While the multi-billion dollar fashion industry continues to churn out collections at a rapidly increasing rate, the world of costume design hums along at a much slower pace. The last decade has seen big name editors turned into bonafide celebrities, but costume designers know that on a film set there is no space for ego. In their capacity, they must be collaborators, people-pleasers, problem-solvers, task-managers, and understand that creativity is nothing if it is not rooted in character.
The worlds of costume design and fashion are not mutually exclusive; they survive by borrowing from each other. If you want evidence look no further than Erin Benach, costume designer to films such as Drive, The Place Beyond the Pines, and Blue Valentine, to find that even she agrees, no one does denim better than Levi’s. We caught up to talk about her process, her challenges, and how the perfect jean jacket might be hiding in a Salvation Army in upstate New York.
When you are producing custom pieces for film, do you ever reach out to designers, do you have an awareness of what product is already out there?
Benach: I think there are some people out there who are doing certain things better than [what] I could, and then I think there are some things I would do better. It’s more of a per garment kind of thing. For example, I think Levi’s does Levi’s better. On my last job, Midnight Special, I reached out to them and said: “I have these two hero guys wearing the same outfit throughout the movie and I’m thinking denim.” Why would I reinvent something? They brought their “Made and Crafted” line back to San Francisco before it was in Europe and I got to fly up there and work with them to develop the two coats we wanted. They know denim, they know how to distress it, and they know how to do certain things that I would have to do from scratch. They were really cool to work along with, but you always think, I wish they made a better something.
As a costume designer, do you feel that you have to be up on contemporary fashion?
Benach: I don’t try not to be, it’s part of the joy doing what I do in this world, instead of the fashion world. That’s why I actually like it. The reason I didn’t actually get into fashion is because I wasn’t into the trend of fashion. I relish in not knowing. I’m a trendy person. I’ve got my Camden market poncho and No. 6 boots, I like fashion, I like things that people are doing and I’ll be attracted to it, but I don’t really try to stay up on it.
As a costume designer, you really get to see the authentic pieces and create your looks. Is there a decade you like working in?
Benach: Right now it’s 1918-1928.
Like the suffragette to flapper?
Benach: Yeah, that’s some of where it’s based. Right after when women gave up the S-corset and started to wear waisted clothing at the proper waist. Then by 1927, the waist is at your hip and then there was no more waist. I don’t have a favorite period; I think there are things from each period that are interesting. I find the history of it super fascinating, like what was happening in the world and culture. There are so many awesome historical facts that have nothing to do with fashion that actually informed fashion.
When you are choosing a project, what is the pull? What makes you say ‘I’m going to do this project’?
Benach: The director.
It’s interesting to read a script and see how other people’s thought processes work. Do you have a more emotional or more practical process when it comes to the script?
Benach: It depends if I have worked with the actor before and if I know how connected to clothing the actor is. I know we are going to want to journey together to figure it out and if it’s an actor that is very “you do it, I’ll wear it” then I do it and have my own process that can be emotional, really breathing and living the moments I’m reading from the script. Talking to the director [about those moments], about [the feeling] and working off those beats and trying find things that fulfill that emotion [in the scene].
Do you think sometimes that costumes could have more of a commercial aspect or do you think it’s better that the worlds aren’t crossing?
Benach: Sometimes when actors are super attached to brands, the brands are throwing themselves in to be featured in the project. I always go back and forth with whether or not a Gucci suede coat would be better than something found in a vintage store.
Your resources are a huge part of the process. Sometimes I love limited resources and I wouldn’t want money because I want to have to find that vintage piece. I think if there were a connection that would make sense, but I wouldn’t want it to be forced. Sometimes it’s a great opportunity, for example, if we can borrow something from Gucci because they did this amazing double-breasted brown satin suit in their collection last season or last year. Let’s reach out and see if they would be interested in working with us. I like the idea of reaching out to them rather than the other way around. There’s amazing work out there, but it needs to happen organically.
