My first introduction to Loren Shaw was through a magnificent coat that she designed as the costume designer for Shakespeare Theater Company’s The Taming of the Shrew. I knew I was in for an interesting treat given that the play renowned for its abject sexism featured an all-male cast. What I didn’t expect was to be captivated before the play commenced. As we walked up the staircase to hopefully grab a drink before the show, my compatriots and I were greeted by an intriguing set of characters. A man donning a gilded coat with a feather lapel finish immediately grabbed my attention and I pled for the opportunity to try on the magnificent piece of clothing. Unfortunately, I lack documentation of me with the said specific coat as the picture capturing that moment of sheer excitement is one that my fragile ego couldn’t bear if made available for public scrutiny. The enchanting feathered item was only the beginning. Once the show began I was transported into a world whose remarkability was reinforced by the execution of the costuming. During remission I knew that I had to talk to the person responsible for creating the unforgettable universe. Fortunately for me, Loren Shaw whose work had me at hello gave me the honor of interviewing her about her career and her journey to becoming a costume designer. It took a while for us to chat after I reached out to her as she was in the Hamptons styling an indie movie. When we finally spoke, she rejuvenated the optimistic pragmatist in me. While Loren possesses a positive outlook of living as a perpetuate freelancer, a livelihood dependent on the unpredictable ebbs and flows of paid work, she is by no means a passive believer. She staunchly believes that if you don’t see anything in the horizon, build something. Her go-getter disposition has enabled her to fully chase her dreams on her terms as a freelancer and never seek an employer – that makes her a “Wear What You Have” inspiration.
Marcela Onyango: How did you know you wanted to be a costume designer?
Loren Shaw: I didn’t know for a long time. I probably only ever saw Fiddler on the Roof and Phantom of the Opera before I got into theater. I did ballet a lot when I was younger and I was also a painter going through high school and early college, but I didn’t have a clear vision of what I wanted to do until I met this costume designer at the University of South Florida where I was in undergrad. I met him and my mind was blown that people can be costume designers.
I was homeschooled for a long time and I learned how to sew and spent a lot of my time painting. I weirdly had a lot of things that make the skills of being a costume designer, but I had never really thought about it until I met this guy who pulled me in. Then I was introduced to theater and I fell in love. So I finished my undergrad doing that. After I graduated I didn’t feel quite ready to head into a big city like LA, so I went to grad school for three years. I went to Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburg, which is a really great program. I got my MFA (Master of Fine Arts) there and I made a lot of great friends and collaborators. Then I moved to the city (New York City) after that and I’ve been here for about 7 years.
Marcela: When you first got to New York City, what was your first step to getting jobs? Did you know people?
Loren: Well, I knew a couple of people just because one of the big benefits of going to a grad program in the theater world is that you make a lot of connections. Especially in New York and LA, a lot of grad programs have a big alumni base that are there at least to answer questions if not to hire you; different schools to different extents. Like people who go to Yale pretty much have a job right out, it’s that kind of program where they all stick together and work for each other. Carnegie Mellon wasn’t like that, but I did make a lot of connections that way; I got a lot of interviews, fell into a couple of things at the beginning and I just kept going. You just try to meet everyone you can, you try to see as much theater as you can, you send emails, and it’s a lot about networking.
Marcela: So it’s all about networking even though you already have the skills?
Loren: It is. There are a few different ways if you came here [NYC] blind; you can get on Last Looks which is a group that you can put your email address on to get last minute random gigs. There is Playbill, a few other papers and blogs that list job opportunities in the field, but for the most part it’s about finding people who do it and asking what jobs they are working on or if they need an assistant so you can just get in the door.
Luckily I had made a friend, a really great director Ed who directed The Taming of the Shrew and we started developing our relationship. We worked briefly together in school and when we got to the city he had this idea of doing free theater in his apartment because he had this random big apartment space in Hell’s Kitchen. There was a group of us that started putting up shows; nobody wanted to hire us because we were straight out of college. So we started doing shows and started inviting people. It was by invitation only and we started inviting a lot of people who were in the industry and a lot of our friends; it created this community around a makeshift theater. We would actually cook for all the attendees and it was all donation based; we did that for four years and it kind of got us on our path.
