I am always inspired by those who take a chance on a decision that has the potential to radically change their potential lives. In my project Those Who Dare, I aim to explore this subject through interviews with successful people. Shelley Komarov fits the bill without a doubt. At the age of 16 she courageously left her hometown of Odessa to study in Leningrad, later moved from Russia to the United States and then, at the peak of her stardom as a costume designer for Hollywood movies, she suddenly left to start her own business.
Shelley Komarov is a famous costume designer, an active member of the Motion Picture Academy and the academy of television Arts&Sciences, a recipient of four Emmy Awards, and a laureate of various other prestigious awards.
Tell us, Shelley: did you always dream of being a costume designer?
I’m one of those happy people who knew what they wanted from an early age. Yes, I dreamed of becoming a designer. Of course, I didn’t suspect what I would do exactly, but at least I always knew the direction.
And how did Hollywood treat you?
It’s always hard to start a career in a foreign country, but I was lucky. I received my first creative offer from The producer Larry Schiller, who was working on the movie Peter the Great and needed a costume designer who was familiar with Russian history. In the 10 months that we worked together, I had to carry out my direct responsibilities as well as act as a consultant on Russian culture. Consequently, my costumes received an Emmy, but I did not. It was a sequence of events in which, as an immigrant, I was not allowed to be on the set in Russia; the director and producer were replaced in the middle of production; the movie was completed by new people whom I did not know well; and my name wasn’t even mentioned in the credits. Justice prevailed later, though, when the academy of television Arts & Sciences acknowledged my contribution to the film’s receiving the award and sent an official written statement to that effect.
Yet you went on to receive three other Emmy awards for other films. And your costumes for the iconic mini-series The Kennedys of Massachusetts became a design classic. Please tell us how you managed to capture the spirit of the times and create costumes for a historical era that you never had a chance to witness firsthand.
It was difficult. I had to digest a whole lot of information. I did a great deal of research, read and read, and looked at thousands of photographs to gather bits and pieces of what I needed. The Kennedys of Massachusetts portrayed a period from the 1800s to the 1960s, and I really had to do a tremendous amount of research to prepare the costumes for the characters as well as create an authentic settings. I had to make numerous calls to the White House and Buckingham Palace to clarify various details about period dress. And so many costumes were needed for the series that they had to be ordered from all over the world. I was responsible for 11,000 costumes! Can you imaginethe scope of the work? I worked nonstop for six months, for 16 hours a day with no days off. There were days when I had to supply several thousand people with different costumes.
Let’s talk about the difficulties of your profession.
There is so much in addition to the artistic component. A costume designer also needs to work with the director, the producer, the actors and the extras. That requires a lot of communication and meeting a lot of demands. For example, all of a sudden the director wants to add another 50 extras. Obviously they have no costumes. I would reply to such a request that I could try, but I would need such-and-such an amount of time.
A costume designer’s most dominant personality traits must be organizational and planning abilities. A film is a costly project, where everything must be carried out on time. No one cares about excuses. There was a time when my leg was hurting me, and per doctor’s orders I was bedbound. But when the producer called and said that I had to be in New York the following morning to be present at a costume fitting, I had to go.
In addition, during shootings, you do not see your family. For this reason many of those who choose a career in cinema remain without a family. If you compare a designer’s profession to that of a world-renowned actress, the “star” spends about a month on the set while the designer is there all the time – from start to finish. In short, a costumier has a difficult job. It took me close to a month to recover after The Kennedys of Massachusetts, for instance.
Which movie was the most difficult for you in your work?
That was probably The Peacemaker with George Clooney and Nicole Kidman. Historical accuracy always was the most important part of my work. Meanwhile this movie required the military uniforms of all the various troops in the Russian Army from the period of the Chechen War – the soldiers and the officers. Russia has just replaced the former uniforms with new ones. And due to the lack of information regarding the right prototype, we could not sew the costumes ourselves. We had to turn to the Minister of Defense of Russia, ask him for enough uniforms for a whole army, manage to pay for them, and bring them from abroad. Thank God I was able to complete this immensely challenging and troublesome assignment.
