Designing superhero costumes can be extremely difficult. Ever since the Joel Schumaker “Batman” films, there’s an added pressure of not making an iconic character seem ridiculous. After all, many characters were created in an age where the costumes were flamboyant and ridiculous. A superhero’s costume is one of the most iconic ways to identify them, making attention to detail a must-have. Costume designer Stephanie Maslansky knows all about this struggle. She designed both heroes and villains for most of the Netflix and Marvel universe, including Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, and Iron Fist. With fan expectations high for these shows, Stephanie had to get it right. Thankfully she did. Over a phone interview, we discussed her time as a costume designer before the MCU, and how to design a hero’s costume for the Netflix shows.
Alan French/Awards Circuit: How did you become a costume designer?
SM: As a kid growing up in Minneapolis I was always very crafty. I loved making things, building things, and figuring out how things worked. When I learned how to make an A-line skirt in 7th grade, I was fascinated by sewing machines. I also really like photography and history, so I enjoyed learning about the history of fashion and costumes in Hollywood. At the time I didn’t put any of this together and say “I’m going to be a costume designer.” After college, I was at a loss about which direction to go in.
I was back in Minneapolis taking my dog for a walk late one night and there were costumes from the Guthrie Theater. I looked at those costumes and had a Eureka moment. That’s what I’ll do! I started from the very bottom, stitching at Julliard Costume shop. I had gotten into a Masters program at NYU, but I knew what I wanted to do, so I wanted to try just working. It took a long time to get where I am now, but I’m really grateful for the opportunities I’ve had.
AF: What would you consider your first big break on film or television?
SM: When I started I was shopping for costume shops, but this allowed me to really get to know fabrics. I was also taking classes and I was talking about the industry to one of my professors. He asked if I’d ever thought about becoming a stylist. My initial response was that I would never do that. It’s too commercial. He gave me the number of one of his friends anyway, so of course, I called.
We talked for a while and he took my name. A few months later he called and I started as a stylist. I worked in the commercial world for a few years, and I was really anxious to get into film and television. The production designer I was working with told me that he was going off to Vermont to design a small independent film set in the 1940s, so he got me an interview for the job. I interviewed and I got it.
AF: When did you begin designing for television?
SM: It was one episode for a horror series on HBO called “Tales From the Crypt.”It was really cool, and I had worked with the director before. In the early 1990’s, I had a chance to work on some independent films. One of the higher budgets was actually “Joe’s Apartment” which was not a big hit. Sometime in the late nineties, I was trying to get some work and got to work with Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana. While the show we worked on didn’t get picked up, Tom and I stayed in touch via postcard. Well, he later asked me if I wanted to do the third season of “Oz” and I said of course! As that season was ending, I got to interview for “Third Watch” and I got that too. So I got really lucky by getting two great shows.
AF: How did you first get involved with Netflix and Marvel?
I did a few more shows, then I read in the paper that Marvel and Netflix were partnering to do a series of superhero shows in New York City for street-level heroes. They were going to be gritty and authentic and that was right up my alley. I called my agent to get me an interview, and it turned out the producer called me directly. After a Skype interview and a presentation, I was awarded the job of costume designer for “Daredevil.” I knew that other shows were coming too, and while the producers were going to stay the same, the showrunners would change. So I worked really hard on “Daredevil” and people liked my work, so I got an interview for “Jessica Jones.” I got that, and then “Luke Cage” and then “Iron Fist.”
AF: How did you turn that into “The Defenders?”
SM: At that point, they had trust in me and offered me either “The Punisher” or “The Defenders,” and quickly said “The Defenders.” I’m really happy that I did because it was the culmination of the other four seasons, and bringing them together was extraordinary. Of course, working with Sigourney Weaver was amazing, but it’s gone well. I really enjoy the Marvel collaborations and I’ve been working with them nonstop since 2014. I went on to do “Luke Cage” Season 2 and “Iron Fist” season 2. Working with Marvel is amazing, and I hope that in the fall I can go back and do “Luke Cage” season 3.
AF: Which Marvel costume was the most difficult to design?
