Kym Barrett offers aspiring costume designers the ‘red pill’..”
Barrett, the costume and set designer for films like The Matrix and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, is mentoring student designer-in-residence at the UCLA School of Theatre, Film and Television this month. As part of the program, Barrett gives graduate students the opportunity to add their own touches to costumes from the film Us, another film Barrett worked on. Aspiring designers were commissioned to build costumes and sets for an alternate version of the film, said Barrett, who is set in turn-of-the-century Coney Island — an endeavor that has been creatively fruitful so far.
“Every toddler eventually learns to walk, talk, or do math, but everyone has their own speed and cognitive nature of the process that’s taking place,” Barrett said. “I really love it (the class) because everyone’s projects and ideas are really good and interesting. They come from completely different places.”
Although she currently lives in the art and design industries, Barrett said she originally pursued a career in science and followed in the footsteps of her father, a geologist, by studying marine biology. However, Barrett’s career changed during her freshman year at the university, she said. After befriending several acting and theater students, Barrett said she knew she’d found her people and could never return to the nine-to-five lifestyle she was heading towards.
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After grad school, Barrett said she found her first job as a costume designer on the film Romeo + Juliet after meeting producer Baz Luhrmann, whom she met during her time on the theater scene. Barrett said that as a young designer, the Mexico City shoot was transformative and inspiring because she was able to live with Mexican families and paint shirts with them while learning the basics of Mexican craftsmanship.
Barrett, who has been a designer for more than 20 years, says the dynamic and interdisciplinary nature of her work inspires her year after year. The process of going from a script to a fleshed out character and a fully realized world requires input from everyone on set, Barrett said, be it a producer, the director, the art department, or the actors themselves, and Barrett hopes students you can get a taste of that collaborative spirit this month.
“It’s not like we’re all separate departments,” Barrett said. “We all get together and if we don’t have a meeting for a week, I’ll go over to the art department and sit there and show them what I do. It’s like weaving a tapestry, slowly weaving all the threads into a unified set of images.”
Stacia Lang, another costume designer who has worked on numerous films alongside Barrett, said that being versatile and communicating with as many members of the team as possible is a crucial part of her everyday life. Depending on the project, Lang said, their responsibilities range from management and high-level to more hands-on. A specific example of one more The role involved was to build Shang Chi’s combat jacket along with Barrett, which Lang said was a daunting task as the suit was different in design than others they’d made before, but that ended up making it more satisfying to put together .
Many of the techniques associated with costume design, like cutting fabrics and fabrics, have been firmly entrenched in the field for decades, but Lang said emerging technology trends like 3D printing and synthetic textiles are evolving the tradition. Camille Friend, a hairstylist who has also worked with Barrett, said Barrett’s acceptance of new approaches combined with her reverence for tradition gives her work a unique aesthetic.
“Barrett is always looking for the latest and greatest in fabric,” said Friend. “Costume, hairstyling, makeup – these are all very old crafts. But there are so many new technological things you can bring to your craft just to make it more modern and approach it in a different way.”
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For aspiring designers, Barrett says, there’s a temptation to stick with an assistant role because it’s less pressureful and easier to get, but she begs students not to get stuck in one comfortable positions. Once a designer assistant herself, Barrett said she knew she wanted to do more and that being an assistant wasn’t conducive to her career. Rather, Barrett said she only thrived when she became brave enough to take full responsibility for her design work and all the ups and downs that come with it, and she hopes her students will eventually find that same confidence.
“If you’re going to do it, start with it and just accept that every job is going to be completely different,” Barrett said. “Some will be super comfortable, and others will just be really hard. But with every job you learn a lot of things you never knew before.”