Can We Please Talk About the Costume Design on 'Hacks'?
by Evan Ross Katz
02 August 2021
In today's blink-and-you-miss-it television landscape, it can be easy to forget about or completely miss altogether even the buzziest of shows. With prestige television compressing the once ubiquitous 22 or 24-episode season down to eight or 10, a show can come and go quickly, and pratfall out-of-sight and out-of-mind. That ought not to be the case for Hacks, a quietly astounding HBO television series that crept up in mid-May and concluded its freshman season less than a month later. But don't correlate its short life-cycle with its quality, or you might miss one of the best new series on television.
The show at its most bare is a star vehicle for Jean Smart, who plays the legend-on-auto-pilot Deborah Vance, but that's barely scratching the surface of all this show has to offer. After all, a show doesn't boast 15 Emmy nominations for nothing! Included in that are acting noms for Smart as well as her co-stars Hannah Einbinder, who plays Ava, the young up-and-comer to Deborah's been-there-done-that. Carl Clemons-Hopkins and Jane Adams also secured acting noms. Also in the nominated mix was Kathleen Felix-Hager, who received her first-ever nomination for the show's costumes.
Kind of like how New York is the fifth lady on SATC, the costumes play a critical role on the series in both establishing character and world. Hager is no newbie to such a task, having designed costumes for Judging Amy, Dexter, Getting On and Veep. "I think I just have been incredibly blessed and lucky," she modestly replies when I mention the esteem of a resume such as hers. But it simply cannot be denied how much the success of this show is a rare creative symbiosis in which every element seems to simultaneously feed off of the others while providing sustenance all the same. In addition to selecting great pieces, Felix-Hager also custom designed a lot of the incredible costumes on Hacks, including the gold sequined suit that Smart wears in the finale. This is just another example of her ability to both curate and create.
"Kathleen was so expert at exemplifying the tone we were going for," says the show's co-creator Paul W. Downs. "We really wanted to make something that was grounded and realistic and well-observed and never broad or sketchy, and the costumes she put together were almost anthropological. Kathleen's costumes not only projected the kind of woman that Deborah wanted to showcase to the world but also were really sexy and attractive and made the character feel even more self-assured and confident."
Below, a chat with Felix-Hager about masterfully crafting the world of Hacks.
I wanna start off by congratulating you on your Emmy nomination.
What did that recognition feel like for you?
It felt very surreal. It's something that I never really thought about very much. But I have to admit that when I did get the nomination, it was so thrilling, and it just feels really validating that people recognize your work, in a way that I didn't think I would appreciate.
Going back to the very beginning. What first got you interested in costume design?
I came into it very accidentally. I was a young single mother and I needed a job, and I got the opportunity to work on a film, Waterworld, and I just jumped at the chance. And I was immersed in this world of creativity, and since I was sort of the lowest person on the totem pole on that film, I just did whatever anyone told me to do. So I experienced all the aspects of what it's like to be in a costume department, and I realized how integral that is in telling the story. That's what made me fall in with it, that you can contribute in a storytelling sense through the costumes.
I think Hacks is such a good example of that. I feel like the show tells so much of the story of who Deborah is through these details like the costumes and the set.
I couldn't agree more. I worked so closely with John Carlos, who is our production designer (he was also nominated). When I work on a film or television show, collaboration is my magic sauce. It's one of my favorite parts of actually working, and in this instance, it was the dreamiest work marriage. When we first started, it was more about tone and color palette, and then he and I had many discussions about certain sets, like I would match Deborah's costumes to the environment she was in. When Deborah and Ava first meet, for instance, Ava comes to her home, Deborah's in cool, water tones of pale blues and grays and subtle golds, and that was also the color palette of the living room. That kind of stuff was super fun to me.
So you read the script for Hacks, what intrigued you about the prospect of working on this series when you first read the script?
I was sent the first three episodes before I met with Lucia, Jen and Paul, who are the creators, and I could not believe — I mean, I do read a lot of scripts and sometimes I'm surprised by the things that are greenlit. Like, really? But this was so beautifully written, and these two women were written in such a way where I was like, "Oh my God, these are real women, these are real people. They're messy and they're flawed, and they're kind, and they're cruel, and they're all these things that everyone kind of is in real life." You don't see such a well-rounded portrait of women, also in two completely different times in their lives, so I just loved that so much. And I love the relationship, and there was something about just having a young person at the beginning of their career and then someone at the end and what those two things can bring to each other's lives that I just found so beautiful. I have never wanted a job so bad in my life at this point, I just really, really desperately wanted to be a part of it, and I was lucky enough to get the job.
