Costume designer suits up DC streaming heroes

When it comes to job titles, Sarah Jeanne Mgeni’s is the coolest one I’ve ever heard.

Sarah is Assistant Super Suit Costume Designer for a quartet of popular DC streaming series: Black Lightning, Doom Patrol, Titans, and the upcoming Stargirl.

Like a real-life Edna Mode, she works with Costume Designer Laura Jean Shannon to make sure the actors who play heroes like Robotman, Cyborg, Elasti-Girl, Thunder and Lightning, Raven, Starfire, and Beast Boy are suited up in style, comfort, and fan-approved attention to detail.

Sarah’s passion for fashion was born out of necessity when, as a kid, she began making the clothes she wanted but couldn’t afford. A chance encounter with none other than director Spike Lee led to an internship. After studying at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, she cut her teeth on a variety of projects, including low-budget horror films and hilarious web series Princess Rap Battle. 

She met Shannon while working in a costume shop. After a few projects together, including Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Warner Brothers recruited Shannon for Black Lightning. Three shows later, she and Sarah are still meeting the unique challenges of creating super suits and other costumes for several DC Comics dream teams. 

I had the pleasure of talking to Sarah about what it’s like to be a real-life Super Suit maker, the time she designed an actual space suit, her first experience as a panelist at San Diego Comic-Con, and what we can expect from the new Stargirl costumes. 

Your official job title is Assistant Super Suit Costume Designer. I think that’s probably the coolest job title ever! What does the job of a Super Suit Costume Designer entail?

Haha, I think so too! As Assistant Costume Designer, I support our Designer in many aspects of the job. The super suits department we’ve created is located in Los Angeles but services shows that shoot in Atlanta and Toronto and our designer lives in upstate New York.

So basically I am her eyes and ears when she is home in NY, and her right hand when she is in L.A. or when we are on location. I communicate design-related things to the teams, support our department supervisor on logistical stuff and monitor the build process of the costumes.

You’re like a real-life Edna Mode. How do people tend to react when they hear what you do for a living?

Most people outside of the “industry” are really interested in which famous people I’ve worked with, and if they are comic book fans they like to talk about the costume designs themselves. “Industry” folks tend to want to hear how we are able to service so many shows with a core team of about 12 (the secret is that we design for a few characters on each show, leaving the rest of the costuming up to a whole different costume designer and department that are on location.)

You work on DC streaming TV shows, including Black Lightning, Doom Patrol, Titans, and the upcoming Stargirl. How did you become involved with these series?

My involvement with these particular shows stems from my relationship with Costume Designer Laura Jean Shannon. She has been instrumental in my career advancement the past five years or so. I met her while working at Global Effects, a costume shop in North Hollywood that specializes in specialty costuming — specifically medieval armor and replica space suits. She came in needing some child-sized superhero costumes made for an Avengers tie-in commercial.

That led to many more opportunities in the sewing room on two TV projects and the Jumanji sequel that came out in 2017. She was approached by Warner Brothers in 2017 to design the superhero suit for Black Lighting — having designed the first Ironman movie and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, she seems a natural choice. And here we are, three more shows later …

What’s your background/training as a costume designer? What first sparked your interest in this field?

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been interested in making clothes. It was the easiest way to have things that no one else at school had, or the things I was seeing on my favorite TV shows, like the Mickey Mouse Club, that I just didn’t have access or the money to buy.

But my first moment of realizing that I wanted to make costumes was in high school. The Beauty and the Beast stage show was traveling through my home town and I recall during “Be Our Guest” thinking, “I want to make dancing spoons.” I think the potential for magic in a costume and its role in helping to create a world is what struck me that night.

My particular background stems from fashion design — I have an A.A. in fashion design from FIDM (Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising), as well as some prior education at a technical college in my hometown. A lot of what I know now I learned on the job. Many different jobs, but on the job nonetheless.

There are so many routes into this field, there really isn’t a “right” one, and I like that. Everyone comes into it with different interests, backgrounds and skill sets. I just happen to be sort of a “Swiss Army Knife,” which lends itself well to designing superhero costumes.

The outer layer of the full pressure space suit sample Sarah made for Orbital Outfitters.

I heard you once designed a real-life space suit for the private space sector. Did that give you any special insight into designing superhero costumes?

