A four-time Emmy winner who has designed costumes for music videos, concert tours, television series and the fashion world, Marina Toybina had her work cut out for her with The Masked Singer, rapidly producing 12 full-body costumes that were more like eccentric art pieces than anything else.
A reality competition format that originated in Korea, The Masked Singer is a musical guessing game in which 12 celebrities sing, while wearing elaborate getups to conceal their identities. Each week, one singer is eliminated, and subsequently unmasked, with small clues provided to viewers throughout the season, as to who the disguised personalities might be.
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Competing for her fifth statuette this year, Toybina had under two months to come up with characters for each performer—her gorgeously surreal creations, including a peacock, a bee, a rabbit, a lion, an alien, a raven, a unicorn, a poodle, a deer, a hippo, a pineapple and a kid-friendly monster.
For the costume designer, the key to managing this quick turnaround was trusting her instincts, while surrounding herself with a solid team. With Season 2 of The Masked Singer on the way, though, Toybina admits that the task before her on the show is daunting.
“Usually, on such elaborate art pieces, you have time to make a sample out of muslin, or create patterns, or practice with the different fabrics and experiment. [But] for us, it’s go, go, go,” she explains. “All garments are being cut right away on the original fabric, so if it’s something that I find that we can’t find again, we’re pretty much screwed.”
How did you come to The Masked Singer? What made this an exciting project for you to take on?
Last year, I got approached by one of our executive producers, and we kept playing email and phone tag. I finally was able to connect with her over the phone, and she described the concept of the show to me, and then sent me links to the Korean version of the show. With my specialty, coming from fashion design and costume design, and kind of marrying the two into my career, when I saw some of the episodes, some of the costuming, it was definitely something I wanted to do.
The costumes featured on the show are pretty unusual—somewhat abstract character pieces that cover the entire body. Was the kind of work you were doing unique, in relation to the kinds of costumes you’d designed in the past?
I have had experience in working with cinematic costumes. One of my specialties is, I have been doing music and world tours for about 10 years now, so I had that crossover of elaborate stage costuming, and then also a very integrated kind of walkabout—which is what makes the show so different. They truly are a walkable work of art, [and] they have to be mobile and diverse enough to represent something special on stage.
So, all the experience that I’ve had kind of led me into the moment of being able to design a show like this—being able to create characters that are not just visually stimulating and exciting, but also mobile enough to perform; being able to execute choreography and their vocals at the same time, and kind of creating a whole package.
What were the first creative steps you took in Season 1? Did you meet with the featured artists you were costuming up front, in order to find a way into your designs?
It was the first season in the U.S., definitely trying to do something different, and also paying tribute to the original concept of the show, so the first thing that I did—after really learning the show and understanding the concept—[was doing] all the artwork, creating all the various sketches. I believe about 20 sketches were created for Season 1, and then from there, [I was] meeting up with the network executives to decide which 12 would be perfect for our stage, and perfect to represent the show. From there, it was teaming up with some of the best-of-the-best manufacturers, and our artists do collaborate with me, trying to get this all built and situated.
Did you do the sketches yourself? Were they completed in a computer program, or drawn by hand?
I collaborate with a really good friend of mine who’s an incredible illustrator. I do all the pencil renderings and all the initial ideas myself, and then we collaborate together to do the digital work, so that we can really bring the costume to life. All those sketches become kind of like a 2D/3D effect, and then from there, it’s easier for me to dissect it and break down which materials I need. Then, I go out and buy all my own fabrics, and we start teaming up with different special effects artists or fabricators, making the masks and costumes.
What informed the looks of characters you designed for Season 1?
All the ideas were my original concepts, and I had my own specific niches, as to what I wanted to see these characters be, and how they should come to life on stage. [With] the peacock, I really wanted to take this bird into something that we would never see. Most people create it as a female costume, and since it’s such a flashy, rich bird, I wanted it to remind [viewers] of the Vegas side. So, Elvis came to mind, doing that showstopper costume. From there, all these ideas are originating—how to make these characters have a story, and what each one would be inspired by—and I think from that point on, it just came easier to execute them, and make them relatable to the audience.
