Kathleen Felix-Hager: Behind the Emmy-Winning Costumes on Hacks

HACKS 

COSTUME 

DESIGNER 

KATHLEEN 

FELIX-HAGER

just took home the Emmy for Outstanding Contemporary Costume Design for Season 2: The Captain's Wife.

In an exclusive interview, Felix-Hager breaks down designing wardrobes for Jean Smart and Hannah Einbinder on HBO Max's witty and stylish series.

As told to Sara Klausing 09-12-22

Seek:  First of all, I love that the show is centered around two women who are at different points in their careers and their lives. 


Costume Designer Kathleen Felix-Hager: Interpreting that through their costumes was very fun. Deborah Vance was very clear to me from the very beginning when I first read the scripts, I could see her in my head. I never wanted her to be a cliche or a caricature. It was super fun to work with the writers and to work with Jean Smart to come up with her signature looks. I think she does have a signature silhouette that she carried - especially in season one - from her stage looks to her everyday looks. We just carried that on through season two. 


Seek: An icon! The onstage look, the offstage look, the kimonos, the sequins! Do you have a favorite Deborah Vance look? I’ve heard you reference the black dress in season 1.


Felix-Hager:  I do love that dress for so many reasons. I think it was an unexpected choice for her. What I love about Deborah Vance is that she can be over the top at times but she has such an exquisite sense of taste to me. She’s never tacky, she's never cheap. She always has a sense of chicness and elegance to her so that black dress was. We've never seen her in a short skirt in season one until that point. She has amazing legs. Even though it was covered up, with that sheer neckline and the sleeves it was still very sexy. I think for a woman of a certain age to still feel sexy and alluring - she commanded so much attention in that scene, even though it was a birthday party for her daughter and it wasn't about her, but she made it about her.

Behind the scenes costume design for Sugar on FX The Bear on Hulu.

Image courtesy of HBO Max.

Seek:  What was your favorite outfit this season from all of the characters?


Felix-Hager: I have a lot! I think my favorite Deborah outfit is the scene when she first gets on the cruise. I also love the outfit that Ava wore when she’s going out. She has that white silk blouse and the ribbon tie. Her jeans are so amazing. I don't know if you know – Judi Rosen makes the most incredible jeans ever. And they just fit a curvier body in the most beautiful way. She had a little heeled Oxford. She looked so chic and we haven’t seen Ava like that. She was bringing her A-game to the cruise party. 


When I first started prepping for season two, I had my eye out for things. That first outfit that Deborah Vance walks onto the cruise ship with the big pink hat. The top and the duster are by Casablanca. We made the hat. And I added the hat band and the whole thing. I love that outfit so much. Sometimes, you have to get things cleared through legal. They thought that the print was too distinctive and they needed it cleared. No one could get clearance from Casablanca. No one was responding. Someone all the way up at the top of the chain said, “No, you cannot use it on camera.” 


And I was devastated. I was adamant, *I am getting this on camera no matter what.* I tracked down the PR person that reps Casablanca, sent them a desperate email. Then called. I was basically stalking them. It was Paris Fashion Week. I said, “No, you don’t understand. Jean Smart needs to wear this on Hacks.” And she did! It was two days before we were supposed to film. I had a backup outfit but everything after that was disappointing. I’m very proud that I got that outfit on camera. I thought it was perfect for the scene.


Seek: It’s funny because people don’t think about all of the work that goes on behind the scenes. You’re literally tracking them down during Paris Fashion Week. 


Felix-Hager:  When I finally got a hold of them, they were so helpful and pleasant. Their PR person said, “I’m going to make this happen for you.”


AVA

Seek:  Watching Ava’s character flourish is super interesting to watch. Dressing that character, developing her, what would she wear in this moment? Do you have a favorite look that Ava wears?


Felix-Hager:  We talked about that in season one. She comes to interview Deborah and she doesn't anticipate staying in Vegas but she's hired. She has very limited clothes and she does collect pieces along the way. She repeated a lot of looks in season one. Her style was a meld of Hannah's personal style and our two showrunners' personal style. I sort of mashed all of those looks into one person. She’s just a dream to dress. She’s super fun. 


I do love the look in season 2 when she’s in the dressing room with Deborah and she has on that Chanel-esque little tweed and gold dress. And she's like, I don't like this dress. This is horrible. Why are you making me wear it? I knew it was going to be a story point that whatever dress she wears in that dressing room she was going to end up going to the premier party at the end of the season. Which is heartbreaking and tragic that she’s wearing this dress that she doesn’t like but she knows Deborah likes it. She still looks so beautiful in it. She’s sort of offering herself to Deborah like, please love me, I want you to love me. And then she fires her. It was just heartbreaking. I do love that arc of her story. 


Seek:  Chills. For Ava, did you use any of her own clothing or the showrunners’ clothing? Where did you pull from?


