Costumes, Style, and Rock N Roll – An Interview with Costume Designer, Dawn Ritz

The day after the announcement of the 2022 Costume Designers Guild Awards nominations, I was given the great honor of meeting costume designer, Dawn Ritz. We spoke about her career beginnings, designing the costumes for Paradise City (now streaming on Prime Video), collaborating with Bella Thorne, and her recent commercial that earned her yet another CDGA nomination in the Excellence in Short Form Design category!

Spencer Williams: Well, if it isn’t the incredible, Dawn Ritz! I’ve been dying to meet you for such a long time. Plus, we just found out yesterday you were nominated for another Costume Designers Guild Award! This is crazy!

Dawn Ritz: Thank you so much, now I’m blushing. It’s such exciting news, and I am so grateful to have woken up to one of my favorite colleague’s text messages, getting to read it from her, and receiving those congratulations. It’s a very memorable moment in my life so thank you.

Costume Designer Dawn RItz

Spencer Williams: I am so glad you got that moment, and it’s so well deserved. Since this is our first interview,  I would love to just learn more about you. You’re such a creative, unique costume designer. When I see your costumes, I always kind of already know it’s your work. Oh, that is a Dawn Ritz project! Tell me about how you ended up becoming the costume designer in front of me? 

Dawn Ritz: Well, first off, thank you. That’s the greatest compliment and actually it aligns with, something that organically formed early on. I loved Tim Burton’s work. I think all of us would say the same thing, “oh, that’s a Tim Burton project!”  The other thing I loved about Tim Burton was that his work took precedence over his self. All of his characters were recognizable. I thought that was so fascinating that he has built his own world.

To me, maybe it just effortlessly happened in a sense, staying true to myself as an artist. I really love music. When I’m creating, I’m listening to different types of music. Sometimes when I’m really tired or when it’s a long day with an approaching deadline, I’ll listen to something that doesn’t have words. Something calming or more classical that’s fueling ideas and producing visual inspirations. I like to create specific to the project that I’m working on and in various ways through research, my own personal interpretation, and of course, collaborating with the director or the artist.

Bella Thorne as Lily Mayflower in Paradise City – Sumerian Films

That is the greatest compliment I think that I could receive though, the idea that someone could tell it’s my work. That’s the golden compliment right there. I think it comes from being true to myself and doing my best to be present at the moment. I also do a lot of meditation. I take to transcendental meditation When I was working on The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, it was such a joy to be on that team, I learned so much about meditation. I wanted to be the best version of myself. When I was on that show, there were some crew members that had just gotten off David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. I wore a shirt to work that said, “Don’t Hate, Meditate”, and they told me about David’s Festival of Disruption. I went by myself that weekend just to explore and it was so cool. From there I learned about transcendental meditation and I thought if all of these artists are doing this and this is really helping the creative process, I want to know what this is about. That was life-changing. 

Spencer Williams: That’s so interesting. I love that you brought up Tim Burton and the unique worlds that he creates because that’s very much a comparison I use when describing you. When preparing for this interview, I was kind of overwhelmed by the number of great projects you have been a part of including one of my all-time favorites, American Horror Story: Coven. I believe you designed the costumes for the opening credits scene, which equals out to the best minute and four seconds ever!

Dawn Ritz: Yes! Oh my gosh. One of the cool things about American Horror Story is how people started to recognize the opening sequence. Prior to working on the opening sequence for Coven, I didn’t pay as much attention to the opening. I really feel like American Horror Story put the opening sequence on the map! The director for the opening sequence, Kyle Cooper, and of course Ryan Murphy have a vision for each of the seasons. When I was asked to do Coven, I hadn’t actually watched the show, which I think is a good thing because each season is its own thing. I feel like the alignment and paralleling of my own energy and the show was just alike energy with alike energy. Let’s do this! *laughs*

Spencer Williams: It was a perfect combination. I am so excited to have finally figured out who was responsible for this great opening!

