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Meet Shonda Rhimes’s Go-To Costume Designer

Lyn Paolo talks working on How to Get Away with Murder, Scandal and more

Costumes can make or break a television show. Some of our most instantly recognizable characters, from Olivia Pope and her designer power suits to Shameless‘s Fiona Gallagher and her well-worn white knit cap, arguably wouldn’t be nearly as beloved without their trademark wardrobes. Just as inspiring as the iconic albeit fictional women we’ve grown to love on the screen are the scores of real-life women who bring them to life. Emmy-winning Costume Designer Lyn Paolo is one of those women.

While she’s now one of the most established costumers in the biz, Paolo has come a long way. “I had no intention nor knowledge of costume design [until] I moved to Los Angeles in the late 80s,” Paolo says. But after her first gig as a stylist’s assistant on commercials and music videos, Paolo was hooked, and quickly rising  through the ranks and snagging two Primetime Emmy Awards for Outstanding Achievement in Costuming for her work on the early 90s series Homefront. Today, you can catch her work on major shows Animal Kingdom and Shameless as well as two Shonda Rhimes productions, How to Get Away with Murder and Scandal.

Below, we chat with the designer about her inspirations, the most rewarding thing about costuming, and what actually is so great about Blade Runner.

What is the most difficult thing about the art of costume design?

There are many challenges to costume design that are less glamorous than the pretty images one sees on screen or in magazines. Budgets and time constraints are always to be noted. However, I would say, for me, I find my world as a costume designer filled with joy. I love what I do so much that I really don’t find anything difficult, just another challenge to be surmounted. There is such joy in doing something well that I try to focus on that rather than on how tricky something may be.

What is the most rewarding thing?

Finding the character in a fitting room with an actor. There is often a moment when an actor will turn to me and say “this is it” or “this is him/her.” That moment is magical and brings such joy to myself and my team.

What is the first thing you do when you sign on for a new project?

That is a great question, but also a bit tricky as each project is different (which is one of the things I love about my job). I guess that most of the time I will do research about the place a story is set in, or research the profession that a character inhabits. So, I basically research to find inspiration for the bigger picture.

Can you share a little about your methods for research when it comes to dressing characters in their particular environment (period of time, location, socioeconomic status, etc.)? How much of the costume design is done based on the script versus your own research?

Costume design is an interactive art. There are so many variables, it is like a big jigsaw puzzle. Research, color, design, and of course the script-—all of these things converge, as well as input from producers, actors, and my own team. Once all of the information is in your head, then it’s time to create mood boards, sketches, and color palettes.

What surprising small details influence your designs for a particular character? (i.e. what about their sense of humor?)

I try to take everything into consideration and each new script that comes out adds a new dimension to the character. Also, I find that collaborating with the actor/writer brings new small ideas and more details to the character. The choice of a purse, pin, piece of jewelry, all of it, no matter how small, becomes an integral part of telling the story of the character.

Can you name some films/shows that particularly stand out to you as having exceptional costume design and that inspire you?

There are so many designers that I’m in awe of. I loved the original Blade Runner. As a very young person, seeing that different world up on the screen was cathartic. It was so visually stunning and it inspires me still.

What has been your proudest career moment thus far? (I mean, aside from the Emmy of course!)

The clothing line that Kerry and I worked on for The Limited was really so much fun and I am very proud of the work that we did together on that line. I know many of our Gladiators loved that we did that and I would love to do another line in the future.

I’m sure that working on big budget projects like Scandal, HTGAWM and Shameless means larger responsibilities and higher stakes—how does working on a network show compare to smaller, or other projects you’ve done?

I know that Shonda Rhimes talked about this in her book–the constant drum of a Mack Truck or train about to hit you every seven or eight days. I am constantly amazed by our writers and the whole production team. They manage to create a new world every seven or eight days and most one hour dramas are mini movies that these stunning professionals manage to churn out every week. I really believe that television is an amazing place to hone your craft and I am very proud of my team and the whole crew on all of these shows. They work so hard and love what they do! And I hope the viewers enjoy the shows as much as we enjoy working on them.