I wanna know whether or not you had an immediate sense of how you wanted the character of Deborah to look, because among the many things that I love about this show and specifically the character of Deborah, is that I feel like as a viewer, I could look at a garment out of store right now and know whether or not Deborah would like that. I just feel like you design such a specific look for Deborah that I feel like I know her taste, if that makes any sense.
I kind of did, and I thank you so much for that, it's an incredible compliment. When I first interviewed for the job, I did these moodboards and those initial moodboards that I presented are very close to what we ended up doing for her. Her character is this iconic stage performer, and I didn't want her to be the caricature, I wanted her to be her own person, and I just had a vision of this kind of sexy, empowered woman. I liked the idea of her wearing pants on stage. We ended up doing a lot of that sort of long sparkly duster coat on stage and that silhouette carried on to her everyday wear, even though it was a different fabrication. I just wanted her to be a real person. We also created a back story that Deborah is a collector and she loves clothes, and she keeps all of her clothes in those big closets. I just imagined there would be clothes that she loved from every single period of her life. But really she just appeared to me, I can't explain it any other way.
Nor should you have to. I love the way that the silhouette changes when Marty is around, and I feel like she kind of wants to embrace a more sexy side of herself, and you literally see the silhouette shift as she's trying to entertain a male suitor, if you will.
Yeah, we put her in those short black knee-length dresses. They were very figure-conscious, showing her shape and how gorgeous she is.
She really is.
Yeah. Oh my God, amazing. Yeah, those were fun, they were some of my favorites. Those two black dresses were my favorites, I love them.
And speaking of: did you design knowing that Jean was going to be playing Deborah?
I actually did. When I met with Lucia, Jen and Paul, Jean had already signed on, so I knew that she was going to be Deborah Vance, and I had actually worked with Jean once before. She had done a guest spot on Veep, so I had worked with her and it was helpful to know a little bit of Jean before. So she definitely was in my head when I was thinking about Deborah. When I was first hired I sent Jean my moodboards and then we had a really long discussion about shapes and sizes, some things that she was bonded to. I mean, who else could be Deborah Vance? No one.
I read that Jean would call you with costume ideas. She would be out and about shopping and see something and call to ask, "Would this work for Deborah?" What was that like for you? I imagine it's so fun to get to play with an actor who, when they're not actively working, they're thinking about details like, "What would my character wear?"
She would often call me on a Saturday or Sunday, and Jean is a terrifically thrifty shopper, so if it was on sale, it was even better. She would text me or send me pictures. "What do you think about this jacket?" And we used several of them on the show. She would just scoop things up. And we also used items that she would bring in from her personal wardrobe. She has an extensive jewelry collection, and Jean does not have pierced ears, so she had a lot of those big clip-on earrings that were Jean's personal ones that we used, so that was also fun.
One of the interesting things about the character of Deborah, is that she has both money and taste, which I think creates a unique challenge for you as a designer. Did it make it harder for you knowing the fact that the character has access to the finest things and knows where to find them?
Actually, the opposite! It was very freeing because we just balanced a mix of high and low. I never really looked at labels. I looked at things that would resonate with me or certain shapes or certain prints. I pulled a lot of stuff from the costume houses in Los Angeles, so there were some vintage pieces. On one of her TV appearances, Deborah wore this vintage Salvatore Ferragamo bomber jacket that was a crazy print. It didn't really matter, the label, so much as the color or the shape or the silhouette. It was also fun because it didn't matter to Jean either personally, she's not a label snob. If it worked for the character, she was totally game for it.
I want to switch gears and talk about Ava. She's a confident, young, bisexual female comedian living in New York City, and what I love about Ava is that she's both really emotionally intelligent, and then of course, like so many of us, stunted by her parents and her love life. How did you go about creating Ava's wardrobe? Because I feel like we don't get a lot of characters like Ava in film or television.
