Costume Designer’s Interview – Valerie St. Pierre Smith
By Jacqueline Lawton
Jacqueline Lawton: To begin, tell me how long you have been a costume designer.
Valerie St. Pierre Smith: Longer than I think. :) I studied fashion and theatre while an undergrad and have been designing ever since. Guess that adds up to about 15 years.
JL: Next, have you always wanted to work in fashion? Who are some of your style icons and inspirations?
VSPS: Though related, costume design is very different from fashion. I studied fashion in college and it is a whole other world. I follow it, and it is a hobby, but an industry that working in as a stylist and model was plenty for me. I don't really have style icons, since every season I'm intrigued by different designer's collections. That being said, I've always loved the vintage styles from Dior or Balenciaga to name a few. Next time I attend an awards show I'm hoping to score a vintage gown.
JL: How did you first get interested in costume design? Why did you decide to get into theater? Have you worked for television and film?
VSPS: Theatre found me while I was in college. I began studying museum studies, only to discover the school I was at was eliminating one of the majors I needed to create that course of study. And the new major that they suggested bored me to tears. I've loved sketching fashion and costumes since I was a kid- anyone remember the Ice Capades?- and took an Intro to Costume course more as a break from my studies. While in that class, I realized I was spending copious amounts of time on the design and sewing, both skills I knew to a relative degree, and was loving every minute of it. Thankfully my alma mater allowed a student to create an independent major, as long as it drew from two existing programs. So I combined the fashion program with the theatre program. I put in so many hours with the theatre program that I would up with a BFA in Theatre.
During and after grad school, which I attended for costume design, I did work in television and film. I've also worked for theme parks, independent photographers and as a fashion stylist. It is one of the things I love about what I do- I can actually work on a variety of projects that are never the same.
JL: What excited you about designing costumes for Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers at the National Museum of the American Indian?
VSPS: First of all, I am of Anishinaabe descent and the museum is one of my favorites. I designed costumes for the first show produced by NMAI Mall museum last year, The Conversion of Ka'ahumanu, and really enjoyed the working environment. It also allows me to blend the passion I feel for representing and telling the stories of our native people with my love of design.
JL: How did you prepare for the costume designs for Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers? What was your inspiration? How much research goes into it before you even sketch your first drawing?
VSPS: There is an incredible amount of research that goes into every show you design. One such as Buffalo Soldiers especially, as it represents a very specific place and people. Even if we were doing a period Shakespeare play, a designer needs to not just look at pictures or paintings of what people, but needs to know why those styles, fabrics, colors, trends were popular. Our clothing represents not only our personalities, but a lot about our culture as a whole. It is like being a social anthropologist, psychologist and fashion designer rolled into one. For this show my inspiration was the modern reservations of Montana and traditional Pow-wow dress.
JL: In your experience, how true is the final costume to the ideas you get during or right after the play reading? If changes do occur, how much of this has to with how the actors may feel about their characters? Also, does the set or lighting impact your design at all?
VSPS: Theatre is a collaborative art. Any work done by anyone on the team- designer, director, actor- in some way will affect the whole production. The director is ultimately responsible for maintaining a cohesive vision, but everyone else is part of that process as well. Very often my first impressions of characters are like those of any person. From those personalities is where I begin to visualize them. More often than not, if my interpretation of the character matches that of a director, my initial designs don't change that much. It is still very much an organic process, so sometimes an actor will come up with a "bit" for their character that I need to incorporate. Perhaps someone wants to have a nerdy pair of glasses to play with and emphasize their character. Or the set will designed in such a way that my initial concept for a character, say wearing 4 inch heels, has to change because there is a ten foot tall staircase they have to descend. It can be as much about organization as it is about creativity.
JL: What was your biggest challenge in the overall process?
VSPS: It is too soon to tell. Possibly remaining true to the costume demands, such as needing dance regalia, on a limited budget. There are also some scenes where characters need to change costumes, or look like they've been in a fight, yet have no time between scenes to change clothes. Making that look believable can always be a challenge.
JL: Finally, what advice would you give a young person interested in becoming a costume designer?
VSPS: Be ready to work and work hard. This business is an exciting one, but a grueling one as well. Study as much as you can, open your mind up to possibilities since you never know where inspiration will come from, and don't be afraid. This business may sound glamorous, but in reality requires a lot of patience for other people, a lot of sacrifices in terms of money and family, and can burn you out if you don't recharge your batteries.