In third grade, a young Deborah Landis sewed a harlequin costume for a friend at school out of fabric swatches from her grandfather’s fabric book.
Decades later, her resume boasts costume design credits for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video, “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Animal House” and “Coming to America,” for which she received an Academy Award nomination in 1989.
And this year will surely constitute another big mark on Landis’ resume.
Landis, who received her master’s degree in fine arts from UCLA in costume design in 1975 and her doctorate in the history of design from the Royal College of Art in London, has been named the chair of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television’s new David C. Copley Center for the Study of Costume Design, for which she is also the founding director.
UCLA costume design and theater professor Alan Armstrong has known Landis for several years and is excited for the possibilities of the new center, the only one like it in the world, and its new leader.
“I think it’s one of the most exciting things that’s ever happened at UCLA. I think the Copley Center can really become a jewel in UCLA’s ground,” he said. “I think she has the connections, the fortitude to just make it happen. … She’s a powerhouse of a lady.”
Often receiving requests for certain costumes to be re-created, Landis’ designs have become iconic. Who doesn’t remember the red V-shaped leather jacket from “Thriller”? Or the pink wedding dress in “Coming to America”? Or John Belushi’s “College” T-shirts still worn by many a college student?
Although noting that she always enjoyed the design process, Landis’ passion for her craft stemmed from a lifelong love for history.
“The connection (between costume design and history) is that I understand context and I can do research. Costume designers research everything that they design; we don’t distinguish between period movies, fantasy movies and modern movies,” Landis said. “We’re all wearing history.”
Landis recently returned from London, where she is working on what she calls “the largest motion picture costume design exhibit ever mounted” called “Icons: 100 Years of Film Costume.” The exhibit is set to open at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2012.
Beyond her talents as a costume designer, Armstrong has faith in Landis’ strengths in academia, having observed “a very lovely connection” between Landis and her interns from UCLA’s costume design graduate program.
“I had a professional working relationship with her but my introduction to the human side of Deborah really came true with the grad students that interned with her,” Armstrong said. “They would come back and just rave about what a wonderful, helpful human being, mentor, friend, teacher she was.”
One of those interns was Russell Dauterman, a third-year student in UCLA’s costume design program, who interned with Landis during his first year.
“Working with Deborah was a huge, eye-opening experience because she’s such a veteran in the industry,” Dauterman said. “Her whole outlook is to elevate the profession of costume design. And she’s so immersed in it, she has a lot to teach you.”
Aside from her teaching and designing work, Landis is also the author behind works such as the critically acclaimed “Dressed: A Century of Hollywood Costume Design,” 600 pages comprised of a collection of photos, sketches and commentary on Hollywood fashion throughout the years.
She is now working on “Deconstructing Glamour” and “Divine Design,” both set to come out in 2010. It was in her research for “Divine Design,” a companion volume to “Dressed” on costume design illustrations and sketches, that Landis began to collaborate with David Copley on the design center. While in the process of hunting down illustrations all over the world for her research, Landis met Copley, one of the big collectors of costume design illustrations from Hollywood’s golden age.
Landis explained their meeting as a mutual appreciation for costume design as an art form. While looking at illustrations, Copley commented on her knowledge of the subject matter. Landis replied, “It’s my passion,” and Copley’s response was, “Me too.”
They went from there.
Copley will bring her outlook on costume design and her particular interest in film and television to the Copley Center.
“There is very little on the shelf about costume design in Hollywood,” Landis said. “It’s an entirely new field that’s going to open up because of the David Copley Center. … It’ll be just the magnetic north for costume design.”
With the center in its beginning stages, a few books on the horizon and an exhibit in London, Landis still has time to work on the costumes for her husband, “Animal House” and “Thriller” director John Landis. His latest project is a prospective film “Burke and Hare,” a romantic comedy based on a true story about grave diggers turned murderers in Scotland set in 1827.
Landis plans on building a motion picture costume design library and an international database consisting of a compilation of oral histories of living costume designers from around the world, giving the example of pulling interviews with costume designers from DVD extra features and making them available on the database.
“She’s going to fight for things that she wants, and she’s not going to let costume designers take a back seat and be pushed over,” Dauterman said. “She’s really going to fight to get costume designers recognized.”