This year, the 2020 Super Bowl was followed by The Masked Singer. As the show started, I thought to myself that I had to give it a try and find out what everyone was talking about – it was already on anyways. Little did I know, my girlfriend Kate, and I from that point on would be spending the next four months tuning in every week, just to find out who was in that Turtle costume. The suspense was tearing at my soul, keeping me awake at night scrolling through Twitter just to reassure myself that I was right. (Of course, I guessed right but that’s beside the point.) The costumes seen on The Masked Singer are incredible, and I am so excited to have had the chance to chat with the mastermind behind the turtle and every other costume to dance across your television. Marina Toybina is a six-time nominee and four-time Emmy award-winning costume designer, now nominated for her work on The Masked Singer.
Spencer: Hi Marina, it’s so good to hear from you again! It’s been a long time. How have you been doing?
Marina: Everything’s good! There have been a lot of new adjustments and we are trying to make it work, especially since we are back at work and learning a lot of new ways to adapt to our new norm, for the time being.
Spencer: I am so excited for you as you have earned your sixth Emmy nomination! This time, in the Outstanding Costumes for a Variety, Nonfiction or Reality Program category. What does this nomination mean to you?
Marina: I’m excited and honored. It is one of the shows that we really do put so much into and it’s incredible that our peers recognize and appreciate it. I think it just speaks so much for my team because we do have the best of the best working on this. Countless hours go into each costume and it means a lot to me that we are being recognized for it. As I said, it’s an incredible honor.
Spencer: Before we talk about The Masked Singer, can you tell me a little about how you came into this life as a costume designer?
Marina: I was looking back at the past 20 years and somehow everything always leads you to where you need to be. It’s crazy! I never, in the beginning, thought I would go into costume design.
I started in fashion. I went to the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM) for fashion design and had my own clothing line for a few years. We worked with stylists and created one of a kind pieces for editorials and celebrities, and we started with different names expanding on different genres of fashion. It was my own fashion career that led me into music and I started designing for dancers. I teamed up with the stylists of big-name celebrities and it became this whole thing — “Let’s design the whole performance!” I transitioned into my own way of designing by combining fashion and costume. Since I understood so much of the construction from more of a couture aspect, I learned more about dance in the theater and on the stage and approached working with different materials, textures and patterns –and how to combine all these elements.
This naturally guided me straight into costume design and I’ve been here ever since.
Spencer: Where do you feel like your creativity comes from?
Marina: I haven’t had a very easy life or career. I think a lot of the things I’ve been through have humbled me as a person. Because of that, I feel things deeply and I try to express that through my work.
For me, I find every detail and experience that I’ve had in my own personal life important and meaningful, so I put that much more into my work and it shows in building every single costume I create. Everything matters so much — the timing, who’s in it, the craftsmanship that goes into it, how does it make me feel when it’s finished, and can I tell a story with something that we are creating?
I think every moment and every day is so important that if you don’t treasure the life that you have, you can’t really treasure the work that you produce. By combining my two worlds (personal and creative), this is where my creative attachment comes from and it explains the kind of work that I try to produce.
Spencer: It’s almost like your costumes are a part of you?
Marina: They are! Something happens in the process of design where you truly do escape reality because we have to immerse ourselves into these narratives that we’re creating — whether it’s a fantasy or science fiction, or maybe it’s a dark place or an emotion. You have to think ahead and pay attention to every detail of the reality you are creating. These details can be brand new and you then have to be an innovator; or, you have to do all of this incredible research into the history that goes along with what you are creating. Then at some point, you have to create your own vision of the world you are designing.
Spencer: You’ve worked on some really great shows like So You Think You Can Dance and The X Factor. Do you feel like your experience in performance-based television prepared you for a project as intense as The Masked Singer? I imagine serving as the costume designer for these projects sort of became the ultimate training.
Marina: Oh, 100 percent! I learned how to prioritize which makes me able to work under extreme pressures and deadlines; I learned how to delegate and work with a team; how to work with talent; being able to understand where certain departments are coming from and how to come together to integrate a show. These are all things that matter so much as a designer — and the learning doesn’t stop at the constructional side, or the artistic side of designs, it also expands into being able to understand the business structure of it all.
By doing So You Think You Can Dance, I learned a speedy yet innovative and instinctual way to design. Since we don’t have much time and the show is live, there really is not much room for mistakes. It’s trial and error as you’re going along; so making sure you’ve got the right fabrications, durability and movement, plus making sure I can bring something to life that is literally coming from a roll of fabric that also lets the dancers feel and execute their choreography. I have to take all those things into account as a designer — and quickly because of time constraints!