Marcela: How do you deal with ebbs and flows of work?
Loren: It’s something I have had to figure out over the years; it’s hard for sure. I think there is a point at which you accept that this is part of your life and this is how it’s going to be. You also have to be the kind of person who can deal with constant variation and change and knowing that something will happen; that you’ll be able to get work and work will fall into your lap when it needs to because it does. There have definitely been months where it was really hard to pay my rent or get all my bills paid. Healthcare was a huge thing until they got ObamaCare and now I’m covered, which is amazing.
Saving my money is my biggest concern. I’m in 829, which is the union for costume designers and they set up specific things to help with healthcare and savings, but you have to be working on a grand scale all the time for those things to come into effect. So I’m trying to get that figured out. You have to let yourself be naïve and say, “I’m going to jump into the wind and see if anything catches me and it hopefully does.”
Marcela: What have you learned by yourself and what have you been taught to allow you to accomplish your goals?
Loren: I had a mentor that got me into the business, who really taught me about what it’s like to be a costume designer. His name was Bill Brewer; he was an amazing teacher. He really set the basis of the industry for me and what theater was about.
School was generally helpful in a lot of ways but most of my knowledge has come from experience. Throwing myself into different projects and figuring it out, talking to people, asking lots of questions and never thinking that what you are doing is good enough; so you are always pushing and asking yourself how you can do it better.
Marcela: How does going to grad school or not going impact your costume design career?
Loren: I do know a lot of people who are really successful and only went to undergrad. Most of the time those are people who grew up in the theater, who did theater in high school or were actors or performers of some sort. They had more of a background and felt ready to jump into it. [For example] a lot of people who go to NYU, because they are already in the city and making connections; they are a bit more prepared to jump in instead of going through the grad school route.
I know a lot of people who’ve worked in between the two [grad school and undergrad], which I think is smart. Typically I think it’s smart to work in the field before you go to grad school. I think because I was a little bit older and I knew that’s what I wanted to do; I went for it.
As far as what you gain from grad school, I think the main thing you gain is connections. I think if you go to a really good undergrad, you can get the same thing. A lot of times the classes I was taking [in grad school] I was in with undergrads. I might have had more opportunities to design shows; otherwise, there wasn’t a huge difference.
Marcela: Have there been times when you were frustrated about getting to where you wanted to go?
Loren: I would say there are a lot of comfort frustrations. There’s a lot of worrying about money and weeks that I didn’t have enough money to buy food, not having health insurance and worrying about that. I made that sacrifice because I knew eventually I would make enough and things would get better.
As for my career, I think I have always been surprised that things have gone so well. When I first got to the city people would be like, ”Well in about 10 years you’ll be doing the shows you want to be doing; you just have to do a bunch of really small theaters and bust your ass.” I feel like I very quickly got the opportunities that I wanted to get; I’m looked at as a young designer even though I’m in my mid 30s.
It’s all about making your relationships with directors, playwrights and theater companies, getting your name out there, letting people see that you’ve already done that kind of work and that they are willing to take a chance on you. It takes a long time to build all of that. From what I have seen, most people by their mid 40 are sort of where they want to be and there are a few lucky designers who are doing it early.
Marcela: When you get frustrated, whether it’s money or healthcare what inspires you not to quit and just get a job? You have skills where you could potentially work in fashion; there are tons of fashion houses in New York.
Loren: It’s funny because I really got an amazing offer. When I was in grad school I worked with ModCloth; I was good friends with the owners. They gave me this great offer before I moved to the city, but I thought I had to take this chance, I had to move to the city and try to be a costume designer. I always look back on that and wonder, but honestly deep down I have always known this is the path that I wanted to be on and that it’s right for me.
I definitely get frustrated. I think looking to my friends and collaborators for inspiration or going to a museum, going to a movie, seeing other people’s work always helps remind me. Even taking a break from design, writing something, taking photos, painting something, or taking sometime and doing yoga helps me remember why I do it. It’s not just about fashion, it’s about making theater, trying to make change and speaking to people; there is that aspect that makes it worth it.
