AS A COSTUME designer, Stella Katz says she’s still discovering her personal style, gathering inspiration from fellow designers and directors and “seeing the elements that resonate most with me and that I feel are the most interesting and aesthetically different.” For Katz — a B.A. student in theatre arts and technol-ogy in the 2020 class of the State University of New York (SUNY) at New Paltz and entrepreneur of her own sustainably-sourced clothing brand — it’s a process that develops slowly.

“You realize, OK, these are clearly the colors I am most attracted to,” she said, “or, I always throw a bunch of texture in, and I love using this or that. I think it happens over time as you observe yourself through your favorite designers.”

In fall 2019, Katz was honored with a training boost that doubles as recognition for her successes to date. The 2015 alum of Thespian Troupe 6968 at Manhattan’s Beacon School was named one of three inaugural winners of the Willa Kim Costume Design Scholarship, administered by Theatre Communications Group and named for the two-time Tony Award-winning designer of The Will Rogers Follies and Sophisticated Ladies.

Kim passed away in 2016, and her estate wanted to honor her legacy of supporting up-and-coming designers. Scholarship winners, who must be enrolled in university or professional costume training programs, receive up to $7,500 to advance their skills through classes outside the scope of their regular curricula.

Katz's costumes for SUNY New Paltz's production of The Servant of Two Masters (left) were built using upcycled fabrics. For her personal clothing brand (right), Katz creates custom pieces for clients using sustainably sourced materials. Photos courtesy of Stella Katz.

“This is the most incredible opportunity. I’ve been feeling so blessed,” Katz said. “It is amazing that we not only get to choose our materials and our books, but we also get to choose all these classes. The scholarship goes toward helping your drawing ability and communication skills, so I’ve been taking classes for fashion drawing. I want to take anatomy classes, gesture drawing classes, some cartoon and animation courses. And color theory, drawing from life — all these different things, so that I’m really getting the full scope of the work from different angles.

“I feel like this is a huge step for me to home in on some skills and communicate my designs so much better,” Katz continued. “It’s a really amazing network, not only meeting other young, creative people pursuing costume design but also meeting professionals working in the field. There’s so much personal attention … validating and helping me push for skills that I wouldn’t have [otherwise]. For me, I want to think more about character development, but I need to polish other skills before I can do that.” 

For Katz, the scholarship provides an opportunity to focus on basics. “A lot of times, the best way to communicate design is visually,” she said, “just having something that captures where you’re coming from without having to describe it.”

What sparked your interest in theatre?
I love storytelling, and I love people being people. I love all the different elements of both performance and design that show who people are. And, especially for theatre, I feel that what is different from film and TV and digital media, specifically, is the imperfection of it. Obviously, you want it to be as clean as it can be, but the most important part of theatre is that it is live. So, it’s showing a living, breathing, human thing, which I love.

I first got involved in theatre in high school. I assistant directed a lot for the musicals we were doing, and I also was really into the costume design. But that [area] was not very organized, and there wasn’t a specific role for someone doing costumes, so I didn’t know that was a real job or real focus you could pursue.

My senior year, we did Caroline, or Change, which was an amazing show, and the lead who played Caroline [Thespian alum Marla Louissaint] — she is incredible, definitely one of the brightest talents at my school. She recently toured with Beautiful, the Carole King show, and is doing a lot of cool things. We still talk all the time. So, the show was chosen, in part, to show how incredible she was. I was an assistant director, and the production was all over the place design-wise, which was super fun. I photographed a bunch of the costumes and sets while we were running rehearsals because I thought it was awesome watching how it all came together.

When did you decide to pursue costume design as a potential career?
I’ve always been into fashion, since I was little. My parents sent me to a school requiring a uniform because [otherwise] it would take me hours and hours to get dressed every morning. And then I came to New Paltz, and I knew I didn’t want to pursue fashion fully. My freshman year, I had a digital media major — I’ve changed my major four times because I didn’t know which way to go with my interests.

So, I sat and wrote everything down. And I realized, OK, I really love storytelling, and I love film, TV, and theatre. I love videos and peoples’ stories. And I also really love clothes. And it’s not really that I loved fashion, but rather I loved noticing how people dress, which is more about costume. I think I realized that fashion is costume in a way that costume isn’t fashion. So, [costume design] was the best of both worlds for me.

The SUNY New Paltz production of The Servant of Two Masters, with costumes by Stella Katz.
The SUNY New Paltz production of The Servant of Two Masters, with costumes by Stella Katz. Photo courtesy of Stella Katz.

You’ve expressed an interest in design that is centered in sustainable practices. Can you describe how you’ve applied that passion to your costumes?
I really enjoyed working on The Servant of Two Masters, which I did in fall 2018. That show was awesome because I got to utilize my focus on sustainability. All the clothes I made I wanted to be sourced from upcycled materials. That’s something that has been important to me always because I learned how much waste there is in the fashion and costume worlds.

Not only are all the scraps not used in cutting a pattern thrown out but also, at the beginning of the design process, concepts are not designed to fit the actual roll of fabric. It’s not only tiny pieces that are thrown out but also huge pieces — all because of lack of planning. So, this focus was important [in improving] my own skills but also for sustainable design. I needed to learn how to utilize small scraps and how to source materials from places where they are saving a large amount of fabric from going to landfills. A lot of the fabrics I source are from the recycling center in New Paltz by my school or, when I’m back in Brooklyn, from a warehouse where I go buy rolls of fabric and sometimes tiny scraps. Then, I’ll piece things together from there.

In terms of my design process, it can be hard. Sometimes the actual fabric I’m sourcing — the design will come from the scraps themselves. With a lot of costume and fashion design, you’re designing from concepts, then finding the right materials. In this case, my work is opposite. For me, it starts with what I have, then I see what I can make from it. I sometimes do that with my cooking, too — see what I can source locally and make from [those ingredients] instead of what I want to make and how to find those things. I think sustainability’s important across the board.

What’s your vision for Giddy, your personal clothing brand?
I wish I had more time right now to be working on it. It’s hard balancing a small business while I’m designing shows. But I’ve been doing a lot of custom pieces for clients. Down the line, my vision is to find a way to do, not mass production, but somewhere between custom and mass production, where I have a team and we create both custom and ready-to-wear garments that are all sustainably sourced.

I’m working on partnering, trying to figure out different ways we can source donated fabrics, then pushing that toward development of a sustainable brand. It’s something a lot of people are working on, and I’ve been discussing it with as many people as I can. We had a speaker at New Paltz who talked about sustainable design. Big issues with the sustainable movement are pricing, cost, and accessibility. But I think it comes down to a place of everyone being educated about how a $5 T-shirt, for example, doesn’t actually exist in a sustainable way, not only because of fabric but also because of labor and travel. It’s a huge shift that is, thankfully, happening. Big companies are realizing it and trying to implement new sustainability practices — H&M, Forever 21, all these fashion companies — because they know the consumer cares about that now. So, it’s good, and it’s important for people to keep putting pressure on them.

At least for Giddy, I’m really interested in keeping it small right now — because I have to but also because I love the personal process: meeting with people, taking their measurements, talking about what they want, creating sketches for them based on their body. That’s been fun.

What advice would you give Thespians interested in pursuing a path like yours?
Be adventurous and try things that are strange. This is an amazing time for me and every other young Thespian trying to create their own style. You’re not going to know what you like or what you’re interested in unless you try it. I really think it’s about doing something, then saying, “Whoa, no, that did not work” instead of “I don’t know.” It’s easy to be careful because you’re worried about judgment, but you have to push yourself to pursue new things and take chances. That’s my number one advice — for me and for everybody else.

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