Another story took place in Vienna. When we arrived at a shooting in Bratislava, it was raining. There were no raincoats for the actors, and in Bratislava they were nowhere to be found. In those days there were problems with currency exchange, and the local stores were empty. So, I had to rush from Slovakia to Austria. In order to by-pass a long line in customs, I had to be creative. I said that I was a US citizen, that I urgently needed to go to Vienna, and that I was late to the plane. Not knowing anything about Vienna didn’t stop me from finding a store and buying 15 raincoats. I paid with my personal credit card, and then ran back to customs. There I told another story about why I hadn’t gotten on the plane.
I also had a “shoe” story from that film. I usually kept a stock of four or five pairs of identical shoes – for the characters, the dubbing actors, and in case someone’s shoes got dirty or damaged. However, there was this one scene in the middle of the movie, where I had just one pair of very expensive shoes by Manolo Blahnik for Nicole Kidman. And while I was getting the raincoats in Vienna, Nicole put these shoes on for her first scene. That meant that now she had to appear in them for half of the movie. Just imagine my horror when I discovered the luxurious suede shoes irreparably damaged by rain and mud after the very first day of shooting! Calling Manolo in Italy was no help: the shoes were exclusive. I had to hire someone to run all around the country, looking for a similar pair of shoes. We managed, but the shoes cost the film about $ 10,000.
And what prompted you to start your own business? How did you have the courage to leave at the peak of your career?
It was an amusing story. Frank Sinatra’s daughter Tina made me an offer to work on a movie about her famous father, for which, by the way, I later received an Emmy. After my work on the set was over, a friend and I stayed at the Plaza Hotel in New York for another few days. Another friend invited us to dinner. But when we opened our suitcases to change into our dresses, we found them totally wrinkled. What to do? Since there was no time to iron them – our friend was already waiting for us – we had no choice but to wear the wrinkled dresses to dinner. My friend was upset and said, “Shelley, you have to think of some way to keep dresses from getting wrinkled in the suitcase.”
Thinking about how clothes fold into a suitcase reminded me of pleats. I started experimenting with technologies and solutions. In two years I opened my own company. My friends considered it suicide. I was at the top of my career and making top dollar on TV. However, I allowed myself to choose. I didn’t weigh or calculate my options. I just started doing what I wanted to do.
What an adventure that was! I didn’t get the slightest clue about the business end of things. But I have no regrets. I am glad that in my lifetime I had both a career and my own business.
What would you advice those who are at cross-roads: to build a career or start a business?
They are two different things. It is hard but definitely possible to become a fine specialist with a great career. For instance, if you are a doctor who loves medicine, sooner or later you will have your own practice. But that doesn’t make you good at business. You remain a doctor – an earning professional.
But some people are born business people. It’s a natural gift, like having a talent or being creative. If they develop this gift in childhood, they will grow up to become successful in business. They develop the qualities that lead to success later on: they learn to take the heat – or bite the bullet; they become willing to take risks; they acquire the ability to recognize an unsatisfied need; they find unusual solutions to problems; and so on. But what can I say? Not everyone can even live at such pace. In a word, people should choose according to their own preferences.
Now you are occupied with modern fashion. The Komarov brand supplies beautiful clothing to tens of thousands beautiful women. What is your definition of style?
Following fashion magazines blindly is not a style. Whatever you wear, your clothing needs to work organic. Think about a quality basic wardrobe, which takes into account your complexion and tonality. Don’t buy extra clothes. And remember: you are the painting. Everything else is the frame. The frame needs to accentuate the canvas, rather than distract from it. Therefore, you should see accessories and jewelry as complementing elements.
You are constantly coming out with new collections. From where do you derive your inspiration?
I travel a lot. During my trips I like to observe my surroundings. Mostly, I observe elegant women. I think, what precisely about this woman drew my attention? In this way, I get new ideas.
How do you maintain your vitality?
Traveling. Meditating. Practicing yoga. I strive for regularity, but, unfortunately, the schedule gets ahead of me sometimes.
Shelley, could you give a bit of general advice to women on how they can look better?
If you are hosting, use a peach-colored cloth for the table. Your skin will have a healthy glow for the reflection it gives off.
Shelley was so great to talk to that she and I spoke for two days straight. I listened to her backstage Hollywood stories with my mouth wide open, forgetting at times about the interview that I was taking. And I gathered that a star is not just on the screen, especially if you take Shelley’s advice: “Do what you love and what you are good at, and you will succeed.”