Interview with HACKS Costume Designer Kathleen Felix-Hager

Posted on June 16, 2022

Kathleen Felix-Hager has been a costume designer for television for over two decades now, having worked on shows like Judging Amy, Veep, Space Force and Hacks. It was her Emmy-nominated work on that last one that really caught our eye. Not only were aging comic Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) and stalled up-and-comer Ava Daniels (Hannah Einbinder) two of the more uniquely stylish women on television at the moment, they’re also the beneficiaries of some of the best character-defining costume design currently airing. We were delighted to sit down with Felix-Hager to talk about her work on the recently concluded second season. 

 

Hi, Kathleen! Thank you so much for taking time to talk to us today.
Hi, Tom, thank YOU. I’m excited.

Oh, good! One of the things that really strikes me about your work on “Hacks” is that it’s one of the best examples I can think of to show how costume design defines characters. Can you tell us a little bit about how you decided who Deborah was through her clothing and who Ava was through her clothing?
Sure. When I first read the scripts, Deborah was so clear to me. I have never had that sort of reaction to a character before, but I just loved how she was written. I loved how both women were written. She plays a Vegas comedian, but I really was mindful of not making her a cliche, not making her a caricature. I really wanted her to feel like a real person. Jean Smart is this very statuesque, beautiful woman and I wanted her to still have a sense of like being alive and sexy and, you know, powerful in her own skin. So that’s sort of how I approached Deborah. It was the most fun I’ve ever had doing a character. I have to say she was just, just dreamy. And Ava was so distinct because well, Hannah Einbinder is a standup comedian that’s queer and from Los Angeles. So she brought a sensibility to Ava that I sort of ran with And also our creators, Jen Statsky and Lucia Aniello are basically the ten-years-older version of Ava, so I took a lot of cues from them. They are LA based writers that are very chic and hip and have a very distinct style. So, between the four of us, between Jen and Lucia and Hannah and myself, we were able to sort of make Ava hopefully feel like a very real current person.

Deborah’s style is very rich and very luxe very drapey with lots of prints, whereas Ava’s style is a lot more form fitting. She wears these little undersized t-shirts or high-water pants. So there’s this there’s this real divide, not just between the palate, but between the silhouettes and the fits, correct?
Yeah, and that was intentional, just to show the generational difference. I mean, these two women are approaching comedy from two different life perspectives. So, I also wanted that reflected in their clothing. There’s that scene from, even in season one, when we see Ava come to interview with Deborah for the first time, and there’s like a beautiful shot of them sitting and you can see their silhouette and just even their shoe choices, you know, Ava’s got these really intense, heavy Doc Martens and Debra has this beautiful, delicate pair of like gold kitten heels. So, it visually tells you who they are right away also.

And it’s interesting because the show makes a point of bringing up their shoe choices every now and then, like when Ava picked out that $800 pair of boots or you see Deborah’s high heels and they’re this sort of metaphor for pain and showmanship. Do you feel more pressure when the script is pointing out costume pieces like that?
No, the opposite, I’m always super excited when there’s like a shout out to a costume moment. I want to meet the moment, you know, I want to do the writing justice. It’s nice when those things happen that it’s not just a visual joke or a throwaway. The writers are so good that I think those moments are very integral in telling a story, like that shoe moment with Deborah, when she steps on stage in season one, with that painful pair of high heels. It really is a metaphor for doing the hard work and making the harder choice. So, I think that’s always exciting for me when the costumes actually drive the story a little bit.

Hacks uses the costumes in such an effective way in terms of shots and framing. Is there a conversation ahead of time about what parts of the costume will show up onscreen?
I get the script, so I do have an idea, but you never know what’s going to make the final cut. Obviously when I design the character, I do them from head to toe. You never know what the shots are going to be necessarily. That shoe shot from season one was very specific to the script. So that was written in. But there’s also instances where like in season one where DJ’s playing the piano and she had that ridiculous pair of like clear heels on that wasn’t scripted, but Lucia just loved the fact that, you know, Kaitlin was peddling with those crazy shoes. So that shot made it in. So those things are always a nice surprise when I see the edit.

We always talk about how easy it is to get excited about period costumes and how much harder it can be to pay attention to contemporary costumes, but your costumes in this show, they’re so specifically oriented towards the characters that you can see each character clearly.
Thank you. I appreciate that. That’s what I try to do. And I have to say this has been a project that really has made me so happy and it’s given me so much joy. So maybe that translates on the screen. I just have had such an amazing ride both season one and season two, figuring out who these characters are and have had such a joyous time working with these actors and these writers that, it’s been kind of an amazing experience for me creatively. That sort of let me bust out in a way that I haven’t been able to before.

