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The Costume Designer

At home and in the studio with Kari Perkins, the award-winning costume designer for many of Richard Linklater’s films.

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Kari Perkins spent months working on Matthew McConaughey’s shirt for MUD. Director Jeff Nichols had a specific idea for what he wanted the work shirt that McConaughey would wear throughout the entire film to look like. Perkins and her team dyed and re-dyed and cut and re-cut the well-tailored work shirt over the months leading up to filming. As the start date came near, McConaughey came to the set in rural Arkansas. To get into character, he spent a week camping out on the island where they would be shooting, in his costume.

At the end of that week, he called. “Kari, I don’t think this is my lucky shirt,” he said. Perkins remembers that moment well since filming was set to start the next week. “He said, my character is the type of guy who thinks he’s a winner; he’s the guy at the casino in Lake Charles that never wins but keeps playing all night. I need something that doesn’t fit well, like a Hawaiian shirt.”

Perkins, who has the magical ability to maintain a sense of calm, often in the midst of the chaotic, fast-paced and ever-changing movie business, knew she couldn’t find what she needed in rural Arkansas, so she got on the phone and started making calls, ordering rayon blank shirts to play with. She fast and furiously worked on aging the shirt (costume designer speak for making new clothes look worn) with different dyes, and she changed out all the buttons. Just as filming was about to start, McConaughey donned his new costume and as producers and crew sat on pins and needles, the actor and director agreed, “they liked it.” Being resourceful and thinking on her feet has been an essential part of Perkins’ work since the beginning.

Perkins’ first job in film was on a Disney film in 1987 called Save the Dog. Up to that point, she had worked mostly in the theater, but got called onto the movie set when the costume designer needed mime outfits created for the next day. She worked all night making the costumes and delivered them to the set. After that, she was hooked on the movie world. “I fell in love with the industry. It was all new and exciting to me and working on set was my film school,” she says. Perkins worked in all different areas of the costume department, and her big break came in 1991 when she got the opportunity to work on Richard Linklater’s Dazed & Confused.

Perkins and Linklater met when an old friend of hers was an actor in Slacker. He had to do some reshoots and had shaved off his mustache and beard that he originally had during filming, so the always crafty Perkins, made faux facial hair for him. It was so well done that the director didn’t know it was fake. Linklater called her to compliment her work, and they got to talking about ideas and upcoming projects. Since Dazed & Confused, Perkins’ has worked on all of Linklater’s films. “Working with him feels like working with family. When I get a call to do a film with him, I know what to expect, I know what he likes, and I have a lot more freedom to explore things creatively,” she says from her warm and inviting South Austin home set on acreage that she shares with her husband and three daughters.

Throughout their over twenty years of collaborating, Perkins recalls many fun memories, but one of her favorite moments came during Jack Black’s fitting for Bernie. “He was wearing his pants low in a classic Jack Black way. I had all these great pieces, but it didn’t feel right,” she remembers. “I asked him to pull his pants up really high, to his belly button…and that was it. His stance changed, and he morphed into this amazing character in front of my eyes. Everything he put on became Bernie. It was magic, and I love it when that happens.”

Although the life of a costume designer may seem glamorous (and yes, she did get to attend this year’s Oscars with her Boyhood team), Perkins and her costume department work grueling 16-hour days during the filming of a movie and spend the months before putting together inspiration boards, fitting the actors, and constructing special props. The costume team starts their days during filming 30 minutes before the actors arrive for makeup, and they are usually some of the last of the crew to leave at the end of the day. As a mom of three, Perkins and her husband, prop maker Jeff Plowman, have made it work by switching up their work loads. Right now, Perkins is at home working on a ballet, and Plowman is working on an ABC pilot. “Austin is so family friendly. Rick [Linklater] has been very supportive of my family. I gave birth twice during the filming of Boyhood and was eight months pregnant when he hired me for Fast Food Nation,” she says.

Looking back, her career choice all makes sense for the little girl who sewed herself the seersucker halter top of her dreams at age 12. “Each film is an entirely different experience with its own set of parameters. No two are alike,” she says. “I enjoy problem solving and the unique challenge each film presents. Design is a way for me to create new worlds.”

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A costume designer is never without her toolkit. Here is what Kari Perkins keeps by her side on set:

  • Janie Clay Stick for cleaning oil spots
  • Wet Ones for general cleaning and hand wipes
  • A blow dryer
  • Topstick
  • Gaff tape in black, white and grey
  • Glue dots for gluing shoes
  • Shoe stretch
  • Insoles
  • Heel pads
  • Moleskin
  • Shoe strings
  • Shoe polish
  • Socks
  • Panty hose
  • Panty liners for sweat
  • Umbrella
  • Rain ponchos
  • Scissors
  • Thread
  • Needles
  • Pins
  • Safety pins in silver and black
  • Collar buttons

Credits

Photography by Kate LeSueur

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