Designing DALLAS: Costume Designer Rachel Sage Kunin

By Joe Kucharski - May 26, 2014

When we watch a television show, we become immersed in the lives of our favorite characters. We invite them into our homes every week, following their journey and seeing them evolve before our eyes. Bringing that world to life through costume, episode after episode, is far more complicated than it seems from the outside. Costume designer Rachel Sage Kunin was gracious enough to give us all a small peek into that world.

DALLAS, costume designer Rachel Sage Kunin

 

Rachel is an accomplished television costume designer with credits on such shows as Cane, Longmire and currently TNT’s reboot of DALLAS. This fast moving family and corporate drama picked up eleven years after the original show’s finale with the Ewing family and a whole new crop of young characters. Rachel expertly dresses characters of multiple generations with the perfect blend of designer fashion and rugged work wear for a result that is stylish, sexy, grounded, and all Texas. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Rachel about her work, tour the set, and meet her incredible team.

DALLAS, Pamela Rebecca Barnes (Julie Gonzalo), costume designer Rachel Sage Kunin

 

 

Tyranny of Style: Can you tell us about what it is like starting on a new TV series as a costume designer?

 

Rachel Sage Kunin: It’s always quite an exciting new prospect when starting a show.  New characters to design, a new canvas to paint and new people to collaborate with are just some of the reasons this process is so appealing.

 When I’m beginning a show, gathering information is my first and most important job.  I research everything that has to do with who the characters are, including their backstories.  Where are they socioeconomically?  How would they present themselves to the world?  How do they relate to the people around them?  What are their intentions?  What is their story arch for the season?

 After I’ve discussed my thoughts with the producers I bring the actors into the conversation. Then the initial fittings start.  For me, this is where the real magic happens.  It’s in those fittings that we see the character come to life.

 DALLAS, John Ross Ewing (Josh Henderson) and Christopher Ewing (Jesse Metcalfe), costume designer Rachel Sage Kunin

 

T/S: Once you have established characters- what does planning look like, both the overall plan for the season as well as episode by episode?

 

RSK: In television there are two budgets that the costume department works with.  One is called the “amort,” short for amortization, and the other is called the pattern. The amort is used to build closets for the main characters.  The pattern is what the department is budgeted per episode for the day players, the background and anything outside of what is already in the character’s closets.  During the initial stages of an episode’s prep, I submit a breakdown of how the pattern budget is going to be allocated.  There are times that I may come under the pattern and there are times, especially for what we call “event” episodes that the budget handed in is over the pattern. 

DALLAS, Emma Brown (Emma Bell), costume designer Rachel Sage Kunin

 

T/S: For readers who don't know anything about working on TV, can you tell us a snapshot of your average day and average week creating a single episode from the costume design perspective?

 

RSK: I think most people who are not aware of what goes into our daily and weekly work schedules would be surprised by how intense it is.  While we are shooting an episode we are prepping for the next.  Each episode takes approximately 7 days to shoot.  We work 12 to 16 hour days.  A twelve-hour day is considered quite luxurious. 

DALLAS, costume designer Rachel Sage Kunin

Wall of jewelry, DALLAS fitting room

 

We start prepping an episode by having a concept meeting where the heads of the departments get together and talk in broad strokes about the script.  Then we each have individual meetings with the episode’s director and the show producers to go over the details.  It’s in this meeting that I pitch ideas, talk about the mood of each character and dive head in to the specifics of each costume.  I prep for this meeting by analyzing the script then conceptualizing ideas and collecting visuals to share.

DALLAS, costume designer Rachel Sage Kunin

DALLAS costume storage, background and day players

 

Between the shopper and I, much of our time is spent gathering options for fittings.  Much of my time is also spent in fittings.  I have fittings with each character for each episode.  Characters often have upwards of 4 or 5 costumes per episode.  Day players, who are the characters other than the regulars, are most often cast 48 hours before they are to work.  We try to get their sizes right away and start shopping, however they don’t get into Dallas until the afternoon before they are set to shoot.  We fit them right after they land but as you can imagine this leaves little wiggle room to make changes or fine tune.  I take pictures to show the “powers that be” to get the costumes approved.  I’m always keeping my fingers crossed that there are no major hiccups.  Between the main cast and day players I might have anywhere from 15-30 fittings per week.

DALLAS, costume designer Rachel Sage Kunin

DALLAS costume storage, every accessory in its place

 

To get a costume in the works, it is my job to communicate if there is anything that still needs to happen to get it picture ready.  There might need to be a size exchange, a different color shoe found, a double or triple needed, pieces that need alterations, laundering or aging, the list goes on and on.  Once it’s picture ready, it goes to the truck and I communicate with the set costumers how the costume is to be worn.  I do this through pictures and a show and tell in person.

