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Originally published in The California Aggie

Leafing through a giant portfolio filled with photos of her many designs, couture fashion designer and historical film costume researcher Elizabeth Galindo can remember exactly how she designed, sewed, and accessorized every one of her signature gowns. After more than 20 years in the business, that’s a lot of dresses.

“This is all hand burnt velvet and it has 24-carat gold thread running through it,” Galindo says, pausing at a photo of Sophia Loren wearing an intricately patterned gold dress. “The beads are all glass beads from the island of Murano. The fabric alone took me six weeks, and then this was draped on her. That took about five fittings before we could start sewing.”

These days, Galindo has been a fixture on the UC Davis campus as she studies for her Ph.D. and, most recently, designed the costumes for the upcoming Theater and Dance Department production ofGallathea.

Galindo’s handmade, one-of-a-kind dresses have also found their way onto the racks of Bergdorf Goodman’s, Neiman Marcus, and down the red carpet on celebrity clients such as Uma Thurman and Sharon Stone. Her eye for detail and passion for historical costumes have made her a vital member of the costuming team on films such as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and There Will Be Blood.

Ask Galindo what part of fashion and costume design she likes most and she’ll tell you simply, “It comes from the fabric first.”

“From lace-making to crocheting to actually hand-working lace, to the dyers who do all the hand-dying in natural dyes …” Galindo says. “That’s something that I really appreciate that a lot of people just don’t, or haven’t learned.”

Galindo’s fashion career began with a childhood obsession with (what else?) Barbie dolls. But she graduated from the University of Southern California in 1978 with degrees in international relations and economics. Her father wanted her to be banker, she says.

“I tried,” she says with a wry smile. “Couldn’t do it. Adding my checkbook now is tough.”

But after marrying a fellow classmate and moving with him to Mexico, Galindo happened upon a small village outside Mexico City known for its beadwork. Impressed with their creations and realizing the need for women to have a secure place to live in the midst of the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, Galindo organized a small business selling Bolero jackets inspired by classic paintings. The women set up schools, hospitals, homes – and the pieces were sold at Bergdorf Goodman’s.

It was among the village women that Galindo learned how to drape fabrics into gowns. “I didn’t go to school, not at all. Don’t even ask me to get near a sewing machine,” she says.

Galindo moved back to her hometown of Los Angeles after 10 years in Mexico, this time committed to a career in fashion. It was here that a friend introduced her to Melanie Griffith, who agreed to wear a Galindo Couture gown “on a whim,” Galindo says. Griffith now owns over 100 Galindo pieces.

Galindo attributes her subsequent popularity among Hollywood starlets, who have worn her gowns on the red carpet at awards shows such as the Emmys and Academy Awards, to her appreciation for vintage European details and originality. Her clients don’t have to worry about showing up in the same gown as someone else, she promises.

Galindo completed her Master’s in Fine Arts in costume design from UC Davis in 2005, and was researching historical costume design in film for her Ph.D. (also at UC Davis) when she met noted film costume designer Jacqueline West. Impressed with Galindo’s knowledge of historical costumes and ability to access archives at UC Davis, West asked her to do research for her next project: designing the costumes for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

“This was a massive project – it covered 100 years and had huge scenes throughout history,” said West. “Liz gave me whole big books filled with research about jazz clubs, brothels in New Orleans and old folks’ homes in the South. I work with Brad Pitt a lot and he calls me a method costume designer – I think Liz is very aware of that.”

Encouraged by her clients and positive word-of-mouth among film costume designers, Galindo’s career in costume research took off. She has worked on nine films, sometimes without the director even knowing. Costume designers often call her up when they need an expert on historical fashion.

Costume designer Cindy Evans worked with Galindo on P.S. I Love You in 2006 and described her reaction to Galindo’s portfolio as “truly blown away.”

“[Director] Richard Lagravenese wanted Hilary [Swank]‘s costumes to echo films of the past and have a unique contemporary feel as well,” Evans says. “Liz to me is like the Wikipedia of all things costumes, textiles, historical and contemporary fashion.”

As the costume designer for Gallathea, Galindo has found herself thrust back to the future, so to speak. The play, first performed in 1585, has been given a modern facelift – meaning Galindo’s designs will have a decidedly 21st century vibe.

“Because Gallathea is from 1583 to 1585, of course my mind went directly to, ‘Oh good, I get to do historical.’ And then the director said, ‘No, it’s contemporary,’” Galindo says. “So I have to flip my mind around.”

Historical or not, Galindo remains passionate about simply creating fashion, and finds that the biggest reward is seeing the actors’ reactions during the last fitting. She considers her designs to be reminiscent of a time gone by, when detail and timelessness infused every piece.

There isn’t the class that there used to be, she sighs.

“My evening gowns … they make you have a different character,” she says. “You have to walk differently, learn how to use a train, how to walk in high, high heels. You have a different posture.”

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