I sat down with Shpetim Zero to discuss his passion for costume design and his frustration that wardrobe decisions aren’t always given the weight and time (and budget) they deserve. Film is a visual medium and, after all, the garments worn by characters are among the most compelling and revealing visual elements of a film. We sat down to talk at my apartment in West Hollywood, with Sphetim splitting his attention between me and my pug Romeo.
Hunter: So Sphetim, when did you first get into costume design?
Shpetim: I first started doing costumes in theater, in college. But I always had a thing for clothing. Even as a kid, I used to check out clothing, shoes – it was just an innate passion, figuring out how things were made. But it took a more tactile form, a practical form when I started doing costumes for theatrical productions in Santa Barbara. Then I delved more into it and went to school for it.
Hunter: You’ve had success as a haute coutre designer. How is it different to make a garment from scratch as opposed to finding the right item for a film character?
Shpetim: It’s a craft to somehow match something to a character, but it isn’t always necessarily the ‘right’ or ‘perfect’ thing. But when you’re building it, you can actually start the energy of the costume within the character’s energy so that it becomes fully, exactly what you want. This mostly comes in terms of fantasy. Things are made when we do things in fantasy.
Hunter: Sounds like you prefer to build.
Shpetim: I prefer to build because you actually create a look. And you can manipulate a look. You can manipulate a look better by building it than by trying to find it. It’s a lot more work, but it actually saves time cause you’re not running around town finding things. But with budgets…
Hunter: Sure, low budgets…
Shpetim: Right, it can be a problem. But if you do have a budget or a semi-budget, I prefer to build things. But even finding things, you can be innovative. You can do a lot.
Hunter: Like I thought that what you found for Jerod in the reading really worked and helped bring that character to life.
Shpetim: It was limited. The shirt didn’t actually fit that well. Certain things could be made if we had a budget. But it’s actually okay not to have a budget. You can still be innovative.
Hunter: What are your favorite movies, in terms of costumes?
Shpetim: The three I like the most all have ‘beauty’ in their names. So, Dangerous Beauty, Stealing Beauty and Stage Beauty. Dangerous Beauty was all done by Gabriella Pescucci. It was all done by Tirelli costume house, which is in Rome. We’re talking about real renassaince costumes, complete real constructions. Stealing Beauty is Bernardo Bertolucci.
Hunter: Oh yeah, he’s good.
Shpetim: Yeah in terms of movies, you could take Hellboy…who cares about the story line? But in terms of costuming and what Del Toro did with the look of that film….costume-wise that film is beyond brilliant. Or Underworld. I don’t even care about the story, but the clothing structure that was built and corsetry were BEYOND, you know what I’m saying? So I look at movies just for the clothing sometimes.
Hunter: Well, that makes sense because of your passion. That’s how you hook into it. So let me ask you this, in terms of the business side of these designers making clothing for film, are these designers making their money from costume design for film or is that just giving them the prestige to leverage into other things?
Shpetim: You make money creating collections that go into mass production. The companies that make money in the fashion world are the companies that do mass production wear. American Apparel. Diesel. Bebe. Zara, internationally. Gap. These are the companies that actually make money because they’re selling to the masses. Selling to the masses is not necessarily creating innovative collections. Innovative collections are created to attract attention, but then you start selling to the masses.
Costume designing is extremely different than fashion designing. They’re two separate entities. They are related, in terms of design. They’re like branches of the same tree.
Hunter: Kind of like theater acting and film acting?
Shpetim: Even more distant than that. They’re very distant branches. Because costume designing, especially here in L.A., just deals with buying shit. No one is REALLY costume designing unless it’s Anna Karenina.
Hunter: I love that film.
Shpetim: Films like that are actually building. And even then, sometimes only the costumes for the main actors are being built, not the rest. Because there’s not enough budget.
Hunter: Not enough money, right?
Shpetim: Right. So for a project like Inside-Out, Outside-In, we’re not building. The creativity that comes into it is creating that “essence” that you’re trying to achieve and you have to be open to interpretation when you don’t have much of a budget. But I really want you to take a look at Hellboy and the creative aspect of what was done, in terms of puppetry and building. Innovative. Innovative. Innovative.[AT THIS POINT WE TAKE A BREAK IN OUR INTERVIEW TO CHECK OUT IMAGERY FROM HELLBOY]
Hunter: You’ve told me before that you sometimes feel your department is underestimated. Tell me about that.
Shpetim: Costume designing is really crucial because it’s creating almost 50-75% of the first impact, visually. So I think it’s really important, whether it’s a fantasy, whether it’s a period piece or whether it’s current day, costume is very important. And it doesn’t get as much respect as it should just because people don’t understand it. They take it for granted, like the mother’s love. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.
Hunter: Even if you have a low budget production, you can still make sure the costumes fit properly. You can still make sure the color palette is right.
Shpetim: Yeah! You can’t use my wardrobe in your projects any more, though.
Shpetim: You can find wardrobe, but not the costume designer’s wardrobe.[WE LAUGH. AND IN MY MIND, I’M HOPING HE IS JOKING, NOT SETTING A BOUNDARY. SUCH IS MY RELATIONSHIP WITH THE MAGICAL AND MERCURIAL SHPETIM ZERO]
Hunter Lee Hughes is a filmmaker living and working in Los Angeles and the founder of Fatelink, an open source production company. Our filmmaking blog charts the progress of each of our projects. If you enjoy the blog, please support our team by following us on Facebook, Twitter (@Fatelink) or Instagram (@Fatelink).