Could you talk about the inspiration behind some of the other costumes?
Something like the rabbit, I think is a frequently asked costume. I am a huge fan of cinema, and I wanted to do something that was, again, unexpected for the character. When you think bunny, you think friendly; most people go straight to Easter. For me, one of my favorite films is Donnie Darko, and if we had the freedom to play for Season 1, which we did, I wanted to try to experiment with some things that might’ve been a little bit darker, a little bit more uncomfortable to the eye. I definitely wanted to do something that was a little bit fashion-forward, but at the same time, paying respect to that film, and create something of our own inspiration. By making it all white, it was also a bit of a nod to Edward Scissorhands, combining those two characters together and creating our own version of the rabbit.
Animals are so much easier to relate to, or to try to create mascots or masks out of. [But] right away, when we were thinking about incorporating a food into the show, pineapple came down as creating something that was fun and interesting, and at the same time, kind of a free spirit. Right away, I thought of a beach and a surfer vibe, and turning it into a drink character, where you get the straw in the mask. This was like my summer-inspired, Hawaiian kind of dude, that pineapple character.
It seems like in some cases, your costumes ended up reflecting either the personality or the career journeys of the artists singing within them.
That was the beauty of trying to figure out how to match each character with the artists that were cast. They were given a few sketches to kind of pick their own, and decide who they relate to, and then from there, it became a collaborative experience. They explained to me [what resonated], and things that made sense right away, as to what gravitated their eye to the artwork. Then, once the costume was executed, I was able to really customize it for them—not just doing proper tailoring, but [putting in] special things that made the costume even that much more like an equal match, as to why they wanted to be behind that mask.
Could you elaborate on the experience of working with the incredible artists featured in Season 1? There was quite a diverse assortment, with rappers, singers, actors and NFL players all in the mix.
I think there was one big thing in common about the show [for them]—that because these people were cast behind a mask, it was so liberating. It’s this interesting freedom that they had to just perform and have fun on stage, and lose all sense of the seriousness that came with the show, and it became something that was just artistically driving them to have these characters come to life. I think no matter who was behind the mask, there was that sense of calm [in becoming] this character. [It’s] something that almost becomes like an inner child experience—and a split personality, in the sense that they could just not worry about what the fans have to say. And it’s not a judging competition, so it becomes even more liberating for them to try something different and new. So, we didn’t really see issues; we didn’t have any wardrobe malfunctions, so there wasn’t any chaos around trying to figure out how to make this work. It seemed very natural for some people to gravitate to certain characters, and then of course, I was able in our fittings to adjust things accordingly, and collaborate with them one-on-one, as to what they needed in the masks.
That’s truly, probably, the most fascinating experience, because we’re not used to doing masks. Even if you do consider Halloween, it’s a one-time deal, and they’re not 360 masks [or] mascot-type costumes. So, these people really had to embody [these characters], and almost compromise with me, as to what we can and cannot do to truly execute something like this. Some people that were not claustrophobic all of a sudden felt like they were claustrophobic, and vice versa, so we really had to go through and cater to everyone’s needs to make sure that they could breathe, and sing, and be comfortable—and at the same time, become these elaborate creatures that I guess dominated the world, since it became such a hit of a show.
Were there any costumes in Season 1 that you were particularly proud of?
I think they were all so different and so wonderful, and each one was such a unique way of constructing it and figuring out. My favorites were probably the lion and the unicorn; they were, to me, the most detailed costumes. Of course, the peacock was the flashiest, and each one had its perks. The monster was the loveliest, and the most kid-relatable.
The Masked Singer will return for its second season in September. What can you share about Season 2, and your experience in putting together brand new costumes for it?
We had even a shorter time frame to finish all the costumes, and there’s 16 characters for Season 2 instead of 12. I am very proud of Season 2 because I think [with] everything that we’ve learned from [the] experiments and the dilemmas that we might’ve had in Season 1, we definitely upped our game. You’ll see a lot more detail in all the costuming, you’ll see a lot more elaborate creatures on stage, and I’m excited for people to see it.