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The World of Costumes and Theater: An Interview with Emilio Sosa

Emilio Sosa – Costume Designer

As a thespian and lover of the performing arts, I am always on the lookout for new plays and musicals. Luckily, just this past holiday season, we were gifted with a brand new, special telecast of Annie, called Annie Live! This musical was absolutely incredible! The cast put on an amazing performance, the sets were fantastic, and the entire show perfectly captured the beauty and magic of – theater.

Watching Annie Live! made me think about how much hard work and dedication goes into theater. Because it’s live entertainment, there’s not much room for error. It requires a lot of collaboration, planning and communication. Now usually, we only really pay attention to what’s in front of us – the cast. But I’d love to go behind the scenes, specifically behind the costumes, and see what it’s like to put on a show.

That’s why I was so thrilled to speak to Tony-nominated costume designer, Emilio Sosa! Not only was he able to transport us back to the 30s in this musical, but he has been the driving force behind so many icons, celebrities, plays, musicals, and more! We talked about his work on Annie Live! and Trouble in Mind which debuted for the very first time on Broadway. We also talked about what it was like designing for the Rockettes, especially as their first designer of color, and his experience in theater and costume design as a member of the LGBTQI+ community.

Jada: Thank you so much for being here. I really appreciate it!  

Emilio: My pleasure! 

Jada: I’d just like to say first off, your work is incredible. You worked with so many icons like Diana Ross, Mariah Carey, Celine Dion…AND the Rockettes! 

Emilio: *laughs* Yes, I’ve been very blessed in my career!  

Matthew Rushing in Frames at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Costumes designed by
Emilio Sosa; Costumes Constructed by Grace Costumes. Photo Courtesy of Nan Melville

Jada: Oh yes! Let’s go back to the start though. I’d love to know more about how you became a costume designer.  

Emilio: That’s a long story, but I’ll give you the short version. I was always an artist from a young little boy all the way through high school. When I got to high school, became very interested in fashion. I went to art and design high school in New York, followed by Pratt Institute in Brooklyn to study fashion design. As a sophomore one summer, I needed a part-time job and I had a good fortune of landing at Grace Costumes.

Grace Costumes was at the time one of the oldest, more prestigious costume shops in New York – unbeknownst to me, because I was not a costume person to know that history. I knew some of their work through commercials just by chance but not that I ever really followed theater. But I walked in there and met the family who ran it. I fell in love with them, they fell in love with me. They kind of adopted me and that’s how I began my costume career. I started my career really from the ground up. I was hired as a shopper, which means that I went around with a ring of oak tags and things I had to buy or shop for. Buttons, fabric, threads, whatever was on my list, that’s how I started. I would stay late and volunteer to sweep the shop just so I can watch the owner, Grace Miceli – who was a genius in her own right – create and drape bodices for the opera and the ballet. I just stayed longer and longer and longer until one day she allowed me to start helping her and that’s how I really got interested in costuming.  

Jada: Aww, that’s really sweet. Like a nice little community. I love shops like that. 

Emilio: Yeah. I was very fortunate to end up there. 

Jada: Yes, it only takes that one thing.  

Emilio: Exactly! We’re all waiting for that one yes! You might get ninety-nine no’s, but you just need that one yes! That’s why you should never, ever give up.  

Jada: Definitely! So, from there, would you say there was a certain point that really boosted you into the costume world of theater? 

Emilio: From there something that really changed the course of my career was, two things actually. Meeting my first and most influential mentor, the amazing Geoffrey Holder. Meeting him at such a young age, really shaped how I looked at the world of costuming and just everything because he really was a well-rounded artist from costumes, to directing, painting, and designing. He did it all! Meeting Geoffrey really changed the course of my life. But also, the amazing Tony-nominated costume designer, Toni-Leslie James, gave me my first real job in the world of costumes when she recommended to the people at the Ailey company, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, to hire me as an assistant wardrobe person. I joined the company and toured for two years internationally where I got to really become close with the artistic director at the time, Judith Jamison. I started designing for her personal, but also for her ballets. That’s what really started getting my name out there. But that was still dance.