With reality television, I feel like most people don’t understand that for us to be able to create these shows — coming up with 60 to 90 costumes in literally four days — is a miracle. People are shocked that it’s not a year turnaround prep period before we go into the next season.
It’s been a huge support for me to be able to do the previous shows that I’ve done in order to execute The Masked Singer.
Spencer: Alright I can hardly wait, let’s talk about The Masked Singer. What were your thoughts when you first found out about this rather unique project?
Marina: I loved it. Funny story — I kept missing the original emails to see if I would be interested in the project, so it took two months for the executives to get a hold of me! Finally, we were able to discuss the show and they sent me the original reels from South Korea. Right away, I thought it was the wackiest thing I have ever seen and I was hooked. It was everything I’ve ever done in my design ability and experience, so I saw it as just one more challenge. I asked myself: how do I make it work for this type of stage (meaning TV), and how do I turn all these concepts that I’ve done from tours or different music videos, and my experience with these, forward to a grander scale.
It was great to have the experience of the first season to lead the creative aspect of the show. Since we were still figuring things out in the first season, I got a lot of creative freedom to develop the characters, and understand how it was going to work, as well as team up with incredible fabricators. For the past four seasons, I have been able to work with people and learn techniques of costume design or fashion I never even knew existed. The blessing of doing the show is now being able to be so well adapted and aware of different techniques of creating fabrics, textures, using 3D printing, fabricating, and working with animatronics. I never in a million years thought that I would know anything and everything about carving foam and how to sculpt a mask!
Spencer: I am exhausted just thinking about how complex these costumes probably are to construct. Not only do they have to have that signature “Masked Singer” look, but they also have to be functional for the performer inside. In my research, I read that there are different types of tech built in the inside of the costumes, such as fans? I guess that should have been pretty obvious but the audience might not realize how much work goes into these costumes! Care to elaborate?
Marina: We are creating works of art. Even to this day, my mom watches the show and she says, “Oh, that’s so pretty!” And I’m like pretty? That took six weeks of carving!
It’s amazing to me that the viewers are catching glimpses of important aspects that go into these costumes. People are starting to pay attention to the details — the beading or the fabrics that we use — and that is incredible.
The process is also incredible. We learn every single season and I get lucky enough to bring people on board and explore new ideas. In the season that we’re building right now, I’m actually learning a lot about 3D printing and new ways of creating masks, plus looking for new forms of textures and fabrication that we can build our masks with. Especially with COVID-19, we are creating health-safety environments for our costumes. It’s pretty phenomenal.
Spencer: What goes into coming up with some of these characters? Some of them are fun and quirky like The Taco, but then you have some characters that feel completely original like The Night Angel.
Marina: The big thing for me is that I love for every character to have their own story, feeling, and even give the audience an opportunity to create their own persona. The Banana is a runway type of modern fashion versus The White Tiger that looks like a historical Egyptian God — but, I like to go a step further by really focusing on the storytelling. Once there’s a concept for a certain costume, I start breaking down the character. I don’t want to just have another costume on stage, so we do the research and I spend my time thinking about what could this character represent? Where can I get those fabrics? How can we bring this character to this new modern world? I brainstorm all these ideas with my team and then I start doing the artwork. After this, the network gets involved and we start choosing which costumes we would like to see in the following season. Then it’s chaos!
Spencer: I love talking about this idea of storytelling through costume, Last season you brought back a monster costume that was related to another costume. So there you’re already creating a story.
Marina: I think what is so great with The Masked Singer is that we have fun. It’s a show where there really are no rules. There are perimeters that we have to stick with, but creatively, it’s those ideas that get thrown around and if it’s something we all love and there’s a way to create it and to follow through with certain characters, then we are doing it. I’m so happy that I’m in a position with a network that I work so closely with that I can present those ideas and we can make them come to life.
There is so much that goes into this storytelling that I love to just have that fantasy world where there are no rules. I’m not limited to just one-dimensional characters and that’s what makes the show so fun! For example, The Night Angel, I didn’t want to do a traditional angel so we gave it a twist, which was very much fashion-inspired. With Night Angel, some things made sense, and other things I liked were so wacky, we left it up to interpretation and for the audience to create their own storylines for that character. Same thing for season two’s The Thingamajig — people thought it was an asparagus and we were going along with it. I love it! It’s incredible too because so many kids watch the show, and I get a lot of fan mail with beautiful designs and illustrations from these young kids. I pay so much attention to that — I even have some of the sketches on my fridge! These messages from fans make me think of amazing ideas that maybe I have not thought about and that we should do. Which we have done!
Spencer: That’s what makes this project so fun, though. It’s just so creative!
