Michael Costello: The Dark Horse Red Carpet Designer Beyoncé, Ciara, and Kim Kardashian Love

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Michael Costello with Kim Kardashian and Caitlyn Jenner. (Photo: Instagram)

No major red carpet event is complete these days without at least one of Michael Costello’s dresses. The designer, who was introduced to mainstream audiences thanks to his stint on Project Runway, Season 8, in 2010, has gone from reality star to one of the stars’ favorite designers.

Costello’s designs have been seen on the likes of Beyoncé, J.Lo, Queen Latifah, and Kim Kardashian — to name just a few. At the Billboard Music Awards in May, he created looks for Laverne Cox, Idina Menzel, Fifth Harmony, Meghan Trainor, and Ciara, who herself wore two pieces crafted by the designer. Last week, Costello teamed up with Kim Kardashian to dress Caitlyn Jenner for the ESPYs. Then Ciara called upon the designer again to do the bridesmaid dresses at her wedding. Talk about being in demand!

The California native’s business continues to grow as his red carpet and bespoke celeb cred stack up. This year, he plans to open two bricks-and-mortar locations to service the ever-growing client base that has made him something of a dark-horse red carpet king. But even as his popularity grows, Costello remains focused on his true love — dressing women, no matter what they look like. We chatted with Costello on working with A-listers, body diversity, and what’s to come for his label.

Yahoo Style: Caitlyn Jenner looked gorgeous at the ESPY Awards! What was it like teaming up with Kim Kardashian for the look?

Michael Costello: It was really cool working with Kim on the styling part. We’ve never worked together on styling, though we’ve done a lot of other things together — I’ve made tons of dresses for Kim, and we’ve been friends for a little while now. To actually work together on something was kind of cool, because I thought that we weren’t going to butt heads, but we kept butting heads on the look — the accessories, the shoes, the earrings! Every time I liked something, Kim was the complete opposite. She would say, “Um, I don’t think so, no. I don’t like those earrings; maybe we should do diamond studs.” I liked a bracelet from Fred Leighton; she was like, “No, I don’t like that bracelet — maybe we’ll use Kylie’s diamond tennis bracelet.” So it was fun for us to be butting heads.

She has that styling background too, so it’s not surprising she was so opinionated!

She does, and this was kind of like Kim Kardashian’s comeback to styling and Caitlyn being her first styling for a little while now. It’s nice that she trusted me to be brought on as a designer, and Caitlyn was really excited when we were texting each other looks for the red carpet.

You’ve dressed Caitlyn before too!

I did! In the first promos for E!’s I Am Cait, the blush chiffon long-sleeve gown is the first dress that Caitlyn actually ever put on before the whole Vanity Fair shoot, so that’s a little bit of trivia. I actually made that dress for Kim Kardashian, and we hadn’t shortened it yet, so Kim gave it to Kris Jenner, and Kris Jenner gave it to Caitlyn. It’s cool to see how the fashion gets passed on by everyone in the family!

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Caitlyn Jenner at the 2016 ESPY Awards in Michael Costello. (Photo: Getty Images)

What’s Caitlyn like as a client?

She’s really easy to work with. You know, I was so afraid because, let’s say she doesn’t have the average body figure — there are a lot of parts on her that are a lot broader, and of course her height — she’s about 6′2″, and with a heel, that brings her to around 6′4″, so it’s almost impossible to find pieces that are going to hit her and complement her in the right way. Almost everything has to be custom, which can be a little intimidating for a designer. But she knew what most of her best features were, she knew exactly what was going to complement her body, and she knew what she wanted to stay away from. I found that really fascinating to work with because a lot of women that we normally work with, they know what they love but they’re not willing to take many risks. Sometimes they want to stay in a certain box. Caitlyn is a risk taker, and she’s somebody who’s not afraid to push the boundaries and the envelope when it comes to fashion.

And dressing trans women isn’t a new thing to you — Laverne Cox is another one of your clients.

