Stylish TV shows are nothing new, but recently the creators behind the iconic looks that come into our homes have become celebrity forces in their own right, with massive social-media followings and curated collaborations for major retailers. Thanks to trailblazers such as Sex and the City‘s Patricia Field, names like Janie Bryant (Mad Men), Lyn Paolo (Scandal), and Salvador Perez (The Mindy Project) are tossed around in the same breath as actors and showrunners.
”For the longest time costume designers weren’t given their due. We’re adding value to the clothes that are out there,” says Perez, who’s become a case study with his custom-made on- and offscreen designs for his show’s star, Mindy Kaling. ”She’s a dream actress to work with and understands that it’s a special thing to have custom-made clothes. Her gratitude inspires you to do more.”
Add social media, and the game is totally changed. Perez, who worked on Veronica Mars, saw fan engagement brewing when an assistant showed him a blog that obsessed over the teenage sleuth’s repeat outfits and minor variations, like the disappearance of the choker (ditched only because Kristen Bell didn’t feel like wearing it that day). Now Perez is active on Twitter and Instagram, teasing full outfits weeks in advance.
”People are tweeting constantly and asking questions. The clothes have become such a big part of the character that the audience wants to know where they come from,” he says. Perez loves the feedback but admits to turning his phone off while the show is airing. ”You instantly know what they don’t love, and you don’t do it again.”
Despite the designers’ elevated profile, things are still complicated, partly because of the bureaucracy of networks. In his role as president of the Costume Designers Guild, Perez is aware of members getting scolded or outright fired for sharing photos. ”Bottom line — it is their product, and we have to respect that,” he says. Costume designers do, as Perez puts it, work for hire: Once they create something, the studio owns it and really has no obligation to them. Have you ever seen a costume-designer credit on an action figure?
And yet Perez and Kaling’s exceptional relationship might indicate a new era where the designer is not a work-for-hire technician but a recognized rock star. Perez even has his own jewelry collaboration with BaubleBar. ”Sal loves labels like I do, but he prioritizes fit above everything else. Every item of clothing I try on is tailored to fit my body perfectly,” says Kaling. The attention to detail has paid off. When Kaling saw a photo of herself at this year’s Vanity Fair Oscar party in one of his designs, she says, ”I felt like Kate Middleton.”