Right! And interestingly enough, everyone wants to talk about Deborah and her different looks, but Ava was actually the more challenging character for me. She's so specific, and it was really important to get her right, and make her an authentically real person. Because in life, Hannah is a stand-up comedian who struggles with all of the same issues that Ava does. So it was very important to give her a sense of realness. We did a lot of vintage shopping for her. We used Hannah's own Doc Marten boots because that just sort of felt — I mean, she came to the first fitting in them, so I thought this is just something we need to incorporate into Ava. We did a ton of fittings for the character of Ava before we found our niche.
How did shooting throughout COVID challenge your job?
Hacks was the first job that I did during COVID, and I was completely daunted by it at the beginning because it was all so new. I think I started prepping in September, so things were very fresh still, right? We were tested every day, the whole crew was masked and shielded. It was an odd experience meeting actors and just seeing their eyeballs when you're talking to them. In another way, it was this amazing blessing and such a tonic for me, because even though there were all these COVID challenges, to be able to work to do something that I love so much gave me a sense of hope throughout the whole thing, like we can get through this and manage the world and these crazy times, and you can still be creative and do work with people you love. I think it also bonded the cast and crew in a very real way in that we did something kind of special and magical at such a weird time.
I'm wondering if you have a favorite moment in Season One? Mine is when Deborah fixes the CO2 bottle on her at home fountain soda machine. I just think that that detail is so specific and tells you everything about Deborah. Are there any moments for you that come to mind?
I mean, I do love that moment, especially because there's no dialogue and the camera lingers on it for an unusually long time, and you're like, "What is happening?" But it does tell you so much about the character. The other moment is also kind of a wordless moment when Deborah steps on stage at the end for her final performance and you see that she's wearing those bedazzled Jimmy Choo stilettos. There's a moment before where she asks Marcus "Should I wear the heels or the stilettos?" And he's like, "Wear the low heels, the pain's not worth it," and then just a few beats later you see her just strutting on stage in the stilettos and you realize she's making the uncomfortable choice. I like that a lot.
Who would you say you relate to more? Ava or Deborah?
I'm a little bit of both, but I guess I'm more of a Deborah in the sense that I've seen and done things, and I'm closer in age to Deborah. There's a sense of a little bit more knowing of the world, I guess, or maybe knowing myself a little bit more than Ava, so I guess I would be more of a Deborah.
What is your favorite memory from working on Season One?
It's actually an off-camera one, but that black dress with the gold fringe that Deborah wears to the Bat Mitzvah when she's all flirty with Marty. Jean did not want to try that dress on. She saw it hanging in the fitting room and she was like, "There's no way I can wear that dress, that's too sexy." And I said, "Come on, we're just in a fitting. Just put it on, who cares? No one is going to see. If you hate it, you hate it!" She was like, "Oh, alright, I'll do it for you." So I stepped out and she changed and got herself into the dress and opened the door very Deborah Vance-like, one arm on the side of the door and she goes, "God dammit, you were right!" She loved it. That was my favorite memory.
I'm sure you've seen, the internet is obsessed with Jean Smart. I don't mean to portray this as a new thing, because for many of us, we've long been obsessed with Jean Smart, she's not brand new. But it does feel like people are waking up to the greatness that is Jean, thanks to the 1-2-3 punch of Watchmen, Mare of Easttown and Hacks, three incredible performances over the past two years. As someone who knows her well, what would you say is one of your favorite things about Jean Smart?
Oh, that's too easy. She's incredibly kind. She's just such a kind, generous person to every single person on the crew, from the tippity top to the bottom. She is just one of the kindest people I've ever worked at.
What a gratifying thing to hear as a fan of the show. Last thing, real quick. What are you looking forward to the most about Season Two?
The adventure of it all, I guess! I have no idea where it's going. I think they're going on the road, that's all I know.
I can't wait.
I'm just as excited as any fan. I mean, believe me, I saw the dailies and I would always be on set and all of that, but to see it all come together, with the music and everything else-- just a beautiful work of art. I think it was extraordinary and I just thought it was the most heartfelt, funny, and it took you places. Even though I read the scripts, I'm just like the biggest fan of the show just as anyone else.
Welcome to "Wear Me Out," a column by pop culture fiend Evan Ross Katz that takes a look at the week in celebrity dressing. From award shows and movie premieres to grocery store runs, he'll keep you up to date on what your favorite celebs have recently worn to the biggest and most inconsequential events.
Photos courtesy of HBO Max