For anyone in the entertainment industry, a shiny gold statuette may be the most obvious marker of success, but for costume designer Dana Covarrubias, the real arbiters of a job well done are trick-or-treaters.
“People are like, ‘Oh, I want an Academy Award,’ but I think as a costume designer, if something you create becomes a Halloween costume, that’s sort of the next level,” she says, pointing to the prison-issue jumpsuits of Orange is the New Black and the instantly recognizable Walter White pork pie hat and Jesse Pinkman hoodie from Breaking Bad as two recent examples of the phenomenon.
“When I watch a movie I can just tell sometimes—like in Drive, Ryan Gosling’s bomber jacket with the dragon on the back, you just knew. You saw that and you were like, ‘That’s going to be an iconic costume.’”
If her recent work is any indication, Covarrubias is well poised to be behind the next Halloween sensation. Fresh off a turn as head designer on Master of None, Aziz Ansari’s critically-acclaimed new Netflix show, she has taken up the reins on Inside Amy Schumer for the show’s fourth season on Comedy Central and been tapped for an HBO pilot produced and directed by Girls’ Judd Apatow.
At a moment when the worlds of television and comedy are thriving, Covarrubias is right at the center of it all, making sure your favorite funny people are wearing exactly what they need to be.
Sometimes this calls for some slightly unusual requests. Amid Ansari’s spiffy Band Of Outsiders and Steven Alan-heavy wardrobe on Master of None is a scene that calls for a Hazmat suit—a mass-produced garment with sizing that tends to err on the side of XXL, a challenge when you’re shopping for a slim, five-foot-six star. To work around that, Covarrubias sourced a more fit-conscious flight suit, which she brought to her go-to “knockoff lady” along with some shiny white vinyl material to create a suit that looked capable of sealing off biological agents without drowning the actor’s frame.
Another group of flashback scenes took place in 1950s India and Taiwan, requiring reams of standing-collar shirts, lightweight pants, and colorful saris—along with four dedicated ager/dyers, who made H&M finds look decades old using chemicals, sandpaper, and other garment-distressing techniques. While there were tentative plans to shoot overseas, they ended up creating a faux-India in Brooklyn, which meant finding more than 200 pairs of old-world-style sandals to protect the extras’ feet. “In reality, most people would be barefoot, but we couldn’t have actors walking around barefoot in Bushwick,” she explains.
The mashup of different eras and styles made the show one of Covarrubias’ favorite projects to date. “It’s kind of the ideal, because it had custom-made cool futuristic things, period clothing, and current fashion,” she says. “It’s fun to have that balance of doing the styling side of it and fulfilling that desire to make the actors look awesome by putting them in a cool designer, and to also be super creative.”
Creativity is of the essence for the Texas native, who studied theater before landing her first television internship, in the costume department of the IFC sketch comedy show The Whitest Kids U’ Know. After years spent re-working vintage costumes for the stage, the idea that she could be told, “This is the character’s name, this is their job, this is what they do, this is the kind of person they are—let’s go shop” was a revelation.
“I was like, ‘This is a job? This is a thing that people do?’,” she recalls. “I didn’t really know that that existed, and I just immediately fell in love with it. It made so much sense to me.”
How to be a costume designer
As with any job, time and money are two of the biggest considerations that go into planning costumes for a show. Custom-made or difficult-to-find pieces have to be prioritized early on, while last-minute shopping trips will inevitably come up during filming.
On Inside Amy Schumer, for instance, Covarrubias had to get to work finding a custom-made, human-sized cockroach costume as soon as the script came in for the season’s already-written sketches, but says there will also be days when casting comes in at 8 a.m.—along with the actor’s measurements—and filming starts that afternoon. It happens more often than you might think, and means she’ll be running to Macy’s or Bloomingdale’s with 30 minutes and a corporate credit card in hand, and then right back to set to have the outfits fit, tailored, and ready to shoot.
While she has built an impressive resume with her small screen work (she also counts Louie and the pilot of the now über-popular Broad City among her successes), Covarrubias has a few avenues she would like to explore more in the future.
“I would love to do more movies—I think, like any industry, you get into one vein and then you get hired on the next thing, the next thing, the next thing. Doing movies is really different—for one thing, it’s faster,” she says. Where television shows can film for three to six months of the year (or longer), movies often call for only a month of work. “As a creative person, I enjoy the shortness of movies, because it’s like this little world that you create for a month, and the next month you get to create a whole new world.”
It also probably doesn’t hurt that the last movie she worked on, They Came Together, has a cast list that reads like a who’s who of everyone’s imaginary celebrity best friends: Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd, Ellie Kemper, Christopher Meloni…need we go on?
Far from corroborating the ladder-climbing, back-stabbing Hollywood stereotype, Covarrubias credits an amazingly supportive network of producers, directors, and fellow costume designers for helping her land increasingly high-profile gigs. And with business going strong in New York, she has no plans to relocate out west anytime soon.
“I’m sure it would be doable, but—knock on wood—I keep getting hired here and I keep getting to work on things that I really respect and love, and I like everyone that I work with.” Plus, she adds, “I feel like after you live in New York, you’re spoiled for anywhere else.”
Photo credit: Frank Mullaney