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Costume designer Kym Barrett guides graduate students in ‘Us’-inspired project

Costume designer Kym Barrett (left) is the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television’s designer in residence for this month. Barrett has worked on films such as “Romeo + Juliet,” “The Matrix” and “Us.” (Courtesy of Kym Barrett)

By Rishab Abdulvahid

May 26, 2022 4:01 p.m.

This post was updated June 1 at 8:54 p.m.

Kym Barrett is offering aspiring costume designers the “red pill.”

Barrett, the costume and set designer for films such as “The Matrix” and “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is mentoring students as the designer-in-residence this month at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. As part of the program, Barrett is allowing graduate students the opportunity to put their own spin on costumes from the film “Us,” another movie that Barrett worked on. Emerging designers were tasked with building costumes and sets for an alternate version of the film, Barrett said, which takes place on Coney Island during the turn of the 20th century – an endeavor that has been creatively fruitful thus far.

“Every toddler eventually learns to walk, or talk or do math, but everyone has their own speed and cognitive kind of process that takes place,” Barrett said. “I’m really loving it (the class) because everyone’s projects and ideas are really good and interesting. They’re coming from completely different places.”

Although she currently resides in the art and design space, Barrett said she had originally pursued a career in the sciences, following in the footsteps of her geologist father by studying marine biology. However, Barrett’s trajectory changed during her first year of college, she said. After becoming close with several drama and theater students, Barrett said she knew she had found her people and could never go back to the nine-to-five lifestyle she had been heading toward.

[Related: Film review: ‘Men’ reveals monstrosity of misogyny with gory visuals but lacks cohesive plot]

Following graduate school, Barrett said she found her first costume design work for the film “Romeo + Juliet” after becoming acquaintances with producer Baz Luhrmann, who she’d met while she was in the theater scene. Barrett said shooting in Mexico City was transformative and inspirational as a young designer since she was able to coexist with Mexican families, painting shirts with them as she learned tenets of Mexican artisanship.

(Courtesy of Kym Barrett)
Kym Barrett (left) fits Simu Liu (right) for Marvel’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.”(Courtesy of Kym Barrett)

Having been designing for more than 20 years now, Barrett said the dynamism and interdisciplinary nature of her work keep her invested year after year. The process of going from a script to a fleshed-out character and fully realized world requires input from everyone on set, Barrett said, whether that be a producer, the director, the art department or the actors themselves, and Barrett hopes graduate students can get a taste of that collaborative spirit this month.

“It’s not like we’re all separate departments,” Barrett said. “We all meet together and if we don’t have a meeting one week, I’ll go over to the art department, sit there and show them what I’m doing. It’s like weaving a tapestry where all the threads are slowly being woven into a unified set of images.”

Stacia Lang, another designer in the costume industry who worked alongside Barrett on numerous films, said being versatile and communicating with as many members of the team as possible is a critical part of her day to day. Depending on the project, Lang said her tasks range from managerial and high-level to more hands-on. A specific example of a more involved role was building Shang-Chi’s fight jacket alongside Barrett, which Lang said was a daunting task because of how unusual the suit was in its design from others they’d done before, but that made it more satisfying to put together in the end.

Many of the techniques involved with costume design, such as cutting fabrics and cloth, have been staples of the field for decades, but Lang said emerging trends in technology such as 3D printing and synthetic textiles are evolving the tradition. Camille Friend, a hairstylist who has also worked with Barrett, said Barrett’s acceptance of new approaches combined with her reverence for tradition gives her work a unique aesthetic.

“Barrett is always looking for the latest and greatest in how she’s coming up with fabric,” Friend said. “Costuming, hairstyling, makeup – these are all very old crafts. But there’s so many new technological things you can bring to your craft just to make it more modern and to approach it in a different way.”

[Related: Oscars 2022: Alumnus’s visual effects work brings ‘Spider-man: No Way Home’ magic to big screen]

For budding designers, Barrett said there is a temptation to stick to an assistant role because it is lower in pressure and easier to come by, but she implores students to avoid getting stuck in such comfortable positions. Once an assistant designer herself, Barrett said she knew she wanted to do more, and being an assistant was not conducive to her career growth. Rather, Barrett said she only flourished when she became bold enough to take full ownership of her design work and all the ups and downs that came with that, and she hopes her students will ultimately find that same confidence.

“If you want to do it, start doing it, and just accept that every job will be completely different,” Barrett said. “Some will be super enjoyable, and some will just be really hard. But at every job, you learn a bunch of stuff that you never knew about.”

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