Felix-Hager: I did a lot of vintage for her. We used a couple pairs of Hannah’s own jeans. The Doc Martens were hers. The little blue satin bomber jacket that she wears through season one and two. That’s Lucia, our showrunner’s. Jen (Statsky) also contributed some pieces. I sometimes bring my own pieces in. A lot of vintage t-shirts, a lot of vintage sweatshirts. I scoured thrift and vintage and the internet. The Real Real has been a good resource. 

Seek:  I do love hearing about your favorite fashion moments on the show. I heard you reference the shoe moment when Deborah is choosing between the Jimmy Choo and a lower heel. And Marcus says, go with the lower heel and she puts on the sparkly Jimmy Choo. 


Felix-Hager:  I like when there's moments in the script and the story that have a shout out to the costumes. But also in this particular instance it was such a story point. It was such a visual illustration of making the harder choice. Making the more uncomfortable choice. Making the more painful choice. That shot of her walking in the shoes was definitely a story point. I love that.


As I mentioned before, the dress that Hannah’s in is also a story point. Season two when she's in the dressing room trying on the clothes, we see her in the dress, hanging behind her are a bunch of clothes that she ostensibly tried on. And Deborah says, “We’re buying it all.” From that point forward, Ava starts to pepper in things that she bought that were hanging in that dressing room. If you look at that scene, you can see pieces that she’ll eventually wear sporadically to illustrate the fact she’s sort of slowly incorporating a little bit more of Deborah into her world. And they’re coming a little bit closer together. 


I also like that challenge visually to make sure the moments where she wore things that weren't as characteristically as Ava, they’re a little bit more Deborah. She started to wear button down blouses. There’s a scene - it’s very brief - when Ava’s hired to do punchups for the pilot and she’s sitting with the showrunner and she’s got a little leopard cropped jacket on. That was also a nod to the leopard that Deborah Vance always wears. It’s moments like that that served to tie the two characters together. Those moments are exciting to me.


Seek:  Leopard is such an iconic part of Deborah’s wardrobe. I love when you layer the different leopard prints and have red thrown in there. Are there any other little easter eggs like that?


Felix-Hager:  There's one more. When we see Deborah Vance at the auction when she’s bidding on that Kandinsky, she’s in a blouse that has the lipstick sort of rocket ship. It’s such a beautiful blouse. When Ava comes back after her punch up gig and she leaves early, Ava’s in a dark print blouse that has a tiny little lipstick print on it. That was another little visual clue to tie the two of them together. A little story point about that blouse: it's actually my personal blouse. I knew I had the perfect thing for the perfect moment. The writers liked it so we ended up going with it.

DJ

Seek:  Everyone secretly has their own favorite side character and side character outfits. DJ, Deborah’s daughter, looks incredible in season 2. There’s that moment when they’re sitting ringside and she has a red dress with the red blazer thrown over it - that’s one of my favorite looks from season 2.


Felix-Hager: That was really fun. Kaitlin Olson (who plays DJ) we talk about her character being stuck in the ’90s. That was her heyday. She grew up on the road but lives in Vegas so she has a Vegasy sensibility about how she dresses. That was when she felt sexiest and prettiest. She carried that over maybe a little bit too long into her life but I love that character so much. It’s been so much fun. That red outfit is actually shorts and a cutout sleeveless mock turtleneck. That jacket she wore as a cape. I think it's a double breasted blazer but we wore it over her shoulders. Kaitlin herself has the most gorgeous long legs you’ve ever seen in your life. I also love the color so much. Red is such a powerful color on camera. Your eye goes to it immediately. She's the wife of the guy in the ring and she does want some attention. Everything she puts on she just looks amazing in.

Behind the scenes costume design for Sugar on FX The Bear on Hulu.

Kaitlin Olson in Hacks season 2. Image courtesy of HBO Max. Photograph by Karen Ballard.

KAYLA 

Seek:  Some of the other supporting characters on season 2 are starting to have their moments. Megan Stalter for example breaks through with her loud and hilarious and often inappropriate character. How did you mirror the costumes to reflect that?


Felix-Hager: Just like you said, she’s sort of inappropriate and she’s a little bit of a fish out of water. Even though management and entertainment is a little bit looser than a strict business environment, still her costumes reflect how sort of brash and in your face and outside the box she is personally. It’s just another layer upon her character - you know, those wild prints and colors - she’s game for anything. 


Meg is the most fearless actor I've ever worked with. It’s refreshing in that way. She’s game for anything. She loves all those colors. Her favorite and my favorite from season 2 was the pink suit she wore in the finale. You couldn't really tell on camera but the bustier she wore underneath was pleather. That was a really inexpensive suit that I found. Our tailor recut and remade it to fit her perfectly. She loved it. And I loved it. The whole vibe was really fun for me.

THE 

PROCESS

Seek: Was there a lot of custom tailoring happening this season?


Felix-Hager:  In both season one and season two. I generally don't take things off the rack and use them as is. I often will alter them and change things. That black dress that Deborah wears at the party scene in season one. I recut the top half of that dress and added that big high collar. I remade the whole back. It’s fun to take existing things and make them your own, and make them fit the character and flatter the body of the actor who's going to wear them. I'll remove the lapels of blazers sometimes. I like to recut things.