Dawn Ritz: Yes! When I finished the opening sequence for Coven, I did research on the show and found this really cool-looking picture of a shaved head with a tattoo, emblems over the head, and an umbrella. I just thought, “Oh, my gosh, who is this person? She is so cool. I really would love to meet her.” Ironically, I went to Western Costume pulling for a different project and I look over to see Lou Eyrich. Oh my gosh, there she is.

The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story – FX Network/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

I got to meet her and just really compliment her. It was a very proud moment, a very special moment in my life to meet this magician as I like to say. She pulls out all these really cool looks and it was just so cool to get to work on something with all of these masters of their craft and to get to be a part of that whole process together.

Spencer Williams: Right. She’s such a titan of the industry! Do you two still collaborate and keep in touch?

Dawn Ritz: From time to time! I’ll call her and ask for her advice.  She’s got such an umbrella and a gift for staying calm through the storm. With her level of experience and overall as a human being, she’s just a very magical person. It feels like such a blessing, to have crossed paths and met with such a creative person, but also a good, genuine human being. That’s one of the parts of this industry that I love, getting to meet with you this morning, sharing this moment, getting to meet Lou and other people that we cross our paths with. It’s a big work family. It goes even further to the directors, the actors, agents, managers, and the PAs. Getting to share these moments and victories together, it’s really magical.

Spencer Williams: That’s why I love doing what I do, within this industry we’ve developed a really big supportive community at the end of the day. 

 I’m really excited to talk Paradise City, a great show on Amazon Video.  I love it. The cast is pretty mad. Bella Thorne, Ryan Herst, Andy Biersack, Fairuza Balk, and the late Cameron Boyce. Like I said earlier, this show, just screams Dawn Ritz on it. The costumes are so you and I could just imagine you personally had so much fun on this show because it just feels so very much your style. Tell me about your experience and your inspirations for the show.

Dawn Ritz: Paradise City! Great question. I’ll start with the director, Ash Avildsen. Ash owns a record label called Sumerian Records and he started this label independently. His dad is John G. Avildsen, an academy award-winning director who directed Rocky and the first three Karate Kid films amongst other incredible films. Ash wasn’t close with his dad growing up. So everything he started, he started on his own. But what was really special is that when Ash did his first movie,  they had reunited in life and I did the costume design for that film. Ash’s was the executive producer. That was really special to watch the two of them, go through scenes together. Then when we did Paradise City, I’ve had years of experience working with Ash. 

Bella Thorne as Lily Mayflower and Andy Biersack as Johnny Faust in Paradise City – Sumerian Films

I also really know the world of rock and roll. That is my thing. When I was growing up, I played in bands. My first job was on tour. So I was so excited and I really felt like this is going to be such a fun project to costume design. The cast is mixed with actual real rock stars, that are also acting. For example, Cameron Boyce actually played an instrument. Booboo Stewart played an instrument and I believe that they played either in bands or they’re no stranger to performing. So the process of bringing the characters to life, I would really look at it as a collaboration with each one of them. Sometimes, I would be given free-range. “Just do your thing. We trust you.”  I would run things by Ash and, for the most part, Ash would give a thumbs up. If he had a note, he would let me know.

Bella Thorne, I’ll say when we did her first fitting, it was one of the most fun fittings that I’ve ever done because I just brought it. Bella loved it! She would try things on and everything looks great on her. 

Spencer: I mean yeah, literally she looks great in everything.

Dawn Ritz: Everything! I was like, wow, you’re my rock and roll Barbie. What was great with Bella though, is that I would show her something and she would piggyback with another idea. She was also really collaborative. There was a vision that we had, and I really liked the idea of it, we found some beautiful purple leather and we did this pair of pants. Bella was like, well, I love it but let’s cut them, turn them into short shorts. Then let’s take the bottom piece and we’ll add these hooks. It was like two kids in a toy store. She was a next-level rockstar who plays the bass player. I watched her perform live. I was at a freaking rock show. She just nailed it.

