Interview with Ane Crabtree

Photos: Courtney D’Alesio Photography

Masters of Sex is sitting pretty amongst many critically acclaimed shows, receiving a few Golden Globe nominations. The tv series has excelled in storytelling and costumes -Costume Designer Ane Crabtree being the reason for the simple beauty in each look. I had the privilege of interviewing Ane and we chatted about her start as a Costume Designer, being Okinawan, Asian Americans in the media, and influences on her work.

Photos: Courtney D'Alesio Photography

Fashioned for the geek: How did you get started and what drew you to costume design?

Ane Crabtree: “I didn’t get started in the conventional sense. I grew up in Kentucky and I didn’t really know about costume design, but I’m always reminded by my mom who clearly loves fashion: On a phone call, she reminded me of Edith Head(being a big influence). Anybody of a certain age watched these talk shows that Edith Head was on. I remember as a child watching those shows with my mom. She (Edith Head) leaves such an impression. I loved the big big glasses and the hair.  She wasn’t a fashionable person per say but definitely a formidable character in understanding what and how clothing gave strength to people. I hope that her essence transferred to me a little bit as a child. I was a poor kid growing up in Kentucky and there weren’t a lot of options for amazing clothing. My mother was thankfully curious and could sew,  so she would make me anything. I remember being excited to go buy patterns with her, but it was a necessity because we couldn’t afford clothing. I’m one of those crazy creatures, who of course, loves beautiful dresses, but I also loved menswear because of my brother. I often had to wear everything that was handed down. I’m such a tomboy in my real life, and when I’m working I can be glamorous in a dress. But in my downtime, I’m clearly a little boy in overalls. I remember about the age of 10, a new newsstand opened up near my hometown and I would deliver newspapers there, I took over the newspaper route from my brother, and brought home the magazine Seventeen and started ripping out pages and posting them everywhere on my bedroom wall.”

During spring break in 1982, spent in New York with a museum director from Indiana, John Streetman, Crabtree spent much of her time looking at the street fashion of the city. During this time she was thinking about applying to colleges there.

AC: “Before my grandfather passed, he talked about a good education and thank god! He was not an artist, but a cartoonist, and we were very like-minded souls. He was creative in thinking, how is this chick from the projects going to make it without a proper education? So, I went to a school that had a sister school in England.  It was all very formulaic. I really wanted to get to England, and there were all these remnants of punk left over. I still wasn’t studying fashion, I was studying art and painting and actually Shakespeare. Fashion and costume were in the periphery. I became of aware of street fashion in New York and England and that had a giant influence on me and then THAT being combined with art helped inform and influence what I wanted to do.”

In New York Crabtree went to school for fashion design, for a period, she did windows at Bonwit Teller, spent time at Elle Magazine, and finally started working as a music video and fashion stylist.

AC: “My friend and I were working in the windows at Bonwit Teller . We would go on our lunch hour and pretend to look at the windows at Tiffany’s like Audrey Hepburn, and would get photographed by Bill Cunningham. He is amazing. We didn’t know who he was.  We thought he was a skeevy tourist. We would look at him and then holding hands, run screaming down the street. Little did we know there would be a documentary about him later.  I think it all culminated in 1991. I got an offer from Japan and they didn’t mind that I’d never done film before. They liked my approach and portfolio and it didn’t hurt that I was half Japanese. I’m part Okinawan. The first person to hire me in New York, on my birthday, was Milcho Manchevski, who is an amazing director from Macedonia. He spends part of his time in Macedonia and part of the time in New York, and he still teaches at NYU to this day. He did Before the Rain and I did Dust with him and he is amazing. He gave me my first start in a music video for Black Sheep, and then I worked with him on Dust, which was epic. I’ve had a very bizarre journey to get where I am and it all makes sense now, after 23 years. Nothing makes sense when you are in it.”

FG: Concerning high fashion, what other designers or other historical time periods inspire you?

