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Reap What You Sew: Costume Designers Try for Share of Licensing Pie From On-Screen Work

Costume Design Hollywood Licensing
Courtesy of Disney/Laurie Sparham

For years, costume designers have been fighting for pay equity — an issue thrown into sharp relief by the difference in remuneration between the largely female Costume Designers Guild and the predominantly male members of the Art Directors Guild.

But an equally growing concern bubbling away under the surface has been a lack of costume designers’ involvement in the off-screen monetization of their designs. As Variety recently reported, when Disney collaborated with fashion brand Rag & Bone on an officially licensed “Cruella” collection to tie in with the new live-action film, “Cruella” costume designer Jenny Beavan didn’t see a dime. In fact, she didn’t even know a collaboration was in the works until she spotted the news on social media.

Now, costume designers want change. The objective is to be seen as an asset not only to the aesthetic of the film but, more holistically, in marketing, promotion and box office success.

“It would be great for us to be offered a consultancy so that the translation of our work can be best represented,” says costume designer Ellen Mirojnick, whose credits include “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” and “Bridgerton.”

Arianne Phillips, who has styled Madonna and received three Oscar nominations, most recently for her work on “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” also thinks studios should start to include costume designers in merchandise and licensing conversations, to create more authentic collaborations if nothing else. “Why are they not involving the people that make the films for a better product?” she points out.

Phillips is speaking from experience. She worked on MGM’s “Tank Girl” in 1995, then learned there was a collaboration with Urban Outfitters: “I was mortified because the [Urban Outfitters] designs did not reflect my designs.” She didn’t think the collection elevated the film and felt betrayed. “It wasn’t even about the financial compensation; it was about integrity, because people assumed that I designed that clothing line,” she says.

Judas and the Black Messiah” costume designer Charlese Antoinette Jones hopes that once these kinds of unfair practices are highlighted online, consumers can help in demanding better terms for costume designers.

“Letting fans know that we don’t get residuals from certain products maybe will motivate people not to buy certain things and we can get the word out there,” Jones says. “[If] they’ll say, ‘What up with this?’ and create enough of an uproar, I think things could change faster.”

The challenge, acknowledges Salvador Pérez Jr., president of the Costume Designers Guild, is that independent contracts negotiated by agents tend to have standard work-for-hire language. “This language has been around for years and predates the concept of merchandising film or TV costumes,” he explains. “As far as the studios are concerned, they hired us to design the costumes and they own the rights. But we are hired to design the costumes to be worn by actors for production, not to be copied and sold beyond that.”

There is also the tricky issue — particularly where reboots and adaptations are concerned — of who owns the intellectual property when there have been multiple contributors.

“Now that the movie and television industry has caught up to the fact that costumes are not only powerful storytelling tools but also valuable properties, it’s natural that costume designers would want a piece of the merchandising action,” says professor Susan Scafidi, founder and director of Fordham’s Fashion Law Institute.
“Perhaps the more complex issue is determining when a costume designer’s contribution to the licensed merchandise has been significant enough to warrant royalties,” she says. Scafidi makes the distinction, for example, between carbon-copy Halloween costumes and a T-shirt featuring the movie’s logo.

“All of this, of course, can be resolved through negotiation and careful drafting of agreements,” she says.
However, rather than waiting for contractual changes that may never come, some costume designers are pitching merchandise and licensing ideas they can work on together with the studios. “I don’t know how realistic it is for us to be able to get these kinds of things written into our contracts and deals unless you are a really, really, really well-known costume designer who has a lot of power and a following already,” says Jones, who has a background in both the fashion business and management. “I’m kind of in the mindset of ‘If I do a big enough project where I feel like there is a potential for licensing, I’m going to pitch it first.’”

It’s an approach endorsed by Mandi Line, costume designer on “Pretty Little Liars.” While working on the show, she pitched Warner Horizon Television on a fashion collection, promising to promote the line on her social media feed and make in-store appearances. The result was a “Pretty Little Liars”-licensed collaboration with fashion brand Aéropostale in 2014.

Costume designers need to show “what we can bring to the table,” says Line. “Put together a business plan, put together a package where they don’t want to leave you out, because there are 10 million cooks in the kitchen and everyone’s going to have a reason not to involve you.”

Perez Jr. advises a hybrid approach: “[Designers must] keep asking to be involved in marketing decisions and to request clauses in their contracts that [studios] should, at the very least, acknowledge our original designs,” he says.

As professor Scafidi puts it: “It’s time for costume designers to be able to reap what they sew.”