Theater alum exposes students to the world of costume design on CBS’s "The Good Wife"

He may spend his days working in the land of make-believe, but costume designer Dan Lawson is about as realistic about the business as they come. And he’s determined to get Mason Gross students behind the scenes for their own introduction to the industry.

The Emmy Award-nominated Lawson, who creates the high-end looks for actors including Julianna Margulies and Archie Panjabi on TV’s The Good Wife, started his career while still an MFA student at Mason Gross in the late ’80s, where he says he found “professors who are professionals—they work in the business, they do the business.”

“It was the network that I hoped it would be,” says Lawson, who came to the East Coast after earning his undergraduate degree in theater at Northwestern University in Illinois.

And what a network it was. Within just two days of his first semester at Rutgers, Lawson went to work on Broadway as a costume stitcher on Into the Woods—an opportunity he heard about from his costume history and technology professor.

There, he met costume-design powerhouse Ann Hould-Ward, who later won a Tony for her work on the show, and began to build a network of professional contacts.

“It was totally menial labor,” Lawson says of the hours spent sewing latex mud onto costumes, “but [I] got to go to […] the biggest costume house at that time, and [I] got to watch Ann work.”

The experience kicked off of a whirlwind of gigs over the next few years, including working at the Martin Izquierdo Studio, which had created the latex mud for Into the Woods, and designing costumes for Othello at the Folger Theatre in Washington, D.C.—directed by Harold Scott, then the head of the directing program at Mason Gross.

“That was amazing and unheard of, to be doing that so quickly out of school,” says Lawson.

And now, the designer is offering the same network-building opportunities to current Mason Gross costume design students through internships on The Good Wife, a legal drama on CBS.

“So often, people think doing costumes is just drawing pretty pictures and sitting around being creative,” says Lawson, who was awarded the 2013 Theatre Development Fund Irene Sharaff Award for Young Master. “It’s important for students to see what’s happening in the real world, and how it really happens.”

Potential interns are recommended to Lawson each semester by Vickie Esposito, associate head of design at Mason Gross and one of Lawson’s former professors. Esposito says she appreciates the dose of reality for budding designers.

“It’s a really hard business,” Esposito says. “Dan is trying very hard to give students a perspective on what he does.”

Last fall, Mary Kutch spent a semester interning with Lawson before graduating in May with a BFA in costume design. The experience of working on a major network TV show, she says, required her to “be on top of organization and planning, always early, and always prepared.”

Kutch spent one day a week in Manhattan, learning the ropes of the business by participating in fittings, pulling clothes, running items to the set—and yes, doing paperwork.

“It’s not always glamorous,” says Esposito. “A lot of [the business] is running around New York looking for, say, a blue skirt.”

On several occasions, Lawson invited Kutch into fittings and even allowed her to sit in on a production meeting with the The Good Wife’s producers and designers.

“Any time Dan had a minute to spare, he would teach me something,” says Kutch. “I was always learning.”

For Lawson, the internships are a chance to present the reality of a career in costume design, so that “when students graduate, it’s not completely alien to them. They’ve seen the professional situation before.”

And ideally students will pick up on what has propelled Lawson through his illustrious career: teamwork as the name of the game.

“There are so many elements involved, and costumes are one aspect of it,” Lawson says. “In a way it sort of humbles you and you realize, ‘It’s not all about me, it’s about the art and the craft and the collaboration.’”

Lawson also stresses the value of connections in a business that he says can be a small world.

“I tell students that the people they’re working with right now in school are the same people they’ll be working with when they leave,” he continues. “It won’t be on every project and it won’t be every year, but you’ll continue to come across each other and work with each other from time to time.”

As The Good Wife heads into its sixth season, Lawson, who earlier this year launched a clothing line called 35•DL with British brand number 35, looks forward to the continuing evolution of the show’s characters—and their clothes.

“Some people think ‘six years of suits’—but it’s still exciting because we’re constantly trying to make it grow and challenging ourselves,” says Lawson. “I’m a perpetual student, and being on a show like this helps me do that.”

Posted September 2014