It wasn’t until I met George C. Wolfe in December of 2000 when my life changed, because he gave me my first real play at The Public, Topdog/Underdog, which went on to become a huge hit. It won the Pulitzer for Best Drama, and it went on to go to Broadway with Jeffrey Wright and Mos Def. And funny enough, it’s having its 20th year revival this fall, directed by Kenny Leon, who’s an amazing director who I work with a lot.  

Jada: That’s so crazy! 

Emilio: I know! So, George C. Wolfe giving me that first play at The Public was what put my name in people’s ears.  

Jada: I really appreciate how you remember everyone’s name. *laughs* Everyone that helped you out. That’s so important!  

Emilio: *laughs* Because you know what, there’s been so many and you have to remember those who came before you. It’s like what we just said, “If they hadn’t said yes to me, I wouldn’t be here.” I had no costume training at all, but he took me under his wing and trusted me to be his assistant. The same thing for Toni-Leslie James. She knew me from the shop; she didn’t really know who I was as a costumer. But she trusted my talent and got me at the Ailey. I want to remember those people who really made a difference in my life. And I want to remember them while most of them are still here so they can hear it from my lips.  

Jada: Appreciate them while they’re here.

Emilio: Exactly. Give them their flowers while they’re here! *laughs* 

Jada: Yes! So, from that point, something huge that you worked on was with the Rockettes – the Radio City Music Hall Spring Spectacular. I would love to know what the process was like designing costumes for them and if your past helped you out in any way? 

Emilio: I think for me, designing that spring spectacular for the Rockettes was monumental on many levels. I knew of Radio City and the history of the Rockettes, so as a New Yorker, I’m like, “Wow, I’m designing at Radio City for the Rockettes!” Also, being a man of color, to be the first to design a full new show of the Rockettes in their entire history – which is 90 years old this year! It was amazing! But this also brought a lot of pressure because I had to perform; I had to be on point. What I really enjoyed about working with the Rockettes and Radio City is that it’s a machine, in a good way, because it’s so big that you kind of have to fall in line to the way things are done in a schedule. The schedule is king because I’m not only designing one dress, I’m designing 80 dresses because there’s two companies of Rockettes. There’s 40 and 40. So there’s 80 dresses. Then you have decisions that have to be met. It wasn’t just my choice. I could design a beautiful dress, but if the owners didn’t like it or the producers didn’t like it then I would have to change it. So, getting the design, getting it approved, having to constantly better myself was a great learning experience and I really, really enjoyed it.

Jada: That’s so great to hear! And when you were making the costumes, was there a certain timeframe that you had?  

Emilio: Yes, because the numbers of the costumes are so many. You need about a year to really create something spectacular. We did that in six months, which is unheard of! We started in July, having conversations with the director about what could it be? Could it be this, could it be that? We needed to have all the designs ready and set by the beginning of September. It was a new show for the Spring so we needed the fall – November, October, December – to put it all together. Then we can rehearse it in January and February, so it could premiere in March.  

Jada: Oh gosh…*laughs* 

2 / 7

Emilio: *laughs* When you have 80 people that you have to fit, cut, dress, alter, it takes time. That’s why we say the calendar is king. But they’ve done it for 90 years. So as a designer, I like being put in situations where I can just design and not have to worry about the deadlines or “Is the fabric going to get to the printer on time?” Although I love being involved in all that, the support system is so amazing. As a designer, I felt very supported that I could design what I dreamt, and they would make it happen.

Most of it was hand beaded dresses so we would find someone to hand bead the fabric. There was no limitations, unless it’s about maintenance of the clothing. Because you also have to be very aware that every costume is worn eight times a week. It gets laundered. If it’s an interior, what we call “skins” that touches your body, it needs to be laundered every day. And then the exteriors get dry cleaned once a week. So, you have to be very cognizant of the choices of fabrics you make, because they are going to get worn and cleaned and washed on a daily basis. If you pick the wrong fabric, it won’t look the same in two months. *laughs* 

Radio City Rockettes in the Radio City Music Hall Spring Spectacular.

