Two Costume Designers Talk Sustainable Fashion

GIRLFRIENDS’ GUIDE TO DIVORCE  (Photo by: Andrew Eccles/Bravo)

Before creating my brand Bead & Reel, I spent many years working in film and television in the costume department of productions from indie films like Safety Not Guaranteed to popular shows like Castle. It was this career in costumes that taught me about storytelling through clothing and ignited my passion for helping others harness the power of what we wear to shape and share who we are, a theme that has carried over heavily into my work in sustainable fashion.

Costume design uses clothing and accessories to create characters – these careful visual choices help you instantly gain an understanding of a particular time, place, or demographic, as well as hints as to someone’s personality – both overt and subtle. While we are used to seeing these ideas of storytelling through clothing on stages and screens, we can also bring it into our lives everyday with our own fashion choices, specifically with the choices and stories around our treatment of others.

I am not alone in seeing the need for new stories about what we wear, and was thrilled to meet and interview esteemed costume designer Cynthia Summers, who is leading the way in bringing ethical fashion into our favorite shows through her costume choices. Her extensive work includes Bones, Smallville, The L Word, UnREAL, Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce, and Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events with Neil Patrick Harris, among (many) other things, and her talent is matched only by her compassion.

Cynthia graciously sat down with me to chat about costumes, sustainability, and some of her favorite brands.

GIRLFRIENDS’ GUIDE TO DIVORCE (Photo by: Andrew Eccles/Bravo)

First things first: what’s the difference between costume design and fashion design?

Big difference all around!  

Fashion designing is either ready to wear or couture made for real live people to express themselves through fashion as they get through their day to day. Costume design is “fashion” to tell a story, written by a large group of people in a sense.  The script dictates on page who the character is which informs what they wear.  Usually on camera, the first time you see a character, you immediately are informed by what they are wearing, who they are, where they are and what they are doing there!  So it’s super important to everyone making the movie that the costume fulfills this. So, producers, directors, production designers and cast all have an opinion.  Everyone’s point of view needs to be taken into consideration.  So, sometimes my concept is accepted whole-heartedly, sometimes its not and we have to go back to the origin idea, and start over!

Everyone views this slightly differently, so how do you define sustainable fashion?

To me “sustainable fashion” is an umbrella term that covers a lot territory, but broken down to its finite meaning I think is “ethically grown or produced products”.  This runs the gamut for me – responsible production of materials that are regulated and environmentally sound (for both humans, animals and the planet), recycling, up-cycling (love this one), fair trade, fair treatment of workers and responsible fair wages especially for women and, as an individual being responsible for your own fashion consumption. Know where, how and who made your fashion purchases.

There are so many different aspects to consider in sustainable fashion – which is most important to you?

With the unimaginable environmental damage and disheartening, disgusting, soul numbing way animals are treated during and after being raised for use in the fashion and food industry…this has got to be my number one area of “needs to change” in the sustainable movement.

There aren’t a lot of costume designers talking about sustainable fashion – what first sparked your interested in it?

Well, I’ve always been a big fan of vintage shopping, which I include as sustainable.  Recycling, up-cycling or reworked vintage is, as we know, an important way of keeping garments out of the landfills and cycling through fashionable lives!  After that, becoming vegan and being involved with the cast that are vegan who will only wear certain materials, really pushed me into looking at what I was purchasing for my costume designs, and personally in my life. Then, of course, learning that the fast fashion industry is the second largest polluter in the world … second only to the dirty filthy oil industry!  How can you know all this and NOT do something! 


GIRLFRIENDS’ GUIDE TO DIVORCE (Photo by: Paul Drinkwater/Bravo)

How do you bring sustainable fashion into your costume designs?

There are a lot of ways to build sustainable fashion into costume designing.  I wouldn’t say it is easy.  Weather doing a contemporary show, which is primarily shopped, or a period/fantasy show, which requires sourcing fabrics and building, everything you see on the screen goes through a larger group of people for approval.  The costume has to fit the script.  So there are a lot of limitations to making decisions.  But, that being said, if I can find faux leather or fur that fulfills the needs of the costume, generally, everyone is happy.

So everywhere I can, I ask the questions…Where was this made?  Can we use faux instead?  Can we use sustainable fabric dyes?  etc etc.  At the end of the day, it’s usually cheaper and better for everyone, including the actors that have to wear the garments!

Working in the costume department, you interact with so many people each day. Have any of your actors become interested in sustainable fashion because of you?

