NEW YORK — Bargain shoppers are a dime a dozen these days, but costume designer Tobin Ost takes that category to another level. To outfit the cast of “Brooklyn,” a new Broadway musical whose five characters are homeless street performers, Ost took to the streets himself, literally picking trash out of the gutter to make costumes that range from an umbrella skirt to Wonder Bread-bag armwarmers.
“The costumes and the props really help tell the story, so it was important that they look like something,” says Ost, 31, who sought out objects that, if they didn’t come from the street, looked like they could have. “Even though [the costumes] are made out of these delicate materials, the insides sometimes are built like tanks to withstand eight performances a week.”
On this particular evening, costumers Katherine Hampton Noland and Daniel Urlie are fiddling with a puffy skirt fashioned from a Twister board game. Because the show is still in previews, outfits are constantly evolving and being maintained. “One of the problems that we’ve found recently is that, with time, the dirt we put on costumes has come off,” laughs Ost, who uses waxy crayons called Schmutz sticks to mess up the outfits.
The character with the most outrageous wardrobe is Paradice, a boisterous singer who appears in a white stole made entirely out of stuffed animals (some of which had to be filled with styrofoam peanuts to make the piece lighter), a skirt dotted with knockoff designer purses, a headpiece made of fanned-out Doritos and Cheetos bags and the show’s pièce de résistance: a tightly fitting halter dress made from black trash bags, silver duct tape and yellow “Caution” strips that jut out in a ring around the ankles.
Ost, who also serves as the associate set designer, worked closely with Izquierdo Studios, a prop studio, to execute the construction. Izquierdo has made elaborate angel wings out of feathers for Victoria’s Secret’s runway shows and it put together a pair for the set of “Brooklyn” that are made from carefully arranged dry-cleaning hangers. “They’re used to working with strange materials,” Ost explains. “And they had all this experience with making things look like hell.”
This story first appeared in the October 5, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
At the out-of-town tryout in Denver, Ost, who started working in theater as a Michigan high school student and later got his MFA in set design from Yale, made a big impression with the critics. A Variety reviewer called him “the truest breakout star of this production,” and his work, “the most inventive costume design I’ve ever seen or ever expect to see.”
Since graduating in 2001, he has worked as a set designer on a number of Broadway and Off-Broadway productions, including the recent revivals of “Nine” and “Assassins,” as well as “Take Me Out.” His only previous professional experience as a costume designer was for the Off-Broadway hit “Zanna, Don’t,” which starred Queer Eye culture guy Jai Rodriguez.
“I don’t know materials as well as others, and in this case, it’s working with junk,” Ost says, admitting that he’s still perfecting his sewing machine skills. “Our budget was next to nothing, and the first time around it literally was duct tape and twine and staples. That’s what held the costumes together.”
Though he looked to John Galliano’s Christian Dior couture collections for inspiration, Ost knows the wonder of his costumes lie in their use of banal materials.
“We don’t have falling chandeliers and we don’t have helicopters that land on stage,” Ost says. “If there are bells and whistles in the show, it’s because we’re making so many confections out of stuff you might walk by on the street and not pay any attention to at all.”
— Jamie Rosen