Marina: I wish for more sleep every day, but we are having so much fun and it is incredible! Even people like you get to really appreciate the craftsmanship that goes into the show. It makes it so worth it for us because it is very, very difficult. I’m so particular about fabrics. We had to do Kitty for season three, but I didn’t want to build the costume until I got the right color of feathers. It was trial and error and getting the right weight of feathers plus figuring out the right fabrication, beading, and color of the pearls… All of these little things matter so much. Until it all comes together for me, I won’t consider a costume finished. All the elements matter so much, which is why it’s so incredible that the fan base has really acknowledged that part of the show.
Spencer: Funny enough. My next question was actually going to be about textiles, You must understand that the nerd inside me just wants to feel these costumes! I’d venture to say textiles play a huge role in creating these costumes?
Marina: On all my shows and all of my projects, including tours and performances, I fabric shop myself. I will always go and make sure I’m present through all the fabric research. I love mixing textures. I love the upholstery fabrics. I love modern fabrics. I love creating our own textures now that we have that kind of freedom. I print my own prints if I can’t find the things that I’m looking for. As far as a building process from the ground up, I’m very much involved. Being able to feel material and understand how I can make that character come to life is so important to me because it’s almost like if I skip that first step of research or seeing what’s available or what resources we’re working with, I feel like I can never move forward and tell my team how to construct. Because then I won’t really fully understand the character or what things I’m looking for to achieve.
Spencer: So season four was just announced the other day. I saw that there’s going to be a crocodile, broccoli, and even a dragon which you know I am a huge dragon fan. I’m stoked. Can you tell us a little bit about what to expect?
Marina: For season four, I feel like we pushed things to the limit. I think I definitely used COVID-19 to my creative advantage by trying to figure out how to create outside-the-box and bring something to the audience that is bigger and better, while also being more uplifting and positive. We had to think about how to create the show in a positive way, especially since we are doing this during these times and facing so many obstacles as a department. I literally put so much creativity and more whimsical touches to the costumes and uplifting color and textures. Overall, we tried to figure out a way to bring something back to the TV world that is bigger, better, and brighter. There are also going to be a few surprises that I don’t want to reveal!
Spencer: I think it’s great for the audience reading this that even you, an accomplished Emmy award-winning costume designer that has worked on so many incredible projects, is constantly learning as you go along. As creatives, we never stop learning, especially when it comes to costume design.
Marina: Every day that I’m with the sewing team or pattern makers, I literally sit over machines and try to figure out what they are doing. Every single part of it! You know, it wasn’t until a few months ago that I really had a moment where I realized there is no difference in construction between fashion and costume. You look at something that you’re inspired by, you lay it out on the pattern table and you go through the exact same fashion process. The craftsmanship behind it is identical. The second I stop learning, I am almost ready to retire. Then there is nothing — to stop learning is almost like you stop growing and you stop being passionate about your art. So, every day I’m learning new ways how to cut fabric, how to treat materials, and watching my incredible team figuring this stuff out with me when we have two hours to finish a costume. It’s pretty incredible!
Spencer: Finally, one of my colleagues at The Art of Costume raised this question and I thought it was such fun! If you were to perform on The Masked Singer, do you have an idea of what your costume character would look like?
Marina: Wow, that’s amazing. Wow.
Spencer: That’s probably a tough question.
Marina: I would be an hourglass because I had lived my whole life on these deadlines and time pressures that every little piece of sand matters.
Spencer: You know, so many people would relate to that.
Marina: It’s the first thing that came to mind, I love all the theatrics. I think if I could, I would figure out how to constantly flip myself back and forth to make things happen. Yes, probably an hour-glass, that’s kind of cool.
Spencer: That’s so cool. I’m obsessed with this idea.
Marina: Now, I don’t know how I could get a person in there. But it would be incredible to flip somebody upside down. Yeah. That’s an incredible question. I never thought about that!
Spencer: Marina, it was so nice getting to catch up with you! I feel like I have learned so much from this! Getting a look at how these costumes are brought to life, such a learning moment. Congratulations on all of the success. I can’t wait to see what’s next and wishing you the best at this year’s Emmys!
Marina: It means so much to me. For example, after season two when The Ladybug was on the show, I got so many letters from fashion students being so inspired in the research that they are doing and understanding how we are crafting these costumes and making them. I then remembered when I was a student how those are the things I was doing — I was reaching out to my favorite designers and learning, watching, and trying to understand. It’s so cool to me to see what the students are picking up on from what we are producing. People are literally looking at the craftsmanship behind the scenes and the design aspect. That to me is the biggest gift. It feels like the biggest honor. Thank you so much, Spencer!