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Behind the Seams with NIDA Alum Lily Mateljan

Lily Mateljan’s passion for costume making started early, rooted in a family tradition of tailoring, and has blossomed into a vibrant career, creating iconic costumes for television, screen, and stage. Her unwavering enthusiasm for the craft led her to undertake NIDA’s Bachelor of Fine Arts Costume course, which she completed in 2022, giving her the foundational skills to pursue her ambitions. In this interview, Lily discusses her insights, inspiration, and experiences at NIDA, as well as the exciting path she’s carving out in the world of costume making.

1. Can you tell us why you chose the Bachelor of Fine Arts Costume course NIDA?

I came from a family of tailors and seamstresses, so sewing in the household was very normal for me. By the age of six, I started sewing my own clothes and then had the realisation that people had to design and make clothes for movies and TV. At the age of ten, I told my parents ‘I want the make clothes for Lord of the Rings‘ and that’s when I was introduced to NIDA. From that moment I knew I wanted to go there, knowing how difficult it was to get in, I did three pre-curser TAFE courses to grow my skills before applying.

I chose NIDA over other courses because it was the only one I found with a wide branch of different skills within costume. Although it focuses mainly on making you learn the skills to draft and cut patterns through a variety of different styles and techniques, you learn to fit garments, made or bought, and one of the most important to me was how to manage costumes for shows. You are given the opportunity to work as a costume assistant and then supervise budgeted shows while working closely with every department.

Lily Mateljan Young
Lily Mateljan (Costume, 2022)  learning to sew in her childhood home.

2. Can you talk about some of your highlights while studying at NIDA?

Throughout the three years, there were so many highlights. Some of the most memorable would have to be getting the opportunity to co-supervise a large-scale musical with a large budget and crew. We also had the opportunity to go on two secondments within different costume fields in the industry, I got to experience being a costume assistant on the TV series The Twelve in 2022 and assistant standby on the film The Appleton Laddies Potato Race at the end of 2022. However, I think the biggest highlight of my training was my research project which took me the whole of my third year to complete.

In third year, we are given six months to research a chosen subject and produce a garment at the end of the year, as this is the only project you get to choose the topic, I decided on something very close to my heart, David Bowie. My project focused on the ideology that costume creates the vision recognition of an icon, and I used David Bowie as my lens into the subject. I endeavoured to create two theatrical costumes representing two eras of David Bowie‘s life after being told multiple times that the project was too large and out of the scope of possibility within the timeframe. However, I achieved the desired outcome of two Costumes with a heavy element of quick change in them. This project inspired me to continue my research into David Bowie and I am now on a trajectory to get my Masters of Fine Arts and PhD researching his costumes.

From left to right: Lily Mateljan was interviewed by Channel 7's Sydney Weekender at NIDA. Sam Mac modelled Lily's David Bowie inspired major work.
From left to right: Lily Mateljan was interviewed by Channel 7’s Sydney Weekender at NIDA. Channel 7 presenter Sam Mac modelled Lily’s David Bowie inspired major work. Photos by Alexandra McClellan.

3. What are the skills you learned at NIDA that you have taken into the industry with you?

I don’t think there is one skill I learned at NIDA that I don’t use in the industry today. NIDA gives us such a broad knowledge of costume that we can adapt to pretty much any situation and depending on the job, I use different skills. For example, if I’m costume designing a show, my supervisor skills are at the forefront of my brain, making sure I work to budget and feasibility parameters. Learning how to work with performers and making them feel comfortable while you’re in their personal space is a really important skill we get taught and has made me a great head of wardrobe or dresser. But most importantly, I think the skill I have taken away the most is confidence, having the confidence to know you have the skills to handle the challenges put before you and own the space you’re given. Our industry is difficult, and NIDA gives you the tools to confidently stand in that room and take in everything it has to teach you.

4. What are some of your credits since graduating?

Since graduating, I have been extremely busy and have been given some amazing opportunities. In 2023, I got to be assistant standby on the ABC series House of Gods working closely with the designer and cast. In that same year, I had my design debut at Belvoir downstairs with Porpoise Pool then at KXT on Broadway with Rhomboid, I have worked for a number of opera companies as assistants, makers and head of wardrobe, even coming back to NIDA to supervise for their in-house productions. Currently, I am supervising for Pinchgut Opera and costume designing for the Hayes Theatre Co.

Still image from Belvoir St Theatre Company's 2023 production of Porpoise Pool, designed by Lily Mateljan. Photos by Phil Erbacher.
Still image from Belvoir St Theatre Company’s 2023 production of Porpoise Pool, designed by Lily Mateljan. Photo by Phil Erbacher.

5. What advice would you give to aspiring costume makers, especially those thinking of studying the BFA Costume course at NIDA?

Don’t worry about where you have come from, what you have learned, or if you are ‘good’ enough to apply. I was a homeschooled young girl from the Central Coast with no ATAR and I am heavily dyslexic. NIDA didn’t care about any of that, they cared about my passion and drive to learn what they had to teach me. As for the sewing skills, just practice. Sewing is a skill that you can only learn by doing, over and over again. It doesn’t matter if you started sewing a year ago on YouTube or 10 years ago with your mum, just keep going at it. If you get the chance to make for other people through community theatre or just for friends, take it, and practice what it’s like working with the body. And learn how to unpick (because you will be doing that a lot).

If you are considering coming to NIDA, I can only speak from my experience; NIDA changed my life. I learned so much about my trade and myself. The entertainment industry is difficult, but it is so incredibly rewarding. If you are ready to work hard and love the idea of seeing the tremendous work you are capable of, then NIDA is perfect.

6. What is next for you?

I’m currently supervising and designing for theatre companies around Sydney such as Pinchgut Opera, Ensemble Theatre Company, and Hayes Theatre Co, but I would love to expand my experiences into designing for larger theatre companies and branching into the film industry. I am continuing my passion for researching David Bowie’s costumes and am applying for scholarships to go and study his costumes in person while taking those extra steps to get my MFA and PhD in the subject. In the meantime, I want to continue growing my skills and help create a better involvement for costume within our industry.