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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Interview: Ellen Mirojnick On A Career In Costumes

"Every animal, and especially man, requires, in order to exist and get on in the world, a certain fitness and proportion between his will and his intellect."

These are the words of Schopenhauer that I read last night before bed. If Schopenhauer were alive today he would perhaps revise these remarks to be gender neutral, because in the case of the woman below, costume designer Ellen Mirojnick, we have those exact proportions of will and intellect.
It’s hard for me not to be a little flattered by the fact that Ellen was happy to be interviewed for our blog. She is, after all, one of those hard-working Americans that I imagine barely has a free moment, coupled with the fact that she’s been the brains behind some of the most brilliant costume design over the last 30 years so I would have expected a fair bit of attitude from her end and, to my pleasant surprise, I got none.
The reason I found out about Ellen Mirojnick is firstly because of her work on Behind The Candelabra and then subsequently realizing that she was behind some of my absolute favourite 80’s wardrobes including Wall Street, Black Rain, Fatal Attraction and Cocktail. Films that resonated with my youth. 

Although I would never want to be a costume designer myself, I have an unbelievable appreciation for what they do. As Mirojnick herself says in the interview ‘ the wardrobe becomes the actor’s second skin – the unconscious element if you will – that will define the character’s persona and place in the story and convey this message to the audience’.  And since those of you who follow this blog love menswear and love to create your own style to convey your own message, you will no doubt be able to appreciate just what kind of work Ellen Mirojnick undertakes every time she approaches a new subject matter. It is with great pleasure that I get to publish the responses she gives below to my questions.

Ellen Mirojnick
Ellen, you’ve had quite a career in costume design. Can you tell us how you first got into wardrobe and what are some of the most enjoyable memories for you in terms of films that you have worked on?
I got into costume design accidentally. I started out at as a ready to wear designer. But, when I went to visit my husband who was working on a film in New Orleans, they were in need of a costume designer, so I jumped at the chance.
Every film is different. Every film that I have designed for holds memories whether they are good or bad. There are many films I am fond of; however, what I am particularly proud of is that I was one of the costume designers that brought a focus to THE CONTEMPORARY FILM, starting with Fatal Attraction and all the way through to Unfaithful.

With regards to the film Cocktail – this is a quintessentially 80’s film, at the time did you know or feel that you were putting together a zeitgeist wardrobe or is it that it just unfolds in that manner over time? For example, the tropical looks in Jamaica, were you listening to Kokomo before you started putting pen to paper?

It was the 80’s when I designed for Cocktail! There was never an intention for it to become the zeitgeist of the time, but that’s what happens when you design a film that reverberates with the audience at a particular time in history. Jamaica was fun – Kokomo was a theme – it had to be a world away from the urban life left behind. Funny, because the film received horrific reviews at the time, but the clothes got good reviews and the audience did not care what the critics said. The film went on to be a hit regardless!

Mirojnick needed to create a 'world away from the urban life left behind' for the Jamaican set of the 80's classic Cocktail

I understand from my reading that Alexander Kabbaz of Kabbaz-Kelly was the maker of Gordon Gecko’s shirts in Wall Street. Are there favoured makers in New York or Los Angeles that work for film and television?

My number one go-to regarding shirt makers is Anto of Beverly Hills. Jack and Ken have become family. They are by far the best in the world! I have used them for all my projects. They create the essence and the quality that is needed for each project, no matter what the subject matter is. You would be surprised what a custom shirt does for an actor’s character development! I have not experimented with anyone else because Jack and Ken understand my design aesthetic and what I am looking to achieve.

Mirojnick was behind some of the most quintessential and revered moments of cinema from the 1980's including the work behind the character Gordon Gecko on Oliver Stone's Wall Street
What is the most important aspect for yourself when you approach a new project?

In approaching a new project I have to listen carefully to my intuition. It is the most important aspect. I ask myself ‘what is the project?’ ‘who is involved?’ ‘what can I bring to it?’ – Sometimes it will be the subject, sometimes the director, sometimes the producer or group, sometimes the need to work and sometimes the need to help a friend out.

Interpreting and revealing the intimate and private world of Liberace to the world in Behind The Candelabra.

Mirojnick says of this particular ensemble that it was inspired by Liberace's lifestyle which he split between Palm Springs, California, and Las Vegas, Nevada. He had an elaborate style both in clothing and lifestyle so she chose a palette of delicious sherbert colours to accent his sartorial preference. The linen lilac/green/cream check sports jacket was made by master tailor Dennis Kim in Los Angeles. The pattern for the shirt came from the archives of Anto shirt makers of Beverly Hills. Mirojnick was smitten with the scalloped edge shirt front. The shirting is a primo lilac cotton. To complete the ensemble Mirojnick used cream silk trousers and matching cream shoes.  
Is your relationship with the director something that begins the moment the project is green lit?

If the director is someone I know of that I have worked with previously then we connect prior to the project getting the green light. In some instances I have actually designed the project before it is green lit regardless of whether it gets off the ground. There are no two circumstances that are absolutes. For me, the dialogue with the director and the producer is essential to bringing the project to fruition.

Looking back over your career is there a relationship between you and an actor that stands out amongst the others? 

Looking back over my career my collaborations with Michael Douglas have been pivotal. From Fatal Attraction to Wall Street and right through to Behind The Candelabra.

Can you roughly explain to us how you explore a character through wardrobe?

I break down everything by exploring the character’s psyche. I’ll do research, whether studying paintings or present day imagery that is at your fingertips 24/7.
I am like a deep sea diver and a translator. It is my responsibility to translate the visual encryption of the text. Through understanding firstly what the story is about, then what the director’s vision is and thirdly what the actor needs, the wardrobe becomes the actor’s second skin – the unconscious element if you will – that will define the character’s persona and place in the story and convey this message to the audience. The simplicity, for example, of a white shirt can contain the essence of one character whilst a sullied white shirt can convey the essence of another character. It is all dictated by the text, the vision and the imagination of the designer.

Translating the visual encryption of the text, this is the work of Ellen Mirojnick, costume designer for some of the great films of the 1980's right through to the present day.

Casting your mind across all the films that have been made over the last 100 years, can you name three that as a costume designer stand out as hallmarks for the art of costume design?

My very favourite film is Auntie Mame designed by Orry-Kelly, Klute designed by Ann Roth and To Take A Thief designed by Edith Head.

Apart from these films I greatly admire the costumes from Barry Lyndon, Marie Antoinette, Chinatown, The Godfather II and The Damned. 

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