By Katia Ostapets
Photography by Jarett Fajardo, Mark Davis/Getty Images and courtesy of Marina Toybina
Waiting for the phone to ring, I was curious to know where she might be. Perhaps, on the set of So You Think You Can Dance?
When Marina Toybina called, I could tell she was stressed. She told me she was in a store right at that moment, picking fabrics for the award-winning reality show, SYTYCD. The creative mind behind stage costumes of Usher, Carrie Underwood, Katy Perry and The X Factor contestants, she still somehow finds the time to shop for the fabrics herself.
Too modest to mention the Emmy she recently won, Toybina seemed happier discussing the creative process — the experience of seeing something come to life: “It’s like giving birth to your own child,” she joked. Toybina always reminds herself to stay unattached and not pick favourites. Just like one’s children, you could say.
As the conversation evolved, I found her to be approachable and candid; it felt as though I could ask her anything. We spoke of her Russian heritage, and she told anecdotes from her professional life.
KATIA OSTAPETS: How did you get into fashion? And how did you know this was what you wanted to do?
MARINA TOYBINA: I’ve always doodled when I was younger, and in my senior year of high school I submitted applications to [many] fashion schools. I got accepted to the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising. I wasn’t quite sure what direction I wanted to go; I just knew I loved anything and everything about fashion, materials, sewing and construction. In my second semester, I started taking the creativity to the next [level].
For the past 10 years, I’ve been learning every single day, from every single project, figuring out what I like and what I don’t. As a designer, I think it’s very important to know who you’re designing for. I know my designs aren’t for everybody, so I make sure I’m very careful [with whom I work]. I think it’s the perfect relationship — you grow as a designer and they look beautiful.
Do you remember the first garment you ever made? What did it look like and what was it for?
I was a junior in high school and I saved up some money working at the Hallmark store. I sketched some designs and hired a seamstress to make the dress. It was lavender chiffon, not cute at all — definitely something outdated. I hired a photographer, who was a senior in high school and a good friend of mine, to take a few pictures for my portfolio. It was the beginning of my process of finding what schools I wanted to go to. Besides being able to sketch, I wanted to see if I could really put something together to be worthy for the schools.
Some recent sketches
What drew you to costumes instead of runway design?
Honestly, I have no idea. I think it’s just a natural transition. I started with runway: had my own line for almost three-and-a-half years, where I did one-of-a-kind men’s and women’s couture pieces.
I’ve done almost five years of fashion shows, and it started spreading into more avant-garde costume work. Now, I’m kind of following my own journey. I’m experimenting with the costume world, but I will definitely, at some point, go back to runway — that’s my first love.
During shows like The X Factor and So You Think You Can Dance, a lot of the costumes are only worn once. When you put that much love and work into it, how does that make you feel?
I don’t look at one project being more or less important than the other, so the amount of work and love that is going into every single piece is identical. At the end of the day, I’m very well aware that it’s something that I’m going to eventually part ways with.
I think what’s more important to me and my team is the way each contestant, dancer or artist feels on stage. It is worth the 50 hours that are going into one sleeve of work. Seeing the work come alive and knowing you did that is something no one can take away from you. It makes the hours of labour worth it.
I read somewhere that you have a favourite quote: “What is right is not always popular, and what is popular is not always right.” Can you talk about how you apply this idea to your designs?
I live my life the way I design. I believe in certain things from the bottom of my heart. I try to stick to my own guns whether it would be in design or my everyday life. I try not to follow other people’s footsteps and trends, and I am usually very fortunate to get to work with people that are on the same wavelength as me.
Who is to really say what’s right and what’s popular? I think if people are well aware of who they are and what they do and don’t like, you have to listen. That’s the most important part of working together with somebody — being able to listen, understand each other and compromise.
It sounds like you’ve created your garments under some extreme situations. Can you elaborate?
I’ve sewn while flying, while driving, but I am the only person out of my entire team that’s never been on a tour bus. (laughs) I don’t know how this happened, but every single time I leave the tour after the first two or three shows. At first, we’re flying and then everybody goes on a bus and somehow I always miss that [part]. I’m so disappointed because that’s something I’ve always wanted to do and it hasn’t happened yet!
But I do find the most random places to sew, just to get something done: I’ve seen all of us in the weirdest positions — in the dark, using cellphones or lighters as lamps… and you never know what comes up during performances. That’s the scary part, so we try to always be prepared for it.
Do you ever wear your own costumes or make your own clothes?
I don’t and I’ve actually never designed for myself. I’ve tweaked a few things, like buying a dress and fixing the size, but never truly designed anything from scratch. I feel like what I do is more for others, and that’s what makes my work so special to me. I can bring something to life and make others feel incredible and look amazing. To me, that’s art in itself.
Have you ever made a costume that was Russian-inspired?
Not really. It’s very disappointing because I would love to! I think a lot of Russian influence is in my work as far as textures, the heavy drapery and just the elegance of it. Especially now that I’m doing dance, I’ve been researching a lot of Russian dancers.
I think it definitely [has an influence] on my work, having been exposed to that much art and culture when I was younger. I thank my parents for that. I understand these performances, the art of it, and the work that goes into it. As a kid, you process this so much faster and pay attention to so much more detail that hopefully later, like with myself, it transforms into a lot of pieces that you work on.
What has been your proudest moment?
I’ll be very honest: when you step aside, when you’re not fixing somebody’s clothes or sewing last minute and you’re able to watch your own art, I think that’s truly a feeling that no one else can ever experience. It’s like giving birth to your own child. (laughs)
I’ve had pieces I even disliked or wondered “what was I thinking”, but then I step back and realize it’s something that comes from absolutely nothing. We can be our own worst critics — most artists are pretty hard on themselves — but, at the end of the day, I try to be truly proud of every single piece I’ve had the pleasure of working on.
Is there someone you would really love to work with in the future?
I am a huge fan of David Bowie. It’s completely left field from what I do, but I would just love to take him back to the Ziggy Stardust phase and play around with that idea. I’m a fan of Björk. Grace Jones is definitely an artist I would love to collaborate with — and, of course, Cher.
I think when you find yourself being inspired by who they are and what they stand for — and sometimes you can’t even truly comprehend where they’re coming from — that’s what’s interesting to me. That’s the kind of artist that I would love to have the opportunity to work with.
Is there anything you would like to add? Any projects you are currently working on that you’d like to share?
I’m just excited that I get a chance to continue what I’m doing, and hopefully get to inspire a lot more people.
My personal goal is to make sure that everyone gets the recognition they deserve, because I’ll say it till the day I die: being in wardrobe and being a designer is truly one of the most difficult and stressful — but beautiful — careers out there. I hope a lot more people recognize and appreciate that.