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Behind the Colorful Costume Design of ‘Hacks’: An Interview with Costume Designer, Kathleen Felix-Hager

Pack up your colorful dusters and big hats because Deborah Vance is hitting the road… and maybe a lesbian cruise! Hacks is a HBO Max television series that follows the hilarious journey of superstar comedian Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) and her new writer, Ava (Hannah Einbinder). Honestly, if this flawless cast and impeccable writing doesn’t draw you in, the Emmy-Nominated Hacks costume design by Kathleen Felix-Hager surely will.

It was no surprise that costume designer Kathleen Felix-Hager (a personal costume design hero of mine for her work on Veep) and costume supervisor Karen Bellamy were nominated again in 2022 for another Emmy® in Outstanding Contemporary Costumes!

It feels amazing. It’s so nice to be nominated and acknowledged in that way. It’s not something I ever sort of thought about or was a goal of mine. But I have to say… once it happened, it was very nice! The second one feels nice because it sort of validates the first one.

Kathleen Felix-Hager, Hacks Costume Designer
Jean Smart and Hannah Eindbinder in Season 2 of Hacks - Antique Sale, Hacks Costume Design by Kathleen Felix-Hager
Jean Smart and Hannah Eindbinder star in ‘Hacks’ Season 2 for HBO Max. Photo by Karen Ballard

Season Two of Hacks had Deborah leaving the kingdom that she built in Las Vegas to take her act on the road. Her adventure brings herself and Ava to unique locations such as a county fair, small comedy clubs, shopping malls, and even a cruise ship. As Deborah took on this challenge, Kathleen had to consider how her wardrobe would translate in the outside world.

It was fun to think about what Deborah would be like on the road. Her act is paired down. It’s a little stripped down. It’s more honest. So that was reflected in her costumes on the road, on the stage, and in the comedy clubs that she frequented.

I wanted her to still be her Deborah Vance sort of fabulous while also taking little elements of wherever she was at that time. At the state fair, for example, she wears that burnt velvet, cut-out denim on denim. She also had a pair of electric blue cowboy boots. She dresses on theme for the city that she’s in. I loved the fact that she’s still her. It was fun to play with the idea of Deborah trying to be her version of “the people,” which is actually not of the people at all.

Kathleen Felix-Hager, Hacks Costume Designer
Jean Smart as Deborah Vance in Season 2 of Hacks - County Fair, Hacks Costume Design by Kathleen Felix-Hager
Jean Smart as Deborah Vance in Hacks. Photo Courtesy of HBO Max

While Deborah had an archive of fashion to choose from as she went on her comedy tour, Ava, on the other hand, had a backpack and hook to hang on the tour bus. Ava really has a costume journey that runs opposite to Deborah as Ava really figures out who she is and what her style will ultimately become.

Ava definitely has a story arc that can be seen through her costumes this season. It was a very intentional part of the storytelling, that visual narrative that was happening with Ava as she slowly started to incorporate more and more of Deborah’s style.

Kathleen Felix-Hager, Hacks Costume Designer
Jean Smart and Hannah Eindbinder in Season 2 of Hacks - Sunglasses, Hacks Costume Design by Kathleen Felix-Hager
Jean Smart and Hannah Eindbinder star in ‘Hacks’ Season 2 for HBO Max. Photo by Karen Ballard

Costume design and storytelling really meet at a fascinating intersection when Ava is reluctantly trying on a dress that Deborah found for her. Don’t blink, as this scene revealed a lot of foreshadowing into Ava and her journey through the rest of this season.

In the episode where Ava’s trying on that Alice + Olivia dress, that is a dress that Deborah picks out for her that Ava would never gravitate towards but bizarrely looks good on her.

All the pieces that were hanging behind Ava in the dressing room… we don’t see Ava try them on, but Deborah buys a bunch of stuff. Ava starts to slowly incorporate all those pieces into her wardrobe. So if you look closely at those things that are behind her, she does eventually wear those pieces throughout the series.

In the finale, I love that Ava has those loafers at the end; she comes in that dress with the loafers and is offering herself up to Deborah. She’s trying to be everything Deborah wants her to be. Yet Deborah is letting her go. It’s even more sad and heartbreaking. But she really was striving to have Deborah accept her in a way that she thought would be meaningful.

