Photo: Gabriel Lopez
For Derica Cole Washington, costume design is as much about film as it is about clothing. After studying art history at NYU, working as an intern at the Studio Museum for director and chief curator Thelma Golden, and doing a stint in prop art, Washington has spent the past ten years rising through the ranks. costume design. She was an assistant on films like Selma and The Sweet Blood of Jesusas well as stepping out on her own to design for the independent film How to Know You’re a Douchebag and by Netflix True story.
On Wednesday, Washington was nominated by the Costume Designers Guild Awards for her recent work in Zola; other nominees include some of the biggest names in the industry, including Ruth E. Carter, whom Washington helped out early in her career.
What, at the beginning of your life, pushed you to become a costume designer?
My mother and grandmother both sewed, so I always had an understanding of clothing and construction. My mother made all my clothes for me when I was a child. I’ve never sewn with them, but I’ve seen how they take fabric and turn it into something wearable. In Cincinnati, I went to a creative and performing arts school. Even though I went to school for singing, I went to technical theater in college and started doing stage art design for sets. This got me interested in design.
At NYU, I studied art history. When I was studying abroad in London, I went to the Victoria and Albert Museum and I thought to myself, Oh my God. I love the experience of walking around, seeing how and what was on display, what the walls looked like, how the very design of the exhibition space worked.
How did you come to designing costumes?
I was on Pinterest in 2012 and noticed costume designer Ruth E. Carter was following me. Pinterest was big back then; it was like Tumblr. I only really knew who she was because of the movies I was watching at the time, but she wasn’t known to others. She had just finished designing the first season of To be Mary Jane. I was 23 and had no inhibitions. I just contacted her and said, “Hey, my name is Derica. I have a degree in visual culture and costume studies from NYU. I’m interested in costumes. And she was like“I’m working on this commercial, come help me. I liked it.
Photo: Gabriel Lopez
How did you survive when you started out?
For a while I lived out of suitcases and had little or no money. When I was helping Ruth, I left an apartment, I went home for a second, I stayed with friends, I slept on sofas. I found it adventurous because I was young. But in reality, it was super stressful.
What does nobody know about your work as a costume designer?
I can dress someone from head to toe and we’ll never see that fabulous shoe or we’ll never see that high slit in the skirt because of the way that particular scene is shot.
What excites you about costume design?
I become that person who imagines what someone wears and how they move and create their attitude. And I really like cinema. I can open a script and so many things can happen.
What’s the first thing you do when you start imagining a character’s look?
When I did Zola, Because it was based on a Twitter feed, I made my lookbook look like a Twitter account. So just like image pops, words, sort of a variety of different things as to how you would treat a Twitter feed. When I did the show Around twenty, I made it an Instagram account because they’re people in their twenties and they’re always on their phones scrolling. I approach it differently for each job, but the main thing is the content of the lookbook, and I take it from there and work from there.
What’s your favorite look you’ve done?
My favorite looks definitely come from Zola. Dressing Riley Keough, she got into character, and it’s always amazing to see someone get into it once they put on their wardrobe. There were these Adam Selman pants, they weren’t period-appropriate, but they were so fabulous, and I had these vintage Dior jelly sandals, and I remember thinking, It’s the look.
Photo: Gabriel Lopez
What’s frustrating about your job?
My biggest problem with the industry now, especially in contemporary work, is that I feel like there’s no value placed on costume designers. It is, We want to partner with this fashion brand for promotion.
Are there other artistic mediums you would like to try?
I definitely have an interest in doing interior styling. Your space is such a reflection of who you are. It’s so interesting when I see people who dress really well and have no idea how to do it for their home environment. I really like to live a full life; everything must match. That’s why now I love holidays more than ever.
How to make a space more welcoming and aesthetic?
Fresh flowers. I always want something to feel rich and inhabited.