The great thing about costume design is that you have a chance of making a garment iconic. For example, the jacket in Drive has become iconic – even if you haven’t seen the movie you remember the clothes. That’s why the fashion costume is so interesting because so many brands are desperate to make iconic clothes. Costume has the power to transform.
Benach: You have to approach it from a genuine place. Stay true to what you are creating, if it happens to penetrate society. [Ryan Gosling’s] character in Drive just happened. It wasn’t just me; it was a lot of people’s input and help along the way. [collaboration].
Like in fashion, you have an editor that can dictate the trends and what gets photographed. In costume, the DP can say the lighting is weird or the make-up artist can say there’s going to be too much sci-fi makeup. Then you [costume designer] have to do something else. Do you ever have those moments where you’re pushing for something and it doesn’t work? Does it frustrate you? How do you work through that?
Benach: When you’re being creative that’s the point, that’s part of the process. It’s annoying, but I’ve gotten to a point where sometimes something better comes out of that moment, which I put into the creation of the garment itself.
With costume you have to convince an actress to wear [something] and at times sell the actor on the idea. How do you push your ideas? How do you sell?
Benach: I don’t sell. I think if I were selling, I wouldn’t get anything. I listen. The actors are having a super emotional reaction to a character, hopefully, and the more intense it is, the better. I’m adapting and vibing off of it. You see it in the fitting photo. Most of my directors can tell “looks like she hated this one” and we pass on that one. You can tell when an actor loves something. It seems to work and it works for everybody. It doesn’t work unless everyone is into it.
I’ve been in situation where I want the actor to be a little angry, so I will put them in uncomfortable shoes, intentionally knowing they’re uncomfortable. You change a person’s mood through clothes. I think it’s really interesting that Ryan Gosling wears a lot of consistent pieces in A Place Beyond the Pines, Drive and Blue Valentine. I felt that he had a pretty tight wardrobe.
In working with him, are you consciously thinking about the costume when you are fitting and creating a world for him?
Benach: I create a closet of their wardrobe and it’s the character’s closet. It’s the information I curate. But I’m not really manipulating, I’m thinking about how it reads, how they feel in it, their comfort and being warm. If something feels tough, then about them being badass. Whatever you think the outcome is going to be, it’s not what you expect. An actor will say, I like it really tight, but I will know in the back of my mind what will work and what will be most comfortable in the end. I’ll give them the thing they are requesting and then do the version I think will be the most comfortable or better in some way. Like a belt that has a looser belt buckle. On the day, I can anticipate what might happen and from that have the backup.
With costume you always have backup. You’ve worked with Ryan Gosling four times or so now. Is there a reason you keep picking [projects with him]; is he great to work with?
Benach: Yeah, we developed a relationship on Half Nelson and then Blue Valentine. I think we just get clothes, in a way that we compliment each other’s thoughts and opinions on clothing.
Do you take his personal style and taste into account?
Benach: Not his personal style but the character’s. We have a process, we go into it, we figure out who the character is, he figures it out more through wardrobe. I can understand it; it’s a good symbiotic, creative working relationship.
Do you find the people you work with are aware of clothes? Everything has become so stylized.
Benach: I don’t remember a time when it wasn’t.
Any time period costume style you haven’t done yet that you would like to?
Benach: All of them, I would love to do 30s and future.
Best thing you’ve ever found, vintage or thrift store?
Benach: This crappy jacket I found in some Salvation Army in upstate New York. I thought it was cool for myself, kinda 90s-esque. And then when I was designing my last movie, I had a light bulb moment. That’s the hero jacket in pink for my actress. We made it in her size and it was genius.
That was a really good one. I was expecting a Zara sweatpant [laughs].
If you weren’t a costume designer, what would you be?
Benach: A dancer.
Favorite thing you’ve ever dressed anyone in, best look?
Benach: I think I just did it yesterday, you will see it in a year.
Benach: The Light Between Oceans.
Erin wore a second hand coat by Guy LaRoche, which she found in a storage unit in Detroit, Mi while Costuming the cast for Lost River.