Costume designer and fashion historian Katie Kupferberg was first introduced to costume design as a member of Troupe 5924 at Dr. Michael Krop High School in Miami, Florida. “Everyone asks me ‘How did you get into this?’ and ‘How did you know you wanted to do this?’” Kupferberg explained. “It’s just one of those things where I found it in high school. I always knew, and I’ve never wanted to do anything else.”
Kupferberg received her undergraduate degree from Florida State University majoring in theatre with a focus in costume design in 2011. She continued her education at Parsons the New School of Design with a Master of Arts in 2014. Based out of New York City, she now works as a freelance costume designer, associate costume designer, and historian.
“I see costume design as a really collaborative art form,” Kupferberg said. “I’ll meet with the director or the production team and have a conversation with them about how they see things versus how I see things, and how we can put that together.” She also emphasizes the importance of involving the actors in the costume design process. “I like to have conversations with the actors to see what their take on the character is. That’s a lot of me listening to what they have to say and getting their ideas about what they like and what they don’t like, because you want them to be happy.”
Kupferberg has worked on Broadway and Off-Broadway under Tony Award-winning designers, as well as in television and film. She has worked on the costume design team for several of the Marvel Netflix shows, including Iron Fist, Daredevil and The Defenders, and several other major network TV shows for CBS and ABC. Most recently, she was the assistant costume designer for the Thirty Something Else pilot.
What sparked your interest in theatre and costume design?
My interest in costume design started in high school. I went to a school with a magnet program in south Florida, and I was supposed to originally be in the fine arts program. But I made friends with the students in the theatre program, and naturally as a high school student I wanted to be where my friends were, so I volunteered to build sets for their production of Oklahoma! The head of the theatre magnet program took me under his wing and started showing me how to build sets and how to design and build costumes, and I transferred into the theatre program. Costume design was a way for me to combine my love of clothes and my love of art and drawing, so I pursued that throughout high school and continued with it through college. Then I entered the world of costume design when I moved to New York after completing my undergraduate degree. I was lucky enough to work under a Broadway costume designer as an intern and work my way up as an assistant, then I took a break to go to grad school and continued from there. So that’s where I’m at now – I’ve been working in the field for about nine years, and it’s been a fun journey.
In graduate school, you studied design history and art history. How does your interest in costume history influence your designs?
While I was in grad school and for a little bit of time after I graduated, I worked as an assistant collections manager at museums. My job was to take care of garments and fashion objects in the museum collection, so I got to see how a lot of things were made and constructed firsthand. While working in museums, I made sure to take photos of everything I saw. I sorted those photos by time period and gender, and now I have this giant binder that I go back to for all my design research that serves as a firsthand inspiration binder with the things I’ve seen. I think that looking at how people lived and what people wore is the best jumping off point for inspiration. Working in a museum gave me insight into the deeper part of design that I didn’t necessarily understand prior to that. It helped me to grow as a designer, and I’m really thankful for that experience.
You’ve worked both on Broadway and Off-Broadway, as well as working on the costume design team for several TV shows. How are those experiences similar and different?
Theatre and TV are extremely different. In theatre, you are working with a full play, and you know where it’s going, and it doesn’t change very often. Whereas in television, you get a script that’s constantly changing, and you’re always working one episode ahead. It’s a bit of a rush. You get to take more time with theatre, and you have more time to prep, and the hours are a little less crazy. But with TV it’s very fast-paced. There’s also less room for error in television because there are close-ups, and people are seeing the minute details of your costumes. With theatre, you’re working on a larger scale since somebody in the last seat of the balcony has to see a costume, and you have to convey the same message to them as you do to the person in the first row. I find that the theatre is more of a creative environment because the costumes are designed and then brought to a shop and are custom-made. With television you do a lot more shopping. Especially if you’re working on an action show, you’re buying duplicates for stunt doubles. If there’s any fake blood, mud or dirt involved, you have to buy multiples so that each take they have a fresh shirt to start with. So it’s a lot more shopping than in theatre. Unless it’s a period TV show, in theatre there’s a lot more creating.
When you look back on your high school experience, do you have any favorite Thespian memories?
I think my favorite part was going to the district and the state competitions. I got to see Thespian friends I didn’t normally get to see since they went to other schools and didn’t live close to me. Some of the friends I made at those competitions went to college with me, and some work with me now in New York City, so those friendships followed me all throughout my career and my life. Participating in competitions and learning how to present myself, present my designs, talk to people, take criticism — which is really important to learn — I really value my time doing that as a Thespian. At competitions we would talk about who’s going to get their Excellents and who’s going to get their Superiors, but at the end of the day it was about having that experience and the camaraderie of being a part of a theatre family. That is still something that I really value because when you work on a Broadway show or an Off-Broadway show, those people become your family. You’re with them for long hours, and oftentimes they’re the best friendships, because when you’re working really hard it’s nice to have people who have all of these things in common with you.
What advice would you give Thespians interested in pursuing a career like yours?
I would say to be patient and don’t let anything discourage you. Make sure you learn to take the criticism that you get. There’s always room to learn, so be open to learning from your peers, your bosses, and other designers. Stay humble. It’s important to know that you’re going to pay your dues — it’s just part of the process. And never take no for an answer because you never know what’s going to be on the other side of that door.