David Zyla Interview
(Fashion Designer)

He’s held the position of head costume designer for TV shows General Hospital, Port Charles and All My Children, for which he received the 2010 outstanding achievements in costume design Emmy award. He’s designed clothes for Hillary Clinton, Tom Hanks, Carol Burnet, Neil Patrick Harris, Susan Lucci and Kelsey Grammer to name just a few.

He’s appeared on the view, the Nate Berkus show, Martha Stewart living radio, the Jane Pauley show and CNN style. He’s been profiled in people magazine and the New Yorker. His work has been featured in publications such as Life and Style, USA Today, Cosmopolitan, Women’s Wear Daily, Bride’s Magazine, Good Housekeeping, Reuters, the Chicago Tribune, and the Los Angeles Times.

His book The Color of Style, published by Dutton was released on February 4, 2010, followed by the paperback, Color Your Style, published by plume on January 25, 2011.

Who are we talking about? Mr. David Zyla that's who!!

Q - David, how is it that you can look at somebody and know what type of clothing they should wear? Where does that knowledge or skill come from? And you’ve been doing this since you were five years old!
A - I always felt from a young age that certain people just look like themselves, wearing certain things. It wasn’t until I got older, probably when I was in college that I really started to put it all together and say, oh if you really look at the colors in their eyes, not oh she has brown eyes, but look carefully. What colors do you really see when you really look at a deeper level? I realized who I was in college and right after is, that when people wear those colors they just illuminate themselves. I look at each individual like the subject of a great painting. For instance if the Mona Lisa was painted with neon orange behind her, we wouldn’t be looking at Mona Lisa; we would be looking at the background. But, she’s not painted with that. She’s painted with colors that are found in her that are really illuminating her and pushing her forward. It’s obviously developed since then and I also look at the shape of someone’s face. If you echo the shapes in your face; for instance for a woman’s neck line, it just flatters her and really pushes her forward. My whole platform is color as a tool of empowerment and being the best version of you.

Q - Your philosophy is, we all deserve to look and feel our best. That’s true, but not everyone can afford your services. So, how is it possible to do that without having money?
A - What I talk about can be done at every level. In my book, Color Your Style, I lead the reader to discover their true colors. I can’t stress this enough. Your true colors can be on the runways of Paris but they can also be on the clearance rack at a discounter or even a resale shop. So, it really is about thinking about color and clothing as raw materials to showcase you. It’s not about where you buy it or the label. Until someone is paying you to where a giant label across your chest, you really should think about clothing as things that flatter you and push you forward like you’re the brand, you’re not wearing a brand. If you choose to really work hard to wear your true colors and illuminate yourself, you can do it at every single level, and it does not have to cost a lot of money.

Q - Speaking of labels at 22 you started your own fashion label. That had to cost some money. Where did that money come from?
A - (Laughs). I was actually self-financed so, I was incredibly foolish. (Laughs). I was probably funding it working with a lot of private clients at the time. I was also designing window displays on Madison Avenue. Actually that’s how it all came about. I was doing windows at this one boutique. One day the manager said we have a client who’s going to a Victorian ball in a week and she loves your windows! I said, oh wonderful! He said we told her your background is costume and fashion. I said oh wow! He said she would like you to call her, because she would like you to design a dress for her. And so, basically I designed this gown for her in a week. She wore it brought pictures into the shop. The man who was the manager said, we love your taste. Now that we see a dress, we would so carry a line if you ever put one together. Well that’s all I needed to hear. (Laughs). I started sketching I’m sure hours later. Probably a month or two later I had nine samples I had a friend who’s worked at a magazine. I had this modest champagne preview of it. The next day Women’s Wear Daily called collection in because somebody at the party saw it and they photographed it and then I walked it into the Henri Bendel open. See and they placed an order immediately. Then it just grew from there. It was kind of crazy how it all happened, but, it was a great ride. I have to say so many things came out of it. Actually, my work in daytime television is all based upon the fact that I had a fashion line because designers of different shows including soap operas would purchase my clothes at retail. Then I get to know some of them. One thing led to another and years later I ended up designing daytime television for 12 years.

Q - You also designed the wardrobe that Hillary Clinton wore when she went to Asia. To do that, you have to know what? The temperature it’s going to be in Asia when she’s there?
A - That’s very important, yeah. When you’re doing costume for a television show or a movie clearly you read the script and speak to the director and consult with the actor, to elicit mood. For instance, you’re not going to dress someone in shorts and a tank top if they’re supposed to be in Antarctica. The same thing is true in life and actually it’s probably more important in life that things be comfortable and climate appropriate and so on. So yes there definitely was research there. With that it was a wonderful opportunity and experience. I think we did a nice job of making her feel comfortable and also appropriate at the same time.

Q – Did she approach you? Did you approach her? How did that work?
A - It was again a crazy coincidence where one of the shops in New York that carried my fashion line; I stopped into say hello to them one day and a woman was in the shop. They introduced me and this woman said, I’m shopping for a very important person, (laughs). One thing led to another this woman worked for Hillary. We invited her to my fashion show a few months later. She did not come the next morning after the fashion show we got a call from the White House saying she is on her way to my showroom. (Laughs). And so, it was one of these crazy moments. I said, oh God. We had been working like dogs getting this show ready. There were piles of shoes everywhere. There was makeup on the dresses. Everybody just kind of went into a crisis mode and made all the makeup disappear and throw all the shoes into I don’t know where, drawers probably just to get rid of them and showed her the collection. We moved forward from there. So, it was just one of those wonderful coincidences, right time, right place and then also clicking at the same time.