Often it will happen during the fitting. Depending on an actor’s body, the garment may be perfect in many ways: the fabric could be beautiful, it could have these great elements to it, but there’s something that’s just quite not working. That’s when I'll start to pin and drape. What if we change this? Or what if we take the collar off? That’s how my process works. When I first started out, I was hesitant to do it. I thought I needed to be respectful of the original designer. Now, this is a part of the world that I'm making so once I allowed myself to have that creativity, I allowed myself to embrace it. And it’s really fun! I enjoy that process a lot.


Seek: It sounds like the actors must take joy in being a part of that magic making, right? It’s happening in real time as they’re developing the character and the storylines. It’s all coming together at the same time. 


Felix-Hager: That’s my favorite part of the job actually. The actual nuts and bolts of being in the room with the actor and trying things on. Sometimes you’ll have an original idea or a concept about a character, a direction - and when you start trying things on, you know, it’s okay. You switch things around. There’s always a moment when the actor changes their body language a little bit. You can start to see oh, they’re starting to understand who this person is, this character is that they’re playing. Those are my favorite creative kind of moments that happen. You can’t anticipate that kind of thing. You have to let it flow through.


Seek: It sounds like a beautiful process. To see that collaboration with different elements of filmmaking is really inspiring.


Felix-Hager: This project in particular has been really satisfying in that way for me. An unexpected joy on top of joy on top of joy for this project was working with our production designer, and our visual designer, and our writers and our DP, the whole visual creative team has been such a collaborative process to make the world happen for Deborah Vance, the Ava character, the whole world of Hacks. It’s been creatively inspiring. 


Seek: It seems like it’s just as much fun to make Hacks as it is to watch it?


Felix-Hager:  We made season one in the pandemic the height of the pandemic. We started filming in October 2020, very few TV shows were up and running. Everything was new. The protocols were new. We all had masks and shields and we were tested all the time. And I think because of that weird working environment everyone had to think outside the box. Things weren’t as available, you didn’t have access to things that were normally available. Things just took more time because of all of the safety protocols. It was really intense. 


It forced everyone to be creative in a way that none of us expected to be creative. It was joyous for me and the crew to make this thing in the middle of the pandemic and to do something normal. We all sort of felt like it was special. What was going to happen to the world of Hacks? No one knew but it felt like a special gift that we all had at the time. I actually do think it translated to what people saw on the screen. Everyone was appreciative of being able to work and being able to work on something that we all found hilarious and inspiring. Working with Jean and seeing Hannah Einbinder (who plays Ava) blossom right in front of your eyes was sort of this miracle of happiness in this very dark time. It did translate to the screen. 


Behind the scenes costume design for Sugar on FX The Bear on Hulu.

ON STYLE

Seek:  What advice do you have for women dressing in everyday life?


Felix-Hager: It's important to be and to feel authentic in your wardrobe, right? To feel like you're your best version of yourself, whatever that is. And it doesn't necessarily mean to like follow the latest trends or fashions. You need to figure out what looks good on your body and what feels good on your body. And then just embrace it. There's no right or wrong in personal style or how you present yourself to the world. You can have fun! I think the most important thing is to feel authentic in what you're present yourself to the world in.

TELL US MORE ABOUT HOW YOU GOT HERE. 

Seek: Tell us more about how you got here.


Felix-Hager: I sort of stumbled upon it accidentally. I was in desperate need of a job at one point in my life and I was given the opportunity to work on this film, which I jumped at. Like I said, like say yes to things. Even though I had zero experience, I just did whatever anyone told me to do.


And I just fell in love with it. It was such an amazing learning experience to be able to see the inner workings of a costume department and the many different facets of it. There's obviously the design part. There's the seamstresses, there's the ager dyers. There's being on set. There's so many different opportunities within that visual costume world. I just loved the idea of being able to tell a story through costumes and I just kind of fell madly in love with it. I was always a big reader – I could see things visually in my head. When I read a script I can see it visually. I was able to translate that to what I do. 


And then I just kept working and working and working, and was given the opportunity to design my own thing at one point. Which I said yes to, even though I was terrified. The first thing I designed was a show called Judging Amy. I've been fortunate enough to be on shows that have been beloved. I did VEEP. I feel very blessed and grateful that I've been able to work on shows that people love so much.

ADVICE FOR 

CREATIVES

Felix-Hager:  I would say yes to things when you’re first starting. It might not be the perfect job at the beginning, or it might not be the exact position where you want to be yet. All of those steps are certainly important and you don't know where they’re going to lead. It might be a connection with a person. You just don’t know where connections are going to happen. 


My advice for people just starting out would be to be open. To take risks. To say yes to something that might seem scary. Even if you don't think you can do the job. It’s kind of the scary thing to do and then you can just say yes. And don’t be afraid to ask questions once you’ve gotten it. Say, “I don't quite understand what you're talking about, could you explain that?” I always appreciate when I'm talking to people I work with and if I have an idea where I’m trying to explain myself they say, “I don't understand” or “that's not clear to me”. It helps us both grow. 

 This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 


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