Gersha Phillips created costumes for House of Cards, Black Panther and Falling Skies. Her most recent work can be seen on CBS: ALL ACCESS Star Trek: Discovery. For decades, the Starfleet command has been on our screens at home and in the theaters. In Discovery, Phillips gets to bring the crew into the modern era. Whether it’s drawing influences from McQueen or even using Nike, Phillips casts her creative net far and wide to create the kick-ass look on Michelle Yeoh or the Klingons.
I caught up with Phillips to talk about how Beaches inspired her to get into costume design and how she created the newest Starfleet uniforms.
Let’s talk about the transition from season one to season two and the evolution of the costumes.
I think for us in general, we felt a little bit more settled. Season one was quite a journey. I think when we took it on, I don’t think anyone knew what we were doing and how we were going to be doing it. It was quite a tumultuous journey.
For season two, I think we knew things a bit better. For me, I’ve never been on a show this long. I’m used to film so being on episodic, there’s a different opportunity to come to things and revisit things. When we started season two, we knew we were going to be doing the Enterprise uniforms.
Luckily in season one, we were working with enterprise colors, and then we switch those to the navy and we had those in our pocket.
I got to delve into the canon of Star Trek. Having a minute to look back on occasion was an interesting journey. Alex really wanted us to delve into the canon and to use that as a starting point. So that was fun and cool to do.
Seeing the fan reactions was fun because we got to play to that. During half way through the season, we went to the Star Trek Convention and having fans and Trekkies say, ‘Welcome to the family’ or ‘Thank you so much for invigorating the franchise and giving cosplayers new costumes.’ Having that happen and experiencing the world on that level was another place to come from. It has a bit more reverence. You’re designing for something more than just a TV show. My brothers were like, ‘You have to do Star Trek. You can’t say no.’
Season two was definitely less daunting than season one.
You’re designing so much here and there’s so much to cover, but let’s start with the Klingons. Did you go back to The Next Generation?
I did. I looked at the costumes and some of the earlier pieces. I think this time; they were at peace. They’re not necessarily in armor. We had L’Rell and all the other leaders when we see them in Episode three, he was in armor and his guys are in armor. We wanted to keep that armored look to show they were a bit of warrior. But we played with what would their clothes look like? In the script, it said they were dressed in cloth rather than armor. It’s easy on paper, but what does that look like? I use a lot of leather.
We found this great company that I like to call my “Klingon store.” I borrow their pieces, and we work them into what we’re already doing. I feel like L’Rell’s collar or the cape comes from them. We took it and made it drop all the way to the floor. We used their same wiring technique and used a different leather to make it.
We found a leather in Spain called volcanic leather. It was so cool. Her dress is made of sequins. They’re called caviar sequins and they have a texture. It’s actually a little flower, but you can’t tell that because it’s actually embroidered together. We bonded it to another fabric underneath. There was lace and we did a paint treatment and it gave that whole look another worldly feel. I feel it had an alien feel to it.
I think it is paying tribute to the sister Klingons. So, we showed her decolletage and that’s why we did that. For me, it showed her as a fuller character. There’s vulnerability but also the regalness to that costume that I really liked.
In the end, when she says, “Call me mother” that coat is a great coat. It’s from my Klingon store. We did a few tweaks to it. There’s that amazing shot where you come in and go over her head, it was such a great look.
Talking about leather, I noticed how much more leather you put on Michelle Yeoh this season.
I did. [laughs]. As the emperor, that’s how we introduced her in the mirror universe. I feel it’s almost her armor. The idea of the Terran is they were always ready for a throwdown at any time and you see that when Burnham tries to kill her in the elevator. I think they’re always ready for a battle.
For Georgiou’s character, for her to become the emperor, she’s ready to fight anytime. The way Michelle played her, you have no idea what she’s going to do. It was a lot of fun to dress Michelle Yeoh. She really gets into it.
I think almost all her outfits had leather of some kind.
The other thing is seeing how the costumes work with the production design and the colors all looking so incredible. What’s that collaboration?
We usually have a pre-concept meeting. We’ll get the department heads together, and we’ll get on the phone with the writers and producers. At that point, Tamara Deverell will have some great concept that she’s showing us, and that helps me when I’m designing. I’ll always look at what colors she’s going to be using and the materials she’ll be using on set and that’s really informative for us. It helps inform me what our characters should be looking like and what they should be wearing.
I also know what Glen likes and I’ll have things that have reflection or shine so lights can bounce off and that all becomes important. I think the trifecta is how the three of us all work together to pull off the final look and what that is.
I read you incorporate Nike, Yeezys and Adidas.
I think when you look at clothing, the people pushing boundaries in terms of technology and tech are the sportswear companies. There are some design houses doing that, but it’s the sportswear that does these things of no-sew, 3D printing and other things.
We had to do a scene, so we were looking for a sneaker. I think Nike had this thermoplastic that wraps around. It had a more interesting look than a regular sneaker. I try not to use shoes that have laces in them. I loved that and they were ready and in Navy. I think all we did was put a Starfleet delta logo on them.
How did you design for the alien races and how did you distinguish them?
It’s quite a challenge because trying to create different races is mind-boggling. Sometimes it comes from the script which is great. For the Kelpiens we knew they were a more simplistic society. The idea was that they worked on the land and more organic. They used things that were available to them. When I started thinking about what we were going to do for them as far as outfits, we looked at hand-woven things and things that looked like they were hand-sewen. It was a very cool way of creating their look.
For the Klingons, I wanted to create something more textured and a slight bit reptilian. One of the great things was working with Glenn Hetrick and Neville Page on prosthetics. Neville would do the concept of the head and I’d bring something from that into the costume and that would help me and that was just great.
I think what I try to do is try to divide the different types of techniques and different kinds of leathers. If I see something that has a different texture or a way of being in a certain product, I will say, “This feels like this would be here for this alien.” It’s really about trying to find a line that will be the characteristics for that species.
I think, like there is in society, I think there’s a lot of bleeding. Cultures overlap and borrow from each other. I think that happens here because these species are under the Federation and so that’s something I allow myself.
From a design perspective, it’s like being on top of a totem pole to be able to design things for another species that don’t exist. Or if they do, you know you’re bringing them into a new world and new time. It’s a really amazing opportunity I will say.
It sounds like you are having the best time.
It is. For episodic, you have that little honeymoon period where you haven’t talked about budgets or restrictions and the script is still new. You get to be completely creative and then you have to get back to reality.
Was there a film as a child that stood out for you as child that made you want to do that?
That’s the experience I had, but it wasn’t because of the costumes. I didn’t decide that until much later. I was at Beaches and I was sitting in the audience for that. I saw COSTUME DESIGNER and I had a lightbulb moment. That was what happened. It had nothing to do with the costumes in that film. I remember watching Mahogany. I remember watching Star Trek and actually Star Wars too. I loved the whole experience of going to the movies and going to a different world. I actually think the first one was The Wizard of Oz and Mary Poppins. I remember seeing those.