Hear ye! We’re starting a new series on Rookie, where we talk to people with really effing cool jobs, about how they got those jobs, so that we can steal their jobs one day.
Our first interviewee could not possibly be cooler. Heidi Bivens is a costume designer for movies and a stylist for fashion shows and famous ladies. Her movie credits include David Lynch’s Inland Empire, Ceremony, and the forthcoming The Wait and The Longest Week. Her non-movie credits include working with Teen Vogue, grown-woman Vogue, Beck, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and the White Stripes, and being an awesome person.
We called her up while she was in St. Petersburg, Florida, working on Harmony Korine’s latest movie, Spring Breakers, starring Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, and James Franco. Enjoy! And let us know, in the comments, what kinds of jobs you want us to find out about for you in the future.
So, how did you get your awesome job?
There are so many different routes you could take to become a costume designer—it just depends on how quickly you want to get there. It’s not like if you want to be a doctor, you know you need to go to medical school and then you get a residency at a hospital. It’s more arbitrary.
Personally, I knew that I wanted to work in film, and I went to Hunter College for filmmaking. But then I started working in journalism, writing for magazines, when I was in college. I’ve always had more than one interest. In high school I was a cheerleader, but I was also on color guard, so during halftime I’d have to do my cheer and then go switch into my color-guard uniform and go out again to do the flags. I could never pick one thing. Everyone used to always say, “You need to focus,” but I never really listened to those people, and I think that it’s paid off.
My major in college was film studies, but I also started writing for magazines like Women’s Wear Daily and Paper. I would get bylines, but I wasn’t making good money doing that. As you know, it’s hard to make good money writing for magazines! I realized that a way to get into film would be to work in costume, because I was interested in fashion. And then, because I was already working at magazines, I started looking into the idea of what we now call styling—it was called styling then, too, but back then, in the late ’90s, no one really knew what it was. Whenever someone would ask me what I did and I said I was a stylist, I would always have to explain what that meant. And now it’s become a household word. Everybody knows what a stylist is.
And now stylists are famous.
Yes, now they’re famous. I mean, I used to assist Rachel Zoe back was when she was doing Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys. She always wanted to be famous. And more power to her! I prefer to be behind the scenes, and if I can get recognition amongst my peers, or help young people who are just starting out, that makes it worthwhile to me. I have no interest in [being famous].
So I broke into fashion through internships at magazines, and then broke into film through fashion. There’s always some way in—it doesn’t have to be through a diploma or connections. It can be through sheer perseverance.
Whom do you style for?
I’m a freelance editor for Vogue and for Purple magazine—those are my two mainstays. Then I work with i-D and a lot of other independent magazines. I do advertising, I do commercial, I do print, I work with designers, I do consulting, I style music videos, I do personal styling, I do celebrity styling. I do it all!
The only thing I haven’t done is theater or TV. I would like the opportunity to do theater, because you can design, then walk away. Once opening night has happened, you have set costumers who are taking care of all the clothes. So if you can get gigs designing for big Broadway shows, I think it can be pretty lucrative, especially if you’re high up there in the industry and you’re getting some sort of percentage of ticket sales. But that’s a whole ’nother world. TV is kind of intense. It’s a beast. It keeps going and going and going, every week. That’s a more regular-hours job, like 10-12 hours a day. It’s not like a film, where you have to pull 16- or 18-hour days sometimes.
What do you like better: working in fashion, or in film?
I don’t prefer one over the other, because although they inform each other, they are so very different. I’ll tell you the fundamental differences. Fashion is much more glamorous, in that you can wear high heels to work. [Laughs] You’re expected to be dressed to the nines and look pretty awesome, as a stylist, unless you’re one of those editors who wear a uniform, like Joe McKenna or some of the editors at Vogue. Fashion is definitely more fabulous. You’re not working as many hours, generally speaking; and you’re getting paid more, usually—the rates are much higher earlier on in the career. There’s just more money to be spent, because the crews are much smaller.
But with film you’re creating something that is more long-lasting. It’s part of the history of cinema. And it is more universal. Fashion, in general, doesn’t have the same kind of reach or audience as film. Not that one’s more valid than the other, but I just feel like when I work on movies, I’m doing something that is going to stand the test of time, where fashion is more ephemeral.
I know basically nothing about costume design, but it seems like there’s this divide between really obviously costume-y period or fantasy movies on one hand, and contemporary movies on the other. And it seems like it might be harder to do costumes for contemporary movies—like it’s hard to do it well. Sometimes, with a contemporary movie, it looks like the people are just wearing cheap new stuff from the mall.
Yeah, it’s really a shame. That’s one gripe I have. To build a closet for a character, you have to think about how people really acquire and accumulate their clothes. A closet is built over time. You’re getting things from all different places. You have this new thing, you have this thing you’ve had for 10 or 15 years, you have this other thing that’s a hand-me-down, you have this thrift-store thing, you have this thing that was given to you by your parents for Christmas that you hate. You’ve got this closet that’s built on not just two weeks of shopping at the mall. I feel like a lot of costume designers today who are doing a lot of studio movies, they don’t really approach the design with a nuanced idea of how people really build a closet.
