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SYFY WIRE Nerdy Jobs

Nerdy Jobs: A Disney World seamstress and geek designer creates your favorite memories

By Vanessa Armstrong
Designer Cynthia Kirkland With Model Wearing Her Shape of Water Costume

Cynthia Kirkland is a seamstress who creates costumes for Disney all over the world, from Disneyland Paris to Tokyo Disney to even the high seas on a Disney Cruise. Her work spans the breadth of Disney's nerdy IPs and could have her working on anything from the Star Wars, Marvel, Pixar, or Classic Disney universe.

Kirkland's love of fashion design, however, goes beyond her work for Disney — in her spare time she also makes and designs cosplay and geek fashion, including a piece that won the Judge's Choice Award at the 2018 Her Universe Fashion Show at San Diego Comic-Con. As a winner of that event, she even got to design pieces for the latest Avengers line at Hot Topic, which includes Iron Man and Captain America dresses as well as (this writer's personal favorite) Rocket Raccoon shortalls.

SYFY WIRE interviewed Kirkland to learn more about her costuming work for Disney, how she felt winning the 2018 Her Universe Fashion Show (she'll be going back this year as a judge, in fact), and how she built her nerdy career.

How did you get started in costuming and clothing design? Was it something you always wanted to do?

I think I genuinely fell into professional fashion design and costuming out of happenstance. As a hobbyist cosplayer, I didn't think I would be taken seriously if I said I want to be a professional costumer for the stage. I was self-taught and didn't go to fashion school. I wish I understood how wrong that perspective was at the time, because I think cosplayers have truly ingratiated their techniques into traditional costuming for film and stage. It's really a symbiotic relationship now — I didn't really know any professional costumers who were also attending comic conventions when I started in 2003. It seemed like two different worlds.

Since I went to school for Japanese and visual art, most of my initial resumes were focused on those career paths. However, after many rejection letters, I thought I would take a shot at one of my other skills: costuming. This was surprisingly the first job offer I received out of college. I was working part-time in a frozen yogurt shop when the Orlando Repertory Theatre called me for an internship. That experience made me realize that people were starting to notice my potential in costuming and design.

When that internship ended, my next position was special events costuming for Disney World, where I would assist with weddings, corporate events, and filmings. My favorite gig was working with Travel Channel's Samantha Brown on filming, because I watched her shows voraciously in high school.

Could you talk about the process of being a seamstress for Disney? What does a typical workday look like?

The main focus of a designer, pattern maker, and seamstress for Disney Parks is to fulfill a client's vision. That client may be Pixar, Lucasfilm, or Marvel, and that client-centered focus extends past the design phase all the way to regular maintenance and alteration of a garment.

I'll talk about the normal workday in one of the more unique workplaces a Disney seamstress may find themselves — once you've proven your skills on land, a seamstress may find themselves working on Disney Cruise Line. The process begins once rehearsals wrap up at the rehearsal facility in Toronto. The seamstresses pack up their sewing kits and meet the rest of the entertainment crew on board the ship. Before sailing, we assist in loading hundreds of garments and sewing equipment, then performers start to cycle into our workspace for their fittings. It's quite an undertaking, because we are supporting three main stage shows on top of other entertainment offerings.

Like the Disney Parks, it's a seven-day-a-week operation while the ship is sailing. Once the fittings are complete, we have about two weeks to race through racks of garments with major or minor alterations. You really need to be a sewing superhero! The whole experience is rigorous but quite enjoyable. Plus, we can look forward to amazing food offerings aboard the ship after a long workday.

What's your favorite part of your job? The most challenging?

The most fun part about my job is never quite knowing what the next day will bring, and a costuming cast member's responsibilities always extend past sewing garments. Monday, I may find that BayMax needs care when Hiro is not available. Wednesday, Captain Phasma may leave her blaster on my desk for inspection. And you never know when Iron Man may stop by for touch-ups before having to return to his attraction in Hong Kong. Costuming always extends past what can be sewn, so seamstresses are always a diverse lot at Disney.

The most fun part can sometimes bring challenges, because of the level of passion that cast members have for Disney entertainment. The most challenging part of the job is always maintaining that uniquely Disney standard of customer service. Not many know that the vast majority of entertainment garments are developed, produced, or processed through Walt Disney World.

We must ensure that all parks across the globe are receiving the same care and attention in their entertainment offerings. It's quite an undertaking when you consider all of the venues we oversee domestically and internationally, including Paris, Tokyo Disney Resort, and Disney Cruise Line.

I was part of the Walt Disney World seamstress team assisting in the opening of Shanghai Disneyland. And if maintaining one park daily is a large undertaking, you can only imagine how big a park opening can be on top of daily operations.

I know you were a winner of the Her Universe fashion show. Could you talk a little about that experience?

The Her Universe Fashion Show was a natural transition for me as a fangirl, seamstress, and artist. My past perspective was that fashion and costuming were mutually exclusive, because fashion is all about editing a design, whereas costuming often ignored editing in favor of exaggeration and opulence. But like cosplay and costuming, fashion and costuming are merging as we see both use things like wearable technology.

Her Universe — along with its founder Ashley Eckstein — is an incredibly encouraging environment for designers who never quite found their niche in mainstream fashion because of their interests in comics, video games, etc. I entered the Her Universe Fashion Show for the first time in 2016 with a dress design inspired by the Batmobile from Batman and Batman Returns.

I was so inspired by the experience because I had never participated in a fashion show before. The excitement fueled me to continue designing. I did not make the cut the following year — it was a big blow to my confidence, but it gave me the motivation to really push myself and prepare for 2018.

I was already sketching and designing for 2018 as early as November of 2017. It wasn't until I saw The Shape of Water the final day it was in Orlando theaters that my inspiration was really ignited. I immediately went home and sketched a dress inspired by the creature in The Shape of Water, and that was my ticket to 2018. I worked on that dress with an intensity and focus that I am not sure I've ever had … all of the elements came together. I don't think I've ever been as emotionally overwhelmed as when they announced that the winners would be designing a Marvel line for Hot Topic.

Do you have any memorable experiences from your work that you'd like to share?

Apart from seeing the approved renders from Hot Topic, seeing my designs worn by the public for the first time was pretty surreal. I was at WonderCon this year and ran into some friends — husband and wife, Guillermo and JiaWei. The Hot Topic Avengers collection was announced Saturday of the convention, and they immediately drove to the closest Hot Topic in Anaheim to grab the Iron Man dress. Guillermo is an amazing Iron Man cosplayer, and JiaWei was so thrilled to have something comfy and styling to match her husband. Seeing others excited to represent their favorite characters through my designs is a special feeling.

Do you have any advice for other nerds looking to make a career out of one of their fandoms or passions?

Simply speak up and ask. My biggest downfall was assuming I did not have the credentials to pursue my passion. I have met some incredible people who opened my eyes to possibilities by simply asking about their journeys. I was lucky enough to befriend one of the seamstresses for Marvel's Ant-Man and the Wasp, and I met one of the set wardrobers for Endgame and Infinity War at Dragon Con 2018. The folks at Weta Workshop are also extremely friendly to chat with at San Diego Comic-Con. When you ask costumers and technicians about their work, their faces simply light up. They are often unseen magicians of film and stage, but often the most passionate about their work.

I also think creative individuals impose extremely harsh criticism on themselves, and it's rather sad when a truly talented person feels held back or incapable of pursuing their passion. There are so many opportunities out there if you have the willingness to focus on your goal, seek information, and never underestimate the value of your talent.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.