Marcela: When you are designing for a performance, what inspires you?
Loren: Usually [it] starts with the play. If I’m looking at a play that makes me feel something, that I get excited about, that I can immediately envision, that keeps me going and that’s an amazing thing. Working with my team, my directors, my other designers, conversations we have about it, what I think it all means to an audience. Then I take design inspiration from all kind of things depending on what the play is, things that feed into what the aesthetic of what the play will be. Those are usually the main things. A lot of times too when I’m in a rehearsal, the actors, they inspire me.
Marcela: Do you like designing more for plays or movies?
Loren: I like the variety of doing both. They are very different experiences and I enjoy doing both.
Marcela: How are they different from each other?
Loren: Very different. For instance in a play, I’m usually brought in by the director, we do a reading of the play, we have a lot of discussions about the design, usually I’ll do drawings and costume renderings. If there is a shop involved, that’s a whole other process of swatching fabrics, giving them specs, having a lot of meetings. The process can be very drawn out, it can be five months, six months; on a big show I could be working for almost a year.
In film and TV, commercials especially, it’s all very quick. I’ll have a couple of weeks of prep, I’ll get the cast last minute and I throw clothes on them. I’ve maybe had a couple of minutes with the director because the producer hired me. It’s a lot crazier, sporadic and a lot of last minute shopping. When you get on set, you have one moment to figure out that perfect costume and then once it’s all on film it’s done. Most of the time it’s styling things and making them look realistic; the small details like the little necklace, the nose ring. In theater it’s very much about the big picture and what’ going to read in a huge audience of 800 or 1200 people. You have to make sure you are thinking about people in the front row and in the back row and how patterns and colors are going to mix. So it’s a very different approach.
Marcela: What has been your favorite project thus far that you’ve worked on?
Loren: My favorite project is not one of my designs. I worked on Mirror, which Eiko Ishioka designed. It was her last movie before she passed away; she had cancer. It was one of the most amazing, important projects of my life. We built the principal costumes in New York and I was sort of coordinating the New York part of the build. I was working as an assistant designer but also assisting her personally. I was buying her groceries, picking her up and taking her places, I took her to the doctor. It was a non-traditional job but she was a non-traditional designer. She was one of the most amazing artists and being able to be there especially as she was going through this whole thing, she would tell me stories about her life, talk to me about her ideas on design and she’d ask me questions about what young people now are doing. Having that experience was so powerful and meaningful to my life and career; I think that I still see her influence in my work now.
Marcela: What has been your favorite project that featured your designs?
Loren: As far as the process, I would say The Taming of the Shrew, which you saw. I did that with one of my usual teams. Ed who I love dearly was the director; I think it was our 17th show together now. We had a nice long process, our build was on the long side so we could do things the way we really wanted to do them for the most part. That team, we really collaborate well and we came up with our vision and we just did it. There was something about it, there weren’t a million hiccups, there weren’t personality problems, and the cast was so amazing. We had some challenges, we had to turn 3 men into passable women. Working with Malik, Oliver and Rick who played the women was a challenge but everyone was so lovely; everyone at the theater and the shop. I just had a really great experience and I’m proud of what we accomplished.
Marcela: Do you think young Loren would be happy with you now?
Loren: Yes, very happy. I think young me would be like, “Wow, really?”
Marcela: Why do you say that?
Loren: Growing up in Tampa, not really knowing anything about theater, not knowing anything about New York, not ever believing that I would create a career as an artist. I didn’t see a big open world for myself; I thought I would stay close to home. Somehow everything propelled me to this place. I look back wondering how I got here and there are a few people, Gretchen Warren who ran the program at USF and Bill my mentor helped me open my eyes to see that I could do it. I could go to grad school and I think about a career for myself in a way that I had never thought about before.
Marcela: What’s next for you?
Loren: There is a lot of stuff in the works. One of the big things I’m excited about is the New York Theater Workshop next spring, which is doing 2 plays; one called Sojourners and another called Her Portmanteau, both by Mfoniso Udofia.
Want to learn more about Loren? Check out more of her work.