Costumes for film and television can often become so iconic that they transcend the actors who wore them. Simply envision a blue, gingham pinafore and a pair of red shoes or a little black dress and a string of pearls: these costumes conjure characters well before the movie stars who played them.
Yet costume designers — many of whom are women — are rarely compensated or credited for the myriad ways in which their creativity and hard work generate revenue off-screen, whether through dolls, Halloween costumes or licensed fashion collaborations.
A recent incident over a “Cruella”-inspired fashion line, which was licensed, designed and released without costume designer Jenny Beavan’s knowledge, has finally pushed a number of fellow costumers — including the Costume Designers Guild itself — into publicly calling out the “unfair” practice, despite the risk it poses to their own careers.
Oscar-winning Beavan is the brains behind the sumptuous outfits in the new “Cruella” film, starring Emma Stone and Emma Thompson. She has been nominated 10 times for best costume design at the Academy Awards and has won twice, once for “A Room with a View” and another time for “Mad Max: Fury Road”. When she worked on “Cruella,” she says, she “never stopped thinking” about her work. And, she admits: “I’ve got what every [costume] designer has, which is a bad right shoulder from heaving heavy costumes off racks.”
During production of “Cruella,” Beavan recalls there had been some talk of working with Disney on co-branded products for Target and Singer sewing machines. There was also discussion about a possible fashion collection. But production ended, the pandemic hit and suddenly Beavan had more important things to worry about, like whether she’d ever work again. “Because I’m 70, I didn’t think I’d get insurance. And a lot of producers were saying, ‘You know, we may never be able to make films again.'”
Beavan, who says she didn’t hear anything more from Disney about merchandise or licensing, promptly forgot all about it. Then, last month, a friend sent her an Instagram post from fashion brand Rag & Bone, advertising their new, officially licensed “Cruella”-inspired collection and asking if she was involved. It was the first she had heard of it.
“I just was sort of horrified,” Beavan tells Variety from her London home, where she is currently at work on the “Mad Max” prequel “Furiosa.”
“The thing about ‘Cruella’ is that you’ve got a film about fashion, about two fashion designers. The whole story is them almost having a war using fashion. So, that’s so disrespectful to then bring out fashion lines,” notes Beavan.
Disney did not respond to Variety’s query by press time.
Beavan is by no means the first costume designer to be blindsided by merchandise based on her work. A licensed “Birds of Prey” collection by Her Universe, which was released last year, drew heavily from Harley Quinn and co.’s costumes but didn’t involve Erin Benach, the costume designer who created them. And Mona May, who has created iconic designs for films including “Clueless” and Disney’s “Enchanted,” recalls seeing “Clueless” dolls in 1995 that “had my costumes on, like verbatim — the yellow suit, the black suit.”
May tells Variety, “That was really shocking that I was not involved at all and I had no compensation for something that huge.”
Similarly, the puffball princess dress that May created for Amy Adams’ character in “Enchanted” was copied “to a tee” for children’s costumes, right down to the butterfly on the bust, the designer claims. “It’s such an old studio system in the sense that we basically sign [away] our life when we sign a contract, and there is no way around it,” May says.
“Historically, this is a huge issue for our membership, and for all costume designers,” says CDG communications director Anna Wyckoff. “Because, as everyone knows, a costume has a long life after the project — in merchandising and toys and Halloween costumes. So there are many opportunities for the costumes to be used in an ancillary marketing fashion.”
“As costume designers, our work has a life beyond the screen,” costume designer and CDG president Salvador Pérez Jr tells Variety. “Our work is reproduced for toys, costumes, fashion collections and more. Not only are we not allowed to participate in the profits made off of the merchandising, we aren’t even credited for our work on the original designs.”
Occasionally, licensing departments do bring in costume designers to work on fashion collaborations: Janie Bryant, who was responsible for the wardrobe on “Mad Men,” enjoyed a successful multi-year collaboration with Banana Republic, working on a licensed “Mad Men” line. Meanwhile, costumier Eric Damon worked with British retailer Miss Selfridge on a “Gossip Girl” collection in 2010. And in 2011, costume designer Trish Somerville curated a “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” collection for H&M.
It’s not standard practice, however, especially among the bigger studios. And involvement in other types of merchandise is almost unheard of, despite agents’ best efforts to negotiate their clients’ contracts. “You basically do sign your life away,” says Beavan.
What costume designers want is credit for their work in all its forms and, ideally, compensation, whether through profit participation from the film or a cut of merchandise profits where their work is used. “Producers, directors, musicians, actors and even first [assistant directors] get a percentage of profits from their work,” Perez Jr. points out. “Costume designers who help generate additional revenues from productions deserve to be compensated for the additional income earned.”
“We were hired to design the costumes for the show,” he says. “Not the merchandising.”
Jazz Tangcay contributed to this report.