The sorcerer of costumes

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The sorcerer of costumes
Costumes on display in Donna Zakowska’s studio in Brooklyn, June 10, 2023. Zakowska’s studio is a vast confectionery of the vibrant 1950s-style fashions she created for “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” (Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times)

by Rhonda Garelick

NEW YORK, NY.- Clothes hold a visceral thrill for Donna Zakowska. “There’s a sensuality and a tactile aspect to fashion,” she said. “I’m always thinking about the quality of the garment, the fabric, the way it plays with light and air and movement — about the emotional impact of color.”

Zakowska won a 2019 Emmy for designing costumes for “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” and she has just received her fifth nomination for her work on the series. Her passion for her art is instantly palpable to anyone visiting her workshop at the Steiner Studios in the New York City borough of Brooklyn, where much of the show was filmed.

The space is a vast confectionery of the vibrant 1950s-style fashions she created for “Mrs. Maisel”: hats bedecked with jewels or feathers; swing coats in tones of crimson, emerald and teal; racks of suits and blouses. A phalanx of limbless dress forms model some highlights: crinoline-d day dresses splashed with flowers or polka dots; a Tiffany blue suit with a maroon shawl collar; cocktail frocks in periwinkle and gold printed silk, black crepe and palest green satin, all sparingly accessorized with a single chiffon bow or a slim ribbon belt.

Petite, with a cascade of half-pinned-up auburn hair, Zakowska wore an all-black trouser ensemble by Rei Kawakubo, its artful jacket decomposing into long strips of trailing fabric, like a deconstructed 18th-century tailcoat.

“My go-to look is Japanese, Comme des Garçons or Yohji Yamamoto,” she said. “I love the simplicity, the craft, the tailoring of Japanese clothing. It has influenced everything I do — the formalism of a bow, the idea of a belt.” A rope necklace strung with several small wooden objects hung around her neck. “African weaving tools,” she explained, “they have very strong energy.”

Zakowska’s dedication to research was evident in the shelves lined with fashion history books and in the giant mood boards covered with vintage magazine clippings, fabric swatches and photographs. Some walls in the studio are papered to the ceiling with her costume sketches.

Her official profession is costume designer, but “world creator” may suit Zakowska better, given her talent for conjuring character, history, place and stories through vivid, meticulously imagined fashion. She herself seems to exist in a kind of liminal space, poised amid the present and the bygone eras she animates on stage and screen, amid the many characters she coaxes into existence, and amid the many art forms she has mastered. Her life has been steeped in nearly all aspects of performance and design.

After graduating from Barnard, she started her career as a professional dancer, having studied Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey technique in New York and Balinese dance in Indonesia. She went on to study painting and drawing at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and then, in the mid-1980s, attended the Yale School of Drama in costume, lighting and set design.

She was an assistant to Woody Allen. She costumed the Big Apple Circus for nine years. She has collaborated and toured with Roman Paska, the renowned puppet artist and director, whom she met in college and is her life partner. And she has worked steadily in theater and film, including many collaborations with John Turturro, her close friend and former Yale roommate. “Working with Donna always makes my performance better,” Turturro said.

In 2008, Zakowska won an Emmy for her work on “John Adams,” the HBO miniseries set in the 18th century. “I was completely awed by the 18th century in clothing,” she said. “That was my obsession for a long time.”

But she jumped ahead several centuries to costume all five seasons of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” which became a fashion phenomenon. Vogue analyzed its looks and offered tutorials in recreating them. Bergdorf Goodman installed Midge Maisel-themed windows and an accompanying pop-up store, auctioning off some of Zakowska’s coats to benefit the Fashion Manufacturing Initiative. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History selected two of Zakowska’s costumes for its collection.

In 2021, she published a thoughtful book about her work on the show. And thousands of “Mrs. Maisel” followers on social media — both men and women — devoted themselves to recreating and photographing themselves in favorite costumes, holding “Maisel festivals,” a sartorial version of fan fiction. This ability to spur a fashion dialogue finds its roots in Zakowska’s early life and how it informs her design process.

A Bonding Experience

Zakowska grew up steeped in the communicative pleasures of fashion. Brooklyn-born and raised (she still owns the house where she grew up, in Vinegar Hill), she came from a family of women who loved clothing. “They would shop on the Lower East Side, in these little stores that would have amazing things,” she said. “I think of my grandmother and her two daughters going into those stores and buying clothing together.”