Surprisingly, it does! Specifically in costumes with armored elements or extensions like wings or capes. In a full pressure space suit like the one I was working on, there is a lot of attention paid to the affect interior pressure and gravity have on the mechanics of the suit — how those things affect the way the arms rotate or knees and hips bend.

You have to take these things into account so as not to physically tax the human inside when they have to move. And not tax the stitching or mechanical elements. Wearing a super suit can be similarly exhausting, so we have a lot of conversation about mechanics, weight distribution, and materials strength.  Just like we do in making a space suit.

Were you a comic book fan before you landed the job with DC? 

I hate to admit it, but I wasn’t a comic book reader before this opportunity came along. I think I’ve found it intimidating in so much as there is just so much, going so far back, I just don’t know where to start.

With the Doom Patrol it was an easy decision — I started with the Grant Morrison incarnation, since that was an influence for our show.  I’ve since picked up a couple of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman books.  Maybe I just like the weirder stuff and didn’t know it!

I understand that even when a show isn’t historical, there’s a lot of research involved before designing the costumes. What kind of research do you tend to do before you start?

With these superhero shows, there is a rich history for us to dig through looking for inspiration. Sometimes our showrunners and executive producers have a particular incarnation they are looking for and that helps us narrow it down. We are always designing with the fandom in mind as well — trying to marry what they’ve come to expect and the cinematic reality of the particular show.

One of our shows may have more fantastical elements to it, so we are able to bring fantasy to the designs, while another may be grounded more in our current reality, so the choices we make have to be similarly grounded. In the case of Hawk and Dove from Titans, wings become a tactical element meant to protect, fabric needs to appear like a new technology that is indestructible.

How would you describe your collaboration with Costume Designer Laura Jean Shannon?

I love working with LJ!  She is inspiring in so many ways. Not only is she extremely talented, but unbelievably kind and supportive. She really likes to foster an inclusive, collaborative environment that enables the strengths of each and every team member to help us all succeed. I’ve really enjoyed the evolution of our friendship and partnership — I miss sewing and crafting, but really enjoy assisting. She gives me a lot of freedom to participate in the process and voice my opinions so I feel as much pride for the final result as if I had designed it myself.

Sarah Jeanne Mgeni with Black Lightning star Cress Williams.

Would you walk us through the process of designing a super suit for a character, from start to finish?

The first step is a conversation with the showrunner. This is where we learn which characters we will be designing super suits for, or closets of clothes for (like Starfire). From that initial meeting, research is done — about the histories of the characters, textiles, technology, even fashion design can be inspirational.

This research is used by the designer and a concept artist to create “thumbnails,” which are shared with the showrunner for feedback. Thumbnails are a series of rough line sketches of differing designs that the showrunner can critique. This can go on for a couple of rounds before one is approved to flesh out. At this point, with an approved concept, the illustrator or concept artist will start adding colors and textures, and sometimes creating textures that we can print onto fabric to create something a little more special, a little more “tactical,” or a little more functional.

Once approved by the showrunner and executive producers, the concept art is shared with the craftspeople responsible for making the concept a reality. That includes screen printers, sculptors, muscle-suit makers, pattern makers, sewers, painters, shoppers — it’s a communication tool at this point, one that leads to the creation of the first samples.

Fittings start to happen and we dial in the fit and look of the costume, each fitting progressing until we have a completed super suit, ready to be photographed and shipped to set. My favorite part is revealing the completed costume to the crew the first day of shooting — we feel like rock stars that day!

I read that there are now digital scans of the actors’ bodies involved in costuming. Could you tell me more about how that works?

This is really useful technology. When we send an actor to get scanned, thousands of pictures are taken by these machines that then stitch the pictures together to give us an exact image of their “topography.” Those images are then used to digitally create sculpted costume elements right on them — a perfect fit.

We also use the scans to create a mannequin — a replica of their body that helps us in the creation of their super suit from soft element to sculpted element. We still employ traditional sculpting, but for some things, like Robotman’s head, creating it digitally lets us really see it and make changes quickly.

So do you end up working pretty closely with the actors?