Is that what you think about when you get a job—what would this character have in their closet to pull from when they get dressed every day, and how would they dress themselves? Is there a whole story going on in your head all the time?
Yes, and I have a tendency to do that even with fashion editorials, because I’m trying to create a story, always—even if it’s only in my head and no one else knows about it. In a film, I think about every single little item, from shoelaces to earrings to the clothing to if I’m brought in to consult on hair and makeup—it’s everything. So I’ll think of something stylistically that I think could be cool for a character, but then I have to think, Well, where would they have gotten this? Would they have had the money to get it? Does it make sense in terms of their personal style? What is it going to say to the audience on a quick read? All those things are running through my head like a checklist any time I’m thinking of anything for a character.
That seems really fun.
Yeah, it is. That’s one of the reasons I try to approach fashion in the same way, when I’m styling an editorial, because then you have something meatier that you can feel good about in terms of the creative process. If I’m just doing a trend story about pastels, or a coat story or a bikini story, to me that’s boring. Anybody can do that, you know? In general I’m always looking for a narrative.
Does the director pick the costume designer for a film?
Do they all give you a ton of input into the costumes?
It depends. It’s a personality thing, really. But in my experience most directors are very concerned with wardrobe. That’s like the fun part for them.
Do you like to get a lot of input, or do you like to be set free?
I like to work with a director who has a clear vision, but once I understand what that vision is, I don’t mind them being kind of hands off. It can be frustrating if a director is, like, over-obsessive about details that I know won’t come across on film, and will not give the audience the information that he is trying to convey. Sometimes you get into those conversations.
But in general, to me the director is God, and what the director says, goes. My job is to help the director create his or her vision.
I’ve been told that there are some costume designers who are really into FINDING things, and some that are really into MAKING things. Do you fall into one of those camps?
Well, if you’re working with a big budget, you can make whatever you want, and if you don’t use it, who cares? But on a small budget, when you’re using money to have something made and it doesn’t work out, then you’ve wasted budget. But I love to be crafty! I love to have a team of people who are able to sew and build stuff. Like on this film [Spring Breakers] with Harmony, we’re doing a lot of dyeing, and experimenting with different dyes. And the cinematographer, Benoît [Debie], is going to be experimenting with a lot of very specific lighting. He did a camera test the other day, and I had been dyeing a bunch of stuff. I dyed these two pieces the same color, with the same dye, but one I had dyed from a white fabric, and the other was already a light pink. And under this light he was using, the one I dyed from white totally glowed, and the one I had dyed from pink didn’t glow at all.
That’s so weird!
That kind of stuff is fascinating to me. I’ve worked with Janty Yates, who’s an Academy Award-winning costume designer. She’s a mentor of mine. She’s like a grand dame—so seasoned, been doing it forever—and when she’s working on a film, she has a team of extremely skilled people. If things need to be distressed, she sends them to the distressing department. There’s a whole department of people set up to distress! If she needs something dyed, she sends it to the dyeing department. Because she works on studio films. On something like Harmony’s film, I’m dyeing fabric in a pot in the kitchen. I’m sure when [Janty] started out, she was doing things exactly like I’m doing it now.
I think the goal, and my whole motto these days and for the rest of my life, is “Work smarter, not harder.” That’s a good MO for your readers, too. That’s the goal you try to move toward. It’s fun to do everything yourself and figure it out and learn how to do it, but eventually we want to have free time to be able to do other things that are going to propel us forward, and not continually do the things that have become tedious because we already know how to do them and someone else can do them for us. You know?
That’s really smart.
It’s really funny, but I was moving out of my apartment last summer, and I got an office space. I collect old magazines and ephemera, and I was moving it all into this new space. My sister was helping me, and we were using a handcart. So we were making trips, taking the stuff out of the car, piling it all up on the handcart on the street, and then wheeling it up the ramp of the curb. There was this guy just lingering by our car, hanging out, eating a sandwich. I don’t know if he was homeless or what. Our purses were in the car, so every time we would take a trip up to the office, we would lock the car. And every time we came back down, he was still there, checking out what we were doing. It was kind of creepy. Then he started critiquing us on this job we were doing with the boxes of magazines. He said, “You should stack it while it’s already on the sidewalk instead of wheeling it up the curb when it’s heavy.” I was like, “It’s cool—thanks.” And then he said it. He goes, “Work smarter, not harder.”
Oh my god!
This random, maybe homeless guy eating a gross sandwich on the sidewalk changed my life!
I’ll never forget that moment. It switched something in my brain. It’s not like he made that up—it’s an old adage.
But he told it to you at a time in your life when you needed to hear it.
Yeah, I was ready to hear it. I always try to carry too much or do too much. It was a reminder to set myself up so that I can enjoy life, so I’m not always working at working, not living to work.
What character that you’ve dressed in your career was the most fun?
It’s interesting because there are characters, and then there are actors. Sometimes a character that could be really interesting to dress becomes uninteresting because of the actor. [Laughs]
Right, because you’re working so closely with the actors every day, and they’re giving you input…
And if they’re total divas, it can become really uninteresting. I loved working with Chloe Sevigny and Jenna Malone on The Wait, which hasn’t been released yet.