DALLAS, costume designer Rachel Sage Kunin

DALLAS costume storage, John Ross Ewing

 

This brings me to the incredible team that makes the costume department run smoothly.  The assistant costume designer is consistently helping me through out the design process.  On DALLAS, she’s breaking down the script for the continuity books, she’s researching and resourcing the off-shore oil worker costumes, she’s gathering the background cartel thug costumes, she’s getting the new Ewing Global logo from art department to bring to the embroider for the caps that need to be made, she’s asking me what size the logo should be, what color and type of caps I’d like, she’s asking props for the size of the gun that we need to conceal, she’s reminding me that the gun needs to be concealed, she’s literally helping me in every aspect, in every way possible.

DALLAS, costume designer Rachel Sage Kunin

DALLAS costume storage, Christopher Ewing

 

The costume supervisor spends about 90% of her day doing the department’s accounting.  She also gathers the day players sizes, schedules all of the fittings, works closely with the background costumer to make sure everything is on the truck that is needed on location the next day and communicates with the unit production manager what the departments labor needs are.  The set costumers prep the costumes for the day and load them into the actors’ trailer as needed.  They make sure everything is looking as it’s supposed to and they are in charge of logging every costume’s continuity.  The background costumer is doing the same but for the background players.  There is also a full time cutter/fitter who is usually busy with alterations and often at the same time building a piece.  The department also has a production assistant who is responsible for making all of the returns on the pieces that didn’t make the cut in the fittings.  Everyone does much more than I’ve outlined but it would take several chapters to go into full detail.  What is important is to note is that the costume department is made up of a small village of very skilled and talented people!

DALLAS, costume designer Rachel Sage Kunin

DALLAS costume truck

 

 

T/S: Can you tell us a little bit about designing for and working with a character like Sue Ellen Ewing who is so complex and has such a rich history on the show?

 

RSK: Linda Gray and I spoke a lot about Sue Ellen’s backstory, what the character had been up to, off camera, for the past 20 years and where she is now.  All of that information revealed what would be relevant to her character today.

DALLAS, Sue Ellen Ewing (Linda Gray), costume designer Rachel Sage Kunin

DALLAS, Sue Ellen Ewing costume research images, costume designer Rachel Sage Kunin

 

T/S: In contrast, can you tell us about designing for a new character like John Ross that has a fresh, new story, but comes from this legacy/family?

 

RSK: When establishing John Ross’s look, I took direction from knowing he grew up in a wealthy, privileged environment and even more importantly that he is all about the win.  My fashion inspiration for him is the modern menswear cuts that are prevalent today.  The tailoring is close to the body, the jacket a bit shorter than what has been shown in the past and the pants taper.  It has a British sensibility which works well given John Ross spent many of his formative years living in England.  My favorite part about dressing John Ross is that he can go from those sleek businessman looks to the rugged, cowboy hat, working on the ranch looks with such ease.

DALLAS, John Ross Ewing (Josh Henderson), costume designer Rachel Sage Kunin

DALLAS, John Ross Ewing costume research images, costume designer Rachel Sage Kunin

 

T/S: Judith Ryland burst onto the scene in season two, and is such an incredible over the top personality. Can you tell us about how you first learned about her character, the planning that went into her first appearance, and what the design process has been for you over the course of the season?

 

RSK: When Judith Light was cast as Judith Ryland I knew exactly how I wanted her look to be established.  The silhouette- a fitted bodice, voluminous sleeve and popped collar, ala Katherine Hepburn as Mrs. Violet Venable in “Suddenly, Last Summer”.  This regal at home look struck just the right cord.  Fortunately, I was able to convince everyone else and we went with it. 

DALLAS, Judith Ryland (Judith Light), costume designer Rachel Sage Kunin

Throughout the course of the season, as I learned more about Judith Ryland and became more informed, her looks evolved.  Although she’s well put together there is often something slightly off about her.  It might be a messy strand of pearls or perhaps something slightly inappropriate for a woman of her age. 

DALLAS, Judith Ryland (Judith Light) and Harris Ryland (Mitch Pileggi), costume designer Rachel Sage Kunin

 

T/S: With the fast pace of filming, how do you organize and share your research/inspiration for each costume?

 

RSK: This season I did things a bit differently than I have in the past and put together individual character boards on Pinterest:  http://www.pinterest.com/rachelsagekunin 

DALLAS, Elena Ramos costume research images, costume designer Rachel Sage Kunin

This was my first time doing research boards this way and I’ll definitely be doing it again.  Pinterest has been useful for a few reasons.  As ideas or images become less relevant I can easily remove them from the board.  Working on the computer this way certainly cuts down on paper, so it’s quite a “green” alternative.  It’s also extremely helpful for pieces that I may actually want to bring into fittings since the image links to the existing product’s source or I can write notes on what it is.  It has really been a great way to organize one step of my creative process.

 DALLAS, costume designer Rachel Sage Kunin

Sign on the back of the DALLAS costume department's office door.

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A huge thanks to Rachel and everyone on her team for their time, hospitality, and chauffeuring! Follow Rachel on Twitter and make sure to check out DALLAS on TNT when it returns with all new episodes, August 18th.