Meet Our Member of the Week: Nicole Hiemenz

June 14, 2024

Nicole Hiemenz (they/them), is a recent graduate of Indiana University’s MFA Costume Design program. They are a costume designer, technician, and crafts artisan from Durham, NC, and the triangle is where they completed their BS in Fashion and Textile Product Development at NC State University. Their work has been recognized at the KCACTF Region 3 festival, by IU Theatre and Drama, and by Arts NC State and NCSU University Theatre. Their topical passions include comedic and musical work, LGBTQ+ stories, and accessibility in all avenues of the performing arts. They love approaching costumes from an experiential, immersive, and interactive lens and are inspired by the narrative structures and audience impact of interactive storytelling media, like visual novels and video games. They value building bridges and communities through their work and believe the dramaturgical context they root their process in to be key for the depth that sparks those conversations and connections. Finally, they are a strong advocate for the advancement of consent-informed policies in the costume space, and furthering collaboration between costume professionals and intimacy coordination. They look forward to continuing this work as they embark on their professional career! 

Tell us a bit about yourself! As live entertainment technicians, we always talk about our work. But who are you, outside of your work in live entertainment? 

I am from Durham, NC, where I grew up with my three brothers. I love animals, and a long-term stability goal of mine is to be able to give a dog a very good home. I definitely suffer from the common ailment of making my hobbies my career, but when I’m not thinking about clothing I love collecting and restoring old sewing machines, playing puzzle and narrative video games, lovingly bothering my partner’s 4 cats, and building Lego sets and assembling furniture (same thing, really). I also enjoy performing, learning to play different instruments, and learning about linguistics. I am fascinated by how stuff works! 

What sparked your interest in costume design? 

My mother has knitted and spun yarn since I was young so my interest in textiles definitely started with her, and my family has always connected with each other through stories like books and video games. I started doing cosplay because I loved bringing those stories to life in a hands-on way, and the inventiveness of the cosplay community provided a wonderful playground for learning new techniques and materials. When I then started doing technical theater in high school I had the most sewing experience in the class, so I was assigned to costume design. While it was more of an assignment than a choice at first, it showed me that there was a line of work in which I could combine both kinds of work that I loved so much! 

USITT emphasizes collaboration across different disciplines in theatre. How do you collaborate with other members of a production team, such as designers, actors, and directors, to achieve a cohesive production? 

While we start by bringing our own perspectives and ideas of a piece to the table, I really love incorporating inspiration from the other members of the team as part of my process. Other people pick up on themes or ideas that you don’t, and being able to combine them with your view of the piece is crucial to creating a more coherent production. Dramaturgy is a facet of the team that I think is really important for this since it can provide context for our work that gives us the same starting point to jump from. I think coming in with both a solid point of view and an open mind full of questions and curiosity is what makes us successful. Having a toolkit of different communication methods and being able to adapt your communication style to your team is also key. 

I also really enjoy the collaboration potential present between costume designers and performers. Costume design has a lot of overlap with acting in terms of the multidimensional character and narrative analysis that we use to develop fleshed-out

characters, so we get to talk about these characters together and get excited about each other’s choices. An actor may have taken their analysis and incorporated a specific physicality or posture to the role and I can make the choice to further complement it, or my analysis may lead to specific silhouettes or textures that help them feel closer to embodying their role. We all pick up on different things about a show when looking through our individual lenses, and comparing our notes and valuing and supporting each other's perspectives allows us to weave rich, well-thought-out stories. 

Do you have a favorite project you’d like to tell us about? Or a favorite “wow” moment in a show you helped conceptualize? 

The first thing that comes to mind for me is our production of Orlando at Indiana University. I really loved the problem-solving needed to summarize entire centuries of fashion in individual looks, and highlighting the beauty of playing with gender through time as observed by the modern eye. I especially loved finding ways to use historical representations of gender that clash with our current ideas of it to further highlight the role that gender plays in Orlando’s life and how it’s a product of the surrounding culture. It was also wonderful to get to explore this piece alongside multiple nonbinary performers, designers, and technicians– Orlando being a show that raises questions about and critiques gender roles throughout history from a 1920’s lens, it was really exciting to collaborate with so many other team members that had the same kind of interest and background in its themes as I did. 

A specific piece of this show that was my favorite to conceptualize was our Archduchess/Archduke role. While the Archduchess is textually a drag role, we wanted to highlight the parody presented by both iterations of their character by making our Archduke a drag role as well. It was a lot of fun getting to exaggerate scale and shape and making a 1500’s woman and a 1700’s man feel like the same person through pattern and color, and I just adore the ridiculous foam wigs we were able to contract out that bobbled and bounced their way onstage. Our lighting designer created an absolutely glorious dramatic entrance for “Archie,” with a blanket of intense fuschia lighting casting a crisp shadow of their silhouette ominously over the entire stage and right up to Orlando

What do you consider the most rewarding aspect of being a costume designer? Conversely, what are some of the biggest challenges you face in this role? 

