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Meet Adriana Lámbarri

Today we’d like to introduce you to Adriana Lámbarri.

So, before we jump into specific questions, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
As a costume designer, my path has not been straightforward at all, more meandering. As I’ve journeyed, I’ve discovered this is not uncommon amongst creative professionals. It really takes a lot of guts and determination to work in this business, so it’s not surprising some people start out in “safer” professions before finally giving in to their true passion in the arts. My career transition wasn’t so dramatically different, but in terms of paychecks, the consistency definitely went out the window.

Being creative and having a strong interest in the arts is something I’ve always known. I was mesmerized by the performing arts; ballet, in particular, and my parents were very supportive in letting me start classes around the time I was 6. I also really took an interest in drawing and painting and spent hours playing around with good old-fashioned Crayola watercolor palettes. Throughout school, I performed in the theater and continued dancing and sketching. I knew I wanted to work in something art-related. I actually owe a lot of my initial interest in fashion design to my mother and the other well-dressed ladies in my family. They were so stylish and put together. I was certain I wanted to be a fashion designer.

I went to school to study fashion design at the Academy of Art in San Francisco. It was one of the most difficult times of my life, but I survived and earned my BFA. There were fewer job opportunities in San Francisco compared to Los Angeles or New York, but I had no interest in either place so I stayed, worked small, odd fashion projects, eventually landing solid jobs at Gap Inc. and Byer California. Soon after getting married, my husband was offered an opportunity through his company to manage a sales team in Ireland. It was too good to pass up, so off we went, living in Dublin for three years. I worked for a small design house but after a while fashion wasn’t fulfilling me at all…it was ten years later and I was starting to feel burnt out and not creative at all. As it were, we decided to move back to the States and I really began to question my career in fashion. I racked my brain trying to think of other things I could do that were related to fashion and clothing. I tried my hand at styling but hated it. I worked as a seamstress for a local San Francisco designer who specialized in building costumes for high school color guard teams. Costume design was starting to look interesting but I didn’t know how to get started. Coincidentally, I got back in touch with an old acting friend of mine, who told me he and his friend were raising money on the then popular Kick Starter website to produce an indie horror feature. The little light bulb went off in my head and asked if he needed a costume designer. Mind you, I had zero experience, but I volunteered to do it for free just for the opportunity and he accepted. We were a motley crew of ambitious creatives and soon the Kickstarter campaign goal was exceeded and we were off to the races. I went with raw instinct and common sense to figure out how to break down the script and costume plot. It felt completely natural.

The whole filmmaking process turned out to be such a thrilling, amazing experience. We shot it in two weeks and the end result won numerous awards at different indie film festivals. I was hooked. I had found something where I could still utilize my skills as a designer, working with fabrics, and creating specific looks, but now it was to tell stories.

I threw myself into costume design fully, finding random production jobs on Craigslist and slowly began to develop my skills completely by the seat of my pants. Low budget features weirdly led to work in the theater, a wonderful plus. Figuring stuff out on the job was great, to an extent, but I knew there had to be a more “proper way” of doing things. I applied for seasonal over hire work at the Tony award-winning regional theater South Coast Repertory and then really cut my teeth. I started out stitching costumes then assisting other designers. Assisting other designers led to illustrating for them, which has allowed me to revisit another joy, though this time the watercolor paints are a few notches above Crayola. : D It’s been a mad journey filled with weird twists and turns. Eventually, my husband and I finally took the plunge to procreate and ended up with a delightful son, who adds another layer of excitement as he grows each day. The journey continues and I can’t wait to see what’s in store. The thrill of translating scripts into a vocabulary of clothing to create real, believable people in situations both mundane and fantastical is what drives me to keep finding those truths.

Has it been a smooth road?
I don’t know anyone who’s gone into this industry and had it be “smooth”. Some may get lucky but there’s so much uncertainty; you never know where your next job will come from. For me, I struggled a lot with belief in myself, particularly because I felt like I had come to the game a bit late. I wasn’t formally trained in costume design, but I still knew how to design, cut a technical pattern, sew, and build a piece of clothing. It just required a different mindset. Still, I was competing for design jobs with younger graduates from formal costume programs. As it turns out, a lot of them weren’t always as technically trained in the way fashion designers are trained, so I had some advantage there plus loads more life experience. An unrelenting belief in your self can be exhausting. After my son was born, I struggled with postpartum depression. I was convinced I had ruined what little, modest career I had. How was I possibly going to work the unpredictable crazy hours with a baby? This industry is not the most forgiving to parents, though things have started to change for the better. A lot of people choose not to get married or have kids for that very reason, especially if you want to work on big budget projects. When I had the chance to assist famed costume designer Julie Weiss, I was so nervous for her to know I had a son. Her reply was that she was happy I had decided to have a kid because I was living my life. She assured me it would make me a better designer. That’s still yet to be determined, but I do feel I have something else to draw from, particularly if I’m designing a show that involves families. I have never forgotten that and I think about it often during times of doubt.

