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Monday, Jan. 7, 2008 | For Andrea Straw, all that glitters is work.
One recent afternoon in the Poway headquarters of costume manufacturer Disguise Inc., the young costume designer is sparkling, by accident.
“One hazard of the job, I guess, is that you’re always covered in glitter,” Straw says, wryly displaying her shimmering palms. “Everyone who works here has glitter embedded in their steering wheel.”
The hazards of this job are few, she says, none much worse than the nearly invisible flecks of hot pink and silver decorating her chin. A fulltime designer here for nearly a year, Straw has filled her cubicle with costume pieces, swatches and ribbons. A small blue mouse sits on guard on the rim of the cubicle wall, bedecked with a pink sequined headband and a small tutu of sheer pink fabric.
A big challenge: Finding a way to make licensed characters dreamed up by wacky animators work in a costume for human proportions.
A few dozen small squares of lush fabrics, some ornately embroidered, are pinned to her bulletin board. They’re swatches of material used for costumes when Straw worked for the Old Globe theatre in Balboa Park after she graduated from a local fashion design school in 2006.
Straw hasn’t spent long enough in her fulltime job with her own cubicle and her own company-bought scissors and markers to forget those starving artist days. The region’s creative class, especially fashion and costume designers, face significant challenges. They struggle to pay rent and gas and survival costs in San Diego County while retaining time for inspiration and creativity; they search for an artistic outlet that also pays the bills.
“There was a period of instability there, when I was really broke,” she says. “I think people sometimes give up, sick of making $10 an hour as a stitcher or an assistant and take a job as an administrative assistant somewhere. … But you’re not doing what you love.”
On this afternoon, Straw works at her desk on a sketch of what looks like a butterfly wing, a mauve wing shape with a red swirled decorative design overtop. It’s Tinkerbell, she explains, and the mauve part of the wing wasn’t the right shape for Disney. So she’s adjusting the pattern, re-sketching the shape, making a computerized log of her changes and printing off copies for the various teams of people working on the costume.
As she sketches, her green beaded earrings bounce. There’s not much of a dress code for the designers — today, Straw’s wearing dark skinny jeans, brown ballet flats with an ankle strap, and a brown t-shirt over a pink thermal t-shirt decorated with brown owls. Her fingernails are painted lavender.
It’s not all glitter and tulle in Straw’s cubicle. There’s the vampire costume on the dress form in the corner, and the costume designs for the Happy Tree Friends, a cartoon aimed at older kids and teenagers. Straw designed the ‘tween-sized costumes to mimic the “cute, cuddly animals who get very bloody and dismembered.”
She shows a picture on her computer of one of the costumes, a yellow bunny named Cuddles whose stomach is being severed by a saw and whose yellow frame is splotched with blood.
“These aren’t for kids,” Straw reassures a visitor. “These are for young teenage boys.”
The company makes costumes for licensers like Disney — they just did an updated Tinkerbell design “just to freshen her up,” Straw says — and designs its own costumes for some retailers like Target and Wal-Mart and Toys “R” Us. One challenge with the licensed costumes is proportions, Straw says. Animators and cartoonists face few boundaries when imagining new characters. Whatever they can draw, the character can look like. But making a costume based on a big-head, short-torso, large-feet character is a bit trickier, she says.
“You have to try to get those proportions on the human body,” she says. “And still retain the integrity of the design.”
But it’s a challenge she embraces. Straw, a tall 28-year-old with short brown hair that curls in wisps around her ears, pursued acting and dancing in her childhood in Golden Hill and during college in the Bay Area. She designed costumes for an independent film she was also acting in, and discovered she loved it.
“I didn’t have the personality type for acting — they want you to conform to their idea of what the gorgeous actress looks like,” she says. “I’m a little too artsy for it. I like to be more creative.”
But her bent in fashion design has always been for the theatrical, the “ridiculous” — “birdcages on people’s heads, that kind of thing,” she says. After fashion school she cold-called the Old Globe to ask if they needed a hand. They hired her first as a dresser for the production of “Lincolnesque” in 2006, then as a stitcher for the theatre’s “Restoration Comedy” in 2007.