One of the most rewarding aspects of being a costume designer for me is how much character and story analysis and dramaturgical conversations I get to incorporate into the work. I love that costume design inherently works with other people, and I get to not only deep dive into the characters but then I also get to turn around and have those in-depth conversations with the performers who are analyzing the same characters, and we get to build these fictional people together from our individual contributions. I love diving really deeply into stories and lore, and I love that a big part of my job is doing it alongside others. 

One of my biggest challenges in this role is narrowing down possibilities when faced with multiple strong design options. There’s so many ways things can be done and explored, and I wish I could explore it all! On a larger scale, another big challenge in this role is the devaluation of the labor that is involved in costumes. There are pervasive misconceptions in our fast-fashion world that clothing is conjured quickly and easily and that it is reasonable for every step of the process to be completed by a single person. Costume design, costume technology, wig and makeup design, costume craftwork, and wardrobe are all different roles and deserve to be valued as such. 

In addition to your work as a costume designer, your website showcases a lot of craftwork. Is there a medium or craft you particularly enjoy? What do you love about it? 

Outside of textiles, I really enjoy working with materials like thermoplastics, chipboard/cardboard, and wire. I love learning new materials and techniques in general, and I like how flexible, moldable, and low-stakes these materials are. The fact that I don’t have to wait for them to dry or cure is a plus too! I am excited for the day that I can add woodworking to my list of favorites, but I don’t quite have the workshop space or tools to play with this as much yet. 

USITT offers numerous resources and opportunities for professional development. Can you share how being a member has benefited your career and artistic growth? 

The annual conference and workshops have been my favorite and most useful resources so far, but I also haven’t made use of all of the resources yet! As a designer, a lot of my day-to-day research, rendering, and sourcing work is very solitary, so its really nice to have a community of other designers and technicians outside of doing productions together and a space for us to see and support each other’s work, learn from each other, and stay informed on trends, issues, and advancements in our field. I have met so many amazing professionals and learned about so many new facets of my field through USITT, and it’s a really invaluable organization to me. Even before I decided to pursue costume design professionally, the workshops, panels, showcases, and even vendor booths at the annual conference were really inspiring for me and opened my eyes to the possibilities that were out there.

Costumes are something that every actor on stage interacts with, very directly! How do you balance creativity with practicality when you’re designing costumes for a project? 

I have a background in fashion and textile product development and materials science, so I think a lot about the engineering side of costumes as a default when I’m designing. It is not useful to design and render some impossible and ethereal thing if you and your team cannot achieve it, so knowing your toolbox from the start is important! Being 

realistic about your labor budget and the laws of physics allows you to focus in on and achieve the elements and moments that are most effective for your design. What effect do you want to have on your audience? What parts of the story can only costumes tell? 

What elements are necessary to cohere with the other designs making up your stage picture? What parts just bring you and your team the most joy? Everything is just choices, and being practical in both your ideation and the designs you move forward with will allow those designs the time, effort, and problem-solving they need to really shine. 

What steps do you take, as a costume designer, to ensure that actors are comfortable in what they’re wearing onstage? 

Performer autonomy and developing better intimacy and consent protocols in the costume space are very important to me. I have been fortunate to be working in organizations that either allow me the space to prioritize this or already prioritize it themselves. Collaboration with intimacy directors and the practices being established in that field has been amazing, and it has allowed me to develop and learn a few different things that I can incorporate into my process. 

Audition cards that include the designs and/or research allow performers to preview what they are signing up for and specify consent. Depending on the production or look I may reach out to performers once they are cast to have further conversations with them with the director and/or intimacy director. In the fitting room, we check in periodically with the performer to ensure pieces are fitting comfortably and that they are capable of moving however they need to for the production, and I do my best to communicate that performer consent is an included metric of “fitting comfortably.” 

Do you have a favorite costume era you love to design in? What styles or designers inspire you the most? 

Aesthetically, the Edwardian era draws my eye over and over again! I really love the intersecting curves, silhouette balance, and textures of that time period. For designing, my preferences lie less in a particular time period and more in a genre. I really enjoy camp, pastiche, making things that look like other things, mixing time period using the cyclical nature of fashion, playing with texture, and the creation of new worlds that is

present in sci-fi and fantasy. I am inspired by the work of a lot of different designers, such as Sandy Powell, Shirley Kurata, Carey Bennett, Mandi Line, Ane Crabtree, and Susan Hilferty. I appreciate exaggeration, asymmetry, and bold use of color and shape, alongside historical craftsmanship and a contemplative approach to how characters see themselves and want to be seen by others. 

Are you working on any projects right now that you’re excited about?

At the moment, I am the first hand and wardrobe supervisor for IUST 2024 while I get packed up to move at the end of the summer! It’s a nice relaxing job to finish out my time in Bloomington and I get to work with a really fantastic team again before I go. I also just love working on murder mysteries and musicals, so it’s a fun season for me! 

However, as a recent design graduate, I am looking to broaden my horizons and gain more experience. While I am still finding the next leg of my career, I hope that I can find myself as a member of some bigger design projects in the near future. I have had a lot of personal projects and goals that I have been working towards and I am excited to start my career as an early professional.