Didn’t Chloe Sevigny want to be a costume designer when she started out?
Yeah, she did Gummo. She’s a dream to work with because she has such great ideas, and she’s a great collaborator.
Is there a character from a movie or a TV show or a book that you wish you could dress, or could have dressed?
I’m dying to do costume drama. Like Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette—that is just, ugh, a dream. A candy-colored dream. The costume designer who did that, Milena Canonero, did Barry Lyndon. She’s had an amazing career.
The films that most inspire me for costume design are the kinds of films you’ll see on Turner Classic Movies. I always have Turner Classic Movies on. If your readers don’t go to school for costume design but maybe they learned how to sew from their mom or dad, and they have some skill and knowledge in either fashion or garment construction, but they don’t have any formal training, I think it’s SO educational to watch old films. Just keep Turner Classic Movies on, just watch it all the time, because that was an era when costume design was at its best, in my opinion.
Any particular movies that you love from then for costume design?
If you think about a film like The Misfits, or even like a modern film like Michelle Pfeiffer in Scarface, or Nastassja Kinski in Paris, Texas—those are films that have these iconic, really timeless characters and costume design that are constantly being referenced.
Nastassja Kinski in Paris, Texas, is all over Rookie this month.
Oh, cool! See? When I’m costume designing, I ask myself, how is this film going to be stylistically and visually relevant in 10 or 20 or 30 years? You don’t always get to do that, because in some films you’re not supposed to pay any attention to the costumes, and if you did then I wasn’t doing my job, because it wasn’t about the costumes. That’s why it’s great if you can pick jobs where you really get to show your skill—but then again, sometimes your skill is going to be to do something that isn’t really that noticeable, because that’s what’s called for! I think that happens a lot in the beginning, when you’re learning. Then you learn what kinds of films you want to make. Then you team up with directors and teams where you can hopefully work with those people consistently. Like Tim Burton’s costume designer is Colleen Atwood; they always work together. When you think of Colleen Atwood, you think of Tim Burton.
Do you find yourself dressing like a character sometimes?
Oh god, I do that all the time. If I’m working on a film I start to dress like the women in the film. Most of the time that’s because I don’t ever have time to go shopping for myself, so often I’ll just take something off the rack that’s a reject and put it on. On Spring Breakers, for example, I will definitely be wearing airbrushed T-shirts and short shorts.
When is Spring Breakers supposed to be released?
Probably in like a year. I’m sure it’ll go to festivals, to find a buyer for distribution.
What can you tell us about it?
It’s about these college girls that are like Girls Gone Wild. We’re creating a reality, but it’s a hyper-reality. It’s Harmony’s vision of this particular reality.
I feel like this movie is going to be the game changer for me. I’m finally getting to do something really creative in a way that I hope will stand out. My ambition with costume has always been to choose projects that allow me to either learn or do something creative. I balance my careers in fashion and costume partly because I want to be able to be really particular about the films I work on, because the hours are so long and the work is hard. It’s all-consuming. I don’t want to spend that kind of time on work I’m not excited about, you know? So I only accept film work that I really believe in, rather than having to just jump from film to film to film.
Do you want to keep doing this forever?
I actually would love to write and possibly direct someday—that’s why I was studying film in college.
Are you writing anything right now?
I’m working on two scripts. One of them I’m been writing for a really long time, and it’s almost finished. It’s a psychological thriller.
I love styling and I love costume design, but as I get older, if I meet someone and want to have a family, I’d love to have the option of having more of a solitary career where I can write from home and it’s not about going on location for two or three months and working 16- to 18-hour days.
Do you have any last words of wisdom for young people who are thinking about getting into costume design, or fashion?
If I had one bit of advice, it’s to persevere. The longer you stay in the game, the more people will see that you’re serious about it. Because both industries—but fashion more than film—are the kind of thing that people try their hand at, then decide that it’s too hard, and give up. But it can be such a great life and great experience if you’re willing to put in the time it takes to get to where you want to be with it.
How long does it take for it to not be totally discouraging and hard?
For film, you want to assist on at least two or three films before you’re ready to work on your own stuff. If you do back-to-back films, that could be like a year and a half.
That’s not so bad.
With fashion it’s a bit trickier, because you need to have a portfolio of work, and to have that you need to be published.
If a girl has a style blog and has done a ton of stuff on her own, does that experience count?
Absolutely, especially now. There are so many new and different and exciting and experimental ways to break into the fashion world because of style blogging. Bloggers have become extremely important figures in the industry. I mean, Bryanboy’s gonna get front row before I do!
Another thing I want to tell your readers is that there’s this website called Fashion.net that has great job listings. Whenever I need interns I post on there, especially when I’m working on movies.
Well, thank you so much for talking to us, Heidi!
Of course! It’s really exciting to me to be able to share information that might help people who are just starting out. I would love to do for someone else what that guy eating that sandwich did for me when he told me to “work smarter, not harder.” If I could be that guy for another person, that would mean the world to me! ♦
Interview conducted by Anaheed.