A designer who has hopped onto the main stage in a big way is Paloma Young, and she is having the year of her life. As costume designer for Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet Of 1812 and Bandstand on Broadway this season, she has garnered a Drama Desk nomination, a Tony nomination, and a Live Design Award to be presented in NYC on June 12. She was also the recipient of the 2017 TDF/Kitty Leech Young Master Award (formerly the TDF/Irene Sharaff Young Master Award, now re-named in honor of the late designer Kitty Leech who passed away last year). Live Design chats with Young about her career.
Live Design: What was your path to costume design?
Paloma Young: Not a straight one! I was a history major in college and took design courses for fun. After considering information sciences and some time as a fact-checker for history books, I realized I missed the collaborative nature of design. I went to grad school to learn more, and here I am!
LD: What is your process in working on a new show?
PY: Different processes for different shows, but one thing I like to do is build a world for the show. Even if it’s a musical, I look for other music that makes me feel something about the characters or the story. I look at art and tangential research. I make collages, or just pin a lot of random stuff on the board in my studio. When designing a new play or musical, I do try and spend extra time defining the hallmarks of each character. It’s so delightful to see fan art for shows where the particulars of a certain costume (color, cut, pattern) has really been clocked and melded with the character in the collective imagination. I aspire to be as smart as Paul Tazewell and his brilliant non-period period Hamilton designs. At this point, I could see a picture of three guys in a locker room in peach, blue, and yellow towels and know it was a reference to the Schuyler sisters.
LD: How do you research period pieces, such as Bandstand, to immerse yourself in the 1940s?
PY: Lots and lots of magazine research (my Grandpa was on the cover of a 1944 cover of Life!), some catalogues and fashion advertisements, and lots and lots of creeping on strangers’ Flickr accounts. If you’re looking for real people, and not glamour shots, many people have uploaded and tagged old family snapshots. I search for things like “mom 1945,” “Aunt Helen 1945,” etc.
LD: What is the most challenging project you have designed to date, and why?
PY: Every show brings a new exciting set of challenges. It’s impossible to pick. I will say that I find making “funny” costumes to be incredibly challenging. There’s a quote that gets thrown around that resonates often when I’m asked to make something funnier: “Dying is easy; comedy is hard.”
LD: How do you collaborate with the other designers on a team, in terms of palette, style, storytelling, etc.?
PY: It’s so hard to get everyone in the same room these days, but when we can’t, we do try to all share a Dropbox. It’s impossible to communicate all the inspirations you have for every costume, but I find it helps to be social with your designers, actors, and director, especially on long-term projects. I’ve shared a lot of “secrets” over post-rehearsal drinks, and then sometimes come in and see a prop has been added to the set that mirrors that secret, or an actor is carrying themselves differently in a way that highlights what I’d designed. I also do a lot of adjusting as I see a scenic or lighting design materialize, getting inspired by things I didn’t notice in the model. I even had a great relationship with Nick Pope, the sound designer for Great Comet. Because those costumes are experiential, I wanted them to make noise, but there were times when they absolutely couldn’t make noise. We worked a lot with mic placement and earrings and different bracelets to get the balance right—he was very patient with me.
LD: What was the inspiration for the costumes in Peter And The Starcatcher?
PY: I got that job by walking into my interview with a picture that I’d torn out of The New York Times Magazine of a young Johnny Rotten. It was black and white and felt like he could be standing in a crowded street in Victorian London. He’s in rags, but there’s a sexiness and a youthfulness and a brashness to it—that was our jumping off point. The costumes had to have a tight palette because the actors were also going to become walls and doors: They needed to each have the ability to be individual and anonymous. We went with the blues and grays of the British navy, which Donyale Werle (set designer) matched beautifully with the weathered wood floor.
LD: Can you take one costume and deconstruct? How is it made: influences, fabrics, etc.? Talk me through one costume from Great Comet or Bandstand.
PY: Pierre is one of my favorite costumes because it seems so simple, but there’s a story behind every detail. In general, we wanted a look that felt like a man who struggled against the aristocracy he’d found himself in. It should look like his wife had attempted to dress him at some point by bringing in a tailor, but that she’d long since given up.
His pants are a brown/gray pinstripe wool—I looked for fabrics that would feel dusty in his study light; he’s not well maintained. The fall front is widened to accentuate his girth. The shirt is a fine linen, but made in the style of a Russian peasant. It was inspired by a trend from later in the century, when Tolstoy was actually writing War And Peace, of upper class Russians wearing western suiting but “reclaiming” their heritage when there had been a long push by the government to repress non-western clothing.
Pierre is meek, but he’s going though a real angsty anarchic phase—there’s a lot of subtle “fuck you” in his outfit, which is just exploded on the ensemble costumes. His boots are short and utilitarian—more appropriate for a stablehand than a titled gentleman. I wanted something that felt goofy and awkwardly casual—the 19th century equivalent of the old New Balance sneakers that your partner keeps trying to throw away.
The vest was originally made out of an upholstery fabric from a bargain bin. It felt like a fabric a tailor might show his client to pick from amongst many more lustrous satins and silks, but that was the least flashy something like that could be. The yellow is a stark contrast to the red walls of the set so Pierre stands out even without shimmer or sparkle. The pattern is of sheaths of wheat, and the colors should feel like a sunny day in the country. I could see Pierre picking this because it fulfills a desire he hasn’t even been able to define within himself yet (At the end of the book, Pierre gets out of Moscow and ends up content and happy in the country). The vest existed before Dave Malloy wrote the soul-searching Dust And Ashes for the Broadway run of the show, but I got so excited when I heard the line “Was happiness within me the whole time?” I was like, yes, yes! You’re wearing it! Don’t look to the comet—look to yourself!
LD: What is your response to the Sharaff Young Master Award and all the other awards and nominations coming your way?
PY: I am constantly just so grateful to be in a community that appreciates and understands my often-unconventional design. Plus it’s really fun to say “Young Master” because I feel like a comic book character.