Jada: That’s something that does have to be paid attention to, especially for live shows. It’s so much to think about. 

Emilio: Totally! And that’s the main difference in fashion and theater. Costumes are meant to be worn multiple times a day and cleaned. While your clothing, you could wear it two or three times and maybe get it dry cleaned, once or twice a month. The fabric selection is really what makes the big difference in what makes a successful design. For me, a successful design looks the same the first day I saw it on stage or if I come back six months later and it still looks the same. That’s success for me as a designer.  

Jada: So speaking of your work on live shows, especially as the first designer of color, I wanted to talk about Trouble in Mind and how you were a part of the first time that that show ever premiered on Broadway! What was that like?  

Emilio: Once again, the words were heavy in our thoughts because Alice Childress didn’t have the opportunity to see her work on Broadway because of the climate. When she was creating it, the climate wasn’t open to her voice and the fact that it took 55 years for us to do it on stage and to get the response that it got, says a lot. On one hand it’s great, we’ve made it this far, but then also, “Wow, these words still could have been written yesterday.” *laughs* So how far have we really gone? It’s great that we’re on stage, but wow, we people of color in the theater are still dealing with the same issues that Ms. Childress wrote about in 1955.  

Jada: Yes. History is just repeating over and over again. You’d think it wouldn’t have to be on Broadway. 

Emilio: No, but it is unfortunately. But it’s changing. It’s changing. Definitely. I cannot lie. It is changing it, but theater… I always equate it to an ocean liner. You can’t turn it on a dime. It’s not going to do a quick spin. It’s going to need a wider turn. Sometimes that takes a little time.  

Jada: It’s getting there! 

Emilio: It’s getting there, we just have to stay the course. We can’t give up. Because our generation gets it far and then the generation behind us will get it further, and the generation behind that will get it further. We’re just setting it up for the people behind us. I think if you think of it that way, it makes the challenges easier to bear and the rewards sweeter because it’s for the people who come after you.  

Jada: That’s a great way to put it! I also was curious about your research process too for this project. Was there a different style when it came to what people of color wore back then? 

Emilio: Totally! I mean, as people of color, we’re not afraid to express ourselves in our clothing and our choices. But back then – this play is based in 1955 – they didn’t care about us. We found ourselves in fashion. We created what we wanted to wear, meaning all the research I did, I didn’t have a hard time. But most of my research came from Ebony magazine for example. Early Jet magazines or Life Magazine. Things like that. I had to look at celebrities, because those were the people who were being shown in magazines at that time. It isn’t like now, you can just Google and go online and find a million pictures of what people are dressing like today. Back then, us people of color weren’t in magazines in the mainstream. We weren’t in advertising in the mainstream. So, the research had to be really pointed. I had to be very, very specific – “African American women in evening gowns post 1945.” *laughs* I just assume evening gowns and think that people of color would pop up because they wouldn’t in that period.

That’s part of what I enjoy about my career and what I do. I love the research aspect of my work because I love finding out new things and learning. I love fashion history. And the fifties were a beautiful period design-wise, at least for me, personally. There were dresses, petty coats, hats, purses, jewelry, bags, coats. Men had suits, vest, ties, tie clips, cuff links, cigarette holder. There’s so much to play with that it really made it fun. And I was able to then create characters based on what they were wearing, how I supported the characters, and the colors we used. 

Jada: I know that must’ve been so fun. My favorite era of fashion is the fifties too so I get it *laughs*  

Emilio: *laughs* It was a beautiful time. I think everyone looked good in the fifties.  

(Center from L-R) Harry Connick Jr. as Oliver Warbucks, Celina Smith as Annie Bennett, and Nicole Scherzinger as Grace Farrell in Annie Live!. Photo Courtesy of NBC

Jada: They really did! And taking it back even before the fifties, I wanted to talk about Annie and how that took place during the time of the Great Depression. What was it like designing for that period?  

