From 'Purlie Victorious' to 'Descendants: The Rise of Red,' Emilio Sosa Is Costume Designing for the Stars

Emilio Sosa speaks about the difference between costume design in both film and theater and being a chair for the American Theatre Wing.
Descendants: The Rise of Red poster - credit: Disney
Descendants: The Rise of Red poster - credit: Disney /

What do Disney's Descendants: The Rise of the Red and Broadway's Purlie Victorious have in common? The Tony Award-nominated costume designer and mastermind behind your favorite character's carefully crafted costumes, Emilio Sosa.

The Dominican Republic-born, Bronx-bred costume designer got his start in the city that never sleeps, working his way up as a young fashion design student to styling hip-hop artists such as Salt-n-Pepa, MC Lyte, and Kid 'n Play and becoming the in-house stylist for filmmaker Spike Lee. His determination and talent brought him more acclaim as he went on to be the runner-up in Season 7 of the fashion design competition show Project Runway. He also co-created a fashion line with his brothers and worked with the likes of Wendy Williams, Taraji P. Henson, and many more.

The Parent Watch got to speak with Sosa who now also has a few Broadway, professional theatre, and on-screen costume credits. When you watch both Purlie Victorious and Descendants: The Rise of the Red, you'll see the attention to detail that he employs as he talks more about working with costumes made for the screen versus the stage in the interview. "It pushes you to make lasting decisions faster, but it also frees you because once it's set, you don't have to think about it again." Sosa said, "While in theater, you're always working on a play or musical until it officially opens."

The designer also spreads the word about his involvement as a chair for the American Theatre Wing and working on The Andrew Lloyd Webber Initiative for current and future generations of theatergoers and makers to support. Want to learn more about Sosa's work and his thoughts on dressing singer-songwriter Brandy in Descendants: The Rise of the Red ? Read on to find out!

The Parent Watch: What attracted you to a career in costume design?

Emilio Sosa: What attracted me to costume design? That's a lot. That's a long story, but I started as a fashion student, so my foundation has always been fashion design, which is what I studied at high school and then into college and then early in my career, that's what I wanted, was fashion. I was going to be the next Calvin Klein. That was my dream. Well, the next Patrick Kelly, actually. Along the way, while I was a sophomore at school, I happened upon a part-time job at a costume shop here in New York; One of the leading costume shops in New York called Grace Costumes. I always say it was almost like Alice in Wonderland. Once I went down the rabbit hole of costume design for the theater, I never looked back because it offered me everything I loved about fashion design, which is creating beautiful pieces. Then, it added the element of storytelling, which, as I grew into myself, I'm learning that I really enjoy transporting an audience member through the costumes into a different world. It was just a happy medium of both things that I loved.

You did the costumes for Purlie Victorious, which is going to premiere on PBS on Friday, May 24. Can you tell me a little bit about that experience?

Working on Purlie was one of those once in a lifetime experiences. Kenny Leon, our fearless director, as a genius, but also our playwright, Ossie Davis, wrote it in 1961 as a drama, but he soon found out once he put it up on stage, that really, it was a satirical look on the state of racism in the U.S. as it was in 1961. Unfortunately for the country, but fortunately for us, his words still run true today. That's how relevant it was. So to have an opportunity to work with Kenny, it's always and honor, but to be able to bring back the works of such a genius like Ozzie Davis sixty-one years later and still be relevant is something that's very rarely done. I was very honored to be part of that team.

Purlie Victorious was a huge hit! You also worked on Descendants: The Rise of Red. That goes into the filmed entertainment medium. Can you tell me the difference between costuming Descendants versus a theatrical production?

That's like night and day for theater designers versus film designers. The biggest challenge was when you design for the theater, you're looking at the entire stage at once. You see the whole ecology of the play, from the sets to the lights to the actors. When you're working in a film, the film is very, very directed on a character so it became about the small little details. While on a stage, the closest person to the costume is 30ft away. On film, the camera is right on top of them. While I may not pay that much attention, which I do, to the color of a button on a shirt on stage, very few people will really pick it up. On film, that button becomes like ten foot tall because it's such a tight close up that you really have to be conscious of your details. From theater, you go from 30 ft away when you look at the the macros world, and in film, you're really close up and you see the micro, you see everything, every thread, every stitch.

You have to be really meticulous in what you're doing. You have the added pressure of, once they film it and put it, as I say, 'in the can', you have to match it. If you didn't, if you don't love it, you got to be careful to make sure that you are ready when you put it on screen, because then you have to match it three weeks down the line, when they do a pickup of that scene, you have to match it. The added pressure of getting it right the first time is not as much as in theater because we have previews where we can look at things and change as we go until it's finally ready for opening. It pushes you to make lasting decisions faster, but it also frees you because once it's set, you don't have to think about it again. While in theater, you're always working on a play or musical until it officially opens.

For Descendants, was there a specific character's costume that was really fun to create and put on the actor?

I had the best time designing these beautiful gowns for Brandy. She plays Cinderella. I'm a huge Brandy fan. "The Boy is Mine." I don't have to say anything else besides that song. Then, the fact that she's this iconic character and to be able to put a gown on Brandy was a dream come true. Also, Rita Ora is our red queen, and I created this amazing gown. I can't say too much about it because it's part of the surprise, but just the fact that I was able to use my theater people to create these elaborate, elaborate gowns was a dream come true. I'm looking forward to those two characters to see how they're realized on screen.

You're actively involved in the American Theatre Wing as an artist chair, and I would love to hear more about your involvement with the Andrew Lloyd Webber Initiative and what that could mean for parents.

Well, the Andrew Lloyd Webber Initiative at the Wing is super special for us because the fact that Mr. Webber chose us as its angel charity in the U.S. says a lot, you know, because Andrew Lloyd Webber is like the king of musical theater, you know, from Sunset Boulevard to Phantom of the Opera. He has done so much. The fact that he wanted to give back and chose us, says a lot about him, but it also says a lot about the Wing and what the initiative is. He first gave a $1.3 million grant to us that we match and supersede every year so we can help students and teachers and schools foster the inclusivity of theater. At the end of the day, that's what we want. We want students to have access to the theater, but also education around theater. It works in three different ways. The first way it works is what we call "the classroom resources." That's all in our website. What it does is provides grants directly to underserved public schools, to provide instruments, dance floors, lighting, or anything they need material-wise to enhance the existing in theater programs.

We're helping schools that can't afford, let's say a new dance floor. They send us a proposal, the committee looks at it, and then we send them as much as we can. Then, you have the training scholarships. That goes to sending students to after-school and summer training programs throughout the country. Students apply, we send them money, they're able to go to all of these programs. Then we have a four-year university scholarship for students who are really taking theater [seriously] as a career path, and we help them with their college education. It's threefold. We're getting them from the very beginning. They could be from K-12 in a community all the way to students who have committed themselves to a career in theater.

The televised broadcast of Purlie Victorious premieres May 24 on PBS followed by Descendants: The Rise of the Red which premieres on Disney Channel on Jul. 12.

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