Spencer Williams: It was all very real and believable. I assumed that they all had been playing music their entire lives. I love this show and the heavy rock influence. Being a Los Angeles native, it felt like home. What inspirations were you taking in for these scenes? Knowing you I am guessing you probably listened to a lot of music to get your head into this. 

Booboo Stewart as Vic Lakota in Paradise City – Sumerian Films

Dawn Ritz: Yeah! Ironically, when I would drive to set in the morning, I would play Guns N’ Roses, Paradise City. Just on so loud and I would think, it’s another day! For inspiration, I went all over the map with rock and roll. A lot of my friends are in rock bands and I actually was playing rock and roll myself. I had some of my own inspirations but when I’m costuming, it’s not so much about me as much as it’s about the character. 

I started with designing for Andy Biersack, lead vocalist of the rock band Black Veil Brides. It’s in my history. In my career,  I’ve designed for Glen Campbell for the Grammys when he got the lifetime achievement award, the longest performance for the Grammys. I’m very well-versed with country and pop! I’ve worked with Ariana Grande

Spencer: Selena Gomez!

Dawn Ritz: Yeah! For me, what I wanted to do was definitely keep it real and authentic. In the script, it is a rock band and they are based in Los Angeles, The Relentless. Then there are the high school bands, they’re in Virginia. The script is set in the modern day. I did draw a lot of past inspirations though. For example, Led Zepplin, which kind of has more of the seventies feel. But Led Zepplin is timeless. Their music has definitely made an impact. I also am inspired by David Bowie, Nirvana, The Ramones, Iggy Pop, Slash, Bring me the Horizon, The Dose, Black Sabbath, Slayer, Plasmatics, The Runaways, The Sex Pistols, Starcrawler, Deftones, and Cage the Elephant. I looked at the eighties, but I had to also be careful because that’s such a recognizable era and I didn’t want them to feel too dated. I was really just drawing inspiration from the vintage elements of rock and roll.

Fairuza Balk as Lizzie Thomas in Paradise City – Sumerian Films

I flew to New York and I met up with a couple of the local designers out there. Ash’s favorite band is Guns N’ Roses, and Axel Rose gets his jackets made from a designer in New York. We needed these in Paradise City.

The truth is about all of these rock artists, they don’t buy clothes off of the rack. Things are custom made so that it’s tailored to match the sound and personality. That was the approach that I took for all of the rock bands that are in Paradise City. I went through each costume of Andy’s and gave them a special design. We did an Egyptian symbol with all gold spikes, custom leather pants, they just fit him so well.

Andy Biersack as Johnny Faust in Paradise City – Sumerian Films

From there I then designed the band around that, understanding what instruments they play and knowing there’s going to be a guitar strap here, or he’s behind the drum set. What really is going to matter is that his arms have mobility. Everything that we’re going to see for the drummer is going to be waist up because the camera is not really going to be focusing on his feet. 

With Bella, again, she was my rock and roll Barbie. I also played the bass so this was a fun moment. For her, we drew inspiration from Sean Yseult from White Zombie. There was another bass player, Nadja Peulen️, who is a German bass player. Of course, Joan Jett, even though she plays the guitar, Bella really loves Joan. We just went through a variety of looks together. We wanted to present things that were again authentic, but then we would take that more as an inspiration and create something that was special to Lily Mayflower, which is Bella’s character.

Bella Thorne as Lily Mayflower in Paradise City – Sumerian Films

Spencer Williams: I was loving all the textiles, the different fabrics, and the spikes! I love the spikes. Paradise City was a real treat. Speaking of Bella Thorne, you’ve developed quite the collaboration with Bella Thorne over the years, for example, the Purge Halloween party video, Bella’s Christmas holiday special, and of course you’re CDG Award-Nominated Tim Burton Halloween theme party, which I’m obsessed with. The Lydia Deetz costume you created for Bella, is amazing. Clearly, I have a crush… You talked a little about this but how did this partnership come to pass?

Dawn Ritz: In my opinion, it was an instant connection. It was a gift from the costume goddesses. They were like Dawn, you’re this super creative person with all of these great ideas that are really outside of the box. Here’s somebody else that is outside of the box and you’ll really just jive together! 

