On Set with Costume Designer Kristen Ernst-Brown
Kristen ERNST-BROWN works as a freelance Costume Designer. She began her career in New York’s fashion industry, and soon realized she was always pulling inspiration from historical clothing. While in New York, Kristen began working nights and weekends on opera and burlesque productions, which she loved.
She decided to come to London to pursue her Master’s degree in costume design at the London College of Fashion. Since graduating in 2013, she has trained alongside Michael O’Connor , assisted Oliver Garcia and worked on a wide range of feature films, including Stan and Ollie (2018), All the Money in the World (2017), Paddington 2 (2017), Tulip Fever (2017) and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016).
One of Kristen’s costumes recently featured in Italian Vogue, and her passion for historic clothing and building a character through costume made her the perfect choice for ‘Thessalus & Medea’, and ‘I Am Henry’ for which she won the Best Costume Design award at the London International Filmmaker Festival 2016. Interview by Producer Massimo Barbato. Set photography by Mathias Falcone.
1. What motivated you to work on ‘Thessalus & Medea’?
When Jan Hendrik Verstraten (the director) approached me about ‘Thessalus & Medea’, I was initially excited about designing ancient Grecian costumes. After reading the script, I was eager to help tell the story of Thessalus and the emotional struggles he endures during this short film. I also enjoyed working with Jan on ‘I Am Henry’, and was eager to collaborate with him again.
2. You designed Medea’s dress from scratch. Describe your creative vision and the process you adopted to create her unique look?
From the beginning, I was set on designing and making Medea’s dress. Medea is a very interesting and complex woman. She is from royalty, yet she is a priestess/ sorceress. She needed a dress that would have been luxurious for a royal, yet have an element that caters to the sorceress in her. When Emanuela Ponzano (Medea) saw my initial sketch (which was a more simplified version of the costume seen in the film) she really wanted something that looked like it was suffocating Medea, taking over for what she had done to her sons. That is when the concept of twisting the fabric came from. The skirt is long, flowing and made of silk representing her regal upbringing, while the bodice has the same fabrics twisting around her body creating a look of constraint and torment.
3. What was your inspiration for the other characters in the film?
For Thessalus (David Cotter) and Posidonius (Rhys Howells) Jan wanted to keep it simple. We pulled inspiration from ancient Grecian artwork while adding a contemporary look by having simple and modern ‘shorts’ on the men. I made the ‘shorts’ myself with strips of ripped linen hand stitched onto boxer briefs. To me the ‘shorts’ seem timeless and do not distract the viewer.
For the Nurse (Julia Righton), I wanted her to blend into the background, so I chose a dress that was a dusty peach colour which was similar to the earth tones on the underground set. Her dress was ankle length to show she was of working class and had to move around easily.
4. As an award-winning Costume Designer, what do you think is the secret of creating a successful look?
I don’t think there is a secret, but rather an understanding of the character, where they come from and how they feel. Sometimes it is also a gut instinct. With Thessalus’ cape, I just knew it was right for his character and Jan agreed as soon as David Cotter (Thessalus) tried it on in the fitting.
5. You’ve worked on some major big budget feature films. How does it compare to working on an independent production?
On big budget features, costume teams can have anywhere from 30-100+ people throughout filming. With independent and smaller budget films the costume teams are much smaller, so everyone has to be very well rounded to do multiple jobs. I was not only the costume designer, but the supervisor, seamstress, breakdown artist, and the onset standby all at the same time. I enjoy doing multiple rolls. It keeps me on my feet and you get to see the entire process from start to finish.
6. What advice would you give someone starting out in this field?
My advice for anyone interested in working in costume for film is to first know how to sew. You do not have to be a seamstress, but the ability to sew buttons, hems and ripped seams will make you valuable, especially on set. Be positive! Half of being successful in the industry is working in a team. If you are positive, hardworking and easy to get along with people will want to work with you again. The last piece of advice is that we work very long hours in film. A typical day of filming is 10-12 hours plus getting the cast / extras dressed before and helping them change afterwards. The stamina to work these hours and not complain is a must for surviving in the industry. If anyone has any specific questions please feel free to email me at: Kristen.email@example.com
I have a few films I have worked on coming out this year. I only disclose what the films are close to their release date due to confidentiality agreements. Please feel free to follow me on Instagram or my website for my designs is Kristen.ernstbrown.com. Thank you!