I wanted to ask about some of the specific choices. I think the major costume moment for season two for me was Ava wearing that Alice + Olivia tweed mini dress at the party in the final episode.
I know, isn’t that heartbreaking?

Can you talk a little bit about how you settled on that dress and what you think that dress says about, say, Deborah who chose it, and Ava, who said she didn’t like it?
Well, originally in the script, the sort of line in the script was, Ava tries on a St John knit style suit that she doesn’t like but somehow, she makes it work. So that was the jumping off point from the script. And we showed her several dresses, and I knew that whatever dress that she ended up trying on in that dressing room was going to be the dress she showed up in at the party. So I had that also in mind when, we were looking for the dress to begin with. It had to fit so many criteria. It had to be something that Deborah would pick up and catch her eye, so it has gold chains on it, it’s very feminine. And it had to be something Ava would never wear in her life, but yet again, would look good on her. So it had all of these criteria that it had to meet. When I found that and fitted it on Hannah, she and I both loved it. I showed it to the showrunners, they loved it. I like that moment in the dressing room where she tries it on and she’s in her black socks and she’s just looks…her body language is so sad about the whole thing. But then when she shows up to the party, I mean, it’s such a moment where Ava’s really offering herself up to Deborah in a sense, like, ‘”Ok, I’m everything you need me to be. And I’m everything you want me to be, and I’m here for you.” It makes that moment so much more devastating when Deborah fires her. She’s letting her go. I don’t know if you could see on screen, but she’s also wearing the loafers that Deborah bought for her in that scene with the dress. So the whole thing is just a whole moment of time, all of those pieces together. That’s one of my favorites.

I loved that scene because for anyone who doubts the importance of custom design, I think that’s a prime example of how important costumes are and how they help character development, how you take a character from point A to point B through costumes.
Oh, thank you. And you know, another fun thing about that scene in the dressing room is that all those pieces that were hanging in the dressing room were also pieces that, from that moment on, Ava started incorporating subtly; pieces that weren’t entirely her, like a button-down green silk blouse and a black print blouse that had some lipstick print on it. Like all those pieces that were hanging in the dress room were things that Deborah bought for Ava and then she slowly incorporated into her style.

Oh, I noticed the lipstick print!
Maybe that was a throwaway, but that was all very important to the background of that.
And also, Deborah wears a lipstick blouse in the scene where she’s at the auction. It’s a Lanvin print blouse with this huge sort of rocket lipstick tube on it where she is at the auction with Marty. And so then when Ava shows up, when she comes back to the show, that little black blouse had a teeny tiny little lipstick print. So it’s to tie them together a little bit.

One of the great things about your choices for costumes for Jean Smart is that clearly, she is a woman with taste and yet she’s not afraid to mix all these different patterns and textures. I love it because all her looks are very unexpected, but still very her and never tacky.
That’s the goal. I hope that’s true. Sometimes I’ll put things together and Jean herself will look at me and she’ll be like, ‘honey, I don’t know about this one.’ And then i say, ‘no just trust me. I think it’ll be good.’ She’s very game for it, but it’s very outside of how she dresses in her real life. You know? I mean she does love a print in person, but she’s not as loud as Deborah Vance.

Can you talk a little bit about Deborah’s onstage wardrobe versus her offstage wardrobe?
Sure. In season two, she’s on the road. So, it was very intentional to sort of make her onstage wardrobe different from what we saw in season one, which was a lot of sequins and long sparkle, duster coats and flowy pants. That sort of silhouette. So we kept the same idea for being in pants onstage in season two when she on the road, but also switched out the top piece. I found a ton of embellished blazers for her this season, which were very fun. There was a couple montage scenes where we saw her on the road doing the same joke and several different outfits. We just wanted to keep her like…she’s a little bit down and dirty and she’s not doing her Vegas show, she’s doing a stripped-down version, a more raw version of the show. We wanted the costumes to reflect that aspect of her persona now as well.