Bella Thorne in a costume designed by Dawn Ritz

When I first met her, it’s always a little bit nerve-wracking in the first fitting with somebody because you’re still learning their likes and their dislikes. I always tell people up front, I want to know what you don’t like because that’s going to help me navigate my direction. It’s going to actually save me some time.

With Bella, it just felt really natural and effortless. I’m having such a moment of gratitude, getting to consistently create with such a mastermind. I have to remind myself sometimes, Bella is so advanced in her knowledge of fashion. She’s been doing this her whole life and has such a warming, welcome heart. She’s so kind to her team. At the same time though, she doesn’t do half-ass. I think she saw my work ethic and I recognized hers. I deliver and when she has an idea, I don’t give up. I’ll push that idea even further and we take it there. We are creating magic in a sense with these timeless, impactful looks. For example, the Tim Burton-themed Halloween party.

That was one of my favorite projects. We were in the middle of a pandemic. This was during the time when all the costume houses were closed down. Even the malls were closed down. I told Bella, we’re going to custom make all of these pieces. She gives me her notes and then I put together a sketch and presented it and she loved it.

Bella’s mom thought it would be a great idea to have Tyler Posey be Beetlejuice. It fit his personality so perfectly! We got really detailed with the special effects and makeup. Everything about Tim Burton is creating a world,  all of the details matter.

Tim Burton Halloween Theme Party costumes by Dawn Rtiz

When it received the nomination, it was…okay I’m going to share a special story because this project was a little on the edgier side. We took the outline of the Tim Burton characters, but with Bella Thorne, we gave that sexy twist, it was more of the time. A new generation. At first, people saw the piece and they were like, wow, this is a little bit like risque? There was a question of if it was going to be accepted on the nomination ballot. I spoke up. I said listen, there are other shows on TV right now. They have certain scenes like sex scenes, argument scenes, or there’s really intensive dialogue that’s happening that could be pushing the boundaries as well. These are all amazing shows and their writing is inspired by things that are really happening. I almost didn’t show up in the morning when I was going to talk about the art of the piece.

One of my family members said to me, Dawn, who is your favorite designer? I quickly said Alexander McQueen. They reminded me and asked why I love Alexander McQueen? I said, well, I love that he has built himself from the ground up. He went to Central Saint Martins and knocked on a teacher’s door and said I want to teach here. I’m a really good tailor. I’ll teach so that I can put myself through this school for my tuition. Right. He was told it doesn’t work that way but they’ll let him into the school, he just has to come up with this money. He borrowed money from a family member, and he really worked his way from the ground up. His fashion shows started underground. I’m fascinated by that. It was because of his extraordinary designs that were so outside of the box, risky, but they started making headlines.

My family member had this whole pep talk with me and she said you’re Dawn Ritz. Not all of your stuff is going to be safe and cookie-cutter. Stand up for your art and speak for what you believe in. This is a really beautiful piece that you did. It’s a bit outside of the box, but it’s beautiful art and you put your heart, soul, and your passion into this. Saying this to other costume designers, I guess it resonated with them as well too. I was told that they would allow this piece on the ballot, but I didn’t at all expect the nomination.

When I got the nomination and I read Selena Gomez, Boyfriend, I was so excited. Then it says Tim Burton Halloween party…wait what! Then to follow it up, a costume designer I bumped into a couple of months after all of this, she said, congratulations on the Tim Burton Halloween party. I voted for you. She told me she was so happy that that piece got recognition from the Costume Designer Guild Awards and said this was a monumental time because it’s probably one of the riskier pieces that got a nomination. That hit my heart, you know, and it was a great reminder of the art that we do and how important it is to stay passionate and really keep my focus.

Spencer Williams: Dawn, thank you for saying all that. That’s really beautiful. Costume design is art, and sometimes art takes risks. You stood up for yourself, but also for so many who approach their own art with such passion and unique visions. It’s a beautiful thing that you said and I know a lot of people are going to resonate with that. With that being said I applaud your strength and determination as I think it opened the door for more change in the coming years. The world needs to be open to different creative visions. 

