The Hollywood Reporter
How J.J. Abrams Convinced Costume Designer Michael Kaplan to Take on ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Star Wars’: “I Was Intimidated”
By Ingrid Schmidt
Expect The Beverly Hilton to be filled with dramatically creative attire when the 22nd Costume Designers Guild Awards take place Jan. 28. Hosted by Mindy Kaling, the ceremony will bestow its career achievement award on costume designer Michael Kaplan, who is also a nominee for excellence in sci-fi/fantasy film for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.
Initially, Kaplan had mixed feelings about the award, which will be presented to him by J.J. Abrams, with whom he has worked on the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises. “I still have a lot to do and say, and a lifetime achievement award kind of feels like an ending,” he says. “But I have no plans to retire in the near or distant future.” Among Kaplan’s previous accolades are eight CDGA nominations, a best costume design BAFTA win with Charles Knode for Blade Runner and a 2018 Emmy nomination for the TNT series The Alienist.
When Abrams reached out to discuss costuming Star Trek, Kaplan told his agent that he would pass. But Abrams persuaded him during a three-hour chat at a coffee shop in Maine. “I wasn’t a Trekkie, and I was intimidated by the huge following — but J.J. inspires confidence!”
Kaplan was similarly reluctant to sign on to Star Wars: The Force Awakens and update the beloved world created by George Lucas, but Abrams won him over again. Halfway through that production, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy invited him for the whole ride. “She asked me to stay and do the other two films,” adds Kaplan. “I made thousands of costumes. The creatures would be designed and then come to me to get their costumes as well, which was remarkable. All different shapes and sizes. It wasn’t typical pattern-making!”
The Philadelphia native landed in L.A. in the late ’70s and applied his art school skills to painting houses while interviewing with the likes of Edith Head at Universal Pictures. He recalls that, while leafing through his portfolio, she told him never to turn down a job. “Which made me think of the fact that she turned down Bonnie and Clyde and gave it to her assistant, Theadora van Runkle, to do.” His first big job was working for Bob Mackie and his design partner Ret Turner on The Sonny and Cher Show. Not long after, he began a long-running collaboration with Bette Midler, dressing her for her stage shows. He recalls one night when she didn’t want to wear a dalmatian-patterned dress. “She had a meltdown that I had reduced her to a dog and that all the Harlettes [backup singers] were wearing beautiful metallic Frederick’s of Hollywood-inspired dresses,” he says. “That all changed when she got onstage and stood out like a beacon and the audience went crazy. She ordered five more dresses from me that evening!”
His first film as costume designer was 1982’s Blade Runner, followed by Flashdance in 1983. The aesthetic of the latter continues to be imitated in fashion every time an ’80s moment rolls around. “It’s surreal,” Kaplan says. “Years later, Marc Jacobs did a collection that was an homage to the entire look of Flashdance. It’s funny how a lot of the movies that I’ve done have inspired Seventh Avenue in terms of fashion. [Alexander] McQueen did a collection based on Blade Runner, Donatella Versace did a menswear collection based on Fight Club.”
Kaplan admits that he doesn’t particularly follow fashion, aside from “checking in” occasionally on the work of a handful of “brilliant, inspiring designers” — his friend Rick Owens, Thierry Mugler and Jean-Paul Gaultier. Yet the homages continue: “In honor of my being honored, I was told that FIDM has a project where students are redesigning our costumes from [1985’s] Clue with a steampunk bent. It sounds fascinating!”
This story first appeared in the Jan. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.