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NIDA Alumna Rita Carmody: Costume Design on Heartbreak High

NIDA alumna Rita Carmody (Design, 2007) is an AACTA and APDG award-winning costume designer whose exceptional work on shows such as Heartbreak High, Lunacy and Hearts and Bones has made her a highly sought-after talent in the screen industry. Rita’s success reflects her commitment to collaboration, flexibility, and quick decision-making; skills she attributes to her NIDA education. With the recent release of Netflix’s tremendously successful Heartbreak High season two, Rita takes us through her role as well as her thought process when designing and buying for each character.

Tell us about your role as Costume Designer on Heartbreak High – what are some of the important aspects of the job?

Costume designing Heartbreak High involves collaborating with a large cast of diverse actors and making sure each of them has what they need to tell their part of the story with an authentic voice. It’s my job to find the right look for every character.

Throughout pre-production, I’m meeting with the director/s, production designer, hair and make-up artists and other heads of department. It’s a collaboration across these departments to create the world of the show.

I start by breaking down the scripts to understand each character. I build up libraries of reference images and create mood boards with looks and ideas that I think will work for them. We then start to shop for the clothes one character at a time so it doesn’t get too confusing. The very first shop we went to for both seasons of Heartbreak High was SWOP in Sydney. They have a terrific collection of on-trend second-hand fits and we drew a lot of inspiration from the clothes in their collection. Many of the key pieces on the show were also shopped from second-hand online sellers

Once we have a good collection of interesting pieces, I meet with the actors for the first costume fitting, and we see what works and what we need to expand on.

You have won an AACTA and APDG award for your incredible work on Heartbreak High – what can you share about these award experiences?

It was a humbling experience; I was incredibly nervous at both ceremonies. I am proud of my work on the show so it was lovely to have that recognition from my peers. Receiving these awards has opened up career opportunities for me and I’m extremely grateful for that.

Thinking back to your NIDA training, what were some the skills attained in the Design course that you still use today?

I think NIDA fostered in me good collaboration and teamwork. At NIDA you were all working towards the same deadline and you all wanted the project to succeed. It’s the same in film and TV.

NIDA also taught me that it’s ok to let go of ideas. If I try something on in a fitting and it’s not working, or the director doesn’t like it, I’m good at moving on and finding a new solution. When I really love something I will fight for it, but TV production is fast-paced and you need to know how to make quick decisions.

My favourite skill I learnt at NIDA was how to properly knot the thread at the end of a needle. I think of Julie Lynch, Head of Costume in my first year, every time I quickly thread a needle on set as her method is perfection.

Still image from Heartbreak High season two with NIDA alumna Chika Ikogwe (Acting, 2018). Photo courtesy of Netflix.

Have you worked or collaborated with any of your NIDA cohort or NIDA alumni?

My first job out of NIDA was with directing graduate Shannon Murphy for the Adelaide Fringe Festival in 2008. It was low budget theatre but we had so much fun putting it on, the show got a great review and a second season at the Old Fitz.

I now work with NIDA graduates all the time both in the cast and the crew. I think they are on every job! I especially love having NIDA graduates in my costume department as I know they have skills and can work hard.

What advice would you give anyone considering applying for the Design course at NIDA and those wanting to pursue a career in Costume Design?

If you want to be a costume designer and study in Australia you should support the local industry by consuming as much local content as you can on stage and on screen.

I think if you apply and don’t get in the first time it can be beneficial to reflect on your application and if you still think it’s the right course for you to build up your skills over the next year and apply again. I only got into NIDA on my second try.

If you’re pursuing a career in costume design, I think it’s tricky when people graduate and then expect to come in at the mid or upper levels in a costume department. Most people still need on the job training and starting as an assistant will help you learn the parts of the job that might have been a bit mysterious or unclear while you were studying. The good assistants will be running the department in no time.

Another great thing to remember is you never know who will get you your next job. Lots of people are jumping between departments and moving up the ladder so the runner on one job might be the director on one in five years. It’s worth being kind to everyone in the crew.

In depth costume breakdown from Heartbreak High:

From left to right: Asher Yasbincek as Harper, Ayesha Madon as Amerie, James Majoos as Darren and Chloe Hayden as Quinni from season two of Heartbreak High. Photo courtesy of Netflix.

Amerie and Harper opened season two in these costumes racing on electric scooters to catch the train to school. They are best friends with very different sartorial styles. Harper borrows style cues from 90’s grunge fashion and social media micro-trends like blokette. She wears a baggy oversized silhouette which is contrasted by Amerie’s more fitted and revealing twist on preppy rich girl fashion. It was important to me that these best friends looked like they both came from the same world but also had their own unique style. The red and white of Amerie’s costume sat beautifully against Harper’s green and black when scooting through the streets and then later at the school as day one of term unfolds.

From left to right: Will McDonald as Ca$h and Josh Heuston as Dusty from season two of Heartbreak High. Photo courtesy of Netflix.

Ca$h is scripted as an ‘eshay’ and we established a strong look for him in season 1 based on the look of this subculture seen around Sydney. He wears slim cut branded sportswear, TN Nike sneakers and cross body bags which are practical for dealing drugs. He spends the first half of season two in jail and when he gets out he is no longer dealing so does not have any income stream, because of this we limited the new pieces we bought for this character. He repeated a lot of fits from season one with new combinations. In this photo he is sitting in one of his signature track jackets with Dusty who is one of the season one heart throbs. Dusty has left Hartley High in season two to go a private school. He is wearing his school uniform in this scene which was based on The Shore uniform in Sydney and sits in contrast to Ca$h.

From left to right: Chloe Hayden as Quinni, Ayesha Madon as Amerie and James Majoos as Darren from season two of Heartbreak High. Photo courtesy of Netflix.

A big part of the job for this show is the costume plot and making sure the clothes all sit well together as a group. I loved the combination of Quinni, Amerie and Darren in these looks as they were staking out Chook’s bunker. Amerie is in pink newspaper print jeans which are hard to see in this picture but sat perfectly with the greens and oranges of Quinni’s vintage dress and the blacks and burnt oranges of Darren’s skirt and top set. Each character is wearing something unique to their personality and sartorial tastes but they also work together as a group of friends.

School Formal still from season two of Heartbreak High. Photo courtesy of Netflix.

Putting the looks together for the formal was a lot of fun. Our episode eight directors Jessie Oldfield and Adam Murfet wanted Amerie and Rowan in classic formal wear. Rowan has a love of old cinema and we gave him a classic 1950’s inspired black tuxedo and bow tie. We wanted Amerie to be the romantic lead and knew it had to be red. The big bow dress by Australian designer Rebecca Vallance is reminiscent of vintage Yves Saint Laurent and old Hollywood glamour.