Finding “your people” is another difficult part of the puzzle. Good jobs are hard to come by. Most established pros have their team they always work with. If you’re trying to break in, it can be near impossible to land an amazing job straight out the gates since everyone already has their team set. I’ve learned that working in this business is similar to dating. Some jobs go great; you meet some really interesting, talented, KIND people. Some jobs are a bit meh, neither good nor bad, but you don’t get a call back for reasons unknown. Some jobs are downright disastrous. There can be a lot of those. With enough persistence, you can meet your professional “soulmates”, but sometimes you have to navigate through a lot of bad experiences before you find them. It can really make you question if you even want to continue to work in this industry! I’ve wanted to give up numerous times. But remembering things like what Julie Weiss told me are what keeps me going. I love what I do. I also have an extremely supportive and loving husband who keeps nudging me when I am ready to tap out. I am luckier than most.

We’d love to hear more about your work and what you are currently focused on. What else should we know?
I work as a professional costume designer, which means I design the costumes the actors wear for the characters they are portraying, be it for film or theater. Designing costumes always begins with a script and then numerous discussions with the director. Research ensues, along with more discussions with the director and the rest of the production team. Once a concept or idea is established, the whole design team can more forward through more research, some initial sketches and then approvals, hopefully. Otherwise, it’s back to the drawing board, more discussions and finally approvals. After approvals are given, the actual realization of the designs can begin. This can involve sourcing fabrics, building costumes with a costume shop, particularly if they are period or fantasy, pulling already made costumes from a rental house or shopping garments.

Sometimes it’s a combination of all of that. It depends on the show and the budget. Hats, wigs, and make up can also be established working with their respective department heads. At that point, fittings with the actors may happen if they’ve been cast. Sometimes the fittings are a success and the final costumes can be set. Other times, they don’t go well and one must start again or rethink the design. The actor’s sizes that were given may not be accurate, the fit is wonky, or stuff just doesn’t look good; there are a number of things that can go wrong. The costumes are always guided by the script and how they help to tell the story. All of this must be accomplished within a designated time frame, which is usually tight. Once the costumes are set, they either go in front of a camera or onstage. Even then, things can go wrong, but an experienced designer and team know how to quickly problem solve or be resourceful. It’s never a dull moment and no job is exactly the same as the other. All have their unique triumphs and challenges but it always gets done, one way or another. If you’ve done everything right, no one knows you’ve anything at all.

Is our city a good place to do what you do?
Los Angeles for sure is the place to be if you want to work in film on the West Coast, but lots of places around the country have tax incentives, so many jobs are leaving California in favor of other locations. It’s not bad to start out here, though. I feel there are still plenty of opportunities to jump into. Lots of people make good money working strictly in commercials, which are shot around LA a lot. Sometimes other jobs require thinking outside the box because you never know where things may lead. That’s typically how a lot of paths become meandering, like mine. The theater scene isn’t as strong (read “respected”) in Los Angeles as, say, Chicago or New York but there are good opportunities to learn. Some designers who only work in theater have great success with a slew of well-respected theaters up and down the whole West Coast and into neighboring Western States.

I happily live in Orange County, which for many, think is insane. I’m used to the drive and have learned the traffic patterns well, so it’s not a big deal for me. I am always early anywhere I go, whether it be to set, a job interview or a rehearsal, just because I always account for traffic. But it’s not ideal for everyone.

If I had the choice early on, we’d probably be in LA, but my husband was offered a great job in San Diego after we moved back down to Southern California from San Francisco, so Orange County ended up being the split down the middle. He commutes to San Diego, I commute to LA sometimes. It works for us. Do what works for you.

Contact Info:

Image Credit:
Adriana Lambarri and Jamen Johnson

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