Girlfriends’ Guide To Divorce‘s Costume Designer Cynthia Ann Summers

Much of our image of contemporary fashion and style and its link to a specific geography has been shaped by film and television. For New York, the iconic television series Sex and the City created a look that sustains to this day. For L.A., it has been Showtime’s breakthrough series, The L Word, and now the Bravo television hit, Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce. The costume designer behind both of these West Coast style-bending shows is Cynthia Ann Summers.

Winner of the Hollywood Style Award for “Most Stylish TV Show” for her work on The L Word, we recently had the chance to chat with Cynthia Summers.

Based on the best-selling “Girlfriends’ Guide” book series by Vicki Iovine and developed for television by Marni Noxon, the series follows Abby, a self-help book author who hides the fact that she’s separated from her husband, as she starts to navigate her life as a single woman in her early 40s in Los Angeles. She finds herself seeking advice from her divorced friends, instead of her married ones which leads to some unexpected and life-changing experiences. The series stars: Lisa Edelstein, Janeane Garofalo, Beau Garrett, Necar Zadegan, Paul Adelstein and Alanna Ubach.

Summers is one of the most sought after and prolific costume designers in the business with a body of work that spans over 20-years, including the hit Emmy-nominated series Bones, in its 11th season. Her work on such diverse television projects as Proof, The Tomorrow People, Fairly Legal, The Dead Zone, Smallville, and films like War, Beautiful Boy, and Apollo 18 has won her critical distinction.

While the last show of Season Two of Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce will be broadcast tonight, February 23, on Bravo, you can find where to watch earlier episodes by checking WhereToWatch.

You are from Vancouver, British Columbia; what brought you to costume design and Hollywood? You began in the industry with the film Double Happiness, which was set in Canada.

I am from Vancouver originally and that is why I began in Vancouver. The film industry there has always existed, but it has grown in leaps and bounds over the years; it is Hollywood North. There are all sorts of great incentives for productions to come to Vancouver, same as Toronto or Montreal. It is all incentive based, if you don’t have tons and tons of money, you have to consider all of that. So anyway, long story short, I was here already. I started out in theater, in dance, so film wasn’t really my first sort of foray into this world. Interestingly enough, dance brought me into working on a film that came to Vancouver. They needed some dance costumes made and I was at fashion design school at the time. That is how I got into film in a nutshell.

It just kind of blossomed from there. I just loved it; I think like a lot of people I talk to, you just kind of get hooked, you catch the bug and you just can’t give it up. As far as getting down south, as we say in Vancouver, it was a natural progression. One thing just sort of happened after another; it was a real flowing evolution for me. As Vancouver and L.A. are on the same coast and Vancouver stands in for L.A., it made it easier for productions to hire me in both places. I have always wanted to work on the East Coast, but I haven’t gotten out there yet. You know it is funny you pick a project and there are all sorts of reasons to shoot where you shoot. Some of it is financial, sometimes you find a great location, and sometimes it is cast driven or producer or director driven so wherever you wind up you have to make that place the place of the film. I think that is the beauty of this industry. You can create just about anywhere just about anywhere.  

Your work in television really exploded in 2004/2005 with two huge critically acclaimed long-running hit series, The L Word and Bones. How do you incorporate style into your characters to define their personalities, changing times and the shifting story line?

The L World was a big deal for me. It was something that came to me. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be involved in it because it wasn’t my world. I wasn’t sure what that world actually meant or what Showtime or the show wanted out of me because it was ground breaking and politically driven. You always want to make sure that you are doing due-diligence and serving the project accurately and respectfully – and with a lot of integrity. I wasn’t sure if I was up for that. I went in for a couple of interviews with the show and I was mesmerized by the scene and the community and by what Showtime wanted to convey with that project.