Emilio: That was 1936. Once again, fun! I enjoy looking back. For me as a designer, once the show is on stage in front of an audience, I’m a little disconnected already because for me, I enjoy the research process, the designing process, the making process. Once it’s on stage, it’s just a matter of tweaking here and there. I loved Annie and the research. Another period that was beautiful in clothing. It was all very long and biased cut, and it was about escapism. The thirties, entertainment, was about escapism because of the depression. You wanted to escape to the movies. That was a part of the Annie that I wanted to bring, that, although it was a depression, people still dressed well. There was always rich people. No matter what happens, there will always be rich people. There was a lot of poor people suffering, but then there were a lot of wealthy families who got even richer in those times. 

Jada: Speaking of that, the costumes really did portray this gap between the wealthy and the poor. How did you go about designing those two extremes?  

Emilio: It’s about fabric. Working class – cotton, wool, neutral colors, earth tones. Rich, hot to-do people – satin, chiffons, light colors. Stuff that you don’t wear to work. *laughs*  

Jada: *laughs* 

Emilio: That’s what it is. *laughs* It’s stuff that you wouldn’t wear to work. That’s how I divided it. You know, the rich people didn’t have to go to work so they could wear the chiffon, the peach color, satin, the baby blue, the velvets. While my working people – brown, gray, cotton, stripe, wool, boots – because these are working people. You are expecting to wear these clothes outside the house while rich people at that time would wear something in the morning, change for lunch, and then change for dinner.  

Jada: And that’s all *laughs* 

Emilio: That’s all *laughs* You know, your white shoes could make it from your front door to your car. You don’t have to worry about walking three blocks for the subway. So, all those little things, people don’t realize it, but it does say your station in life.  

Jada: It does. Yeah, that’s something I did not think about.   

Emilio: Those little things.  

Jada: Yes! Speaking of those little things, I noticed the stains on the orphan’s clothes. I was like, “Wow, the detail was really put in there.” 

Emilio: Oh, thank you! I know, I love the patches. I come from a blue-collar family, immigrants, and there’s still dignity in work. And people who work and labor still have dignity in what they wear. It may not be the most expensive or the most perfect, but you know, mothers and fathers will always send their kids clean to school as much as they can. So, while these people were poor, I definitely wanted to, where I could, insert some dignity in the costumes. I loved dressing the orphans, that was the best part! All those patches, mixing all those prints, all those colors and making it all work. That’s fun. That’s what I love!  

Jada: They just looked so cute! *laughs* 

Emilio: Yes, exactly! *laughs* 

(From L-R) American Theatre Wing Chair Emilio Sosa, American Theatre Wing President and CEO Heather A. Hitchens, and American Theatre Wing Executive and Administrative Support Manager Jacob Bressers

Jada: So lastly, I wanted to talk about your experience in the theater community. From your perspective as a black, LGBTQ+ costume designer, I’d really love to know, what is your goal as a designer? 

Emilio: I’ll even take it one step further because I have the distinct honor of being the chair of the American Theatre Wing. With that comes a lot of responsibility about theater and equity and inclusion. I came up at a time where it was, “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” You keep your private life to yourself. No one knew anything. No one said anything. So, I was reacting more to being a man of color in the theater versus LGBTQI. Because back then, no one talked about it. They weren’t marching. We didn’t have the freedoms that the younger generation has today to self-expression. You had to toe the line. So, coming to the theater, I just knew that I had to be better than my other counterparts. I had to be “better than” even though a lot of times I was and lost jobs to people who weren’t better than me. But that’s just the politics of it.

I always knew that I always had to prove that better. It’s almost like back in the day, when you used to tell someone, you were a “credit to your race”, which in a way, puts a lot of pressure on the person because you just want to be who you are and be accepted for who you are. But since so few of us get the opportunity to do it, you are naturally seen as an example. So, you have to be a “credit to your race” *laughs* in a weird way. But that didn’t bother me because I’ve always been proud of the work, and I’ve always wanted my work to stand out. So, I’ve always worked hard. 

Jada: Your hard work really shows. I hope you know that! 

Emilio: Oh, thank you! 

