The 705 Spotlight: Nickolaus Brown, Costume Buyer

Nickolaus Brown’s interest in fashion grew into a passion for costuming, a force which has guided his two decades in the industry. He has worked on some of the most influential and beloved films and TV shows in recent memory, bringing his skills as a shopper to carefully craft the look of everyone from background actors to major stars.

His biggest creative challenge: pulling together costumes from the finale of A Chorus Line for the sixteen person cast of Glee while also working on three different episodes and shooting the final season’s promo.

He loves: creating characters and taking on new challenges.

His advice for aspiring costumers: look inside your heart and ask if costuming is really, truly your passion.

What do you do as a costume professional and how long have you been doing it?

I have been costuming for just over twenty years now. I do what most people dream of doing: shopping for a living. I work closely with the costume designer and the costume supervisor to bring characters to life. After everyone in the costume department reads the script, we all sit down and come up with a game plan to make characters happen. First, we discuss the main characters and the vision that the director and the designer have collaborated on. We decide, based on the budget, which costumes we will shop for and which costumes we will build or rent from a costume house. We will have a similar discussion about the secondary characters. Finally, we will talk about the background, which is a huge part of any show. It can be as simple as business people who wear suits to more complicated like a football game with football players, cheerleaders, referees, coaches and all of the fans in the stands. Then I hit the ground running based on the fitting schedule. I scour the city in malls, department stores, online shops, costume houses, thrift stores or wherever I need to look for character-specific clothing.

After all of the clothing and accessories are assembled, the actor comes in and we have the fitting. The fitting is where the costume designer and the actor find the character with clothing. Once an outfit is agreed upon, I take notes and a custom made costumer pins the costumes for a perfect fit. Once the final costume is chosen, the costume pieces are altered and sent to the set costumers, who will be the stewards of the costumes for the duration of the show.

What are some of the shows and movies you’ve worked on?

I cut my teeth at the beginning of my career on cult favorites like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Fight Club. I have worked on comedies like Scrubs and Accepted, acclaimed dramas like The Shield and Scandal, and geek favorites like Race to Witch Mountain and Glee. I have had the incredibly good fortune to work on so many interesting and diverse projects.

Tell us the most creative or original thing you’ve ever done to pull something together on short notice to build or procure a costume.

When I was working on Glee, we were working on three episodes at one time and we also had to shoot the promo for the final season. The concept was for the entire (sixteen person) cast to be wearing the costumes from the finale of the legendary Broadway show A Chorus Line. I spent two days calling every costume house in America to see if anyone had a set that was of the caliber we needed and with the range of sizes required. I finally found a set in Florida — phew! The only size they didn’t have was for the character of Coach Bieste. So, the minute the costumes arrived, I grabbed a jacket and ran to downtown Los Angeles to find matching fabrics and notions so we could build her costume. It took almost eight hours but I found a matching satin in the super specific shade that I would characterize as “cafe au lait” and the buttons and notions to replicate the existing costumes that were from a Kennedy Center Honors tribute. I also had to find fabric to make a track suit for Sue Sylvester. Then we tried to find a costumer to dye the fabric but no one was available so I took that on as well. While all of that was happening, we were shooting simultaneously the gay double wedding episode and the flashback episode to the pilot.

What is your most memorable experience working in the business? 

It is a challenge for me to answer this question because costumers — including myself — do things that save production money, make actors feel comfortable, and realize a costume designer’s vision every day. Our talents and savvy are utilized constantly on the job and we deliver the impossible regularly. I have a treasure trove of situations where I have “saved the day” as does every other costumer in our local. We selflessly deliver the goods without recognition. We make meaningful contributions every day to production and we do so willingly, with pride.

What do you love most about your job?

The thing I love most about my job is that it is different every day. I am never bored because there are different challenges and an endless amount of characters to create. People always ask me what I do as a costumer and I always reply that I am a problem solver. Whether it is late casting, an actor with unusual sizes or a last minute request from the director, we always manage to figure out how to get the job done on time. Even after twenty years, I still find my career exciting and stimulating.

How or why did you get into costuming? 

I have always been fascinated by clothing, how it is made and what it conveys. I grew up being inspired by the costumes of glamorous TV shows like Dynasty, avant-garde features like The Hunger and period films like A Room with a View. I studied fashion in New York at the Fashion Institute of Technology. This is where I learned about the difference between fashion and costuming. I knew that fashion was not a good fit for me because the major consideration is cost. Every seam, button and detail add additional cost to a garment and the goal is to make a profit. I went to see a show on Broadway and as I sat there in the dark, a lightbulb went off and I realized that the costumes I saw were all designed and manufactured specifically for the production to define the characters and, in turn, help to tell a story. I finished my degree in Fashion but I continued my studies to get my BFA at CalArts in Costume Design. I have been helping to create characters and tell their stories ever since.

How did you educate yourself or get enough experience to get into the union?

After my graduation, I did anything and everything that came my way that involved costuming. I worked on a lot of independent features, commercials, TV movies and theater. After a few years, I had the great fortune to be working on a non-union feature about the Mexican-American war. We were working out of Motion Picture Costume Company and when the production left to go on location, the owner of the costume house hired me and I got my my days to join Motion Picture Costumers Local 705.

Do you have any advice for someone starting out who wants to be a costumer?

The best advice I can give is to to really look inside and ask yourself if costuming is truly your passion. Costumers are a special breed. We require a special tenacity, we are problem solvers and require common sense. We work long hours and demand a special kind of stamina. You have to be quick on your feet and be a team player. I would suggest you do anything and everything you can at the beginning of your career that is costume related to fully understand what it takes. If you know in your heart that this is the path for you, meet as many costumers as you can and cast your net as far as you can to make connections that will benefit you for the entirety of your career.