Dear Kristin: I am an aspiring costume designer, having switched careers from fashion design. I haven’t looked back since, and it’s been tough, but great. One of my next goals is to join the Costume Designer’s Guild. I have been hard at work finding my way onto any indie feature I can, to learn as much as I can and just continue to gain experience. I was thinking of applying to the Guild (when I feel ready and have some funds saved up) as an assistant costume designer, so I can learn under more experienced costume designers. Is it difficult to then upgrade to costume designer, once I have some union experience under my belt? I’m in no rush to design a union feature as a costume designer; I’m just wondering if I should apply as a costume designer and then just look for assistant costume designer jobs instead, OR if I should apply as an assistant costume designer, and then upgrade.
Dear Adriana: Thank you so much for your inquiry. I frequently get questions along these lines and am happy to help you as much as I can. You are asking for advice here, and that is what I can offer. I am NOT a union representative; I am just a designer who has been in this mix for a long time and this is my personal opinion, not the union’s opinion. Really not the union’s opinion.
With that caveat in mind, here it goes…
As you may already know, there are two unions covering costume work in the LA film and television industries. They are IATSE Local 892 (the Costume Designers Guild) and IATSE Local 705 (Motion Picture Costumers). The CDG covers costume designers, assistant costume designers, and costume illustrators. 705/MPC covers costumers (on set as well as prep costumers), tailors/stitchers, specialty fabricators, and costume house employees.
A union is not a job placement agency. A union card does not guarantee you a job. Only your connections, your past job performance, and your reputation will get you work. So I need to ask you a question first: Do you know enough people and have enough past experience to ensure that the investment will be worth it?
There are two things to think about when considering applying. First – the requirements to join. Here is some info for you:
In order to apply as a costume designer, you must meet one of three criteria (and I am paraphrasing – if you’d like exactitudes, please download the membership application from the CDG website): 1) You were the costume designer of record on a non-union film or TV production that was organized by the union (IATSE); 2) You were the costume designer of record on ONE commercially released film or television production, along with three letters of recommendation; 3) You were the sole costume supervisor on a film or TV production where there was no costume designer, along with three letters of recommendation.
To apply as an assistant costume designer, you must meet one of two criteria (again, paraphrasing): 1) You were the assistant costume designer of record on a non-union film or TV production that was organized by the union (IATSE); 2) You served as assistant costume designer, costume supervisor, or costumer on ONE commercially released film or television production, along with three letters of recommendation.
As you can see, the requirements to join are not stringent. With the requirement of only one commercially released credit, the Costume Designers Guild is not an arbiter of a person’s talent or even experience in the industry; membership is simply a personal choice that one makes. California is not a “right to work” state, like much of the South, AZ, UT, NV, etc. In those states, union membership is not required to work in a union environment. However, in California, in order to work in a union environment, you must be a member of the union covering the work. If you want to work on union movies in California, you must join the union.
Second – and here’s the really important part– the cost of joining the union is thus (information comes from the membership application at the CDG website):
Entrance Fee: $4500
First Quarter Dues: $250 ($1000/year)
IATSE Processing Fee: $100
Sketch Stamp: $25
Assistant Costume Designer
Entrance Fee: $2250
First Quarter Dues: $206 ($824/year)
IATSE Processing Fee: $100
Sketch Stamp: $25
That is a TON of money for someone just starting out. Dues are collected quarterly. If you fail to pay your dues, your membership status is in jeopardy. So, first consider – can you afford the outlay of money? Do you have a job in hand that will offset the cost of joining?
You asked about joining as an ACD, and then upgrading – yes, it is totally possible to do this, but you must pay the dollar-amount difference; there may be other conditions in place as well, but I am not an expert. I recommend consulting the CDG website or calling them if you have very detailed questions.
Like I said before – the union is NOT a job agency. They do keep an availability list, but there is no guarantee of work. Furthermore, and this is my honest experience, very seldom to we get to hire assistant costume designers on feature films anymore. Budgets have been slashed, and very few producers understand the benefit of an ace assistant costume designer. I have designed over fifty feature films, and I have only been able to afford an assistant costume designer ONE TIME.
The pool of ACDs is deep, and many of them have tons of experience as costumers , assistants and designers. We had a mixer a year ago, like a speed-dating experience for designers and assistants, and it was truly humbling to see how much experience many of these ACDs have. I am not trying to discourage you from joining the union if that’s what you want to do, but you should know what the situation is at the moment: lots of great, lovely, talented people, but not enough jobs for all of them.
It is the same situation for costume designers. We are in a very competitive environment, now as always. I joined the union in 1994 after designing twelve feature films. I paid my dues and went to meetings regularly. I didn’t book a union job until 1999-2000. Think about that. I paid all of that money for five years, and saw no benefit because I wasn’t able to secure union work. The union is not an employment agency, and you will need to get an agent to help you book union work, or pound the pavement to get it for yourself.
That being said, there are tremendous benefits to union membership, chiefly the health insurance. We have the best plan on earth. We also have great retirement benefits. The meetings (held three times a year) are great places to mingle, meet people and learn, and there are job fair/mixer opportunities that are also good for people just starting in the business. The more connections you make, the better off you will be. Union membership is one way to make those connections. We also have a fabulous research library, and we get a lot of great DVD screeners during awards season; I can’t say enough about how exciting that is. There are many good things about union membership.
You make the statement that you would like to learn from other designers, and I think that is wonderful. What we seem to lack in our union is a cohesive plan to welcome aspiring designers who are sincerely devoted to the craft, and help them climb a ladder to achieve real work. We do not have an apprenticeship program, and that is a shame. One of my fondest dreams would be to merge the two unions (892/CDG and 705/MPC) into one, more powerful union, and to establish an apprenticeship program for those who qualify.
It could be so simple – prove (by pay stubs, call sheets and production reports) that you have worked as a Production Assistant in the costume department for union film and/or television productions for 3,000 cumulative hours, submit three letters of recommendation, have an interview, pay an entry fee, and join the union as an apprentice. Apprentices could be paid on a slightly higher pay scale than a regular PA, but they would receive union hours and benefits. After 3,000 additional hours of work as a union apprentice, the person could graduate to an entry-level union costumer position of their choosing (finished costumer, specialty fabricator, etc). There would be a clear way of ascending the ladder, and we could do away with the disgraceful system we have in place at the moment. People who are truly devoted to this craft deserve a clear path to real work. I am sorry, Adriana, that a truly clear path doesn’t exist at this time.
I hope that I have answered your question, or at minimum, given you something to consider. Please keep in touch, and let me know how it goes for you and what you decide to do. I with you the best of luck on your journey – keep plugging away, sista!