Yes, extremely close. We are typically the first people they interact with from our superhero shows — so making sure they know they are in good hands from the start really helps them on their journey. LJ is really instrumental in helping them develop their character in these early stages as well — typically there is a collaboration with the actor regarding their costume.

However, on these superhero shows, we’ve been tasked with designing the characters long before the actor is cast, and had a pretty extensive line of producers to sign off on them, so when the actor or actress shows up, there is little to collaborate on. So we spend a lot of time making sure they will be comfortable, and we have anywhere from three to six fittings to do so. It’s a tight schedule.

When you’re designing a specific suit or costume, you’re usually not just designing one version but several. Is that correct? 

LJ’s favorite saying is “one is none” and it’s especially true for super suits. On our TV projects, we will have at least two, and that never feels like enough. With all the action they see, they get pretty beat up so on our local teams, we have highly skilled sewers and craftspeople who are constantly doing repairs and getting things ready for the next day. On a movie project like Jumanji where the characters are in the same costume the entire movie, we make 20. It’s like having a little factory!

A lot of those suits don’t look very comfortable. Is comfort a factor when you’re designing for these shows?

Actor comfort is really important to us. Super suits are not like regular clothes in any way — they can be heavy, the fabrics don’t always breathe as much as we’d like them to, sculpted elements can affect range of motion. During the fitting process we try and identify potential problems the actor may encounter and resolve them early.

Some things we just won’t know until an actor has been in a suit for 12 hours the first time and then we work together to address concerns. One thing that comes up a lot, especially in Atlanta in the summer, is heat. We provide cooling suits that cycle cold water under the costume, against the actor’a body to help cool core temperature, and moisture wicking undergarments to deal with sweat.

Sarah in the workshop for Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.

What are some of the different challenges you encounter in designing for Black Lightning, vs. Doom Patrol, vs. Titans?

Each of these shows is so different from the others! Doom Patrol has a robot! A man inside of a robot suit! That was a major challenge (still is), one I think we nailed. There was this razor fine line between what could have been hokey and what we beautifully created — one we skated around for weeks before we were able to really dial it in. I think I am most proud of the team for the work they did on Robotman.

The challenges on Black Lighting are all of the practical lighting elements. It’s really tricky lighting someone up without having an enormous battery pack strapped to their back. We really had to look for the best electricians in the industry in order to make those costumes not only light up, but also be safe for the actors to wear. No small feat!

You would think the biggest challenge on Titans was creating wings for Hawk and Dove that stayed true to the books and didn’t look ridiculous. But no … the biggest challenge on Titans is keeping the costumes secret! I love how passionate our Titans fans are and how even the blurriest of images can get them fired up.

The DC streaming shows have proven very popular with audiences and critics. Do you tend to watch them when they air?

I do! We try and have a screening party for the whole team when a new show airs for the first time. It’s really nice for everyone to see all of their hard work on screen. The only thing I miss about just being an audience member vs. a creator is I’ve read all the scripts and watched the dailies, so I know what’s going to happen. But it’s nice to see it all together with special and visual effects and music added.

What’s it like to see your work in action/on screen?

It’s really rewarding once I’ve relived the highs and lows from the creation of it, haha.

You’re working on the new series Stargirl, which is slated to debut in 2020. I assume you can’t talk much about it. Can you give us any hints about the costumes?

I can’t say much, but what I really like about the costumes we did for Stargirl is that they are probably the most true-to-the-books “super suits” of any shows we’ve done. Doom Patrol is pretty spot on, but I think of their costumes more like regular clothes.

At Global Effects, Sarah worked on replicas of a costume from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, designed by Eiko Ishioka.

I assume you didn’t start out as a Super Suit Designer. Tell me about some of your early experiences in the film and TV industry. 

My first set experience was a fluke. Or divine intervention. I randomly met Spike Lee a few months after moving to L.A. and he offered me an internship when I told him I wanted to be a costume designer. That opportunity changed my life. I knew the second I stepped onto the costume trailer that this was where I was meant to be.

From there, after I graduated from FIDM, I took every job I could. Did a lot of low-budget horror films as a costumer in the beginning — but I’ll tell you what—horror is the best way to start. You have to learn continuity quick, get a feel for night shoots, learn to let go of being covered in dirt and blood.