AC: “I think I was always in love with wearing vintage stuff because I didn’t want to look like anybody else. And I kind of didn’t, being half Okinawan in a tiny southern town. I would go to military stores and the Salvation Army. I remember liking the 40’s, but that’s probably just because it’s what I saw (what was available). It was a way to afford a high fashion look with no money, and to work for a magazine(Elle) and to have your own look , but nobody else could take it from you. I always loved the outlandish, and the zen-inspired, and I think I still do to this day. I love (Jean Paul) Gaultier and (Vivienne) Westwood, Comme Des Garcons, and (Yohji) Yamamoto. I remember going to a fashion show in the early 90’s: I was dressed in my version of Gaultier, and I was walking with the same guy who did windows with me, and we thought we looked so cute. I think I had a wig on my head with dark red curls and a striped sailor top with a really great stretch velvet dress. We were walking down the street in the east village, when this beautiful man with white hair and a sailor top asked us for directions.  He was with this beautiful voluptuous woman (his model/muse) and he looked familiar , and guess who it was- it was Gaultier! He happen to be going to someone else’ show! I was like, “Oh no! I’m wearing faux Gaultier giving Gaultier directions!” I turned around and looked, and he smiled at me.

The eras that have influenced me are the 20’s and the 60’s because they were very similar in terms of the youth and youthquake movement - just living life sort of fashion. The museum director, John Streetman, had taken me to a Diana Vreeland costume exhibition at the Met. I was seventeen. I remember standing spellbound and thinking, “How in the hell..” I didn’t know you could have an exhibition on just costume. It just didn’t occur to me. And she made it really fabulous, giant, and beautiful. I remember reading in one of her books many years later than she was influenced by the 20’s and 60’s, and I kept thinking that I was suppose to meet her. And how I thought we were one in the same person. I would literally check the White Pages, going through all the Vreelands looking for her, thinking I would someday work for her. I never got a chance to meet her, but she is a huge influence on me.

I always say I’m Okinawan because you don’t get a chance to meet them, in this business. Nobody is, and I think it’s important for the youth (who may get inspired reading this). I feel like I was influenced by reading as a child, and possibly seeing Edith Head speak about costumes on TV.  It is so important to mention, simply because you have to influence people and help educate them.

(Concerning being Okinawan)  I don’t know why that is-why we don’t seem to work in the film industry. And I don’t know if it’s that we are too shy overall as a people. Certainly there are many Japanese fashion designers, but I’m often curious about that voice (the costume design voice) and why isn’t it out there more. I think this is a good platform for this conversation.”

“Little known fact: the sketches for Masters of Sex were inspired by a washy pen and ink I did of my best friend’s dog, Ophelie-which I did years ago. I remembered that I liked the effect of the ink wash, and did the same sketches for Masters of Sex! So, they were inspired by a cute dachshund named Ophelie!” Illustration by Ane Crabtree

“Little known fact: the sketches for Masters of Sex were inspired by a washy pen and ink I did of my best friend’s dog, Ophelie-which I did years ago. I remembered that I liked the effect of the ink wash, and did the same sketches for Masters of Sex! So, they were inspired by a cute dachshund named Ophelie!” Illustration by Ane Crabtree

FG: What do you think about the current state of Asian Americans in costume design or the media?

AC: “I’ve been doing The Money for HBO, and Lila & Eve, a film with Viola Davis and Jennifer Lopez, and I tend to go under and not know what is going on unless I’m researching a story. But while in NYC for Halloween, my friend texted me mentioning people dressing up as Geishas, and she said that it is just as offensive as doing Blackface. Nobody would write about that in the media. Nobody would ask why a person is dressed up as an Asian or Japanese person. It’s just that we are so quiet. I’m more political and very opinionated.  Once while considering seeing a Hollywood blockbuster on geishas, I thought, “There is this gorgeous film out there, everyone is going to see it, and yet, I refuse to see it. They cast non Japanese Asians for the characters , for a film about Japanese people. It really angered me because there is not one female role who was Japanese.  It’s sort of the Asian flavor of the month that they use when they are casting Asians. That is one side of the story. We are such a culturally quiet group, and I think it is quite easy for us to be run over, but I feel that’s changing and I hope that it is true. It really depends on who is telling the story, how they are telling, it, and what their approach is.

I try not to judge and to understand where a person is coming from, sometimes when I see fashion on the street and think “I don’t like that, but where are they coming from? It is very intriguing and the conversation should keep going, because we are getting so mixed up racially and culturally.  The internet is allowing us to share so much information and this is very loaded and important for kids later.