Everyone knows Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox come from the trans community, and it’s incredible that we as a design house are able to make dresses using our standard PGM woman’s dress form. It’s not a dress form that’s built for someone who is transgender; it’s a regular industry dress form that we use, and we’re able to build on that and make trans women feel celebrated in their unique bodies, and make them feel just as part of today’s image of a modern woman. They can put on a Michael Costello dress and be red-carpet-ready, just like Angelina Jolie can.

For us, it’s about making them feel as special and as equal as they can. Caitlyn and Laverne both feel and express that it’s about accentuating their curves, making them feel important, making them look effortless, and making them look like this is something that they could have easily just picked up at a department store. That’s what we try for. Laverne Cox is absolutely a knockout. Her body is so small. You could put a trash bag on her and belt it at the waist, and she’s going to give it life.

Yes, and with those long legs…

She has legs for days! I want legs like that!

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Laverne Cox at the 2016 Billboard Music Awards in Michael Costello. (Photo: Getty Images)

Don’t we all! And besides trans women, I look through your Instagram page and I see so many different women of varying shapes and sizes.

It’s so sad, because I’ve become one of the number one designers on Instagram who constantly gets bashed about dressing stick-figure models, and it’s so not true! Me, myself, I love women with curves. I love women with beautiful body types, and you see that we dress everyone from Queen Latifah to Jill Scott to Meghan Trainor, who is all about women empowering their body types and their curves. Meghan always says, “I’m all about that bass,” and so is Michael Costello. We don’t just focus on what you see coming down the runway at Fashion Week, although we love to appeal to a buyer’s eye. And let’s face it — a buyer’s eye in today’s world, they love seeing the Gigi and Bella Hadids coming down the runway. We know that not every woman can relate to that. Us as a brand, not only do we offer custom made, but we target those women, because they’re our number one demographic. At the end of the day, they have the money to spend on these dresses, whether it’s custom or affordable. We love to dress everyone, I really do.

It’s interesting you mention that, because it seems more designers are slowly trying to take notice of the lucrative plus-size market. We’re seeing high-end designers collaborate on plus-size ranges for high-street retailers.

Those damn copycats — they saw it first on my page! I have to be a little catty here, but the Michael Costello Instagram page is definitely one to follow, because we set trends. No one was dabbling into size, no one was dressing anyone who was trans, no one was dressing anyone with curves. It was all about the skinny supermodel or the skinny starlet. Ever since we started doing it, so many people are getting the opportunity for it. But I’m not jealous, I’m actually really happy that fashion is able to push the boundaries that we’ve been close to for so many years. We see people like Ashley Graham getting these covers that have never been able to be reached by women who are size 14,16, 18. I want to see more of that. So if designers are jumping on the bandwagon and following the trends that plus-size is in, then please, do it, because at the end of the day, you’re going to be making a lot of women very happy.

And a lot of money too! Fashion is a business, so it seems kind of nuts that the plus-size market isn’t as invested in, considering there are so many women considered “plus” size.

It’s true. There is a whole business part about it and not to bash other designers, but I know a lot of them do offer plus size — size 18, 20, 22 — they just don’t necessarily put it on the runway because they don’t want to lose that major account they have. Almost every posting that we put out through social media, almost every show that we do, whenever we do a trunk show, we bring our plus sizes, we bring all of our sizes.

If somebody called us, Lane Bryant or another company, and they wanted to do something with us, I’d be more than happy to do it. But to go back to something you said, in 2008 to 2013, the U.S. American average plus-size woman and number one size that was out there was a size 14. When 2014 to the present happened, that size 14 turned into a size 14/16, so if that’s where today’s women are, then us as designers really need to start targeting that and start helping them more.

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An engagement party look Michael Costello created for a client. (Photo: Instagram)

Absolutely.

I’m plus-size myself! I’m not sample size anymore like I used to be! [Laughs]

So you’ve been supremely busy this year. Just at the Billboard Music Awards, you created 10 looks for nine celebrities — where do you get the energy?