From there, I designed short films and a few web series. Those were the projects where I met quite a few of the filmmakers I still collaborate with from time to time. I really enjoy watching us progress side-by-side in our careers, our dreams becoming reality just because we stuck with it for so long.

And I worked in the costume shop for several years before meeting LJ. I really never said no to an opportunity, no matter what it was and I think that willingness to try different aspects of the department really helped me get to where I am now.

I always wanted to thank Spike for that opportunity. And you know what, I did! It was 14 years later, but I ran into him on the Warner Brothers lot when we were doing Black Lighting the first time. I was so nervous, but grateful and he was just as gracious as the first time I met him.

Many departments in film and TV tend to be male dominated. Do you find that the costume and wardrobe department is an exception to that?

Yes, unfortunately costume and wardrobe, much like hair and makeup, was historically thought of as “women’s work” and referred to as the “vanities” for a long time (could there be a more demeaning word for what we do?!). As such there is a huge disparity in pay between production designer (male dominated position) and costume designer (female dominated position) for work that is essentially the same, and is the same in terms of contribution to the look of the project.

We currently have an investigative committee working toward collecting data on pay equity. It will be a long road, as on the national level, but it’s time.

You recently made your first appearance as a panelist at San Diego Comic-Con. The panel was sponsored by the Costume Designer Guild and titled “Designing the DC Streaming Universe.” Tell me about that experience.

As someone who is terrified speaking in front of 10 people, much less 200, I was really humbled by the interest people had. The audience questions were so thoughtful and insightful and everyone I encountered before and after the panel was extremely kind.

What did you think of the ultimate geek rite of passage that is SDCC?

I was so overwhelmed! I have a history of making costumes for cosplayers, so I was aware of that aspect. What I was unprepared for was the floor! What an awesome way to showcase independent artists and artisans and display the hard work of departments like mine that design and make costumes and props for your favorite movies. I think that was my favorite part — seeing all the different Star Wars costumes on display. I love looking at the details up close.

Some days, Sarah gets to see cool things other companies are working on, like this full-size Chewbacca replica.

What are some of your personal favorite fandoms?

The Muppets. I love puppetry in all forms, but The Muppets have fascinated me from a very young age. And I may be a little biased, because I costume designed several of her videos, but Whitney Avalon’s Princess Rap Battles is something I really love. Oh! And I love our aforementioned Titans fans —their passion for our show really keeps us on our toes, man.  And that keeps us from getting lazy.

Super suit designing sounds amazing. Do you plan to continue in this niche or are there other areas of costume design you’d like to tackle?  

I love what were are doing right now — and because no two super suits are the same I think I could happily stick with it for a long time. But I do love sci-fi and period costumes and puppets so there are other things I would love to work on as well.

Before we wrap this up, I must know … who are your personal favorite superheroes?

I love Beast Boy. Mostly because he can change into animal shapes and that’s something I’ve always wished I had the ability to do — to experience our world as a different creature. What’s it like to walk like a giraffe, or breath underwater like fish do?

Are there any iconic super suits you draw inspiration from?

I have to say when I saw Dr Strange’s costume in person for the first time, I was blown away by the details. Along those lines, the people I find most inspiring are fashion designer Alexander McQueen and costume designer Eiko Ishioka. The attention to detail they each put into their work during their lifetimes is what I really aspire to do. Whether as a designer or a costume maker, to be able to really go for it with color and texture and shape and volume — that’s where I’d like to be.

So what is the secret to designing a really memorable and epic super suit?

That’s a good question. I think the answer is to be unafraid in your design, give the fans what they are looking for but also something new. I think we’ve had too many advancements in technology and textiles for a simple design like the original Superman to pass the judgement of our extremely savvy movie and television watchers today. Not to mention the extreme quality of our movies screens, TVs and mobile devises.

There has to be something viewers haven’t seen before, or something real to catch their eye and impress. Like Robotman, for instance (I keep going back to him because he’s so cool) — we could have created a digital Robotman and I don’t think anyone would have thought anything of it.

But instead we made a practical costume that an actor could wear. I think that breathes a life into him that I’m not sure computers will ever be able to do. And that makes him as real as the human next to him in the scene. I think we respond to that on a visceral level.

Anyway, I’m hoping the computer never achieves that level of realness — I’ll probably be out of a job!

 

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