SM: I would say the Diamondback costume, which was a collaboration between myself and Marvel creative. It was difficult because we actually made a full supervillain costume, with fabrics I had never used before. They were stretchable in all directions plus they were dyeable and printable. The costume was designed and I interpreted it as a modified flight suit. I used this fabric is often used on superhero costumes because you can make it look like pretty much anything. I printed it with a parachute fabric print and texture, and then I dyed it an olive green/gray. Then I had to interpret the design in a practical way so that the actor can wear the costume, plus add all the bits and bobs to the costume. It had to at least look like it was functional and practical, and hopefully, actually be functional and practical.
I hope I get to do it again. Unfortunately, our heroes don’t really wear costumes. Well, other than Daredevil. His costume was sketched by an artist in California at Marvel, and then they contracted directly with a costume shop out in LA. However, after that, they realized its better to have a costume designer involved and I wasn’t involved on that one. It turned out beautiful, but in the second season, some adjustments were made to make it more practical and useable. That’s just kind of what we have to do to make it wearable and comfortable for the acting wearing them.
AF: What is a bigger influence for you on “Luke Cage,” the comics or Harlem?
SM: It’s really 50-50. Sometimes it goes 75-25, depending on what you’re looking at. I think it’s really important to pay attention to the comics and pay homage to the work that’s been established. You should pay attention to the comic design, what colors the colorist used, the shapes used, or how the illustrations evolved over the years with different comic book artists. I felt it was really important to pay homage to those comics as often as possible. We’re constantly doing little easter eggs for the fans, and what they want to see or might expect to see. Whenever I do a villain, I like to design our villain’s clothes in the same colors as the character was originally introduced in.
For example, Cottonmouth wore a green suit. An incredibly exaggerated green suit, but a green suit. As a result of that, I designed and built a beautiful deep green suit that was the first thing he wore when he was introduced. I did it with David Tennant as well, but I didn’t want to go too purple. It can be really overwhelming. Instead, I infused his suits with various tones. I got lucky and it happened to be the year of purple suits from Paul Smith. I found 5, 6, 7 purple suits, and when he wasn’t wearing purple suits, I’d bring in the purple with a tie or pocket square.
AF: What are some of the challenges in season 2 of “Luke Cage?”
SM: Well, the characters evolved a lot this season on “Luke Cage.” Finding new ways to interpret that evolution was a challenge. That’s great though because I love to help tell a character’s story with clothing. We decided to design and build most of Mariah’s (Alfre Woodard) clothing this season. We wanted to make her character stand out this season as opposed to the “aggressively politician” wardrobe in season 1. I wanted to show she had really turned a corner and had accepted who she was. We couldn’t find what we were looking for, so we built most of her clothing, as well as the three-piece suit he wears when he takes over Harlem’s paradise. We also built the Gold suit for Luke Cage in the finale.
AF: How did you begin the process to design for Misty Knight?
SM: Well it offers a lot of challenges. Designing for a character with one arm is different, but as you can probably see in the show, they did a lot of green screens to show her arm. We didn’t always use that specific technology and instead would hide her arm using the clothing. Sometimes it would be hidden behind her body or in front of her body. It’s also really tricky to do because Simone has to keep in character and not give it away visually. It was challenging to find clothes to accommodate this trick.
AF: What was your favorite “easter egg” you got to incorporate into Luke’s costumes?
SM: Easter eggs are usually hidden, but I was really excited when we got to put him in the jeans and the golden shirt after he escapes from Seagate. It’s that moment when he looks in the mirror and says “you look like a damn fool” when he still had the crown on. It was a great moment to pay homage to the character. You have to find a practical way to put it in, without making it seem too weird.
AF: What’s next for you and Marvel?
SM: Actually, at this current time, I’m not working with them because there’s nothing for me to work on for them at the moment. However, I’m in Budapest working on the third season of “Berlin Station.” I think that this season is going to be quite amazing! It’s always good to get a chance to come onto a show and help out with some characters that are trying to change the way the dress. I’m not sure I’d be as happy if they said to keep everything exactly the same.
What do you think about the design of the Marvel and Netflix shows? What is your favorite design from Stephanie? Let us know in the comments below!
“Luke Cage” seasons 1 and 2 are available to stream on Netflix. Season 2 of “Iron Fist” debuts September 7th, 2018.