Between the two short-term gigs, she spent three months as a temporary worker, a design assistant, with Disguise. There wasn’t a spot for her in October 2006, when that gig ended, but when another designer left in early 2007, Disguise called her.
The fabrics she worked with at the theatre still make her eyes light up when she sees even the little pieces tacked to her bulletin board.
“It’s just like, ‘Oh my gosh, they have so much money,’” she says.
The cost of materials reins in her imagination and love for fine materials, since her work is often geared for children. The desire to use lush fabrics has to be tempered by realism; the costumes will be mass-produced and sold in party and toy stores. And it has to be flame-resistant for the child-safety ratings many big stores promise.
The company does have a few different quality labels — “value,” “quality,” “deluxe” among them. With the higher levels, like the Disney Princess line Straw’s designing for the “prestige premium” level, she gets to include lots of “super fancy” extras, like jeweled tiaras and real gems on the gowns.
“Sometimes you have to strip it down quite a bit from what you want to make,” Straw says. “It’s heartbreaking. I had this one vampire I designed that I had to totally cheapen out.”
For a typical costume, Straw sketches a design and then it goes through several different teams at the company for vetting — graphic design, technical construction, a licensing team that double-checks the exact copying of pieces like logos. An associated arm of the design department, the sculpt department, makes masks and other hard pieces that go with the costumes.
“That’s a super fun department, really cool,” Straw says — “with lots of scary masks up around the walls and metal (music) playing. Which is, you know, the complete opposite of [my office], with floofy princess dresses and glitter.”
The pieces are made as samples, then the licensed costumes are presented to Disney or Marvel or the licenser for those companies’ approval, and the Disguise proprietary costumes are vetted by management. Any changes, like the shape of Tinkerbell’s wings, go through the designers first and are then communicated to all of the different teams. When the pieces are approved, the designs are transmitted to overseas manufacturers who mass-produce the costumes and ship them back.
Mid-afternoon, Straw joins the other two staff designers, her manager and the design assistant for a fabric meeting. The five workers sit on rolling office chairs, the chairs themselves a little sparklier for wear.
Straw’s manager announces some new policies for fabric orders for the 2009 costume line — the 2008 costumes are just about wrapped up this first week of January. The women pore over Pantone swatch books to choose the colors of fabric, their staples, that they want to order to have on-hand.
They sound like typical designers, analyzing pinks for their oranginess and yellows for their sunniness. But then the unconventional adjectives emerge.
“Actually, if we’re looking at yellow, we should maybe look at Snow White yellow,” one says.
“Well, you know, if we’re deciding between yellow, let’s see which ones are closer to the Power Ranger yellow,” another offers.
“And I think Barbie’s pinks are …” one of them begins to muse.
“219 and 236,” offers another, racking her brain for the numbers associated with hundreds of shades of colors.
And that starts it: the discussion turns to Tinkerbell green, Belle yellow, Ariel’s purple for her shells and green for her tail, Cinderella blue. The red discussion brings in Spiderman and Captain Hook. Greens are examined for Hulk, one of Straw’s pet projects.
An hour and a half later, the meeting wraps up as the designers discuss a field trip to L.A. to visit fabric vendors for inspiration. Straw heads back to her desk. She nearly bumps into a mannequin wearing a vampire costume. The skirt, designed to be a dark, bloody red, looks a bit, well, pink.
She compares it to another sample, whose skirt is decidedly redder.
“Yeah, it’s just the wrong shade,” she mutters to herself, wheeling the figure over to a co-worker who files the request for the color change.
“We’re like the epicenter of everything that happens with all of the designs,” she says, back at her desk. Before dashing off with a pattern for goggles and gloves for a licensed costume for an upcoming Pixar character, Straw stops to muse about how long she sees herself here.
“I love costume design,” she says. “I also love theater and film. But I think I can do this for a while.”
Please contact Kelly Bennett directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.