And I noticed that she, she tended to change up her style a little bit, depending on where she was on the road. Like when she was in Memphis, she dressed a certain way when she was at the state fair, she dressed a certain way.
Yeah. That was fun. The state fair was fun because she wore, she wore some jeans in that and this like fringy jacket. And then when she went on stage at the state fair, she was head to toe denim and cutout velvet, which was very fun — and a blue metallic cowboy boots. Jean and I both wanted her to wear a cowboy hat there, but the showrunners were like, “Okay, we have to stop you at some point, no, we draw the line.” I think they ultimately, their instinct was right, you know? So, the fine line was sort of going over the top and making it crazy and just making it a believable costume. Trying to stay grounded.

One of the things I noticed also is how the jewelry for Jean Smart is so on point and meaningful. What was the thought process behind the jewelry?
The thought process behind the jewelry was “more is more.” We could never do too much. If the ring is too sparkly — I mean, with Jean, if it sparkles and catches her eyes, she’s like, ‘What is that amazing thing?’ The jewelry is super fun, we like layering a lot of pieces. She has a great collection of rings that we use. Jean doesn’t have pierced ears, so we have an extensive collection of clip earrings for her, which is also a treasure hunt, so the jewelry’s been really fun. I love that part.

I noticed that she’s a woman who loves herself a leopard print.
Yes. I like the fact that when we do leopard for her, I oftentimes will do different leopard prints against each other, which I think is super fun. And that sort of becomes her signature, she has little leopard shoes and she has a leopard print bag. In season two when she goes on the road and she’s in Sedona, she’s in a beautiful leopard silk blouse and a white pair of pants and then a leopard cashmere throw, the prints are a little bit off, but that’s an instance when Jean says, “It doesn’t match,” and I say to her, “It doesn’t have to match. It’s good. You just have to trust me.”

I hope she trusts you now after two full seasons. One of the things I also want to note is when Deborah has her two triumphant moments in the finale — she shoots her special and then later there’s the network party — and in both cases, it feels like her style was brought way down. Like it became almost minimal in its elegance. She wore a black velvet pantsuit on stage, and then she wore this beautiful maroon gown at the party. Can you talk a little bit about that, about why all of that maximalist Deborah Vance style was dialed back?
That’s also a reflection of where she is in the story and in Deborah’s life. In season one, when she ended up her show in that head to toe gold sequin, pantsuit and the writers wanted her to do this show in season two to be very different aesthetically, like even the lighting was different. They wanted her to be very minimal. I mean, as minimal as a black velvet tux can be, but she just looked so chic and you know, her show was this raw, stripped-down honest version. And so we really wanted the outfit to reflect that sensibility. It was less about her costume than it was about what she was saying. So I didn’t want anything to distract. And also when she goes to the party, that dress is so spectacular on her, it fits her like a glove, it’s so elegant. And it, it was very sort of old school Hollywood in a very minimal, gorgeous way. Like it had these beautiful sleeves and these gorgeous shoulder pads. It was so elegant and the color was gorgeous and I really wanted her just to be like the queen of the room, like, I can be attention getting in a different kind of way. She’s discovered a new side of herself.

One great thing about your work is that it never feels costume-y. It can be drop-dead gorgeous and glamorous, like the black dress for DJ’s birthday party or the Pamela Rolland dress Deborah wears to the Bat Mitzvah; those moments where the character gets to wear the glamorous dress, but it feels right for her.
Thank you so much. I appreciate that. I love Deborah Vance so much; she feels like a real person to me. So in that sense, it’s easy for me to see her in my mind’s eye and to be like, “Oh, well, of course Deborah will wear that here.” I’ll see pieces out in the world, I do a lot of vintage shopping and online shopping and eBay and The Real Real and all kinds of resources to just get pieces that you don’t see every day. I feel like I know who she is so well at this point that it’s fun to discover pieces that very Deborah Vance. And I get very excited about it. [laughs] It’s the same with Ava. I know who she is, they’re very real characters to me, I love them.

I must mention the QVC looks for Deborah, they must have been fun to design.
Those are so fun. Like a lot of those QVC looks are vintage jackets. They have this sort of vintage bomber theme going for the QVC looks. I found vintage Ferragamo bomber jackets and just that shape seemed to be for some reason, seems like this is Deborah Vance’s work look on QVC. I have a whole collection of bomber jackets that I have not been able to use yet. So, hopefully she still sells more things in season three, we’ll see.

Well, thank you much for this interview and congratulations on your first nomination and hopefully a second one soon.
Thank you. I’m so glad you guys enjoy this show and you’re so lovely and complimentary and I appreciate it very much.

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