Jada: You’re welcome. Is there anything about the theater or costume community that you would really like to see change or you’re hopeful for in the future? 

Emilio: My hope for theater, because that’s the larger picture, is inclusion and diversity. And that doesn’t mean just hire more people on stage. It means hire more people behind the scenes. More lighting designers, more set designers, more costumes, more general managers, more producers, more prop people, more front of house at theaters. You have to create a community where people see themselves and that’s how it changes. Also, we have to do more outreach to these marginalized communities. Get those kids young, bring them into the theater at a younger age. I always say that my career is just by the chance and by the blessing of my Lord and savior, because I didn’t see my first real Broadway show until I was 20 – and I grew up in New York City, the Epicenter of live theater! 

Jada: It’s the Broadway capital! 

Emilio: The Broadway capital! But the community that I grew up in – Latino, immigrant, in the Bronx, lower income – the theater was not in our bubble. I don’t remember ever any outreach, that any Broadway show came to our schools in the Bronx. And that’s what we need and that’s what I try to do with the Wing. How do we reach those theater audiences, but also those theater artists that don’t know that they’re theater artists, because they haven’t been exposed to it? 

Jada: Yes, I feel like theater is such a segway to so many things like costume or as you were mentioning, lighting. It’s really a community and I wish more people would have the opportunity to join because it’s really a family.  

Emilio: It’s a family but you know, it is on us who are working in it to expand it, to open the door and bring more people in. I like to give a lot of people their first breaks because I was given so many amazing chances that I’m always looking for my next wig designer or my next makeup person or the next hair person or the next shoemaker. I’m always trying to find who’s next and who’s out there; who just needs that first break. If I can do that for someone, then I’m doing at least my little bit of it. 

Jada: That’s one of the greatest gifts you could give someone. 

Emilio: It’s an opportunity.  

Jada: An opportunity. And so, to all of the aspiring costume designers out there, do you have any words of advice for them?  

Emilio: Yes, I would say for me, mentorship was the biggest game changer in my career. If you admire someone’s work, find their email, find some way to get to them. Write them a letter, write them a note and just say, “I enjoy your work. If there’s ever an opportunity where you need an intern. Oh, if I’m ever in the city, may I come visit your studio?” Reach out. Because a lot of us out here are always open to meeting new and young people. Find someone whose work you admire and reach out to them and start a relationship that way.

Always just make yourself available. A lot of the people that I think I’m super proud of are people who approached me with no experience in the business and now are in the union, working on film and TV sets. For me, that’s what touches my heart so much because I have some amazing, amazing talented people who I met at a class at FIT that I would speak to for people who wanted to go into the business but don’t know how. I know two specific young ladies, who came to me as interns and I said, “If you can survive six months, I’m going to give you a Metro card, so you have a stipend to get here and back, so you’re not doing it for free. If you can survive six months, I’ll put you on a job,” and they survived the six months and I put them on a paid job. I like to throw people in the deep end when you come to me. You’re here to work. You’re not here to observe. You’re going to do it! You’re going to learn while you do it *laughs* 

Jada: Hands on! *laughs*  

Emilio: Hands on! *laughs* If you don’t know something, just ask me, but you’re going to do it, somehow. You’re going to figure it out. And that’s the best way and I’m so proud of them. Like I said, they’re the union and they’re thriving in careers that five years ago, six years ago, they only dreamt of having. 

Jada: Emilio, thank you so much. This has been such a great discussion! I learned so much and I really appreciate you for bringing more representation to the world of theater and costume design. 

Emilio: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you. Thank you so much.

Jada: You’re welcome. I had such a great time chatting with you and I hope that I can talk to you in the future.  

Emilio: Yes, please! Well, you have my information so, if you are ever in New York, drop a line, come see a show! 

Jada: I will! *laughs* 

I would like to thank Emilio Sosa again for joining me! Not only have I learned so much about costuming in theater, but I have gained valuable knowledge about mentorship, taking chances, and providing opportunities. I can’t wait to see what’s in store for him in the future!

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