Honestly, I have to tell you, whenever I wake up in the morning, sometimes I try to do motivational speeches for my fans and for people who believe in me, but my number one thing that I always tell people is if you love what you do, and you can’t wait to wake up in the morning and go to work, then it will never seem like it’s work. I can be at my office around the clock, and I wear many different hats, but it’s not like you won’t see me behind the sewing machine and cutting. I’m sewing myself till 2, 3, 4, 5 o’clock in the morning. If I get three or four hours in between that to fall asleep, I’ll do it. But I have to say I have an incredible team that I work with. We have seven people who work with us, and they work equally as hard as I do. I do let them go home — sometimes [Laughs]. But they know we are all on call, especially during awards season. We feel like we’re doctors. But glory be to God, because God keeps me alive and God keeps me moving, and I always put him first and thank him for all the blessings that he’s sending my way.

Let’s talk about Ciara’s bridesmaid dresses. What was the process of creating all those looks like?

Ciara and I started working together for a Tide campaign we were both a part of, also with Laverne Cox, Meghan Trainor and Fifth Harmony and Idina Menzel. That opened a door up for us with Ciara, who after we were done with the campaign reached out and she said, “You know, we worked so well together on the last thing, I would love if we could do something very special — it’s top secret. I’m getting married, not too many people know, but I’d love for you to do the bridesmaid dresses.”

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Russell Wilson, Ciara, their bridesmaids and groomsmen. (Photo: Instagram)

She had the idea already that she wanted them all to wear black. We kind of felt like we were a design duo on it. She and I worked day and night really closely, and she was 100 percent hands-on in the whole project. Every time one of the girls would come over for a fitting, we would FaceTime. It was a collaborative effort from both parties that just worked out with a phenomenal outcome. We were just really impressed with everything that came out, and she was a little bit of a bridezilla at the very beginning, but toward the end, I was shocked at how amazing everything turned out. Normally, when we do bridesmaid dresses, I have to tell you the truth, it’s a disaster. It’s almost considered to be something we don’t want to do because it’s so hard. Girls want one shoulder, ruffles and lace, cutouts, backs out, high slits. Not this wedding. It was very casual; she wanted them to feel effortless, beautiful, and I think we accomplished that by going for black silk dresses.

You’re all set to open your own physical store. Tell us a bit about how that is going.

I’m so excited about it! We’re opening up in Hollywood, California; the address is 1538 North Cahuenga. We’re actually opening two stores — the Michael Costello flagship store and our sister company, Stello. So we’ve gotten requests over the last three years; all of our clients all over the world have been begging us to do something like this, and we just listened and we said, “Now is the time, we’re gonna take this chance and give back to our clients and give them their dream of just walking into a Michael Costello store and finding something that not only is custom-made but ready-to-wear and is gonna fit you right.” We’re also offering on-site tailoring; if something needs to be made shorter, longer, a little more fitter, or a little looser, it’s going to be available to happen on the same day at the location.

We’re gonna have our soft opening around the first week of August, but then we’re going to have more of a DJ and delicious food and celebrity guests and clients and stylists come sometime later, maybe after New York Fashion Week.

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Michael Costello on the red carpet at the 2016 Billboard Music Awards. (Photo: Getty Images)

Your career has just blown up in the years since Project Runway. Does it ever seem surreal?

It’s something that has been life-changing. Project Runway did open a lot of doors, but it also put me in the mindset that I shouldn’t be doing anything else. I have to give this my all and it’s now or never — I have to dedicate my life to fashion and make it work. Tim Gunn says it on the show, and I still find that even day-to-day, everything becomes a “make it work” moment for me. I still feel like I’m competing every day on Project Runway because we still work with all these designers and stylists who work with the biggest A-list celebrities, and they call us and say, ‘Hey, Beyoncé wants you to do this, J.Lo wants you to do that, and you only have as much budget and this much time.’ And we still have to deliver. No matter what, I’ll never escape Project Runway, and I have fans that see me on the street who are still fans of the show. And you know, it’s wonderful. This is their 15th season. It’s kind of like American Idol or America’s Next Top Model, but Project Runway stayed the same; it’s still fun and exciting and I’m gonna tune in to watch episodes, Thursday nights at 8 p.m. on Lifetime — little plug for them [Laughs].

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