I’m very adamant about having color in my costume department. It is not a requirement and depends on the experience of my crew members, but I do feel it’s an important essence.  A lot has changed, and I would feel like I’m doing a disservice to my industry, and perhaps lying about who I am, if I don’t acknowledge the coming together of different racial and cultural backgrounds to enhance a project. People always make fun of me, saying, “Ane Crabtree, you are all about the mix of people”, but folks may not really know what I am because I think I look different with short or long hair, or how I’m dressed.  It’s what the perception is with regard to how I look.  And it changes with the viewer or the environment. It’s often difficult to get on a political platform at work, however, everyone knows that I am completely outspoken, and I think I can be pardoned for that, because of my life experiences. Growing up in the 60s and 70’s in Kentucky, it wasn’t very friendly to Asians and I’m saying that in a small way, it was actually quite violent. Your life experiences inform what you do in positive and negative ways, and certainly, if you are an artist you turn that into beauty in any way that you can. Whether it’s costume or whatever, you try to change the world and I’m not saying this in a flippant way -you are responsible to the human race. You try to interject human knowledge, love, and understanding in everything that you do.”

FG: Being part Okinawan does that have a strong influence on your work?

AC: “I think it does, I really wanted to be Japanese/Okinawan when I was little.  I think because I couldn’t be and wasn’t allowed to be, I’m going to out myself now,  it was terrible. I spoke Japanese first because I was just learning how to speak, and I was mimicking my mom teaching my older brother. My mother being the good immigrant that she is said ,“Oh no, speak English.” I didn’t know that she was trying to save my life, because the more we blended, the less people beat us up on the way home from school. I kind of slowly became more Midwestern/Southern and White, which I’m also proud of. I’m really proud of my Southern roots. I think the way the Okinawan shows up in my work is that I’m very in tune with nature and colors that are very natural. The Okinawan beautiful color of the ocean that shows up in different shades in my work - it’s part of my makeup, my DNA and I love it. I didn’t realize how in tune with natural elements the Okinawan people really are, because they’re surrounded by it. And I think that has always been a huge part of my creativity and vision, and that it goes into my work organically. I think there is also naturalness to the people, an ease, and a way of being purposefully formal. What goes into my clothing tends to have an air of formality when it needs to, but being Okinawan and being from the South, there is an air of casualness to my costumes. That’s important to me and how that translates- it makes it more real, more approachable. In Masters of Sex, which is set in a specific period, it makes the characters more visually approachable and compelling because they’re more human.  The wrinkles in their clothing tell the story, and if the scene calls for clothing that doesn’t fit so perfectly, it can throw the characters off kilter emotionally, in a purposeful way.  That part of being Okinawan, the unabashed use of imperfection, which is also a Japanese thing,  is informed in my costumes in Masters of Sex. I remember reading about Wabi-Sabi, and suggesting this book to the Set Decorator on Luck.  Our work should have imperfection. Life isn’t perfect, and that visual approach has always lured me into a film. It’s the thing that makes you want to connect to the person or scene more. I never wanted cobwebby, or stuffy costumes on my actors, whether it was present day or period film. I’ve never wanted a dress to look garishly over the top, because then you just have a pretty dress.  You don’t have anything that envelops the character and makes you want to stay engaged.

I think also part of that is twofold - concerning perception. I could never fit into a box growing up because there was no box for me to check, literally and figuratively. I was always kind of other and so you know, as a character, if I were writing my life story, I would say what is the journey for this person? They can’t always be other, and there has to be a way to celebrate them because they would feel messed up all the time if we didn’t. How do you take the pathos of a pimply faced Asian disgruntled teenager that I was and elevate it? I think I didn’t know how to elevate it then, so I’ve realized over time, to take those flaws and use it in my work, for my art. I don’t want the story to end yet.  And I don’t want to be pegged as one thing, as one box. I mean, I’m still figuring out how to be real. Aren’t we all?”

Crabtree’s past projects include Pan Am, Luck, Justified, and The Sopranos. Please check out her website for more information about her past and future projects. Thank you Ane!

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