Dawn Ritz: Thank you so much. I’m really super grateful, it was a heartwarming moment in life. 

Spencer Williams: I wanted to talk about a recent movie you did called The Day Ones, a SoundCloud original film directed by Jams and Bash. Could you share with me a little about the film?

Dawn Ritz: Sure! It was SoundCloud’s first movie and I interviewed with the directors. I read the script and I was so excited because, for me, there were a lot of different elements about the project that I really loved. I loved that they were featuring their SoundCloud artists. The script storyline was following a high school student pursuing fashion design. She is based in Los Angeles and it’s her last night in town before she leaves to go to New York City to pursue her dreams as a fashion designer.

Spencer: So this was basically made for you!

Dawn Ritz: Number one, I was like, this is going to be fun! This girl, who’s making her own stuff out of the resources that she has, I know this all too well. That was me! After I interviewed, I called my agent and said I really want this project, whatever you can do to really push me. I loved it. The directors were just cool. They were visionaries and definitely have that special niche. 

I didn’t hear back. I called and I followed up and was told they went with somebody else. I asked if they knew about my relationship with music? I was told there was nothing that can be done. I remember that I just completely surrendered to a friend of mine. She came to visit me. I don’t usually talk about things that don’t happen, I kind of let those go to the universe, but I did bring this up to her. This was a project that my heart and soul were really into it. I really wanted to do this one, but I didn’t get it. And she’s like, okay, well there’ll be next ones. You know, just being like a supportive friend. I was like,

Two days later, my phone rings. I was asked if I could do another interview for The Day Ones? I said, yes, what time? They asked me when I was available and I asked them to just tell me a time that works for them and I’ll be there. I had my script, all of my notes, and everything in front of me. Something happened and there was a delay for somebody else to jump on the call. They said, just hold one second. They come back and they said, you’re hired, the directors have just hired you. 

Spencer: Ah! Amazing. I love this story.

Dawn Ritz: I had two days before we went to camera and started shooting. 

Spencer: Oh my… 

Dawn Ritz: I knew I could do it though. Fueled by passion, I believe anything’s possible with hard work and dedication. The production was very supportive, as the costumes were very important to the directors. The cast was really nice. They were available for the fittings when I asked. There was one hundred percent support. 

I highly recommend people to watch it. I believe you can actually go to SoundCloud first or I believe that they even released it on YouTube now. Anybody could watch. The acting’s great! The artists were from all over the world. I just want to shout out the directors, Jams and Bash. They’re extraordinary filmmakers based in New York. Their work and attention to detail… there were such great vibes on set during the creative and collaborative process. They were great leaders, and I’m so grateful.

Spencer Williams: I’m really excited to see it. I see how much passion you have for it so I know that it has to be good.

Spencer Williams: Well Dawn, just yesterday you were nominated for another CDG award for Snoop Dogg’s Triller Fight Club: We’re Bringing Boxing Back video. There’s so much star power in it. How do you even approach a short-term project like this? It’s a little bit different than a lot of the projects we’ve talked about so far.

Dawn Ritz: That is a great question because my creative mind is a very unique one.

Spencer Williams: There is a lot happening in one minute of film. 

Dawn Ritz: It was shot over a period of different days at different times. It includes different fighters like Oscar De La Hoya, real fighters! This project was really cool because everybody featured were really masters of their craft. When Snoop Dogg walked in, it was fire watching him perform on camera. He knew how to work the camera angles. It was second nature, effortless watching a legend perform right in front of your eyes. It was like one, two takes you got it. Our director, Bert Marcus is recognized through some great Emmy award-winning work. Again, it’s watching masters of their craft in their elements. If I were to sit back and really think about the gravity of everything, I might get a bit overwhelmed, so I had to dive directly into the work.