Kathleen Felix-Hager, Hacks Costume Designer
Jean Smart and Hannah Eindbinder in Season 2 of Hacks - Hacks Costume Design by Kathleen Felix-Hager
Jean Smart and Hannah Eindbinder star in ‘Hacks’ Season 2 for HBO Max. Photo by Karen Ballard

Then comes the infamous fourth episode of season two, “The Captain’s Wife.” You know how people love to offer up one of those “stranded island” scenarios where you could only bring a few items? Well, one of my items would be this episode as it is perfect. This episode follows our characters as Deborah is unintentionally booked to perform on a special lesbian cruise. I could have talked with Kathleen about this episode for days.

It was one of my favorite episodes that we’ve ever done. It was also a big challenge because we were actually supposed to film on a cruise ship, but that kept changing because of COVID. We did actually film some exteriors on a cruise that was docked. But I really found so much joy in the idea of Deborah going on this cruise and thinking about what Deborah Vance’s idea of a cruise would be.

Kathleen Felix-Hager, Hacks Costume Designer
Jean Smart as Deborah Vance - Hacks The Captain's Wife, Hacks Costume Design by Kathleen Felix-Hager
Jean Smart stars in ‘Hacks’ Season 2 for HBO Max. Photo by Karen Ballard

The highlights of this episode are easily Deborah and Ava’s arrival looks. These costumes can and should be museum pieces.

I found the Casa Blanca blouse and duster very early on, and I knew that I wanted that to be Deborah’s arrival look. I just love the colors and the whimsy of it with the gigantic pink hat and the sunglasses.

Ava has no idea she’s going on this cruise. She had a limited amount of wardrobe with her that’s even more paired down from her Vegas wardrobe because she’s now on a tour bus with just a backpack and a tiny little space. So for Ava, we had to think about what Ava would’ve had in her bag that could translate to cruise wear. She’s in her denim, her bikini top, and that great, great blouse!

Kathleen Felix-Hager, Hacks Costume Designer
Jean Smart and Hannah Eindbinder in Season 2 of Hacks - The Captain's Wife, Hacks Costume Design by Kathleen Felix-Hager
Jean Smart and Hannah Eindbinder star in ‘Hacks’ Season 2 for HBO Max. Photos by Karen Ballard

Aside from the principal costumes worn by Deborah and Ava, I found myself blown away by the incredible costuming in the background. Every single character walking about the cruise ship looked entirely fabulous in a sea of prints, colors, and glam.

I have to say, all the background actors that were the passengers on the cruise ship, were fantastic. My team did a really great job, dressing everyone and trying to give everyone a vibe, making it look really real. The scene where Deborah was singing was just so fun. It was a magical kind of moment for everyone. I think it really shows on camera.

Kathleen Felix-Hager, Hacks Costume Designer
Jean Smart as Deborah Vance in Season 2 of Hacks - The Captain's Wife, Hacks Costume Design by Kathleen Felix-Hager
Photo by Karen Ballard

Finally, we come to the moment everyone has been waiting for, Deborah’s big comedy special! Season one ended with an incredible gold ensemble that was made with so much detail. Then we come to the end of season two, and we see a whole new Deborah wearing all black on a dark stage.

There really needed to be a big contrast between the finale look from season one to season two. That gold sparkly head-to-toe suit was so gorgeous on Deborah, but in the season two finale, her act is so different. She’s presenting herself in a more honest and raw way. There was a lot of discussion with the show-runners about pairing her down. I knew the stage was gonna be dark, but I trusted Adam Bricker in how he lights things so beautifully!

She was in black on a black stage which seemed really appropriate to me at that moment. There are a lot of details on that suit that showed, like the velvet cutouts, and she had a velvet tank on. There was texture. It was all just to make her feel as vulnerable as you could make it.

Kathleen Felix-Hager, Hacks Costume Designer
Jean Smart as Deborah Vance in the Hacks Season 2 Finale - Hacks Costume Design by Kathleen Felix-Hager
Jean Smart stars in ‘Hacks’ Season 2 for HBO Max. Photo by Karen Ballard

Hacks is a masterclass in contemporary costume design, and I am so happy to see Kathleen Felix-Hager be honored once again with an Emmy® nomination. I don’t know how the Emmy® awards will turn out, but I do know that I need a third season of this show as soon as possible with Kathleen at the helm. Thank you to Kathleen Felix-Hager for taking the time to speak with me and sharing with The Art of Costume!

Hacks Season 2 is streaming on HBO Max

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