You know currently there is a visible anti-fur/leather/sustainable fashion movement that I feel is moving through the film industry.  More of us are connected on a daily basis, especially actors who for sake of their jobs, need to keep themselves healthy and that includes what they put in their body’s and what they are wearing on them.  Also, this “bring your dog to work” movement, which I fully practice, has us a lot more grounded and aware that our furry companions could easily be trim on a fashion piece or food on our plates.  So, with high public visibility via fans and social media, actors have a broad platform to promote these ethics, adding up to more and more taking advantage of supporting all sorts of sustainable fashion movements.

I digress…sorry – as far as your question have I influenced any to consider or use sustainable fashion, I hope so.  I can confidently say that eyes have been opened and I also see it in my crew and I work with, and friends and family.  More people are actively “looking”.  And that, I believe, is the beginning of a movement in the most positive and right direction!  When it is around you, it is easier to soak up.  

What are you currently working on right now?

I am currently working on seasons two and three of Lemony Snicket : A Series of Unfortunate Events.  Very different in from my usual fashion driven contemporary shows.  We build just about everything!  Right down to the footwear!

GIRLFRIENDS’ GUIDE TO DIVORCE  (Photo by: Paul Drinkwater/Bravo)

Are there any sustainable costumes in your current production we can keep our eyes out for?

Well, yes but its hard to pin point as we make in house almost all of our costumes.  I will say that we use a lot of vintage pieces.

On other show Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce, season four is about to launch on August 17 on Bravo, one stand out sustainable designer you’ll see (primarily on our character Phoebe played by the most remarkable human I know, Beau Garrett) is GoldDust Dresses by Roxana Zal.  Besides repurposing through vintage finds, she creates the most amazing, festival worthy maxi dresses all handmade in Los Angeles from 100% vintage Indian fabric. The fabrics are handwoven and hand blocked/hand printed cotton circa the Sixties or Seventies. All are one of a kind works of art.

It can be overwhelming when someone is first learning about the need for sustainable fashion – what’s the easiest tip you recommend for anyone interested in finding out more or doing more?

It’s so much easier now with social media and online shopping.  Looking at labels in garments is the first step.  Hop online and discover what is what as far as symbols on labels mean, what countries produce ethically (I pretty much don’t buy anything from China – there is virtually no way to know how something was made, what content the fabrics are and/or what the environmental impact or humanitarian impact is on the labourers are).  Just basically educate yourself.  And be gentle with yourself.  Like everything it takes time to change your way of seeing things, to figure out what you can live with, and what you may even want to contribute! Live every revolution, it starts with people that stand on the front lines, and then is held up by the people who join in to keep the movement moving forward.  There is a place for everyone in making ethical the norm.  This revolution is global, it will take us all to make the big changes happen.

Cynthia Summers — (Photo by: Paul Drinkwater/Bravo)

I have to ask: what are some of your favorite sustainable fashion brands?

Starting at what I think is the top….Stella McCartney, Vivienne Westwood, Laura Strambi, Marimekko, Reformation, and for bags Matt & Nat and Gunas New York are consistent favourites.

You spend all day creating such a wide range of styles for other people – how do you define your own personal style?

My own personal style has changed a lot over the past decade and I want to say it has been totally influenced by my lifestyle change.  I am vegan and passionate about animal rights.  So for me, things have definitely swung into the more comfortable, ethical fashion choices.  Easy wearing for long 12-14 hour film days is now top of my list.  And, for events I will turn to designers who are vegan or sustainable producers.  

What’s your favourite thing in your closet?

Well, a few things!  I have a brand new Spoon jacket and Pleated Cocoon dress by Black Crane and am obsessed with my new maxi  from Raquel Allegra. Oh and, my Cottontail bag by Gunas NY. All of these pieces are in black – I think that may speak volumes as to my current state of mind!


Follow Cynthia on Instagram and Twitter for more sustainable style inspiration.

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Sica Schmitz

Sica Schmitz is the founder and curator of Bead & Reel, the online ethical boutique for eco-friendly, cruelty-free, sweatshop-free fashion, and the winner of the 2017 Sustainable Business Council's Sustainable Business Award. With a background in costume design and sustainable styling, she is active in fair trade and vegan fashion both locally and globally as a Fair Trade LA board member, the Fashion Editor of Vilda Magazine, and the founder and host of the annual Fair Trade Fashion Show Fundraiser in Los Angeles. A frequent speaker and writer, she has been featured in dozens of publications including Bustle, Origin Magazine, The Good Trade, and Vegan Life Magazine.


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