Collaborations with Costume Designers Continue to Grow

What was once a little-celebrated job — outfitting the characters that grace TV and film screens — is now the source of significant business opportunities for fashion brands, studios and networks, and the costume designers themselves.

Banana Republic 'Mad Men' collection | Source: Banana Republic

NEW YORK, United States — When the first episode of the final season of Mad Men airs in the US on 13 April, fans are expected to tune in to see the clothes as much as the closely guarded plotline. The retro fashions — which evolve from season to season as the story chronicles the evolution of Madison Avenue in the 1960s — have received a good deal of attention over the years, resulting in Mad Men-branded clothing collections developed in partnership with Banana Republic and Brooks Brothers. Blogs dissect each outfit in detailed costume recaps that have become as popular as posts summarising the story line. And it’s difficult to read an article about men’s suiting without stumbling upon a reference to Don Draper or Roger Sterling, characters on the programme.

None of this would be possible without costume designer Janie Bryant, who is responsible for outfitting every single character on the show. Indeed, Bryant, who won an Emmy for her work on HBO series Deadwood before signing with Mad Men in 2007, is in many ways the breakout star of the series. She has endorsed several products (including Downy Wrinkle Releaser), written her own book (a personal style bible called The Fashion File), and designed collections for QVC and Banana Republic.

And while many of her past projects have been tied directly to Mad Men, Bryant is now focused on building her own brand beyond the series. Currently, she’s an ambassador for the newly revived handbag company Koret — once carried by Grace Kelly and Jacqueline Onassis — and recently designed a line of men’s socks for online retailer Mack Weldon. In the fall, her line of hosiery and shapewear will debut at department stores across the United States. Bryant’s commercial partner, Doris Hosiery, primarily creates product for department store private labels, so the line marks a new direction for the company. “I wanted to get on the ground floor with her,” says Doris Hosiery president Mitchell Brown. “She has tremendous potential.” And producers of her reality series, Janie Bryant’s Hollywood, are currently in talks with US television network A&E’s new lifestyle channel, FYI, to air the show, which features aspiring costume designers. “This is sophisticated pop culture,” says the show’s producer, James Deutch. “The idea is to appeal to people who love television, love movies, and make this part of that world accessible to them.” While for Bryant, this is just the beginning. “I want to do lingerie, maybe. I’m thinking about it,” she says. “But I do know that I want to do a menswear line. Mad Men has changed how men look at fashion, and I think that’s exciting.”

Bryant’s projects may be far-reaching and ambitious, but she’s just one of dozens of film and television costume designers to be inundated with offers to grow their careers and businesses. What’s more, from Scandal’s Lyn Paolo (who has worked on window displays with Saks Fifth Avenue) to The Hunger Games’ Trish Summerville (who designed a line for Net-a-Porter called “Capitol Couture”), the rise of costume designers is creating plenty of commercial opportunity for the studios creating the shows, the networks airing the shows and the brands being featured.

In fact, as ad-skipping technologies like DVRs have become more popular with consumers, eating into the value of traditional advertising, deals like these have become even more important to networks and studios.

Matchbook, a branding agency that represents Bryant, Paolo and American Hustle’s Michael Wilkinson, among others, has booked nearly 100 partnerships for its costume designer clients over the past four years, according to founder Linda Kearns, generating over $2.5 million in fees. (Kearns projects that, this year, fees will increase by 40 percent over 2013.)

Each deal is different. When a specific show is not directly involved, it’s the costume designer alone who earns the fee. When the project is connected to a specific series or piece of content, the network or studio takes a cut.

The 2009 Mad Men collaboration with Brooks Brothers on a limited-edition suit — which grew out of their existing relationship with Bryant, as they supplied of many of the show’s suits — was a certified hit for both the retailer and the AMC network, selling out in 10 days.

Brooks Brothers, which also currently outfits characters on television programmes like Glee and Scandal, has worked with Hollywood costume designers since the 1950s. When the company began production on the men’s costumes for Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, it also entered into a retail collaboration with costume designer Catherine Martin, who designed a full line — from a tipped navy blazer and white leather wingtips to an onyx stud-and-cufflink set and a shawl collar cardigan — inspired by the costumes from the film. Launched in April 2013, most items from the collection have since sold out.

In 2012, Banana Republic’s Mad Men collection helped boost the Gap Inc. division’s sales by 7.4 percent to a record $622 million for the first quarter of the fiscal year, resulting in Bryant designing two more Mad Men collections for the retailer. But the benefits of these collaborations are often less about sales from the collections themselves and more about the overall media impact. “We honestly lost track of media impressions because there were so many outlets picking up the story,” says Brooks Brothers senior vice president of global public relations, Arthur Wayne, on the retailer’s Mad Men collaborations. “It was just a great, authentic conversation. We were extraordinarily happy with the results.”

With period pieces such as Mad Men and The Great Gatsby, it makes little sense to sell the exact same clothes worn by characters. But with a present-day series, it’s a different story. The Good Wife costume designer Dan Lawson has frequently used UK-based workwear label No. 35 to outfit the cast of the courtroom procedural over the past few seasons. “I’ve found it very difficult to find good, beautifully chic clothing that’s appropriate for the business world,” he says. “Even finding dresses with sleeves is difficult.” After pulling No. 35 garments for the show, Lawson struck up a friendship with founder Andrea Cohen. This season, they launched a capsule collection, DL 35, which will be both worn by characters on the show and sold online. The autumn 2014 collection has already been designed and more are said to be in the works. “I never wanted to do my own clothing line,” Lawson says. “It wasn’t until I started on The Good Wife that I realised there was a gap in the market.”

Not all such collaborations are success stories, however. The introduction of a Pretty Little Liars collection at Aeropostale in January 2014, which coincided with the premiere of the new season, seemed to be a win-win for the ABC network, Warner Brothers (the studio that produces the show), costume designer Mandi Line and the struggling teen retailer. “Pretty Little Liars is a pop culture phenomenon, especially amongst our customer,” Scott Birnbaum, senior vice president at Aeropostale, said in a statement at the time of launch. But the collection is currently being discounted on the retailer’s e-commerce site and does not seem to have lifted the company’s overall prospects. Last week, Aeropostale reported dismal earnings in the fourth quarter of its 2013 fiscal year, which ended on 1 February 2014 and thus included one month of sales of the Pretty Little Liars collection. Sales were down 16 percent to $670 million, from about $797 million in the fourth quarter of 2012. But Aeropostale plans on doing a second Pretty Little Liars collection, which will launch in June with the next season.

“From our perspective, pursuing the right opportunities to highlight our quality programmes can be a huge win,” says vice president of marketing partnerships at ABC, Victoria Chew, who has brokered several partnerships — with retailers including Saks, Bloomingdale’s and Bluefly — around the network’s series. Chew say she first noticed a heightened interest in costumes with the debut of Ugly Betty in September 2006 and it’s only grown from there. “Viewers were interested in what [the costume designers] were using on the show,” she says. “Many of us aspire to have the wardrobe of Olivia Pope, so we’re always thinking about how we can leverage that.”