The L World is a show about women for women. In the second season Showtime said do what you are doing in the first season fashion wise and do it a 100% bigger. If you have a lipstick lesbian, Jennifer Biel’s character, a women who works in the art field, is high end, beautiful and professional, that gives you a lot to work with and a lot of information. And if the studio is backing you with a fashion forward project, that gives you reign and license to just run with it, take the character and her physique and what is really popular in fashion right now and really put it out there. It also gives legs to the lesbian community; not everyone is butch and wearing flannel. It is very diverse. It is like every other demographic, the community is very diverse. So with a core group of nine women, with different characters working in all different fields, it gave me so much to go with and it was so much fun. Every season got bigger and more interesting and more dramatic. The show had a lot to say. The one thing I have to say about The L Word is it is just too bad it didn’t happen a few years later when social media became what it is now. I think the show would have had a much further reaching grasp and it would have been a lot more informative for a lot more people.

My work on The L Word got me so much work because of its diversity and fashion forwardness, including, believe it or not, Halo 4: Forward Until Dawn. That is the Microsoft movie we did for the Halo game. They had a really hard time finding someone to do that. My agent was like you should look at this and I was like this is a video game; do I really want to do that? I met the director and we clicked right away. That is a big part of working with people, you really have to be able to communicate and have a singular vibe. I think the producer said at one point doing our first meeting… “what does fashion have to do with this.” The director said “everything. We are creating a prequel world and if you look back fashion is everything in history.”

Long story short – that is how we define the characters. You are given the story, you are given the breakdown with all the minutia of the character, all the breakdown where they came from, then the director’s views, then the productions view, then the cast comes in and they have their own information they want to visually add to it all. It is this sort of collaboration. The L Word was this great jumping off point for me because it had so much diversity on how looks went; it really lent itself to a number of great venues for me including Bones

I came onto Bones in Season 5. I did three seasons with them so they were pretty established and their characters were established. It was the same thing; a core cast of six. Although people were in lab coats, a lot of the time or in field suits, they had their private lives. Of course to give meat to the project you really need to see all that and flush it out.  I think they do it really well, which is why they are so successful and the fan base for Bones is like nutty. They are dedicated. When I came onto Bones, I was like you guys have been doing this for four seasons already so what is it that you want me to do? They just said freshen it up and that can mean a lot of things. For me, I just kind of needed to get with the cast because they know their characters and they are established. I don’t think they wanted giant changes, so that is exactly what I did. I just freshened up the look. I freshened up the look of some of the characters, just tried to make them a little more current.

Even though it is not a fashion-driven show, they wanted to be current and give a little more sex appeal to some of the characters. So I went through a few looks for say the character – Cam. She is beautiful, but she also runs this whole department. The actress (Tamara Taylor) is amazingly beautiful, so I kind of took what they were doing. I remember showing them a bunch of different sheath dresses, and the actress really likes her clothes fitting extremely well. I wound up coming in with a super duper tight Herve Leger dress; those dresses they show up on the red carpet all the time. They are bandage dresses, just within an inch of your life. I thought I am going to give them this for instance so they can see the other end of the spectrum; which I know they are not going to say yes to because you know she is a scientist. She loved it of course and she walked in with it and they were like, “oh yeah this is it.” That really set the tone for that character and then the rest of the characters down the line. Bones, Emily Deschanel’s character, is a little trickier because she is a little more every day and very serious. Most of the time underneath a lab coat or her field outfit, so that was a little different. 

Can you talk a little about the difference of joining a show in progress and working on one from the start?

Absolutely, it is completely different; you want to work on one from the beginning. A lot of times what happens is a show will go to pilot and producers and directors will go wherever they are going to shoot. They will bring the key personnel they usually work with. They bring the production designer, the costume designer, sometimes the DP (cinematographer). Whoever is attached to the pilot may do the season of the series, but not all the time; I’d say half and half. For instance, I end up running the entire series, but I don’t often do the pilot. I prefer to be there from the inception because the pilot is kind of a test… for the network, for everyone, so a lot of things will change from the pilot. They will go back and reshoot pieces of the pilot so they have better correlation with the actual season. If you get to start right from the inception, which would be the pilot, you have a way better idea. There can be a lot of monotony if you are picking up where someone left off. 

Be sure to join us for Part 2, where Cynthia discusses the details of style on Girlfriends’ Guide.