“Star Trek: Discovery” Costume Designer Gersha Phillips on the Future of Fashion
Costume designer Gersha Phillips has been part of building the world of CBS Studios’ Star Trek: Discovery since the beginning, garnering acclaim for her futuristic and creative designs used on the show over its 3 seasons. The 3rd season in particular represented major costume challenges, as the Discovery crew gets propelled through time to almost a thousand years in the future. Phillips and her costume department were more than up to the task, as evidenced by the team coming away big winners at the 2021 Canadian Alliance of Film and Television Costume Arts and Design Awards. Phillips’ peers recognized the invention necessary in believably bringing Federation officer Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and the whole Discovery crew into a new millennium. Humble in the face of intense Emmy buzz, Phillips spoke to The Credits about what made the costumes for Star Trek: Discovery Season 3 so memorable and such an integral part of the show’s storytelling.
In some respects, it feels like the costumes have a larger arc, just as the show itself does, especially as it relates to the Federation and Michael’s character. How do you see the arc or the story of the costumes you’ve designed?
I think the big thing was jumping forward a thousand years at the beginning of Season 3. That was a big arc for us, in terms of how we would approach the story, and what we wanted our costumes to say about the future, which is quite daunting. In the beginning, when I was brought on and working with Brian Fuller, the mandate was to look at what Star Trek had done in the past and try to do something better. Brian wanted to create something that hadn’t been done before. So for Season 3 we still had that mandate, but we were jumping 1000 years into the future. Not 300 or 500. In the beginning, I was paralyzed. I didn’t know where to start. Then I remembered, when I started doing the original costumes, the first samples I did were costumes in which I tried not to show the sewing or the construction technique. They didn’t like that, because they were too clean. I realized I could maybe use them for this future, so I did some illustrations and got samples of what it could look like. I was fascinated by this technique called ‘No Sew’, where it’s just bonding. A lot of athletic performance wear companies like Nike and Adidas are really good at it. It’s fabulous to me in terms of what the future can look like, and in terms of what we were doing for Star Trek, it was just this way of evolving the costumes into this futuristic look.
Can you talk about the specific bonding techniques?
We like two different companies right now. One of them, Bemis, has a glue that comes in sheet form, and it’s sticky on both sides. So you first bond one side to the fabric, and then you lift off the carrier, and then you bond the other fabrics to it. That’s one type of bonding. And then there’s another company, Framis, that has pre-made tapes in really cool patterns. You can buy it in sheets, or you can have it made in whatever size or width you want it to be, and we use that to cover our zippers, to bond seams together, and just to hide things that we don’t want to be seen.
In several instances, Michael and Book have costumes that work together, and that are synergistic visually. What were the discussions about designs for them as a couple?
When we meet Book, he makes those comments about her being part of the Federation, because she’s wearing the badge on her undersuit, so he throws her one of his own coats. We had to find something that worked on Burnham that still had that Book flavor. We used Demobaza in Bulgaria, which a lot of shows use for anything apocalyptic or futuristic, for Sonequa’s coat. We actually dismantled her Demobaza jacket and put it back together using leather and other bits and bobs to bring in a little bit of the Book flavor. When she became a courier, we pulled a lot from Book’s look, and gave her some really cool pieces to work with. It was really nice to work with Sonequa in that way, because being in the Starfleet uniform most of the time, we hadn’t yet really been able to express her personality. We were able to tap into Book’s style, which speaks to a sort of freedom and self-expression. What would she wear if free to pick her own garments? She’s always had either the Federation or the Vulcan influence, which holds her within tight boundaries. It was interesting to play with the idea of her picking her own things and allowing her personality to shine.
The costumes for secondary characters are so interesting. For example, Jake Weber as Zareh has a strong Wild West vibe.
Both Book and Zareh have that feel, because when we started with Book, the directive was to find inspiration from Han Solo. That was the mandate for me. I loved the idea of the space cowboy. When I was designing for Zareh, I thought he’s definitely that as well. He’s actually more outlaw than cowboy.
His costumes immediately recall classic Westerns. With Aurelio, played by Kenneth Mitchell, how did his being in a wheelchair impact his costume design, or did it?
I think it did, because we had to take into consideration what we could do, so there was a lot that went into trying to figure that out. He wore leather from his chest down. I developed a certain language for the Emerald Chain. It was a really cool piece that we did for him actually, another using bonding, where I had some lace that I had bought, and we ended up bonding it between leather, and when you do that, the leather picks up the texture from the lace, and that’s what created those hex patterns, then our breakdown team did a great paint job on it, because it’s actually black leather they painted to be a copper color that was slightly iridescent.
There are so many details that can go unnoticed. What is another touch or element viewers should look for?
On Burnham’s undersuit, the one that you first see after she takes off her spacesuit, has a print on it. It’s the honeycomb print that we use on all our Federation uniforms. You’ll see it there, and It’s also on the sports costumes that they wear later on. We also did a different version of it for the mirror universe. When you see Georgiou, you’ll notice we just flipped it. We use that print everywhere. You can’t always see it, but it’s always there.
Star Trek costuming in particular is so exciting for the fans. Cosplayers seem to study them to copy the intricate details.
I think a lot of people don’t really know what we do or the lengths we go to, but I feel like they embrace it nonetheless. That’s all without knowing the mechanics of how we get there, which is pretty cool. I do love the fans that try to figure it out. Sometimes they send me little shots on social media of what they’re doing, and their process in creating their cosplay. They care about getting it exactly right. There really are no fans like Star Trek fans.
Star Trek: Discovery Seasons 1-3 are streaming now on Paramount Plus.