Pleasure and camaraderie remain at the heart of Zakowska’s work. Costume design is inherently interpersonal, and fittings are delicate in nature. “It’s really a bonding experience,” Zakowska said. “Someone is exposing themselves to you. You are half psychologist.”

Rachel Brosnahan, who played Midge Maisel, described her relationship with Zakowska as “symbiotic.” Tony Shalhoub, who played Abe Weissman, said, “There was real dialogue with Donna.” Out of these fitting-room experiences characters are born.

“An actor comes in for a fitting, they may have an idea. But if you are inspired and show them images, they suddenly find a root for the character,” Zakowska said.

Beyond dressing them, Zakowska finds she somehow becomes the characters she helps create. “I have to feel the reality of the character,” she said. “You live the characters as a costume designer. You’re many people.” And in living the characters, Zakowska may be better able to share them with her actors.

This shape-shifting ability may derive from Zakowska’s background as a performer, but some of her colleagues see something more: a kind of supernatural quality.

Marin Hinkle, who played Rose Weissman on “Mrs. Maisel,” felt nearly magically transformed by Zakowska’s costumes and described changing from her costume back into street clothes to find that crew members no longer recognized her. “Something about Rose and Donna, and what it became — it was a bit magical,” she said. “Donna is a little otherworldly.”

Caroline Aaron, who played Shirley Maisel on the series, put it succinctly: “Donna is a sorcerer!”

If there is magic in Zakowska’s work, it may reside in the excitement and inspiration she has never stopped finding in color, history, artisanal crafts (she has studied 18th-century men’s tailoring in London, silk flower making in Hungary, among other pursuits) and nature. “I love to look at flowers, at things in nature, at insects,” she said. She finds clothes and fabric especially captivating: “When a garment is in your hands, you should be as excited as you are when you see it in the distance.”

Beyond Mrs. Maisel

This year, director and choreographer Susan Stroman invited Zakowska to costume “New York, New York,” a Broadway dance musical set in the 1940s. “I first became aware of Donna by watching ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.’ Right away, I recognized she was an extraordinary artist,” Stroman said. “Donna understands movement — how a dress needs to add to the choreography. Her fabrics move so beautifully, it’s as if the dancer is flying.” It was Zakowska’s first Broadway musical, and it earned her a Tony nomination.

Another dance-related project lies in Zakowska’s future: She will costume “Etoile,” a new television series about contemporary French and American ballet dancers, set in Paris, to be produced by Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino, the creative team behind “Mrs. Maisel.” (The writers’ and actors’ strikes have paused production for the time being.)

For this, Zakowska will set up shop in Atelier Caraco, a storied costume and haute couture studio tucked away in an old building in Paris, just behind the Folies Bergère. There, in her signature black trousers paired with an embroidered white tuxedo shirt from Mexico, she chatted with Caraco’s director, Claudine Lachaud.

A multistory warren of connected studios, all arranged around a small courtyard enclosed by trees strung with lights, Caraco feels like an ideal space for intimate dialogue and collaboration. At the moment, the only other artist there is the couturier Christian Lacroix, who is designing costumes for a new opera. Some of Lacroix’s costume “bibles” lay open on a table.

“I get to see things like Christian Lacroix’s boards with all his swatches,” Zakowska said. “Seeing his things is like seeing Dior’s things. It’s on that level.”

She has already started thinking about the nuances involved in costuming American and French ballet dancers. (Americans, she said, “concentrate on muscle,” while French dancers have “more elongation, just a little bit of a more sensual edge.”)

Zakowska would like to write “a costume designer’s wellness book,” about what she calls the “curative” experience that can occur when you “interpret the human situation with costume.”

If there is a therapeutic aspect to what she does, it surely resides in part in how Zakowska’s own pleasure, research and deep investment in her designs get transmitted to viewers and actors. Aaron said that her 20-something daughter is having some of her costumes resized for herself. “I know a lot of young girls who want to dress like Midge now,” Aaron said.

Hinkle said that she keeps photographs from her Paris costume fittings on her phone, “and when I’m feeling blue, I think, ‘I got to go to that costume fitting!’” And Shalhoub said that he keeps some of his costumes from “Mrs. Maisel” in a special closet in his apartment. He likes “to just open the doors and comb the fabric with my hands. They are like treasures.”

Zakowska understands perfectly the magnetic and transcendent allure that fashion can offer. “Clothes,” she said, “can be like an exultation.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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