My number one method was to focus on one person at a time and cross them off the list. Take it one step at a time.  I work in the present moment. So when I’m designing and creating, I’m present with whomever I’m working with. We’re going to create magic and share this with the world.

Marshmello on the set of Triller Fight Club | We’re Bringing Boxing Back

These were really precious moments. The energy on set every day was amazing. The sets were insane, the lighting was insane. Even when they were filming, the music systems blasted. There was good energy, and when people watch, they get to receive that. That’s really a gift. 

Spencer Williams: I watched it a thousand times. It’s so fun and really, really great work. We’re actually coming to the end here, but before I let you go, I want to know what the big picture is for Dawn Ritz? What do you see yourself doing in the future, maybe a year from now, five years from now? 

Dawn Ritz: Well, for Dawn Ritz *laughs* Number one, inclusivity and diversity. I have a Latin background so I grew up in a culture where I was able to really think outside of the box and braid my Barbie’s hair. Do you know what I’m saying? Use beads and different things like that. One thing that’s really important for me is to show a variety of different works, not be pigeonholed into one category. I’d rather, as you had mentioned prior when you see a piece and you’re like “Oh, that’s a Dawn Ritz piece”, which that’s like, that’s the greatest compliment that I could receive really so thank you. 

Jake Paul on the set of Triller Fight Club | We’re Bringing Boxing Back

It’s important to me to display an assortment of a body of work where there are some period pieces, there are contemporary pieces, etc. I remember at one point somebody was asking if I could do contemporary? After building custom and understanding all the different periods like science fiction and fantasy, for me to go to a mall and find some pieces or maybe change a color, I can absolutely do that! I remember having to convince somebody at one point and as a matter of fact, I think I can do this actually even better because of my creative mind.

I can actually take a contemporary piece and make it a little bit more interesting. Understanding a script is really important and understanding the dialogue of what’s happening in the sets and the lighting because sometimes a costume’s purpose can be effortless. It’s not about the audience noticing the costume as much as it’s about them noticing the dialogue or the action sequence of what’s happening at that moment. The costume can become complementary. If there’s no dialogue or someone is an atmosphere character, maybe we want that person to have a bigger, more meaningful costume so that they don’t get lost in the set. It’s about the ability to display an assortment of a body of work!

I really do enjoy doing films and I enjoy doing TV series. I love how fast it goes and I love the last-minute changes and challenges. Because when we get those, and again, it’s WE because it’s me and my team… the costume department is a team and I love those moments. I love when we look on camera and we’re like, yes, we nailed that! I have done so many different forms of projects like music, television, film, commercial photo shoots, but I will say that the future for me is definitely in movies and television series.

Snoop Dogg on the set of Triller Fight Club | We’re Bringing Boxing Back

Obviously, though my love for music is never going to go away and I will always love to design a tour and I’m always going to continue to work with the artists that I work with, and welcome and invite new ones as well too!

I love that a lot of projects, for example, the SoundCloud film, they’re now starting to do movies as well, too! That’s so exciting. My dream script would be something along the lines of a Tim Burton film. I know Tim Burton has his costume designer, Colleen Atwood who is AMAZING. I remember when I first met her and I was just like, wow, that was a moment for sure. If there’s ever a script where I get to do my own rendition of something and create a unique world, I’m in!

Spencer Williams: Dawn I feel like I often usually say in these interviews, I could talk to someone forever. But with you I actually feel like I could talk with you forever, this has been so fun! It was so rejuvenating to hear just so much passion and the love you have for this craft, your projects, and your team. I want to thank you for talking with me. This has been really awesome and I’m excited to see what you do next. I feel like we’re just at the beginning of your exciting adventure!

Dawn Ritz: Thank you so much, Spencer. You’re so special too. I love The Art of Costume and you know, this is a community and it’s really amazing to find that you and I are cheerleaders on the sidelines for everybody. So I’m watching you and continuing to cheer you on, this is just the beginning. We will continue to keep in touch and continue to grow and support each other. 

Spencer Williams: Oh Dawn! I’m blushing. Thank you so much.

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