteen years, so when it came to it and I was offered my first programme I was ready to take on the responsibility of a Designer and started small.

When I first went freelance all the things you think are natural like walking on a set and fitting an artist can also be overwhelming. I remember one particular show early on, Zero to Hero which was commissioned through Factual and mixed science with entertainment. On our first day of prep my Designer gave me this science pack to read through to get up-to-date with the nature of the show, I just gasped, thinking inside this isn’t for me as I started reading it, but actually, in true entertainment form, it was like any other show set up.

Again another early situation on Strictly Dance Fever, my Designer generously gave me the judges to style and I had a budget and had to take them shopping, which as a young assistant can be daunting to appear confident and assured. So I would say to a younger me now, stay confident and have conviction in your design decisions, nothing is ever perfect, but always strive to push beyond the boundaries as nothing is impossible, to stay focused, dream big and always humble.

K: What would be your perfect job/client?

D: My perfect job has always been what I was working on at the time and then the next challenge, anything that takes you out of your comfort zone. I view every show as a gift and a learning curve. You never know everything and are always learning, each show has taught me something different from personalities to the costume requirements.

I would love to design a show that mixed say “Sex and The City” with “Project Runway”, or a fashion based musical, or  “World of Dance” meets “Cirque de Soleil”, or even “Top of The Pops” meets “The Fashion Fund”, to mix my fashion and costume background and use both sets of skills, as I started in fashion on magazines at the very beginning of my career. I would also jump at an opportunity to work in the US again and really get immersed in a new exciting challenge.

K: What piece of equipment or kit could you not live without?

D: The piece of kit I couldn’t live without is a Kimble gun, which uses plastic toggles to attach fabric together in replacement of a needle and thread. it has helped me out in so many situations when you have to go on the set and do something very quickly in order not to hold up filming. This is a quick solution for short term use so that when there is a natural filming break, you can then use a needle and thread to secure something properly.

K: What’s your next project?

D: My next project is a pilot, I can’t say too much about it, but it’s a heavy costume based game show, this will be a great new challenge for me as it’s based outside London and I will have to source everything from the city I am working in, from costume hire to costume makers and assistants, I need to research the area for the shops, I am looking forward to be stretched visually and manually.

Follow Deborah on instagram at @deborahcantor

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