Q - If we are to believe the talk, you may be called on once again to design for Hillary if she runs for president and wins.
A - Its highly possible, I’m sure. Yeah definitely.

Q - How many people do you have working for you?
A - I have a wonderful assistant. I have a bookkeeper. I have an attorney. Then I have two other people that work for me. When I’m working on larger projects there are obviously teams that I’ll bring in. So, if we are designing clothing and having it made, I’ll work with the shop to do that. I’ll call people in as needed.

Q - Do you have your own store?
A - No I do not.

Q - But, you do have your own fashion line?
A - No. That’s something that I’m not doing right now. When I started doing daytime television, doing both was really too much. I really wanted to jump fully into the daytime world. It was a choice but, it was the right choice. Actually, speaking of which, there are meetings happening right now about doing a fashion line again. So, stay tuned on that one.

Q - Where you lecture at art schools and design institutes, what do students ask you?
A - It depends. When the students are design students, common question that comes up is, we’re all going to be getting out of school shortly and we’re all going to be competing with each other for jobs. That comes up constantly. My, response is, no you’re not. They all look at me with these blank faces. (Laughs). Then I will say, if were talking costume design, name your favorite costume designer. Then I’ll ask the second person and a third person. Then I’ll ask them to each tell me something about their work, that person’s work that distinguishes them. And, I showed to the whole room that these their favorite designers have really nothing in common and they all have singular gifts. Then what I will say to the students is what you need to figure out is, what you’re so good at that nobody else in this room is and what identifies you as singular and unique. To just say you have great taste or a good eye is just not good enough. That’s not enough. It needs to be more specific. I would say that’s probably one of the most common things that comes up when I’m speaking. Beyond that, when I’m speaking to students that are more liberal arts; one of the big things for them is what to wear at a job interview. What I’ll say there is, dress like yourself it’s sort of like you’re on online dating and you see a picture and in the picture, she’s a blonde and you show up for the date and she’s brunette. There’s nothing wrong with the fact that she’s brunette instead of blonde, but, you’re expecting a blonde. So, I would say there is moment there where it could be very awkward for both parties. So I always say, dress like you don’t dress for an interview, then we hire you and your somebody else when you come, into actually start the job. And I always say dress like the best version of you. I know a lot of young people just starting into the job market get a lot of advice on wear this color, where this type of shirt. My response is, no you should really dress like you. Look at yourself and whear the clothes that flatter you. Show up as you. That’s easiest.

Q - Do the students end up getting jobs? It appears to be a very competitive field.
A - I think anything in the arts is competitive. Hundreds of years ago there were patron families that would say I like the art of this person. Will support them. That doesn’t really happen anymore. Every field can be competitive. If someone loves to design whether it’s costumes, sets or even if it’s fine art, I think they should just keep doing it. I would say to develop one’s eye and to see as much as they can in their field is really key. So, if you want to be a costume designer and you say, I just saw this movie. I didn’t really like it. That’s not really enough. You need to start talking about it. What didn’t you like about it. I always say if you go to the movies or play with a friend, make time after for coffee and talk about it. That’s how young designers really learn. What did work? What didn’t? Sometimes you learn more from what didn’t work and it will help you avoid some pitfalls down the road in your own work.

Q - What I’m getting at is, not everybody can get a job in costume design. So, what happens to the people that don’t get in that field?
A - I think that’s true of many things. If I were to poll my friends and say, okay what did you study in college and what are you doing now? I would say a good amount of them are not doing anything like what they studied. There are many opportunities. I know someone years ago who was a set designer and someone approached him and said, I want to open up a bar in this neighborhood. It’s up-and-coming. Would you design the bar? He said, okay sure. He had a very modest budget and yet did a lot with it. As a result this man no longer designing sets. He used to work on Broadway and off-Broadway. He is traveling the world doing restaurant and hotel interiors. That’s an example of some skills but funneled in a different way. I know another woman who was a costume designer. She again, for a friends shower or something planned party and she enjoyed it so much that she went into creating a catering business and a party planning business. She’s been at it 20+ years now and loves every minute of it. Creativity can be found in many different ways.

Q - How do you know in advance, what fashions are going to appeal to people?
A - (Laughs). I think every star’s buyer in America and around the world would love to know the answer to that. What happens is we have the runway shows and they are six months before the close hit the stores. I would say about two weeks after the runway shows are the trade shows and the appointments in the showrooms. We can put anything on the runway, but then it’s really those weeks afterwards it’s decided okay this store is ordering this and not that. Probably a month after the shows you sort of know what’s going into production and what’s not. The successful buyers really have a hand on the pulse of what we’re thinking about right now, and not too forward. What’s next? What is the next skirt length? But not, what is two skirt lengths from now? There’s this special ability that these wonderful buyers have to say alright. This is next. They’re showing that, but, that might be a little too advanced right now. It’s sort of like knowing how to put things in order that they should be in to really understand the customer. Right now, the last couple seasons in fashion, I am very excited, I think were in probably one of our best periods because I feel there’s a variety in the stores. I don’t think were hung up on one trend or one color at all. I think there’s tremendous variety and something for everyone right now.

Q - You’re talking woman’s fashions, not men’s fashions.
A - Yeah. Men’s fashion doesn’t move as quickly as women’s. It’s a little bit slower. But, men’s fashion in the last several years has really gotten exciting. Suits have gotten slimmer. We cut the jackets super short two seasons ago and now they’re shorter than they were three years ago. They're slimmer. Pants are straight leg and slim. We did that super skinny on the guys. We rolled our jeans and showed their ankles without socks for a while. I think there were a lot of fun, kind of identified moments in men’s wear that we’ve been seeing the last two years.

Official website: davidzyla.com

© Gary James All Rights Reserved